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HOLY SPIRIT-GUIDED CONSENSUS; THE RULE OF CHRIST IN CHRISTIAN DECISION-MAKING

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HOLY SPIRIT-GUIDED CONSENSUS; THE RULE OF CHRIST IN CHRISTIAN DECISION-MAKING

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Holy Spirit-Guided Consensus
The Rule of Christ in Christian Decision-Making

by David A. J. Seargent



TABLE OF CONTENTS

Is There a Scriptural Basis for Holy Spirit-Guided Consensus?
Holy Spirit-Guided Consensus and the Kingdom of God
Some Personal Reflections


The subject of this short essay is, I believe, one of the most revolutionary changes that is taking place in the church today. The word is "consensus", a way of reaching decisions that does not involve the typical method of arguing for various conflicting positions and reaching a final decision through voting. That method may seem to be fair and equitable, but a closer examination shows it to have many flaws. For instance, is a decision necessarily superior to its alternatives simply because its principal supporter happens to be a more convincing arguer than his opponents and is able to convince more people than they? Or, is a decision necessarily the best because 51% of the members of a meeting think that it is? How many members of the meeting vote for a proposal because they believe that it will benefit them personally, not necessarily because they think that the proposal is intrinsically the best alternative?

In a Christian meeting, the overriding considerations in voting for a proposal should be "Is this the will of God?" "Which proposal does God want us to pass?" But if the members of the meeting have different opinions about which alternative is the most likely to be the better expressions of God's will, how can we be confident that the outcome of voting will truly reflect His will? Indeed, how can the members confidently discern what they truly believe to be God's will from what they have subconsciously convinced themselves to be His will simply because it seems most agreeable to themselves!?

In view of these considerations, a growing number of churches and other Christian organisations (including the World Council of Churches) are turning from this method to one that has been practised by most Quaker groups for over 300 years. This method is sometimes called "consensus" but it goes beyond what we might call "mere consensus" in a way that is possible for Christian groups alone. Consensus of the type of interest here — consensus as to what the will of God is concerning any particular proposal — is only possible if those truly seeking it have been "transformed by the renewal of [their] minds" (Rom. 12:2) through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work within them. Let's call this method "Holy Spirit-guided consensus". Essentially, it involves a meeting of a group of Christians who actively and prayerfully seek the will of God concerning decisions about a certain course of action. An important part of this meeting will involve silent waiting on God to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit; the "still small voice" that must be distinguished from the other "voices" (personal desires, preconceived opinions and so forth) that could be mistaken as true spiritual guidance. No decision is reached until all the members of the meeting are inwardly convicted as to which proposal is truly God's will. Sometimes, there will only be one proposal that will clearly be seen as God's will. But on other occasions it may be an initially minority opinion that will finally be accepted. When this happens, the majority of members of a meeting will (after much prayer and silent listening to God) become convicted that their first opinion was incorrect and that the minority view (which they had initially rejected) is actually the true will of God. On other occasions, it may be that none of the proposals is agreed upon and something that was previously not even considered will be given by the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit-guided consensus approach was well articulated by Quaker founder George Fox. Unlike other reformers such as Martin Luther, Fox had no major doctrinal dispute with the established church of his day but his spiritually sensitive nature led him to yearn for a more experiential and living relationship with God than the church of his day offered. Fox and the official preachers of the day both pretty much agreed on basic beliefs. Their difference was about how the holding of these beliefs affected their life and experience. Both agreed, for instance, that Christ dwells within the Christian through the Holy Spirit, but if someone professing this belief shows no indicating of the Holy Spirit's presence within and has no experience of His sanctifying power, are they only deluding themselves that they have the Spirit and that they are truly Christian?

The young George Fox passed through many highs and lows of spiritual experience before he vividly came to know the presence of Christ within and the power of the Holy Spirit. Following these experiences, Fox became convinced that a true Christian must always pay heed to the inward guidance of the Holy Spirit. In short, Christ is not only the Saviour, Lord and God of the born-again Christian, but is also Teacher and Guide.

A favourite verse for Fox was Revelation 3:20. His exposition of this verse encapsulated the core of his teaching. Christ spiritually knocks on everyone's spiritual door. Those who are aware of His presence open their lives to Him and are born again of the Holy Spirit. Christ then lives within them and transforms them increasingly into His spiritual likeness.

Opening ourselves to Christ is not something that is "natural" to fallen human beings. It is possible only through God's grace. Fox uses the term "election" in his 61st Epistle (1654) and in the third chapter of the second volume of his Journal he writes "When you are born again, ye will know election and reprobation; for the election stands in Christ, the Seed, before the world began; but the reprobation lies in the evil seed, since the world began." God chose the saved prior to the creation of the world, clearly a work of grace alone. Fox's soteriology was not so very far removed from that of Calvin.

Now, if all who are born again share Christ inwardly, Holy Spirit-guided consensus decision making within groups of Christians follows logically and inevitably. If every member of a meeting yields to the one Christ who is within each of them through the Holy Spirit, they must in consequence be governed by the same Mind; the Mind of Christ himself. Like the spokes of a wheel, they are all joined together in the one Hub but if each "spoke" followed a different direction, the wheel would shatter. Christ is not divided, so how can all the members fail to arrive at consensus if they are all truly yielded to the Spirit of Christ, the single Hub around Whom the wheel is turning? If there is a lack of consensus, someone must be failing to yield to the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit!

It is not difficult to see how Fox could envision such Holy Spirit-guided consensus being put into effect. In the wake of his preaching tours of the British Isles, groups of Christians were formed who regularly met together in the open air or in private homes to "wait on the Lord" in silent prayer or to simply be in the presence of Christ. These groups of "Friends" or "Children of Light" (as Fox called them) or "Quakers" (as their critics termed them; a term which was nevertheless soon adopted by the Friends themselves) gathered without set worship forms, clergy or prepared sermons. Unless a member of a meeting felt moved by the Spirit to give a testimony or word of prophecy, the meeting simply continued in silence, yet within that silence, members frequently experienced a deep sense of the presence of God and fellowship with one another. It was but a small step to hold meetings concerning church business along similar lines; simply waiting on God in silent prayer until each member became convicted as to God's will for the business in hand. Such business meetings have always been seen by Quakers as not essentially different from worship meetings.


Is There a Scriptural Basis for Holy Spirit-Guided Consensus?

It is not hard to understand how Holy Spirit-guided meetings are implied by the New Testament teaching that the church and its individual members are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Jesus' metaphor of the Vine and Paul's of the Body imply a spiritual unity of Christians that should be manifested in any Christian gathering. After all, a vine does not produce grapes on one branch and blackberries on the next unless something alien to the original plant has been grafted in. In a similar way, a body is under the control of a single mind unless the person is suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder or is possessed by an unclean spirit. Christ as the Vine and we as the branches must all bear the same fruit. The corporate Body of Christ which is the church can likewise only function as the Body of Christ if all its members are under the direction of the one Mind and Spirit.

However, is there any biblical evidence that the early church really did follow something like Holy Spirit- guided consensus, or is this method the invention of a fiery Seventeenth Century English preacher? (Mind you, even if it did start with Fox, the fact that it can be drawn as a legitimate conclusion from biblical teaching surely validates it.)

Although there is little direct evidence for it in the New Testament, there are some strong hints that something like it was indeed practised.

Jesus told His disciples that "where two or three meet together in my name, I am there among them" (Matt.18:20). Although He was specifically giving instructions concerning the expulsion from the congregation of someone who would not yield to discipline, His words are almost certainly of wider application and imply His guidance of the decisions of any group of believers, provided that they are truly gathered in His name.

Secondly, there is the explicit statement in Acts 4:32 that the apostolic church was of "one mind and spirit". How would Luke have known this unless there was clear evidence of consensus of opinion? Alas, this was quickly followed by the tragic events of two members who decided to break the consensus and lie about withholding some money from the common pool! (It is, however, noteworthy that Peter did not accuse Ananias and Sapphira of lying to him or even to the church, but to the Holy Spirit. Peter clearly saw the Holy Spirit as the One who truly governed this initial Christian community).

Thirdly, there is the statement in Acts 15:28 that "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us". This looks like a clear statement of Holy Spirit-guided consensus!

It is also noteworthy that in 1 Corinthians, Paul warns the congregation in that city of the consequences of participating in communion without "discerning the body" (1Cor. 11:29). The church at Corinth failed to "discern the body" (failed to see themselves as the corporate body of Christ) by being divided into factions and participating in the agape feast in a way that was selfish in so far as the wealthier members did not share food with their poorer brethren. There were also those in the congregation who were "spiritual show-offs" and excessively demonstrated their spiritual gifts, principally the gift of speaking in tongues. In so doing, these church members tended to disrupt the worship meetings. Although none of this directly relates to the issue of consensus, it does demonstrate the importance of mutual realisation of the congregation as a manifestation of the body of Christ and the serious consequences we face should we fail to do this. Paul relates this failure directly to the illness and even death of some of the members of the Corinthian congregation (1Cor.11:30)!

In view of these verses, as well as the wider teaching of the church as the body of Christ, we may safely conclude that Holy Spirit-guided consensus has sound biblical roots and was not simply an invention of George Fox. In view of this, I believe that this approach should be taken very seriously by Christians and, indeed, adopted as THE manner in which Christians should approach decision making. Moreover, we should all take seriously the Quaker insistence that what might be called "business meetings" are not to be thought of as completely separate from worship meetings. God is to be honoured in and through each and silent prayer and stillness before God in an attitude of quiet expectation is essential to each. The practice of Holy Spirit-guided consensus should be part of a wider adoption of silent "Quaker style" periods within regular worship of all Christ-centred denominations. Through the practise of such meditative meetings, Christians become more sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit and more able to discern His voice from the myriad of other "voices" that crowd in upon us. Any church could make room in its Sunday worship for such meetings, either as part of regular services or as additional meetings later in the morning or at evening. Even strongly liturgical churches could find room for these practises, the way many now hold "second" services of a less formal nature following the "traditional" morning service.


Holy Spirit-Guided Consensus and the Kingdom of God

There is, however, another aspect of the practice of Holy Spirit-guided consensus. In my opinion, it has a truly eschatological dimension. We do not know the details of how the Kingdom of God will be fully established on earth. That is known only to God the Father. But we are told that the kingdoms of the world will become the Kingdom of God (Rev. 11:15). We are told told that Christ will rule until He puts all opposition under His feet and we are assured that some day God will be "all in all" (1Cor. 15:28). Although we cannot be dogmatic as to how Christ will rule, I believe that His governance may well be at least in part manifested through His people. In other words, through Holy Spirit-guided meetings. If that is true, we may see the move toward this method of decision-making in churches and Christian organisations today as being a preview of the Kingdom of God on earth. It may, indeed, be sowing the very seeds from which the mature Kingdom will grow! Imagine board meetings of companies being conducted in the manner of Quaker business meetings. Imagine the General Assembly of the United Nations being similarly conducted. This may appear impossible, but history and personal experience tell us that what is impossible according to our limited opinions is very often the very thing that God brings about. Indeed, it is interesting that the rising interest concerning consensus decision making happens to coincide with a shift of emphasis from a focus on "church" to "Kingdom" that is taking place amongst many Christians at this time. Perhaps we should see these as two aspects of the same move of the Holy Spirit. Christian fellowships within industry and governments (business men's fellowships, prayer fellowships for political figures and the like) will, hopefully, become interested in Holy Spirit-guided consensus on matters about which to present a unified Christian view to business and politics. The degree to which business and government respond to the decisions of Holy Spirit-guided consensus, is the degree to which Christ will rule in these places and the nearer they come to expressing Kingdom values.

The reader may ask at this point, "Is this another version of the Seven Mountains mandate (or 7M as it is sometimes known)?"

In one sense — a very broad sense — it may be interpreted as, if not a "version" of 7M, at least something parallel to this as both see the Kingdom of God "invading" (so to speak) what we normally take to be the secular realm. In this sense, both stand against what has been termed the "pietist" approach in which the Kingdom of God and the secular "kingdoms" are separate and in opposition to each other until the return of Christ. (Although this position has been called "pietist", mostly in a critical sense by those of the opposite persuasion, it is not to be confused with the genuine pietist movement of Philip Spener that later affected the work of Nikolous Zinzendorf and the Wesleys).

In another sense however, the approach being outlined here is very different, but to explain just how it differs, we will need to say a few words about 7M and the theological position upon which it is based. In essence, 7M is a movement that is frequently (albeit not exclusively) associated with some forms of charismatic and prophetic Christianity. Briefly stated, it teaches that God has given Christians dominion over society. Christians, according to 7M, are called to take over the seven "mountains" of culture, namely the family, education, religion, business, government, entertainment and the media. These aspects of culture are to be reformed according to the precepts of Christian morality as given in the Decalogue and in the general rules and regulations of the Mosaic Law. What is envisioned is a "top down" moral reformation; Christians gain control of the influential aspects of society and through these aspects, impose "Christian morality" on society in general. How far the Mosaic Law is to be enforced is a matter of some debate. For example, are homosexuals to be put to death? If a complete application of Mosaic Law is introduced, a persistently disobedient child should also be put to death; something which even the hardest-line 7M enthusiast would be unlikely to sanction.

One can see problems arising here. The Law was given to Israel prior to the Incarnation of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon believers. It was to be an external constraint until the time when, through the inward transformation brought about by the Holy Spirit, the Law would be "written on the hearts" (Jer. 31:33) of believers and moral behaviour would spring from internal desires and not from obedience out of fear to an external code of Law. As C.S. Lewis wrote "The Law, as St Paul first clearly explained, only takes you to the school gates. Morality exists to be transcended. We act from duty in the hope that someday we shall do the same acts freely and delightfully" ("The Novels of Charles Williams" in Of This and Other Worlds p.53). Christian maturity is demonstrated by the desire to act morally and avoid sin; to spontaneously ("freely and delightfully" in Lewis' words) act according to God's will and this can only be accomplished through the inwardly transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Imposing a strict Christian morality from the "top" simply will not work until the majority of the population of a society has been "born again" spiritually and are inwardly transformed to the degree that following God's will is something that they desire. But if transformation proceeds from the "bottom up", from society in general, then there will be no need for the imposition of laws from the "top down". Even in our far from perfect society, certain actions are considered so heinous by the general population that the overwhelming majority of citizens would never consider committing such offences, even if there was no specific law against them. Infanticide, for example, is repugnant to civilised societies today, even though it was once practised in ancient times and is still found amongst some primitive people groups.

It is also worth remembering that where Christians, or people claiming to be Christians, have imposed their version of Christian morality on past societies, the situation has seldom been to God's glory! If we were granted a time machine, who amongst us would set the dial for Cromwell's England or Spain at the height of the Inquisition's power? Or, still less, the German city of Munster in 1534 under the rule of Jan Bockelson (otherwise known as John of Leyden) who's attempt at setting up a heaven on earth created something not too far removed from an earthly hell. Referring to his dictatorial rule of that city, A. M. Greeley wrote "His rule was bloody, cruel, and oppressive, one in which every conceivable human atrocity was committed in the name of the Kingdom of God" (Ecstasy, A Way of Knowing p. 102).

A second problem with 7M concerns the scriptural basis for the mandate itself. This is said to be Genesis 1:26, 28-29 but a reading of these verses suggests something quite different from the interpretation favoured by 7M. There is nothing in these verses to suggest that Christians have been given a mandate for the exercise of dominion over society. The mandate given in these verses was for the human race in general to exercise dominion over "the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, all wild animals on land, and everything that creeps on the earth." Nothing is said about one lot of human beings having dominion over another. The question as to whether this dominion was give before or after the Fall is irrelevant as Genesis 1 does not mention the Fall. The dominion given to humanity in these verses may be looked upon as that given to stewards of the estate of a King or nobleman. We have been given the responsibility to care for God's creation (His "estate" so to speak). These verses may be seen as giving scriptural support to the environmental movement, but have nothing to say about the dominion theology upon which 7M depends.

At the risk of oversimplification, the 7M movement may be termed a "moralist" or even "legalist" movement in so far as it looks toward the moral reformation of society through legislation and enforcement of moral codes. Its approach is essentially theonomic (i.e government by God's Law). Holy Spirit-guided consensus at the level of the "seven mountains" of culture (especially at governmental levels) could, in contrast, be called pietistic in yet another variation of the application of that word. Historically, Cromwell and Calvin attempted to implement the first whereas the second has, to this time, only been preached (by, for example, Jonathan Edwards) or implemented in small communities such as the Bruderhof Community. Maybe, when the Kingdom of God is fully manifested on this planet, confederations of something not unlike these communities will replace the warring nation states of today!


Some Personal Reflections

Before closing this essay, I would like to say a few words about how God led me to these thoughts. About three or four years ago, I came by "accident" across a little book; a golden gem by Christian writer and former missionary Norman Percy Grubb and simply called It's as Simple as This. At that time, I had not even heard of Norman Grubb, but that changed rapidly after reading this book!

Grubb's message is encapsulated in Galatians 2:20. For Grubb, the mature Christian life is to be able to say with Paul "Not I but Christ in me", not simply as a theological dogma, but as a living experience. In this respect, he is on the same page as Fox, although there is no evidence that he was influenced by Fox's writing. Grubb's words drove home to me the realisation that if each member of a Christian meeting can indeed say (from his/her life's experience) "Not I but Christ in me", any meeting of these Christians can also collectively repeat these words and, therefore, any decision that the meeting will reach will be made, not by the members in the meeting at a human level, but in a true sense, by Christ Himself!

Norman Grubb did not express this position however. His mission was directed toward the spiritual development of individual Christians, not Christian meetings per se. The suggestion that Holy Spirit- guided consensus may someday be followed in business and government circles would not have been welcomed by Grubb. For him, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar would never meet; not, at least, until the return of Christ, although he did concede that sometimes God will call a Christian to a social or political ministry (see "What About World Situations? Reprinted from Who Am I? in The Intercessor 36:3, pp 1-4, 2020). Nevertheless, this is to be seen as the exception rather than the rule. On that issue, I must disagree with brother Norman.

However, it was with a sense of relief that I subsequently found that Fox had long ago reached essentially the same conclusion as I had drawn from Grubb's writing. Fox, unlike Grubb, saw no point in waiting for Christ to return, when Christ is already here with us today! This is neither the time nor the place to digress into the question as to whether (or to what degree) Fox could be considered a preterist (i.e. someone who holds the belief that all or most scriptural prophecies were fulfilled during the First Century), but it is clear that he took the doctrine of the presence of Christ with the believer very seriously and more "experimentally" than most other Christians of his day (on this point, he was more out of step with 17th Century Christians than he would have been with many Christians of today). Because Christ is with us in the here and now, He is able to work through us if we are simply willing to let Him. In opening to the Christ who is always present, Quakers have been led to do much for social reform and ethical commercial business.

I had known of Fox for over five decades, and I have long considered him one of the "greats" among the Reformers. But it has only been recently that I have made anything approaching a serious study of his writings and I found his conclusion concerning what I have been calling Holy Spirit-guided consensus meetings a wonderful confirmation of my opinion that these truly are according to the will of God. I may only be a spiritual dwarf, but by God's grace I feel that I have been allowed to briefly stand upon the shoulders of these two spiritual giants and glimpse on the horizon a great move of God.

It only remains for me to ask that you read this essay prayerfully and, if you feel it appropriate, share and discuss it with your Christian friends. If I am correct in my belief that God is calling His people to embrace what for many must seem a very radical idea, it may be that He has a special role for you in bringing it to pass!



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