Few concepts cause more difficulty than the principle of representation and what this means in the church. This is particularly the case with those of us who are used to a representative democracy because similar terms are often used to address very different concepts.
The Representative Principle. The power which Jesus Christ bestows upon his church is mediated by the Holy Spirit to all the people. Since not everyone in the church can hold an office, and since the offices differ among themselves in function, some persons will always be subject, within the proper exercise of authority, to the decisions of others. Since the whole church cannot meet together at one time to deliberate, representative governing bodies must be established on the various levels. The unity of the church is preserved in acceptance of the fact that all are governed by the decisions made in their behalf by those who represent them. (Preamble, p. 3-4).
In a liberal democracy, constituencies elect representatives to the government who they think will best represent their interests and desires. Votes cast by these representatives are public because this is how they are accountable to their constituencies, and if their constituents are unhappy with the way that they are representing them in government, then they can be voted out and replaced with someone else.
In the church, elders and deacons are elected by the congregation, but the function of their office is far different than a representative or senator in a liberal democracy. Indeed,
“…elders are chosen members of spiritual discernment, exemplary life, charitable spirit and wisdom grounded in God’s Word.” (1.I.1.8).
“…deacons are chosen members of spiritual commitment, exemplary life, compassionate spirit, and sound judgment…” (1.I.1.10).
Whereas representing constituent’s desires is the responsibility of a representative in a liberal democracy, representing Christ is the responsibility of an office-bearer in the church. Elders and deacons are chosen not because they will speak for a particular population or constituency or faction within the church, but because they exhibit the above traits and are seen by the members of the congregation to be fit for these particular ministries.
The concept of representation becomes more problematic in broader assemblies. When a consistory sends an elder (or elders) to classis (remember, ministers are members of classis and are therefore not sent by their churches or consistories), is the elder there to represent their church or the perspective of their church? Indeed, what if the elder’s view is very different from the majority of their church?
The same thing can be said of synods (which are wholly delegated bodies). Are the ministers and elders there to represent (in the liberal democratic sense) the desires, wishes, and perspectives of their classes? What if a minister or elder is vastly out of step with the perspective of the majority of their classis?
To get to the logic, we must understand the source and nature of authority. In a liberal democracy, the understanding is that the representatives derive their authority from the people who elect them. However, in the church,
“All authority exercised in the church is received from Christ, the only head of the chruch. The authority exercised by those holding office in the church is delegated authority. Their appointment to their special tasks is by the Spirit of the Lord, and they are responsible first of all to the Lord of the church.” (Preamble, p, 2).
Therefore, from this, we can see that the authority comes not from the congregation or from the classes or from constituencies or factions, but from Christ, and as such, those holding office first and foremost represent Christ. Secondly, office bearers do represent the people, but not in such a way that they are to express the desires of the people, but that they act in the place of the people and on their behalf.
And so the question often comes, do ministers or elders have to vote the way their consistories or churches or classes would desire them to vote, or in the way that they would vote? That is, can their votes be bound by the desires of their sending body? Certainly not.
To do so would be a violation of the very foundations of our understanding of how God desires the church to work. We trust that God works in the gatherings of the offices themselves. The assemblies are not simply places to record votes, they are places to wrestle and to listen and to discern, together, the leading of the Spirit. By binding an office bearer to speak and/or vote in a particular way, this completely misunderstands the very foundation of the purpose of assemblies and why we gather in assemblies.
Thus, office bearers do not speak or vote in a way consistent with their sending bodies (consistory, classis, or regional synod), but in a way consistent with their conscience and how they discern the Spirit of Christ leading them.
And so with all of this, then, we can see how representation means something very different in the church and when it comes to the assemblies.
Coming in Part II: Representation and the concept of proportionality and the General Synod…
2 thoughts on “Governance by Assembly and the Problem of Representation (Part I)”
It’s long been customary that elders may be instructed by their consistories to pass along communications from their consistories to the meeting of the classis, but they may not be confined in what they say for themselves or controlled in how they will vote.
The other thing that needs to be said is that elders and deacons are not only representatives of Christ, they, as officers, are ministers, doing their missions of eldering and deaconing (pace) in the congregation, and also eldering in the broader assemblies and deaconing in the wider world.