In the late 1800s, the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America was working toward a federal union (not an organic one) with the (German) Reformed Church in the United States. Because this was a change in how the General Synod operated, it was a synodical decision. However, the General Synod desired to get the mind of the church, and so asked classes to register their votes. Fewer than 1/5 of the classes voted in the negative, which meant that 80% of the classes supported the federal union. However, the General Synod did not effect that union even though the majority clearly desired it and they had every right to do so. Why? Because such a union was very problematic for a group of recently arrived immigrants in the midwest, and the General Synod showed deference to the significant concerns of the minority.
In 1969, the classical votes were counted for merger with the Presbyterian in the United States. The General Synod has voted to approve the merger, a majority of classes voted to approve the merger, but the supermajority was not attained, and the minority made the decision.
In 1971, the classical votes were counted which would allow women to serve as elders, deacons, and ministers. A majority approved of those, but they did not reach the requisite two-thirds majority. In this case, the minority delayed this for several years to come.
These are only a couple of instances where the minority was a deciding factor. And these are certainly not the only instances where there were significant moments and the minority carried the vote.
Is voting divine design or an accomodation to sin?
Voting is so deep into our way of understanding the world that we can sometimes think that voting was a divinely designed and commanded method. However, this is simply not the case.
When it comes to our understanding of church government, there is considerable contamination from the similar-looking liberal democracy of the civil government. Similar looking but very different. The foundational philosophy of a liberal democracy is that the government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and so (with some boundaries, especially constitutional ones), what the people want is what is right. However, not only is the Reformed Church constitutional, but as a church it stands on a very different foundational philosophy. That is, the church is a creation not of people, but of Word and Spirit.
Indeed, while the majority may win in the civil government (at least most of the time), the church asks fundamentally different questions. The church is concerned with what is right, the church is concerned with discerning the mind of Christ, and being attentive to the promptings of the Spirit. This leads to very different assumptions about how things ought to work.
While a recent communication from the Synod of the Far West speaks of the “tyranny of the minority,” such an assumption is based upon values which are not theological values, or even biblical values. Indeed, such a concept is based upon unchristian values.
Tyranny is a real thing. Not being able to do what you want because you want it does not equal tyranny.
While voting is often the default way to make decisions, voting is not divinely instituted, and voting is not part of the Kingdom of God. Voting is an accommodation to our sinfulness. When we bear this in mind, we approach it differently.
In reflecting on the “democratic captivity” of the Presbyterian Church, Joseph Small writes this:
The simplified division of substantial concerns into two opposed alternatives is further degraded by the expectation that the way to choose between them is by majority vote. Voting can work reasonably well in political arenas where winning and losing is the assumed outcome, even the name of the game. It works best, however, in situations where differences are encompassed within broad consensus regarding aims, so that balloting is about the best means to achieve those aims. Voting does not work well in situations of intractable polarity (witness the United States Congress) or when fundamental issues of faith and life are at stake.
Why a supermajority anyway?
The two-thirds requirement for constitutional amendments was incorporated into the church order revision of 1916. The Minutes of the General Synod do not provide any commentary about the particular reasons for this, but supermajorities are required for one thing: to have greater consensus for significant changes in a shared life.
Foundational changes to our shared life ought to have greater consensus, not lesser. Indeed, this is not about a majority winning, but it is about a collective listening to the Spirit. Indeed, Jesus tells us to enter by the narrow gate, for the broad gate leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13). Which shows that the minority is not necessarily wrong, and the minority ought not be discounted. Indeed, it is possible that the minority may be speaking the Word of God.
There is nothing sacrosanct about the two-thirds threshold, that is the way that we have decided to pay attention to the minority. It could just as well be three-quarters, or even unanimity. My argument is not for the two-thirds supermajority in particular, but the concept of a supermajority for foundational changes to our shared life together.
And when we think about it, haven’t we all been in a minority opinion before? And haven’t we wanted the majority to think about us? This is even more the case with the faith we profess.
Indeed, the minority may actually be the voice of the narrow gate.
The simple majority amendment
The amendment that classes will be voting on will be to allow fundamental changes to our shared life together by a 50%+1 vote of the classes. The goal, then, is to pass something rather than putting in the hard work of doing the right thing. This is certainly not the only significant moment that we have faced as a church, but for the past one hundred three years we have required that fundamental changes to our shared life require at least 66% of the classes (and most definitely in 1892, the classes that supported the union had the vastly more confessing members than those that opposed it). However, for some reason only now, and only for this is this requirement no longer tolerable. This amendment asserts that we must change the rules so that whatever passes the General Synod can pass easier without having to put in the hard work of greater consensus.
All too often, when a majority vote determines the matter, the unity of the church is betrayed. Presbyterian votes on contentious theological and moral issues often fall within the range of 55 percent to 45 percent, the equivalent of a vote of eleven to nine in a local church. Can it be said that the church has decided anything when nearly half of the church dissents?
Erroneous math often used
I’m certainly not a mathematician, but a word needs to be said about the faulty math behind the numbers that are so often tossed around.
When a classis votes on a constitutional amendment, 50%+1 is all that is needed for the classis to register a vote one way or another. Too often, someone adds up the confessing members in all the churches in that classis and argues that this vote speaks for x many people. However, it cannot even be said that a vote fully represents the classis, when 49% of the classis can disagree. Not to mention the fact that the classis may not speak for any of the churches, and it is certain that the churches have diversity within them. So one cannot say that 50%+1 of a vote of a classical assembly speaks for anyone else than the majority of that classis at the session that the vote was taken.
It is often noted that 2/3 of the classes do not represent 2/3 of the members evenly. This is true. And this has always been true. Never in the history of the Reformed Church has the church been so evenly distributed. Indeed, there was a time when the Western classes contained far fewer members than the Eastern classes, and each classis still was able to register a single vote on constitutional amendments. Classes are each given a vote not because they have the same number of members within their bounds, but because as the body which serves the episcopal function, they have value apart from their size or wealth.
Giving value to larger classes because they are more populous is contrary to the very foundations of Reformed ecclesiology and is patently unbiblical.
The church is called to something more
The church is called to something more than might makes right or the majority always wins. After all, we follow a savior who died naked on a cross. We profess a faith that proclaims that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16) and “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Mt. 23:12). The simple majority amendment is an exercise in power, which is not something that is fitting for the church of Christ.
Paying attention to the minority is not tyranny. Disenfranchising a minority because you can, however, is tyranny. When we discount a minority simply because they are the minority, we have ceased listening to Christ and have begun listening to the enemy. Indeed, the minority may actually be the voice of the narrow gate. The simple majority amendment has nothing to do with seeking to live faithfully and has everything to do with a bald powerplay, which is the voice not of our savior, but of the enemy.