Saturday, September 22, 2012

Not a Democracy

Have you ever heard someone declare in the context of church governance, "The kingdom of God is not a democracy!" I thought I would unpack that one a bit.

First of all, motive. The situation which typically brings up this say is one in which some people object to a decision by leaders in their church and some others, maybe the leaders themselves, want them to shut up, knuckle down, and toe the line (love that string of idiomatic metaphor phrases.) So what's really meant by "the kingdom of God is not a democracy" really means is "somebody else, somebody merely earthly, that is, is your boss, so deal with it." Motivation seems to point to coercion.

Secondly, how it is true. Because obviously it is true. We have one king, Jesus, who, if you follow Nebuchadnezzar's dream in the book of Daniel, has a kingdom that 1) was not given to him by any man, 2) is an everlasting kingdom (I suspect that is because he's never going to die again) and 3) beats the best, most glorious, and strongest kingdoms man can produce. So yes, it's not a democracy. It's a monarchy with an utterly deserving king as its head.

Thirdly, what's being left out. Our monarchy, the kingdom of God has a feature that is different from every single earthly kingdom ever. That is the ability, nay, the pleasurable obligation of all of the subjects of the kingdom to engage in frequent bi-directional communication with the king himself. It's almost as if people can sometimes experience the kingdom as if it was populated by just two, the king and you. So you can and ought to be ruled by the king here and now, with no go-betweens.

Fourthly,  the inherent error. When people say a thing like "The kingdom of God is not a democracy!" (and you really must include the exclamation mark) what they are envisioning loosely as alternative to democracy is something akin to feudal rule. In a feudal system, the dukes hold their rule as a gift of the king, the earls' holdings are assigned them by the dukes, and the lords and baronets receive their right to own land and rule from the earls. Or something like that. At the bottom of the ladder are serfs. They have no rights. All they receive are orders from the lords above them. For those who wag their finger in your face and decry democracy in the church, you are the serf. Shut up and obey (for there's no other way?) But hold on a minute, whose subjects are we? Not theirs. We have (as I said before) one king, Jesus. So then if everyone can and ought to hear from our Lord, then we have something very much akin to democracy after all. Except that ideally it is not the will of the people being expressed, but rather His will expressed through all his people. That's probably what he meant when he told leaders not to lord it over their people. 

Finally, if they really meant it. If the feudal, hierarchical view of the church implicit in the way this is said, was really the last word in church government, that means that nobody should ever disagree, or should ever have disagreed to the point of parting ways, with any leader in the church. This means that Martin Luther was wrong, Ulrich Zwingli was wrong, John Calvin was wrong and Menno Simons was really wrong. After all, they all disagreed sharply and finally with the Roman Catholic system and their feudal lords, the bishops, the cardinals and the Pope and instead went what they understood to be God's way -- we will obey God rather than men -- away from their rule. But if they are really as wrong as this phrase implies, then those who are against democracy in the church should ultimately undo that wrong and accept spiritual serfdom in a kingdom exactly like one they envision. Needless to say, few ever will.

I like our brother Paul's phrase, "What shall we say, then?" In this case I would say, "Listen to the King." He will not lead us into useless dissension. He will not lead us into quarrels. He will lead us into servanthood. But he will not lead us into servitude. And he will not lead us into prostrating ourselves before our brothers and sisters as if they were more representative of the King than we are ourselves. The kingdom of God is not a democracy, but when his people gather, I believe there should be an element of democracy there, or we are not honouring his relationship with each of our fellow subjects.

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