By Jacob Gerber | December 20, 2021
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Ps. 133:1).
Life in Christ’s church can be hard, especially when we must deal with complicated, difficult, and controversial questions. Nevertheless, we purposefully close every General Assembly by singing Psalm 133 together as a prayer that God would continue to weave this unity into the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
Ours is not the first generation in which the church has struggled for unity. What, though, are we supposed to do when “no small dissension and debate” (Acts 15:2) arises within the church? What does the Bible teach us about resolving such dissensions and debate?
I want to argue a controversial idea: if we were to tease out all the principles that the Bible teaches for resolving our disagreements in the church, we would end up with a system that looks very much like what we call parliamentary procedure. Rather than seeing parliamentary procedure as arbitrary or arcane, and far from seeing parliamentary procedure as a hindrance to the work of the church, I want to argue that parliamentary procedure reflects the Bible’s own teaching for how to make decisions as a church.
The Bible teaches, then, that our church government should derive from the same principles of biblical wisdom that we use to structure our worship: “Let all things be done for building up….But all things should be done decently and in order.” (1 Cor. 14:26, 40; see WCF 1.6). In this article, I explore three major ways in which the main principles of parliamentary procedure follow the general rules of the Word, “which are always to be observed” (WCF 1.6).
1. Parliamentary Procedure Gathers an Assembly to Deliberate
Let’s start with a foundational principle: in order to make decisions, we must gather together in the same place, at the same time. Just as we recognize the importance of gathering together for worship, as suggested by the routine use of the words for “come together” (sunerchomai; sunagō) in passages about corporate worship (e.g., Acts 11:26; 13:44; 14:27; 16:13; 20:7–8; 1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34; 14:23, 26), so too should we acknowledge the importance of gathering together for deliberation and decision-making.
When the Jerusalem Council had to consider the ongoing relevance of circumcision in the Church, we read that “[T]he apostles and the elders were gathered together (sunagō) to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). We don’t make decisions from afar or by correspondence, but by gathering together at one place, and at one time, to talk together about the questions before us.
To some degree, this principle can be extended into virtual meetings; however, Robert’s Rules of Order requires “at a minimum, conditions of opportunity for simultaneous aural communication among all participating members equivalent to those of meetings held in one room or area” (RONR [12th ed.] 9:31). Even if we meet on a Zoom call, we can make decisions if and only if we can, at the very least, hear one another.
2. Parliamentary Procedure Prioritizes our Listening
The reason that the Bible requires us to be together at the same place, at the same time, is to prioritize listening. While we often overlook it, the centrality of silence and listening in both Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 14 is astonishing:
- And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. (Acts 15:12)
- After they finished speaking [lit., “fell silent”], James replied, “Brothers, listen to me.” (Acts 15:13)
- But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. (1 Cor. 14:28)
- If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. (1 Cor. 14:30)
- As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. (1 Cor. 14:33b–34a)
The word “parliamentary” is a word that refers to speech (from the French word, parler, “to speak”). The way parliamentary procedure structures our speaking, then, is by prioritizing our listening. For example, one of the basic principles of parliamentary procedure is that only one person should speak at a time (RONR [12th ed.] 3:30–35), since it is not possible to listen to multiple people speaking at the same time.
Similarly, the Bible puts great emphasis on one-at-a-time speaking. In Acts 15, Peter rises to speak “after” other debate (v. 6; grammatically, a genitive absolute), and James speaks to the assembly only “after” (meta) Barnabas and Paul finished speaking (v. 13).
This principle is all the more clear, though, in 1 Corinthians 14:
- “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn….” (1 Cor. 14:27)
- “For you can all prophesy one by one…. (1 Cor. 14:31a)
Not only does Paul lay out the procedure for allowing only one to speak at a time, but he also identifies the purpose:
- “Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Cor. 14:26)
- “…so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” (1 Cor. 14:31b)
- “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” (1 Cor. 14:33)
- “But all things should be done decently and in order.” (1 Cor. 14:40).
We listen silently so that our deliberations serve to build up, instruct, and encourage all those present. Furthermore, we do all things decently and in order as a reflection of the order of God himself, who is not a God of confusion, but of peace.
3. Parliamentary Procedure Structures our Speaking
In order to give this primacy of place to listening, parliamentary procedure must also structure our speaking. Many of the procedures, motions, and rules in Robert’s Rules of Order structure how we speak in a deliberative assembly. The details of these rules follow at least two general principles that we see reflected in Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 14.
First, parliamentary procedure structures our debate by requiring a motion before debate. As Robert’s Rules of Order defines it, “A motion is a formal proposal by a member, in a meeting, that the assembly take certain action” (RONR [12th ed.] 3:22). Even the Jerusalem Council was assembled explicitly to respond to a specific “question” sent up from the churches of Judea (Acts 15:2).
In Robert’s Rules of Order, “question” is another word for “motion,” so that the Chair must “state the question” after the motion has been moved and seconded, and then the Chair “puts the question” to a vote—which sometimes happens after someone moves “the previous question” (RONR [12th ed.] 4:15, 34; 16:1).
Later, as the Jerusalem Council considered the question that had been referred to them, James proposed a motion to specify the exact action that the Council should take in response to the reference sent up to them (Acts 15:20). This plan “seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” (Acts 15:22), so they carried it out (Acts 15:22–30).
Second, parliamentary procedure governs our debate by focusing speeches on what is germane (i.e., relevant) to the motion at hand (RONR [12th ed.] 4:7; 43:20). This principle is reflected in the procedure of the Jerusalem Council, when we read that the Apostles and the elders gathered “to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). They did not get together for informal, free-ranging conversation, but specifically to deliberate about the dissension that had arisen over the question of circumcision.
As parliamentary procedure guides our speaking according to biblical wisdom, our listening becomes profitable. We can focus exclusively on the matter at hand, which allows us to deliberate in an efficient, orderly manner. This orderliness doesn’t make our business any less difficult, but it eliminates the chaos that only compounds our dissension.
At its core, parliamentary procedure is a set of rules designed to guide us in our deliberations as a church. This is important since deliberation is central to the nature, purpose, and function of church courts.
Fundamental to biblical polity, then, is that we enter the courts of the church with a determination to make our decisions there, in conversation with all the other presbyters of the church gathered there. As we listen to one another, God commands us to speak to one another with God’s own Word, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:19–21). We make decisions in the courts of the church as we listen to the deliberations of our fellow presbyters. We should not come with our minds made up, but with an intention to listen to the brethren, since “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17).
While there is doubtless a place to have informal conversations about the work of the church through personal conversations, email, publications, podcasts, and social media, those methods are not the biblically mandated method for deliberating over the business of the church. Anything that detracts from the simultaneous deliberations of the whole court, gathered in one place at one time to listen to one another, strikes at a fundamental characteristic of our polity.
My prayer is that we grow in seeing the courts of the church as necessarily deliberative, that we prioritize listening, and that we refine our speaking. Parliamentary procedure helps us as a codified expression of these biblical principles for church polity, and the more we see it as a help rather than a hindrance, the better we will deliberate as presbyters for Christ’s glory and the good of his church.
How good and pleasant is that kind of unity!
Jacob Gerber is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Harvest Community Church (PCA) in Omaha, NE.