The Next Faithful Step

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Councils

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How to go about decision-making? It seems like a fairly straightforward question that should come with an uncomplicated answer. Make some kind of decision tree or a list of pros and cons and decide accordingly. But in truth decision-making is much more difficult than it may seem. We can, at times, agonize over the most seemingly inconsequential decisions. Watching my daughter try to choose what to wear on “free dress” day at school is just one trite example. How much more difficult it becomes when there are foreseeable consequences for us and our families. Where to move, what job to take, where to attend school, whether to attend school, starting or expanding a family, buying a home—these are all life changing decisions that no mere decision tree or pro/con list can make too much easier.

And what about when the decision involves more than you and your family—when the decision is going to matter to and affect many? The congregation I served right out of seminary had to make a decision with consequences. The church had entered and facility-sharing relationship with another congregation years before and by the time I arrived, the relationship had begun to go south—at least in the eyes of the congregation I was serving. There were clear cultural misunderstandings, but the aggravation wasn’t completely without merit. And so by the time I had arrived, leaders in the congregation had long been discussing terminating the relationship. Of course this was a decision that had effects and consequences far beyond the confines of an individual or family. Entire congregations were involved and so dozens of families and hundreds of individuals. How do you go about making this sort of decision?

Even this sort of decision-making is small compared to what early Church faced. Starting in the fourth century the Church began making decisions that would effect not just multiple congregations and hundreds of lives, but were intended to effect all Christian congregations and individuals indefinitely. Knowing how agonizing congregational decisions can be, I can only picture this sort of responsibility as decision-making at its most extreme. Decisions had to be made about what the Church believes and proclaims about divine nature. This is agonizing stuff. How does the Church go about this?

The answer is: by vote. It seems strange and mismatched. Deciding what the Church believes by vote? But this is what the Church did through what have become known as the Ecumenical Councils (somewhat oversimplified, of course). It began in the fourth century with the debate over Arianism—a Christology that understood Christ as of a different, lesser, and created sort of divinity than the Father. The six remaining Ecumenical Councils were held at the breaking points of various other Christological controversies when definitive statements needed to be made about correct belief. Church bishops would travel to gather together, discuss and argue, and come to some sort of consensus.

As strange as voting on correct belief may seem, it is hard to imagine a better option. It is not as if the Bible is a completely unambiguous guide through theological minutia. But it is not the glories of voting that I see emphasized when I look at the Councils. Instead, what I see and am both challenged and inspired by when I look back on the decision-making process of the Councils is the conviction of the early Church that the Spirit is alive and active in the life of the Church in the world. Just imagine being entrusted with deciding what the Church believes about the nature of Jesus Christ and his relationship to both the Father and humanity. This is what the early Church had to do and so they gathered leaders and took a vote. We always talk about the results of the Councils—their decisions and the ramifications. But rarely, if ever (at least I have never seen it), do you come across discussion about how the Church decided to confirm its convictions. It has to be pointed out that this form of decision-making in the early Church is a sign of radical faith. Only a deep trust in the real guidance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church makes voting on important doctrine anywhere close to a good idea. Otherwise we are just trusting a bunch of people to have a good idea.

Of course, believing that God is doing something doesn’t make it so. But I do wish that the congregation I served out of seminary would have had the early Church’s trust in what God was doing in the Church on its mind more than convenience and relief from frustration. I wonder if the vote would have turned out differently.