This is the fourth in a series of six articles first published in Oikos in 2007. They are a simplification of John Yoder’s Body Politics Simplified – this time with a specifically house church audience in mind.
Paul told us how to conduct our worship meetings. We just haven’t listened.
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and be encouraged.
– 1 Corinthians 14:29-31 (NRSV)
Paul believed in the open meeting, where a prophecy could come to anyone and everyone else should stop and listen. Everyone else should then weigh up what the person says and decide whether it’s from God. The message from God could come to anyone in the congregation, not just the leader or the most educated or the most apparently spiritual.
The open meeting is a conversation which includes all members. It’s based on the radical idea that we all get to talk, we all have ideas and we all have something to contribute! It’s hard to do in a normal church worship service, but it can be done in a house church or small group.
Deciding things in an open meeting
The idea doesn’t just apply to worship meetings. It also applies to business meetings and to decision making.
In Acts 15, the early church meets to work out the relations between Jews and Gentiles in the new churches. The procedure was simple. Paul and Barnabas reported on their way Gentiles had been joining the movement. Some Jerusalem believers objected that the Gentiles had not followed the rules for entering Judaism. The apostle Peter reminded the community of the Cornelius story. This silenced the objectors. Paul and Barnabas continued their story. When no-one else had more to say, James, the senior elder, proposed a mediating conclusion, of which he could say that it had ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (v. 28).
The idea is that we allow a consensus to emerge. We trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us to be of one mind.
It doesn’t mean we will end up agreeing. Sometimes, one or two of us might disagree with the way everyone else feels led. We state our objections and everyone listens carefully and considers them – sometimes the lone objector actually holds the truth. But if others to do not feel the Spirit leading this way, then the objector should submit graciously to the way everyone else is being led. On the other hand, if the objection is serious enough or strong enough, everyone else might decide it appropriate to submit to that individual’s point of view, or at least to hold off on a decision. (If the same person is objecting time after time, there’s probably deeper conflicts with that person which need sorting out; don’t end up submitting to their point of view each time.)
God’s will is known by the Spirit working in the meeting
We can learn a lot from the Quakers about the open meeting. They developed and practiced the idea that the Spirit of Christ is present in all members to shape and guide the church.
Quaker silence is not mystical and it is not silent worship. It is a time of expectant waiting until someone – and the point is that it can be anyone – is moved to speak. Consensus is reached when everyone has had a chance to say all they are led to say and there is no further disagreement.
This is the process for both church ‘worship’ and ‘business’ meetings. Allowing dialogue in a worship meeting makes it feel a bit more like a business meeting; it often makes it more practical. On the other hand, seeing the open meeting as worshipful in itself means that business meetings become another form of worship.
Won’t it cause chaos?
But surely we can’t let just anyone speak out at our church worship services? Surely we don’t have the time to get consensus on every important decision? Won’t we have chaotic diversity?
It’s a mistake to think that imposing decisions on people creates unity and that letting them speak creates diversity. The diversity is always there; it’s just that we usually silence it. A decree is quicker than careful listening, but is often wrong. A quick majority vote may reach a decision rapidly, but it doesn’t resolve the problem. The minority who were outvoted remain unconvinced.
If the truth is only found when every member of the church contributes, then we need to make sure we have the time and patience to discover it.
1. Create the expectation in your house church that God will speak to you all at different times. Usually this will be in gentle promptings. Encourage your members to share these.
2. Be interruptable! Make sure you have a flexible culture where there’s room for God to say something to someone. It’s easy to fall into the trap of a programmed meeting and for the leader to be focused on getting everything done.
3. Go into business meetings and decision making meetings with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will lead you into consensus. Listen carefully, knowing that the Holy Spirit is poured out on everyone else too.
4. Even if you’re not in a house church, your church can still respect Paul’s instruction to allow someone with a revelation to speak. In the church of forty I’ve been going to on a Sunday, the worship leader will ask after a time of discussion around tables whether there is anyone who thinks God is saying something to them which everyone should hear. Most times someone has something, and I’ve never seen the opportunity abused. It’s even been different people hearing something each time.