The Importance of Good Rules

            There was an article recently on The Aquila Report by PCA pastor, Jacob Gerber, “The Biblical Foundations of Parliamentary Procedure”, which made some very good points, especially this one: “if we were to tease all the principles that the Bible teaches for resolving disagreements in the church, we would end up with a system that looks very much like what we call parliamentary procedure.”[1] That might be an overstatement of Robert’s Rules of Order, but it is certainly fair to state that parliamentary procedure grew out of a Christian world and life ethos. Someone has said that Robert’s Rules requires gentlemanly behavior for parliamentary types of meetings. Gerber’s article shows the importance of having good rules in order to be a well-ordered body. Here are some other points that I would like to make concerning Robert’s Rules (which rules are sadly not studied by most pastors and elders):

            First, Robert’s Rules require that all decisions be made in deliberative assemblies of the whole gathered body. That also is the basic position of Vanguard Presbytery concerning church government. The power of the church belongs to the whole assembled body—not to any committee, agency, board, or group. That is a point that is very difficult to get most pastors and elders to understand, apparently, because many of them believe that Presbyterianism is the power to rule over others. The true power of the church, though, is in the whole body of elected elders and is ministerial and declarative only. Such power never has civil force. We can advise. We cannot force. It would probably be easier to align the sun, the moon, and all the stars in their natural courses than to disabuse some elders of that wrong idea about the power of the church. That is the reason why Presbyterian church courts default to a position of lording it over others so easily. In another presbytery where I served for many years, the chairman of the Ministers and Candidates Committee requested the court give the committee the “authority to meet with a certain church and the pastor for the purpose of giving them advice.” He spoke on the issue and said, “We all know that there are problems in that church and we want to give them advice from presbytery.” I rose to speak in opposition and said, “If you only want to give them advice, you do not need presbytery to get involved. Just call them and ask to meet with them for a cup of coffee. But, if you want the power to make them follow your advice, then even presbytery does not have such power.” The Scripture tells elders to: “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2, 3). There are two great principles. We do not “lord” it over those allotted to our charge, but we set an example for them. Yet, the natural tendency is to lord it over others and not to set an example to them. Such lording it over others generally happens apart from the whole deliberative assembly. 

            Second, Robert’s Rules require us to act calmly, carefully, considerately, and courteously in those deliberative assemblies. We are to be gentlemen in our deportment and actions. In my reading through Acts recently, I was struck by the way those who were opposed to the gospel sought to exercise justice in contrast to the example of the Jerusalem Council. There were some Judaizers who came to Antioch after the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, apparently because they heard uncircumcised Gentiles had been accepted into the church. The result was that there was “great dissension and debate” over this issue. The church at Antioch, in her great wisdom, sent Paul and Barnabas up to Jerusalem to have this issue discussed before an assembly of all the parties involved. Some of the sect of the Pharisees spoke first and were in favor of requiring circumcision. There was extended debate. Peter then spoke against the position of the Pharisees. Paul and Barnabas then reported on the signs and wonders God did on their missionary journey. All listened attentively, silently, and carefully. It takes a good listener to be a good presbyter. The Scripture says, “But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19). Too often that Scriptural order is reversed and completely changed. It becomes this: “everyone must be quick to speak, quick to anger, and slow to hear.” Is that not your observation of how most people respond to matters of controversy? 

            On the other hand, consider the following passage from Acts: 

            “But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there as well,agitating and stirring up the crowds” (Acts 17:13).

            There are many other such examples I could provide from Acts, and hundreds more from other parts of the Scripture of such agitation and stirring up crowds to do what was wrong. That is how our Lord was crucified. The Sanhedrin leaders stirred up the people. Of course, some people might retort that the problem is those were wicked people who opposed the gospel, but we support the gospel. The conclusion inferred would be that it is appropriate to become thusly agitated when we are standing for the gospel.  Yet, consider these verses that follow the quote above:

“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present” (Acts 17:16, 17). 

            Do you see the difference. Things can agitate us, but we must not agitate others. We must be in control of our spirits and reason carefully with others. Even when we are rightly provoked in our spirit about something that is clearly wrong, we must reason calmly, carefully, considerately, and cautiously. God’s people must not be guilty of intemperate speech or actions. The will of God must be done according to the right doctrine and in the right spirit. 

            Third, Robert’s Rules teach us to live by the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is really just another way to define the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Golden Rule is found in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. It is simple and straight forward. “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you” (Luke 6:31). The negative side of that rule is that we should not treat others the way we would not want to be treated. It is a rule that requires self-reflection on our part. We must be honest with ourselves. In my experience, I have found that people are capable of justifying any actions they take or any ways they treat others as long as they can convince themselves they were doing something for the right purpose. Yet, there are no qualifiers in Jesus’ rule. It is simple, direct, and universal. In all situations, we must treat others the way we would want to be treated. The great Samuel Davies once preached on this passage a sermon he titled, “The Rule of Equity.” In that message, he said concerning this rule: “it is what I may call a portable directory, which you may always carry about with you and easily recollect; and therefore you need never be at a loss to know your duty. You may always know your own expectations and desires; do to others, then, what you would expect and desire from them, and you are right; you do all that the law and the prophets require you to do.”[2]   

            The Golden Rule is a better guide by far than conscience. It internalizes the whole matter to a level that we ought to automatically know our duty in every situation. Would I want to be treated the same way if I were in the same position? We instinctively know the answer to that question. So, why do we fail to live by Jesus’ simple rule? We are sinners and thrive on self-justification rather than self-reflection. As Davies concluded his sermon on this verse:

Men seem to act as if they were entirely detached from one another, and had no connection, or were not at all concerned to promote each other’s interest. Self-interest is their pursuit, and self-love their ruling passion; if that be but promoted, and this gratified, they have little or no concern besides.[3]

            The Golden Rule reminds us that we have two great commandments. The first is to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. The second is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Truth is for the purpose of godliness. It is never enough just to believe the right things. We must also do the right things. The Golden Rule teaches us how to do that. And Robert’s Rules, though tedious, guide us to have such consideration of others.  

            Fourth, Robert’s Rules teach us to keep our promises. One of those rules is the rule concerning the reconsideration of a matter. Robert’s Rules greatly limits the time in which a matter can be brought back up for reconsideration. Basically, it is limited to about 24 hours at most. A person who voted in favor of a motion that was passed can bring it up that day or the day following (if the meting is more than one day). Afterwards, the motion cannot be reconsidered. That is a working out of the Scripture which says, “He swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 16:4c). That is a protection to all of us. 

            One of my recent book purchases was the second volume of Reformed Ethics by Herman Bavinck, one of my all-time favorite authors. It deals with ethical discussions in terms of the Ten Commandments and I would endorse all elders in Vanguard to read it. Concerning the third commandment, Bavinck covers the matter of swearing or cursing. He wrote in one place, that once we have made a vow we must keep it even if we later find out that we were deceived or misinformed or deliberately mislead. Why? Well, because a “righteous man swears to his own hurt and does not change.” When Jesus took up the matter of false swearing in Matthew 5:33-37, He concluded, “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil” (Matthew 5:37). There were those who tried to get around the whole matter of breaking an oath by saying such things as, “Well, I only swore by the hairs on my head. I did not swear by God.” Or, “Well, I did not take a religious oath or vow.” Jesus cut through all such dissembling and essentially taught that a person’s word is his bond. Once the deal has been made, once the decision has been finalized, once the matter has been voted upon, a person must keep their word. Period. No equivocations or reconsiderations are allowed. 

            When I served on the Standing Judicial Commission, there was a case for which I was the chairman of the panel tasked with hearing the case and writing the proposed decision. When it came time to deliberate that case before the whole body, the matter became stalled because of the objections of one member. The full SJC tasked me and that member to discuss our differences and try to reach a consensus agreement. I worked hard at doing so with him. He never moved an inch. He would agree with various changes and finally agreed to the proposed decision. Then, the vote was taken before the full SJC. He voted against the report. He broke his word. His word was not his bond. Later, that man was elected Moderator of the PCA. I wish I could say that experience was out of the ordinary, but I cannot do so. Too many times I have seen pastors, elders, and church courts break their word. I suppose they live by the principle, “A righteous man does not swear to his own hurt, and changes it quickly if he finds that he is injured by it.”   

            The Church must operate according to lex rex—the laws of the King. That King is Jesus, Immanuel. The Scripture gives us the way we should govern. It gives us the way in which we should conduct ourselves. It gives us the rules by which we should operate. It gives us the way in which we should debate and reason with our brothers in the Lord. God’s rules are the truly good rules. Thus, our primary question always is this: What does the Scripture say? Where the Scripture speaks, we speak. Where the Scripture is silent, we are silent. When the Scripture tells us how to conduct ourselves in the Church, we do it. We all fail in this regard, but our failure is never an excuse for such disobedience. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL Please send contributions to Vanguard Presbytery to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540   

[1] The Aquila Report, December 30, 2021. 

[2] Sermons by the Rev. Samuel Davies, Vol. 2 (Morgan, Pennsylvania: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 104. 

[3] Ibid., 115.

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