The Church is Not a Democracy

By Graham Glover

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We Americans love freedom. We love to live free – to say and do whatever we want. Anything that challenges our ability to be free is most often met with resistance. We champion our Bill of Rights. We defend liberty, both at home and abroad, in word and in deed – sometimes with the blood of our nation’s patriots. We Americans do this as a people and a republic that believes firmly in democracy. Our freedom – the world’s freedom, is protected best, we believe, by democracy. Were it to die, so too would our freedom.

As sacred as many think democracy is to the protection of America’s freedom, democracy is a rather insignificant, if not contrarian philosophy for the Christian church. The freedom we have in Christ has nothing to do with the will of the people. The pillar of democracy, the rule of the people, is something our Lord never commends. What the church believes, teaches, and confesses is not dependent on how the majority votes. How individual Christians feel about a particular doctrine is insignificant. There is Truth, that which the church proclaims, and there is untruth: no matter what the majority decrees. There are obviously some things within Christendom (adiaphora) that are open for persons or congregations to decide, but these things are small in number. The church’s confessions are not up for debate or change, nor, in my opinion, is her worship. There is no vote to determine that which our Lord has revealed to us in His Word and through His one holy catholic and apostolic church. While some of our churches practice congregational polity, a practice steeped in democracy (and some claim, the will of the Holy Spirit), we are wise to remember that such polity is a relatively new phenomena. Elections, by and large, should seldom be able to change a discipline or doctrine of the church. Polls should never dictate the message of the faith. The people, in so far as we look to them for authority, are not of primary importance when it comes to the rule and discipline of the church. In no uncertain terms, the church is not a democracy.

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But American Christians, especially Protestants (including Lutherans), don’t want to hear this. We are so committed to the cause of political democracy, the idea that everyone should be able to participate in the political process, that we have transferred our secular understanding of politics to the church. And this is a mistake of epic proportions. For what we do in the left-hand kingdom ought never to inform what we do in the right. Democracy may be the best form of government for our nation, but this is most definitely not the case for the church.

When the church gives everyone the right to determine its doctrine, we cease to be church.

Voting on what the church should proclaim takes God out of the equation, and once we do this, we are left with nothing. The vote is determined not by that which the Lord has revealed, but only by that which the voters determine. Observers of the Protestant communions know the dangers of letting the populous dictate the church’s teachings, evident especially over the past 30 years. Our desires, rooted in sin, will always trump God’s revelation. Democracy, by its nature, is critical of letting only a select few decide, something the church is oftentimes accused of doing when it won’t bend to the latest cultural mores. It’s no wonder many among us resist the church; they have been indoctrinated as Americans to have a healthy distrust of authority and to believe that the people are the ultimate source of determining what is best. Society can change. Culture can change. Policy can change. And for Americans committed to democracy, this means the church ought to change. When the church refuses to do so, it is cast aside as an ancient relic of the past.

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But how can the Gospel ever be open for change? How can the words of our Lord be open to debate? How can one claim to be a Christian and resist the revelation of God’s Holy Word, given to us by His Spirit through His church? Is our commitment to democracy is so strong that we think followers of Christ have the ability and authority to dictate what His church is and is not, or what His church proclaims and what it doesn’t? Are our political inclinations the ones that direct and drive all others in life, even in matters of the faith?

I’m not a historian by discipline, but it seems to me that even a cursory read of history illustrates that whenever the church bends to the will of the people, at the expense of her revealed Truth, then disorder, heresy, and corruption follow. Mine is not a rebuke of the political system known as democracy. As awful as democracy may be at times, it’s probably the best gig going. Rather, mine is a rebuke of those who wish to take democratic idealism and apply it to the things of God: the things of His church. To make such a move is not only unbiblical and unorthodox, it is a recipe for disaster that confuses consciences and ultimately loses souls.

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