A phrase from last November’s Stated meeting caught my ear and has lingered. It reminded me of an old Presbyterian understanding of how we discern the will of God for our common work.
During the meeting, we elected and commissioned elders to serve at General Assembly this coming June. One of the questions in the commissioning service read thus: “Do we, members of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, accept [names] as commissioners to General Assembly, chosen by God through the voice of the church, to guide us in the way of Jesus Christ?” (emphasis added)
The same question, in slightly different forms, appears when we call a new pastor or install elders and deacons. In each case, those who have not yet had a hand in the choice now affirm that the choice is God’s, as voiced by the Body of Christ.
The phrase, it occurs to me, offers a twofold corrective.
First, the affirmation warns each of us against pursuing God’s will alone. God’s choice is expressed through the voice of the body.
This understanding often startles new candidates for ministry. In response to “God is calling me to ministry,” many people hear for the first time the Committee on Preparation for Ministry say, “Perhaps. We’ll see.” We may hear God’s call individually, but the church confirms it corporately.
God’s call may not even begin with the individual. One of my seminary professors described his call beginning at sixteen when the elders cornered him and said, “God has called you to be a pastor.” When he replied, “I haven’t heard God calling me,” they said, “That’s okay; we have.” Decades later, he still was a pastor. What’s more, he was preparing us to be pastors.
Imagine what such a doctrine of discernment might mean for a typical Church Officer Nominating Committee. Often identifying church leaders feels like a stressed-out struggle to find too few people for too many tasks. But what if the newly called elders and deacons really are chosen by God through the voice of the congregation for the work they are about to begin? Suddenly the responsibility takes on a very different light.
Second, and more fundamentally, the affirmation cautions us against believing in our own agency. God chooses; we don’t. Presbyterian procedures often resemble secular practices so deeply that we forget the difference. On the surface, how we elect General Assembly commissioners looks no different from how we elect board members of a homeowners’ association. How we establish policy looks like how the State Assembly writes law, just less complicated. And how we resolve disputes is similar enough to the secular courts that lawyers often get confused when the procedures diverge.
But secular processes do not expect God to be present. The words of installation, by contrast, remind us that our choices do not belong to us. “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the LORD’s alone” (Proverbs 16:33). Within the church’s work, God is guiding our decisions in ways that we may only understand much later.
Sometimes I struggle to believe that our tangled decisions genuinely display the hand of God. And perhaps I am right to hesitate. We are fretful creatures. In our fears and haste, do we miss God’s plan (see Psalm 37:8)?
But Presbyterians also declare that God is sovereign over all we do, working all things together for God’s glory and for our eternal joy. God uses the leaders we elect, even when we elect them for the wrong reasons. Even if our successors decide later that we were downright wrong, God will work through the choices we make together. At the very least, God’s will won’t be thwarted by our foolishness.
Presbyterian decision-making is rarely pretty, sometimes quarrelsome, repeatedly disappointing, and often painfully slow. But we work with the humble understanding that when we are gathered, Christ is present and the Spirit is at work for our good.
When we keep God’s sovereignty in perspective, we can relax and trust. And, remarkably enough, when we trust, we choose more faithfully.