The fact is, disagreement is often a good thing. Not overt division and infighting, but disagreement. I am painfully aware that if I got my way on every stupid and ill thought through idea I ever had, I would either burn out, get the sack or have no church left! I need other people around me to keep me from my own stupidity and, more importantly, from the worst excesses of my sinful heart.
Few of us liked being disagreed with not least because we think we are right about stuff. That is, of course, the nature of believing things. None of us believes what we don’t think to be true. So, obviously, the stuff we think we believe is right. That is, in point of fact, why we believe it!
Some pastors and church leaders really don’t like being disagreed with either. They are, they insist, God’s appointed leader. And, to some degree, that is right. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong. Nor does it mean they are the only one with any spiritual insight into matters.
But some pastors and church leaders so dislike being disagreed with that they create polity and structures to make it very hard for anyone to disagree. Of course, they always welcome ‘feedback’ (except, they often don’t, really) but it is also clear such ‘feedback’ is merely advisory. It is for their information to do with as they will.
They manage to achieve this by formalising a few things that make their decision-making unassailable. First, they appoint elders for the appearance of co-equality and shared leadership, but then the phrase ‘first amongst equals’ gets bandied round a lot and it soon becomes clear that, though there is a group of people called elders, one of them is calling all the shots. In fact, the subtle shift to ‘first amongst equals’ allows them to treat the elders as a subordinate sounding board rather than a co-equal team of people with equal authority and decision-making power. This way, even when people disagree, their dissent merely needs to be noted.
Some go further still with much talk of ‘loyalty’. Except ‘loyalty’ typically gets defined as backing every decision the leader makes, regardless of what you feel about it. Challenging decisions is cast as disloyalty and dissent. It is not a legitimate, worthy of discussion disagreement between equals but a challenge (and a disloyal one at that) to the superior position of the apparent elder-in-charge.
If they are really keen to keep a tight grip on power, the members are similarly left without any authority either. Members’ meetings exist less for involved decision-making purposes and more ‘for information’. Members are simply told what is going to happen, rather than asked any view on what will happen. Members receive no voting power and, far from voting on the colour of the carpet, they aren’t even permitted to have a say over their leaders nor those who are welcome and removed from the fellowship.
Whilst there are other forms of governance that would not see a formal role for the members in the appointment of church officers (elders may appoint elders, for instance), two things bear saying. First, in such systems, there are means of recourse for church members over such appointments, such as to a bishop or presbytery if needs be. But in independent churches, there is no such external authority (hence why most independent churches are congregational). Second, in those other systems, even though elders may appoint elders (for instance), they are nonetheless usually properly considered co-equal. But in a scenario where the ‘first amongst equals’ is considered a higher-level of elder, and elders appoint elders, we are really talking about appointment by one man. Where there is no external authority over the church either, and the members have no involvement in decision-making at all, that is a good setup for avoiding dissent.