The Consensus Principle

by Gary Corwin

The challenges to organizational unity are perhaps as great today as they have ever been.

The operational ethos by which many mission agencies have carried on their endeavors through the years may be described as the consensus principle. As voluntary organizations, consensus is the glue that holds them together. The history of this principle has been largely as a rarely spoken, but generally understood, expression of the way members believed things should function. It has reflected a global understanding of what it means to be an evangelical follower of Jesus Christ, and how to function well together as his followers. But it has also been formalized in policy at various times when agency leadership concluded that the issues in contention were serious enough to threaten unity and effectiveness. Most simply, the principle may be defined as “keeping the main thing the main thing,” and not becoming sidetracked by secondary matters. This includes granting colleagues liberty and respect concerning secondary matters over which there may be disagreement, but it also includes agreeing not to push sincerely-held views on secondary matters if doing so disrupts unity and effectiveness in achieving shared primary goals.

Fifty years ago, the matters which most threatened unity and effectiveness in the agencies were theological (e.g., speaking in tongues, modes and timing of baptism, and forms of church government). Ethical issues surrounding the use of alcohol and tobacco, for example, also existed, but were almost universally seen as cultural and needing to be handled on a case-by-case basis by the sending and receiving offices, with American offices generally being among the strictest. Today, the most common challenges tend to be ethical, although some critically important theological issues have also emerged. The ethical issues tend to be as varied as the multitude of cultures that agency membership represents (e.g., the sanctity of life, biblical standards for appropriate marriage and divorce, showing appropriate respect for parents, adequately caring for the poor, and sexual purity). The more recent theological flashpoints tend to revisit matters of ancient orthodoxy (e.g., understandings concerning the eternal destiny of the lost or the fate of those who have never heard the gospel). Although both kinds of issues tend to be overlaid with an additional layer of complexity, they are also related to the larger-than-usual generational divide that correlates significantly with modern vs. post-modern ways of viewing the world, relationships, and the outworking of our faith. The challenges to organizational unity are perhaps as great today as they have ever been.

How should a mission agency respond? There are at least three primary steps that must be taken: (1) there must be a reaffirmation of that which is non-negotiable—“the main thing,” (2) agencies must update and clarify areas they do not consider part of the main thing (however important they may be to the personal and individual commitments of stakeholders), and (3) agencies must clearly articulate the practical functional steps and guiding principles that will be pursued to keep the main thing the main thing, and to live and function respectfully with one another with regard to secondary matters of belief and practice.

The Bible and the history of evangelical faith provide the substance of that which should be the main thing for any agency that wants to be called evangelical. This is not to say there are not also differences in doctrine and practice that distinguish evangelical mission agencies, but that there is a core of doctrine and practice that defines evangelical. Put most simply, it includes belief in salvation by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ, and the Bible as the very word of God and the final authority in all matters of faith and practice.

It is in the next two areas, however, that the great challenge lies. How does an agency know with certainty the ethical and other issues that will be divisive? How does it manage its own functioning to achieve its purposes, maximize entrepreneurial freedom on the part of its members, maintain unity, and minimize confusion on the part of all the ministry stakeholders involved? The answers are not easy.

Below are a few suggestions that may constitute at least a starting point for more concrete and agency-specific answers to these important questions. Agencies must (1) define with some clarity what the flashpoints for divisiveness are (this will require some attentive listening and survey work), (2) articulate clearly the boundaries of the “main thing” and strengthen resolve in the screening processes, so that the most egregious departures are weeded out before major disruption ensues, and (3) articulate the ground rules for communication regarding potentially divisive matters so that the things over which sincere believers may honestly disagree do not become serious bones of contention between them. This latter one is particularly tricky in an era when so many avenues of communication are so widely available and operating at such high velocity. When newspapers and periodicals were among the few avenues accessible to average citizens to share opinions, it was fairly easy to monitor such communication with a simple directive to run your written drafts by your supervisor before submitting them. Today, in an age in which the internet vehicles for communication are multiplying faster than rabbits, and the audiences have varying degrees of controlled access, the challenge for the agency is greatly increased. Lord, have mercy.


Gary Corwin  is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of Serving in Mission (SIM).

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.



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