With common consent

The very first article in the Augsburg Confession begins “Our churches teach with common consent…” This is the translation of these descriptive and normative words: “Ecclesiae magno consensu apud nos docent.” It appears to my untrained eye that “magno consensu” has been translated “with common consent.” This appears to be closely related to our concept of consensus, in English.

There are some interesting points in the Wikipedia article on consensus. For example:

The role of a facilitator in a consensus decision-making process can be much more difficult than that of a simple-majority-party leader if group members distrust each other or unconsciously use manipulative techniques. For a proponent of any given alternative, reducing objections to their plan by eliciting information or preferences from proponents of other alternatives is difficult if people distrust each other. Manipulative opponents can find it advantageous to misrepresent their concerns or refuse to negotiate – an analogous problem to that of strategic voting. For these reasons, consensus processes usually require trust among participants and skilled, patient facilitators able to synthesise the state of a proposal.

An argument against consensus decision is that few motivated facilitators are willing to assign themselves a role guiding processes rather than pursuing and promoting specific measures empowering themselves. Dee Hock said of his role at Visa International – an organisation focused on making profit – that it was something that anyone could do, but almost no one learned to do well, and which was largely thankless. Similar sentiments have been echoed by many “leaders” of organizations committed to peace, ecology, and social justice, which tend to have diffuse benefits, and concentrated costs (an instance of the tragedy of the commons issue in political economy, and of the public good problem).

I think that this paragraph describes the current state of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod:

Some organizations have abandoned consensus decision-making for simple majority, judging that the difficulty of building a process to formally weigh all of these factors is not worth it, and that these factors can be handled better informally (i.e. in offline discussions before and after debate) than through the process of consensus itself, at the risk of creating a de facto clique that makes the real decisions.

In many organizations, with most decisions, this is not a problem. However, in a body of churches seeking to confess doctrine, a policy of simple majority rule can easily, even unintentionally, deny the normative authority of holy scripture. Historically, Lutherans have emphatically condemned majority rule as a determination of doctrine.

The danger is especially real when the body allows a few both to interpret doctrine for them and to make executive decisions on their behalf. In effect, what results is a papistic rule over the body, essentially trumping holy scripture. This may become apparent by a misapplication of the fourth commandment to eliminate the individual’s right to judge doctrine. In other words, “Obey your Papa in all things, because he knows better than you do.” This easily-repeatable situation was recognized by Martin Luther, with a little help from Eck.

The forefathers of the ELS were sensitive to these issues, having experienced certain abuses first-hand. I will try to post links to or portions of our ELS fathers’ writings about pitfalls they recognized.

One thought on “With common consent

  1. Aiming at consensus is worthless – and even sinful – if it is done at the expense of achieving truthful, honest confession.
    The two go together (or at least we’re happy when they do!), but you’ve only got one side of the story here.


    My response:

    I agree that endless delay in the effort to achieve consensus is only harmful. But consider the difference between endless delay (unbounded time) and the time the ELS was given to digest the PCM document before voting on it: May of 2004 through June of 2005 (about a year). I think we can afford to try a bit longer than that. If it had taken 2-5 years, what harm would the delay have caused? Then again, how wonderful it would be to have all the ELS on the same page, even if it had taken 10 years of public study!

    Reaching “great consensus” is indeed hard, but in light of current events, it may be more practically beneficial than forcing a majority vote to adopt our doctrine.

    Confessing the truth is indeed important. In this case, was there something that made confessing more urgent than the well-being of the synod?
    What *is* the other side of the story?

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