Understanding Decision Making
We must trust in God’s providence as we prayerfully make decisions in our churches.
Decision-making is multi-dimensional. My first article outlined the tension between God’s revealed will and his secret will. The decisions we make must always be taken with that tension in mind.
But how can we categorise the decisions we have to make? Let’s take three areas of decisions and one big encouragement.
Amidst conflicting claims from various sources of authority, the apostles set out both who is our ultimate authority, and a clear right/wrong framework for action. Many of the moral decisions we have to make are like this and call for courageous obedience instead of compromising hesitancy or cowardly avoidance (Joshua 24:14-28, esp. v 15; 1 Corinthians 5:1-8).
Sometimes right/wrong decisions are more subtle.
A good example is Acts 6:2. The church needed to feed vulnerable widows with daily food, as well as feed people with the words of life. The trouble was that neither was being done well. The leaders then established that it was their primary responsibility to bring the Word and others could be entrusted with the Deed, so that overall the church did both better. They made it clear that it would not be right to neglect either, in order to achieve only one.
As a Christian community, they had to do both, but within that, they needed to concentrate on that which they were called and gifted for.
But a lot of the decisions we make personally and lead the church to make corporately, are not simple black/white moral ones. It isn't just a case of obedience/disobedience. A huge number involve seeking to pursue what is wise. Wisdom involves ideas such as ‘good, better, best’, not just, ‘This is a sin to avoid’ or, ‘That is a command to obey’.
In Acts 15: 36-41, we find an example of two godly leaders seriously disagreeing in Paul and Barnabas. It would be unfair to characterise it as a bust-up, for that might imply someone is sinning. But the text is more careful, ‘Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him.’ (v37).
Note, Paul did not accuse Barnabas of sinning, disobeying him as an apostle (or senior leader), being insubordinate, or lacking respect for authority. It was just that Paul realised the stakes were so high. Paul knew from experience that testing hardships would likely come their way and he wasn't wrong (Acts 16:23-24). They had such a strong difference of opinion that they parted company. I do not think we should read, ‘Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus’ as code for, ‘He went off in a huff’, but it's Luke's factual report of what happened.
Yet, as you know, Barnabas’ investment in his cousin Mark in a less threatening environment (Cyprus was his home island - see Acts 4:36) paid off. Paul warmly appreciates him later (Colossians 4:10, 2 Timothy 4:11), and he did give us the gospel of Mark!
The lesson for us? Wisdom calls are not easy, and even the godliest people might see things differently.
Each person’s evaluating of the many factors that blend into what seems wise or unwise, will vary considerably due to past experience, personality traits, understanding of competing priorities, and so forth. Remember, this isn't about the calling out of sin. Disagreement, even sharp disagreement (Acts 15:38) doesn't mean the other person is disobeying the (revealed) will of God or is acting out of cowardice, lack of faith or strong-mindedness.
Notice that Paul does not say to Barnabas, ‘You aren't properly reading the signs of God’s will for us.’ That would be to trespass into God’s secret will and would be a category error in his thinking. Rather both are trying to grapple with how the revealed will (‘Go and take the gospel…’) was to be worked out as they moved on into an unknown, but possibly threatening future.
There is room for sincere differences of opinion in things like this.
This is ‘the preference option’ in our decision making. Far too many disputes in church life are really about what some strongly like, which others strongly dislike.
It's okay to have strong preferences! The trouble comes when we confuse categories and think of my likes as ‘right’, and what I dislike as ‘wrong’. Added to that, even if preference is acknowledged as a factor influencing someone, it often comes linked into an argument with dire warnings about ‘slippery slopes’ and the beginning of ‘dangerous trends’. Such arguments are difficult to combat – anything taken too far becomes a problem.
An unusual example is 1 Corinthians 16:12. Paul strongly urged Apollos to go with the other brothers (ie. his very strong preference was communicated to him). But, ‘Apollos was quite unwilling to go now’. Left with that comment you might infer that Paul was rebuking Apollos, or having a disagreement with him, as he did with Barnabas. But what comes next is intriguing, ‘but he will go when he has the opportunity’.
It's as if Paul recognises Apollos’ decision for what it is – not stubbornness, let alone disobedience, but a preference choice that Paul respects. Life has many of these kinds of decisions. The trouble is that strong-minded people struggle to respect others’ preferences and can always make it sound as if some major issue of principle is at stake so that they get their own way.
If we are not very careful, manipulation of others can easily take place, especially in this type of decision-making.
Trust God’s kind providence
Now let’s consider this big encouragement.
Without God’s providence, we could be paralysed into an unwillingness to make any positive decision. Passivity can take over, situations deteriorate, and others will inevitably step into the leadership vacuum that's created.
Let's look at examples of God’s people trusting in his kind providence.
A New Testament example
James 4:13-16 tells us we are to make our plans (v15), but always to depend on the overruling plan and will of God. Our forefathers, in discussing God’s plan for all things, made a distinction between what God permitted (eg. Matthew 19:8), what he intended for his good purposes from other’s evil intentions (eg. Genesis 50:19-20; Acts 2:23), and his positive decree to defeat evil (eg. Hebrews 10:5-7).
There is so much mystery here and, as we don't have a revelation into the details of the twists and turns of providence, we have to learn to trust the Lord completely.
An Old Testament example
A stand out example of this was when the three believers were threatened with a fiery furnace (Daniel 3:15-17). ‘The God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not… we will not serve your gods…’.
They demonstrate both their faith, and the limits of their knowledge, ‘We are sure our God can, and he may - but we don't know if that is his particular will, for he hasn't revealed that to us. But we will trust him whatever.’
Heroes of Faith
History is full of heroes of faith who have trusted God, and he has delivered them. For that was his good pleasure and will. But it is also full of heroes of faith who trust him and he has not willed an immediate deliverance. Yet he is still glorified as the trustworthy one (Job 13:15).
Hebrews 11 is not a list changing halfway through v35 from encouragements to warnings; from heroes to villains: the successful and then the failures. Trusting God is the key thing, whether he wills a miraculous deliverance or not.
Praying our decisions
And so prayer has to be central in our decision-making. See how often, as Paul seeks to obey the command to evangelise, he asks for prayer. In Ephesians 6:19-20, he asks that God would strengthen his inner self. He also prays for his outward circumstances to be changed as an ambassador in chains.
Not knowing the secret will of God does not mean we are fatalists. We can pray and who knows how God may marvellously answer? In this, we see the classic tension between the responsibility of people and the sovereignty of God.
How much are you asking that your decisions will be full of courage, wisdom and grace so that he may be honoured? When we do, the Scriptures encourage us to expect great things from God (Acts 13:1-3).
So, to summarise, the kinds of decisions you are making need careful consideration. You may take a very different approach depending on that assessment. Right/wrong decisions may need a strong voice and a forthright tone; wise/unwise may need a sensitive tone; and preferences may need a self-sacrificing voice. In everything, we must prayerfully make our decisions, and then entrust ourselves to God.
He will be glorified by those who believe his promises and seek to obey his revealed will, whatever the providential outcomes are.