Decision Making in the Church SHARE
Robert’s Rules of Order have long been a standard for Baptists in congregation led churches. The original book was published in 1876 by General Henry M. Robert; but ultimately is drawn from hundreds of years of parliamentary procedure put in practice by governments throughout western civilization. The foundation of these rules has continued to prove to be the difference between societies of freedom and individual equality to those under the control of oppressive regime and social hierarchy.
The book is divided into two parts. The first examines in 11 articles the rules that should guide the formal process of setting forth motions, guide debates, administer votes, and the proper recording of meeting proceedings. The second part examines the authority of organizational policy in regard to the rights of individuals as protected by law. In the 1951 edition that was reviewed, the remaining pages contain a lesson plan for studying the parliamentary law in greater detail through a topical framework. The book is admittedly identified as a reference work. The introduction to this lesson plan also acknowledges that “no amount of theoretical knowledge without practice will make a person a good practical parliamentarian.”1 It is therefore recommended to use the book along with observed practice drills in a group setting. The main function of the book and the goal of the student is to know “how to find the correct ruling on any point that may arise.”2
The strengths of this book are in its careful study and scrupulous application to organizational polity. The rules are meant to provide a fair playing field and a way to establish unity of purpose and direction. For groups of any size, this standard is of vital necessity. The book is clearly written from a lifetime of experience and study and the continued revision that comes from contextual parliamentary practice. It is thorough without being overly specific. From a church perspective, it is encouraging to know that this book was originally written as a solution after Robert “presided over a turbulent meeting of his church.”3 Using his education and experience as a military leader he was able to appropriately translate procedure for the potentially religious environment.
However, the religious environment is not always so tame as to be hedged in by procedural guidelines developed in the realms of law and business. Coming from my own experience in the local church business meetings, items of a religious nature do not always translate well into motions or votes. When someone feels led in a matter of faith and seeks to make this matter known in the form of a motion, the rules tend to inhibit the full explanation and reception of these views. The rules do give an opportunity for these matters to be voiced, but they also make these matters vulnerable to opposition. Essentially, the rules level the playing field not just between individuals or committees but also between convictions of faith and volatile emotions. I have also experienced specific scenarios where certain parties used their more in-depth knowledge of the rules (and or the lack in knowledge of the other parties) to leverage a motion and potentially stack a vote in their favor. The true Biblical nature of a church does not align with the structure of business or of civil government. They may have similarities, but each of these are distinct in nature. Robert does acknowledge this, but his unread followers often do not.
Robert’s Rules are seemingly held up as a guard against infallibility, especially in local Baptist churches. Essentially, the use and application of the rules gives an edge to those members who have more knowledge and experience. Granted, these individuals are often the ones with developed leadership and a more thorough understanding of faith, it is not always the case. The Bible is full of examples of the unlikely and unworthy being used by God to further His purposes on the earth. While it is surely within the power of God to use a congregational framework based on Robert’s Rules, this filter and leveling of the field give ample opportunity for the free will of sinful humanity to intervene wherever God allows and often causes the work of the church to be more focused on unraveling disagreements within than bringing peace and truth to those without. Robert’s Rules of Order should never be allowed as a substitute for the leading of the Holy Spirit through the testimony of Scripture or through those called to His service.
- Henry M. Robert, Robert’s Rules of Order, 75th Anniversary ed. (Chicago, Ill: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1951), 305.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Henry Martyn Robert,” Encyclopædia Britannica, February 12, 2014, , accessed March 22, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Martyn-Robert.
Rev. Josiah Antill
Book Review #2 of
Robert’s Rules of Order
By Henry M. Robert
Submitted to Dr. David M. Helms
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of
DIVI 8040 The Life and Work of the Minister
Campbell University Divinity School
Buies Creek, North Carolina