When the Vote Doesn’t Go Our Way

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, November 12, 2020

Four years ago, half of our country was overjoyed at the presidential election outcome, while the other half reeled in dismay. In those days I heard some people declare, “He will never be my president.” Last week the tables turned – those who rejoiced four years ago are distraught today, while those who were dejected four years ago are now elated. Once again, I hear people saying, “He will never be my president.” The shoe is just on the other foot.

Neither Jesus nor the early Christian community denied the emperor’s claims on them. Jesus supported paying the emperor’s tax. 1 Timothy urged the church to pray for the emperor.

“Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” This terse set of apostolic directives inextricably links our lives as God’s people to our lives as earthly citizens, even when we live under abhorrent rulers. Some of the emperors of that time were among the most corrupt and cruel leaders in history, including the infamous Caligula, Nero, and Domitian. For the New Testament community, tax and prayer support for the emperor had nothing to do with whether they sympathized with him.

Presbyterian polity is clear about how to handle disagreements we may have with leaders and councils. Much of the Book of Order deals with disputes and discipline. Apparently, Presbyterians are innately prone to fight rather than to yield – thus the need for copious counsel about handling discord. Standing tall for truth (as we see it) may seem honorable to us in the moment, but contentiousness never produces a righteous harvest.

Our Book of Order is constantly being updated as the church’s needs and circumstances change. Yet historic anchors for our polity have remained embedded in it for centuries. One such cornerstone is this statement, dating back to 1758:

[W]hen any matter is determined by a majority vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. (Book of Order G-2.0105, note 1)

In other words, if a vote doesn’t go our way, we have three choices:

  • Support it actively
  • Submit to it passively
  • Withdraw from the body peaceably

Schism is not an option.

There is abundant spiritual and practical wisdom in this counsel. We ask presbytery committee members to be mindful of these three pathways when their committee votes. If a committee on which we sit makes a decision with which we disagree, it is unacceptable for us to contest it on the floor of presbytery except through the orderly consideration of a minority report.

Perhaps Presbyterian polity can help us find our way forward in the shadow of a bitterly contested presidential election. If we cannot actively support the election’s outcome, can we at least passively submit to it? When we insist, “He will never be my president,” we may think we are selecting the third option of peaceable withdrawal. Yet are we being truly peaceable?

Perhaps Christians can show the world a better way to handle disagreements than the toxic polarized patterns so dominant in our surrounding culture. Whether or not we are gladdened by the election, will we pray for our leaders as Scriptures direct?

Every public worship service should include prayers for civic authorities – presidents, governors, mayors, and so on. Whether we agree or disagree with them, Scripture admonishes us to hold them in prayer. If such prayer is not part of your congregation’s regular worship, an adjustment is in order.

As I write, the side that has by all counts lost the presidential election refuses to admit defeat, demanding recounts and alleging fraud. We do not know when or even whether it will concede the election. Rather than lock our horns in that battle, I urge that we make it our primary agenda to pray together for our leaders – current and future leaders alike. As I suggested in last week’s letter, joining each other in prayer across lines of political disagreement is a profound witness to the difference Jesus makes in how we live. In so doing, we will continue in the Way of Jesus.

Your fellow-disciple,

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