On Circulating Petitions

By Lewis Willis

(Author’s Note: The article which follows an article which I wrote for our local bulletin entitled One Moment, Please. It was written for the benefit of the membership of the Brown Street church with which I work. However, it might be of benefit to brethren in other places so I submit it for your consideration.)

Question: Would you preach a sermon sometime or write an article for the One Moment, Please about circulating petitions in the church?

The above question which was given to me concerns an occasional practice within churches throughout the country. I would not attempt to preach a sermon on the subject because the New Testament says nothing about such a procedure and it nowhere suggests the practice to be acceptable. Therefore, I will attempt to answer the question with this brief article.

In the over 20 years that I have been preaching, I have been aware of petitions for various things being circulated in the church. My first thought is, what is the value of such an approach? In my experience, if I were going to rate the value of petitions, I would ascribe to them a value immediately following the valuable practice of armed insurrection in the church! In other words, I don’t think very highly of them. They usually are associated with people in a congregation who are unhappy with some decision that has been ma’ They are usually designed to change that decision by amassing a large enough number of names in favor of the petition’s position to produce a change in congregational action. For instance, more often than not, they concern preachers. Specifically, fired preachers. If the preacher has been fired, his friends might circulate a petition to get him re-hired. About the only value I can see in such a procedure is that the preacher’s ego is built up by knowing he has so many friends. I would observe in passing that most preachers have enough ego already without the members trying to build more for them.

I have never known of members in a congregation circulating a petition asking that we hold more meetings, start a visitation program, ask for longer sermons or such kinds of requests. I have never heard of one that had a noble purpose. If they had such a purpose, they could be announced and everyone would have opportunity to go on record in favor of such profitable activity. They are almost always circulated in secret which, to me, cries out against the wisdom of such a practice. Because the circulating is done in secret, they do not reach all of the members and, consequently, about all that can be said that they accomplish is that they stir up confusion and strife within the church. Sometimes elderships invite this kind of practice in the way in which they handle congregational decision-making. Such elders seldom have a general meeting with the men to seek input from them concerning the church’s program of work. Nor is advice sought about how the church might best accomplish its mission. Those decisions are made by the elders and they may or may not be so much as announced to the congregation. More often than not, such elders leave the impression that the congregation has no right to even discuss their decisions with them. Such a practice by elders could be described as their being lords over the church (1 Pet. 5:3). Elders who conduct business in this way will usually reap the harvest that such a system tends to generate.

Let me just observe in passing, to the credit of the Brown Street elders, I am happy to note that they do not handle this church’s affairs in that way. Yes, they make some general decisions on a regular basis which are announced to the congregation after the decisions have been made. Such is completely within the scope of that which they are authorized to do in their efforts to feed the flock (Acts 20:28). 1 particularly like the wise course of the elders here in regard to “major” matters. In those decisions that radically affect the program of work or that involve spending a considerable amount of money, they have called the men together to get as broad a view from within the congregation as they can. Thus, the course that is adopted is consistent with the wishes of as many as possible. I commend them for their wisdom in following this practice. It has proven to be a peace-making course that results in congregational support for the decisions they have reached. I certainly have seen nothing in their actions that could be called anything but “above board.” I find it totally consistent with the teaching of the Scriptures regarding the function of an eldership and I would advise every eldership to embrace such a practice.

Accordingly, I would suggest that if the elders follow a practice similar to the one just described above, to circulate a petition against the decision that they and the men reached would constitute a rebellion against the rule of the elders (Heb. 13:7,17). Such an action within a church would foment envying, strife, confusion and every evil work (Jas. 3:16).

These thoughts essentially summarize my thinking on the practice and the basis upon which that thinking rests. It is certainly a subject that needs periodic attention within every church that I know anything about. It is foolish to allow the peace and unity of a church to be interrupted by unwise courses of action. The “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” principle is as applicable to this subject as it is to subjects like marriage, home responsibilities, social drinking, etc. Let us always be diligent in working to preserve the kind of spirit of cooperation that is supposed to exist within the church.

Guardian of Truth XXX: 17, p. 526
September 4, 1986