“Where should I put Robert’s Rules of Order? On which shelf does it belong?” When I was recently organizing all my books, my trusty library assistants (my father and my son) asked me this question. It is not an easy one to answer. So, where would you put it?
The options for a pastor’s library include several categories. The top of the list is Biblical Studies. Does it make sense to put Robert’s Rules on the “Old Testament” shelf? How about the “New Testament” shelf? You won’t find “Robert” anywhere in the Bible. Yet you will find the word “rule” and its cognates a total of 250 times in the Bible (NKJV). The word “order” shows up 91 times (including its cognates, or related words, such as “ordered”).
Aside from the basic fact that some of the words in the title of Robert’s Rules of Order are used in the Holy Bible, we might be surprised at how thoroughly the themes that led to the creation of Robert’s Rules are actually grounded in God’s Word.
For example, you could slip the book between the commentaries on Exodus on the Old Testament shelf. In Exodus 18, we read about Moses’ overwhelming job as the sole judge and ruler of the millions of Israelites whom God had rescued from slavery in Egypt. While they traveled through the wilderness, who would help solve the troubles that inevitably came between brothers and sisters and neighbors in that hot and long journey of forty years? Moses. After his father-in-law, Jethro, watched Moses spend an entire day, from morning until evening (Ex. 18:13), we read that Jethro advised: 17 The thing that you do is not good. 18 Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. 19 Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you. Jethro went on to describe an organizational structure which God authorized for Israel – an entire system of lower judges, courts of appeals, and finally a supreme court (which at that time was Moses). The entire concept of order is not novel to Robert’s Rules, then. We see it among God’s people in the beginnings of their existence as a separate nation.
If you want, you could also move Robert’s Rules a few books to the left. Even before Exodus, we see the foundations of divine order and structure revealed in Genesis. Genesis 1:1-2 teach us many important eternal truths. One truth taught there, which is often overlooked, is that God is a God of order. He Himself organizes and structures the universe out of the chaos and unformed mass of darkness and emptiness that lay in front of Him. As we continue to read through Genesis 1, we see that God is so orderly that He even organizes His miracle of creation! On the one hand, we know God is Almighty and can do what He wants, how He wants. Yet we also know that what He wants is also what is wise and holy and in perfect harmony with His perfect will and character. God is not arbitrary. When God looked at the universe, He didn’t just splash paint on the canvas to see how it would turn out. Since most of the blues went to the top, He called that the sky, and since the greens and browns ran to the bottom, He called that the earth and grass.
What we actually read, is that God was very orderly in how and when He created the universe. He didn’t create birds on the second day. Where would they fly? He first created the various sections of the universe and of the planet, then He populated those areas with the kind of creatures which He specially designed to live, fly, breath, and swim there.
This God of Order then created the crown of His creation: humans, made in God’s own image and likeness. God was not done with order. Now, in His wise providence, He includes Adam (and all his descendants—like you and me) in the process of ordering and maintaining structure in a world which was eventually plunged into the chaos and disorder of sin. We are expected to have dominion over the fish and birds, and every creature, ruling it for God’s glory (Genesis 1:26-28). In Genesis 2, God tells Adam to order and organize that world by tending the Garden of Eden. As part of Adam’s obedience to his divine calling, he named the animals.
What does this have to do with rules for order when a bunch of people have a meeting? God is a God of order, and has created men and women that way, from the beginning. He also expects us to bring order to our world and environment, yet God has not given us a detailed by-law or set of constitutional amendments to follow. He gave Adam a brain, sanctified common sense, and set him free to name the animals. God gave Moses a wise father-in-law to advise him how to survive the wilderness wanderings without a massive civil war. The same God has given us these foundational principles, some clear applications of those principles in Scripture and history, and then the freedom to apply them in more detail as is wise and fitting throughout time.
Of course, you could also put Robert’s Rules on the New Testament shelf. Law and order is not just an “Old Testament” sort of thing, despite what many people may want to believe and teach. In the New Testament period, the age of freedom and liberty, God tells His Church that the freedom of the gospel means we must do all things decently and in order. This is very counter-cultural. It is also very true. Listen to the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the Early Church on how to conduct their church services in the freedom of Jesus: How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. . . . For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. . . . Let all things be done decently and in order. (1 Corinthians 14:26, 33, 40)
Quite surprisingly, then, Robert’s Rules of Order could definitely be put on the Biblical Studies shelf as a specific set of applications of both Old and New Testament Scriptures.
This could be an option as well. The original author, Henry Martyn Robert (1837-1923), served in the U.S. Army as an engineering officer and reached the rank of Brigadier General. He was called upon to lead meetings both in his professional career as well as in civic clubs and church meetings. He applied these rules of order to church meetings, which would make them a piece of church history.
Throughout church history some of the greatest controversies have arisen as a result of the use and/or abuse of parliamentary procedure. Every one of our local church constitutions describes in detail what the name of our church shall be, how many officers we have, how they are elected, how one becomes a member, and the duties of members and officers, etc. Why did your church approve the specific articles which are in your constitution? It is because of your local church history, as well as the broader centuries of church history.
Consider these examples from our own church history in the RCUS. In 1741 Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf moved to America, leading a religious group called the Moravians. The first sermon Zinzendorf preached in America was not in a Moravian church, but in the RCUS church at Germantown, PA. Zinzendorf wanted to unite all the Germans living in America into one denomination. They could be Lutheran or Reformed, but they would definitely be sympathetic to the Moravian perspective on the Bible and they would believe that Christians can become perfect in this life, without sin. When our Reformed forefathers organized into a Coetus in 1747, all the ministers had to subscribe to the Reformed creeds (the Three Forms of Unity). Some would not, because they had been influenced by the Moravians and so they rejected Heidelberg Catechism #80 and #114 (among other Biblical doctrines). The “good order” of the Church helped to preserve the unity of the church and keep ministers faithful to the Bible and to their promise to teach the Scriptures accurately to the Reformed congregation.
Another example, from the same time period, is found in the first Constitution for a RCUS congregation. Authored in 1725 by Rev. John Philip Boehm, it declared that pastors must actually preach in their congregations each week, unless necessity required their absence. Why would such a rule be necessary? Where else would a pastor be on Sunday morning? When we study the first few decades of the life of the German Reformed in America, we see that while they had dozens of congregations there were only a handful of pastors. Even with this extreme shortage, a few of those pastors abruptly left their congregations to move far away. Rev. Boehm was heartbroken for the Christians left behind, and wrote in a letter that they had been abandoned by their pastors. The pastors (and the rest of the Consistory) in these situations did not provide for the sheep who were in the pews, still needing to be fed the Word of God each week. So, this rule was put in writing, and maintained in future versions of the Constitutions used in the RCUS of that time period.
Another appropriate shelf to place Robert’s Rules of Order is the Systematic Theology shelf. One of the main sections of systematic theology is the Doctrine of the Church (Ecclesiology). When pastors and elders gather at Classis and Synod meetings, when they operate within their committees, and when local Consistories make decisions and work through issues—how should they make these decisions? Who should set the agenda? Who speaks first? Is there a right to appeal? Which level of authority has ‘first dibs’ on the case at hand, and which body is the “higher court” of appeal? These are matters of the Doctrine of the Church. Some people have eliminated most of these levels and put power in the hands of a bishop or Pope. Others have wiped out layers of appeal that are any higher than the local church members at the congregational level. The ‘third way,’ taken by the vast majority of Reformation churches (including the RCUS), is to have a form of church government called presbyterian (rule by elder). In spite of these different views, one thing is constant in all these ways people view the doctrine of the Church. Rules of Order are necessary, and need to be created in a way that faithfully applies the principles of Bible Doctrine revealed in Scripture (what you would call “Systematic Theology”).
Pastoral Ministry – Counseling?
Would you use Robert’s Rules in counseling? As a church member, what would you think if you came to the pastor’s office for marriage advice and he turned to Robert’s Rules? Think a moment about the counseling experience. A Christian comes for counsel to find answers from God’s Word to certain problems in his or her life. Perhaps there is a conflict with others. Perhaps an addiction has grabbed hold. Perhaps the Christian is a victim of the abuse and pride of another. Jesus told us that the way to solve any conflict between two Christians is to follow the process he outlines in Matthew 18. He also told us that the general outlook and attitude of a Christian is to have the mind of Christ. That Christ-like mind looks out not for its own interests, but for the interests of others (Philippians 2:1-5).
Much of Robert’s Rules and the constitutions of our congregations and denomination deal with these very same themes. I know of a few cases in recent years where counseling was necessary because the church leaders or two church members did not follow the proper order Jesus prescribed in Matthew 18. I know of another case where Biblical counseling was avoided because a potential controversy was resolved peacefully in a congregation due to the process of following Matthew 18. How were those verses of Jesus followed in detail? By the specific applications found in our Constitution on handling complaints and appeals.
Because pride is the sinful inclination of all of us, we need to be checked in how we discuss ideas with others. Each side gets a fair amount of time, and even those in the minority can still express their views and register their disagreement on the record in a constructive and submissive way. Or consider the very specific motion called “Motion to Reconsider.” How is that orderly? Shouldn’t we submit to the 51% majority? Yes, we do need to submit (without bitterness). Yet, the existence of the option to “Reconsider” is actually both orderly and godly. It acknowledges that the majority may have won the vote, but may NOT NECESSARILY be on the Lord’s side! Because of pride, because of power plays and emotional tactics during debate, or perhaps because of a lack of accurate information or Biblical thought, a motion to reconsider may be in order. Christians understand our total depravity, and the need for a total humility when it comes to making decisions. A proper use of Robert’s Rules will help preserve that humility, and thus show a Christian love and compassion for all the sheep – which is a matter of pastoral ministry that helps avoid crisis counseling down the road.
Robert’s Rules, or any ‘rules of order’, are never meant to encourage a legalism or a strict manipulation of others so that the person with the best grasp of the rules can intimidate others or limit their participation. That is why chairmen/presidents of our church assemblies will often give help to the church members who are not quite sure what kind of motion to make, but can describe their intended plan of action for the debate at hand.
So, on which shelf did I put Robert’s Rules of Order? Ultimately, it matters little which shelf, as long as it is not permanently shelved. Since God desires all things to be done decently and in order, I had better brush up on these matters so that I won’t be led astray by an unruly heart and my feelings. Instead, I think I will keep the rules of order close at hand. See you at Classis and Synod!
(By the way, you can access the RCUS Rules of Order at www.rcus.org. These are the adapted version of Robert’s Rules which govern our church meetings)
Rev. Kyle Sorensen