What is the difference between the governing bodies and councils?
Simply put, governing bodies decide where as councils discern. While the difference may seem subtle, the implications are huge.
The lens through which sessions, presbyteries, synods, and General Assemblies primarily saw themselves is as governing bodies. That is, bodies that are elected to decide things about the life of the church. While the decision making process is certainly necessary, that is not the only nor the main reason why God sets elders (both ruling and teaching elders) apart for the work of the church.
In primarily looking at ourselves as governing bodies, we have lost the element of listening and discerning the direction of the Holy Spirit.
The way most of our church meetings are set up is to enable decision making. It's all about Robert's Rules. We talk a good talk about praying and listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit. But in reality, we pray to open and end meetings, and spend the rest of the time doing a lot of talking and deciding. And because the meetings are set up around Robert's Rules, the only way the church has known how to relate with one another is in an oppositional way.
Robert's Rules only allow for people to be "for" or "against" each other's positions. While Robert's Rules are helpful for making decisions, perhaps it has not been the healthiest way to view one another in the life of the church.
Councils view their primary role as that of listening and discerning. God sets apart ruling and teaching elders so that they can hear and discern God's leading for the life of the church.
This has huge implications for our councils. We need to re-think how and why we meet. If we are to truly listen and discern God's guidance, we ought to spend time together as councils in prayer, listening, and discerning. Prayer, listening to one another, and most importantly listening for God's guidance has to become one of the primary reasons for our gathering. Once we have listened and discerned God's voice, then we can proceed to act.
One of the things I tell our session is that God doesn't set apart elders to make sure we have toilet paper at church. While having toilet paper is very important, we don't need elders who have been set apart to ensure the presence of toilet paper at church.
Rather, elders have been set apart primarily to listen and discern God's direction for the life of the church. If the sessions, presbyteries, and General Assemblies don't do this work of listening and discerning, who else in the life of the church is called to do that? It is the council's primary role to listen and discern the leading of the Holy Spirit and then to communicate that clearly to the church.
I can't think of a better time than now - where the church is facing unprecedented change and challenges - for the leaders of the church to gather to listen and discern God's voice in the midst of the storm.
God is at work. It is no accident that we have been given the nFoG.
Councils. Let us listen and discern God's guidance for our church for such a time as this.