Monday, May 25, 2020

Should We Still Cast Lots?

Some Reformed churches sometimes use the lot to help in the election of office-bearers.
For example, in the event of a tie vote, some consistories specify that the lot is to be cast to determine who is to be appointed. This may take the form of writing each name on a separate piece of paper, then picking one blindly. 

Often, the casting of the lot is preceded by a special prayer asking God to show us His choice. A popular Canadian Reformed commentary on the Church Order justifies this practice thus: 

It is the proper course to tell the Lord that we could not come to a conclusion and to ask Him now to point out directly the one who is to be appointed. [ "With Common Consent", W.W.J. van Oene (Winnipeg: Premier Pub, 1990), p.347.1]

 What an honour to be directly chosen by God Himself! and what a humiliation to be divinely rejected.

But does God really speak to us through the lot today?

If so, consider some implications. First, if God's direct guidance is so readily available, why bother voting at all? Why not let God directly choose all the officers? Indeed, for that matter, why not let the lot determine all controversial issues? This would save us much work, particularly at classis and synod, and would guarantee that we reach the right decisions. It would decisively settle even the most contentious disputes, for who can dispute an unambiguous "thus says the Lord"?

Second, in a tie vote both men are presumably deemed equally qualified to serve. Hence the decision of whom to choose is very simple, having no great significance. But why, then, is it that we ask for God's direct guidance only for the simplest, non-controversial questions? Does this reveal a reluctance on our part to request such divine help? Or does it perhaps suggest that, at heart, we are not entirely convinced that God actually does speak directly through the lot?

Chance and Divine Choice
In defense of the lot one might appeal to Proverbs 16:33: "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD". This may seem to imply that the outcome of the lot is to be equated with God's special choice.

Yet we must be careful. Even in Bible times, not every casting of the lot could be considered as a divine oracle. As noted by Prof. J. Douma [ "The Ten Commandments" (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1996], in the Bible it was to be done by direct command of the Lord, or "before the Lord". It was often preceded by prayer. Not the casting of lots itself, but the context in which it occurred, gave it a sacred character.

There are instances where the lot was used by unbelievers, such as in dividing the garments of Jesus (Matt.27:35; Ps.22:18), and in setting the execution time for the Jews (Esther 3:7). In such cases there is nothing to indicate that God approved of the outcome. Yet God did allow a heathen usage of the lot to indicate Jonah's guilt (Jonah 1:7).

The Proverbs text, on the other hand, according to Douma, stresses that nothing is outside God's influence. We use words such as "chance" and "random" to denote our human ignorance of the future result. To our omniscient and omnipotent God, however, nothing is really "random"; everything happens in accordance with His will and plan.

Nevertheless, God's knowledge and, indeed, predetermination of the outcome of the lot does not in itself confer divine approval upon our usage of the lot, or upon our interpretation of its outcome. Hence, unless we can be assured that our casting of the lot does in fact have divine sanction, it is presumptuous for us to claim the outcome to be a direct divine choice.

Biblical Precedence
Thus we ask: does the Bible give any support for our current usage of the lot?

In the Old Testament, God certainly did at times reveal His will through the lot. For example, God explicitly commanded that the lot be used in choosing the scapegoat (Lev.16:8-10), dividing the land (Num.26:55), finding the guilty Achan (Josh.7:14-18), and choosing Saul as king (I Sam.10:21-21). For other matters God gave Israel also the Urim and Thummim, which seems to have been a form of casting lots (see I Sam.14:41). By such means, before a priest, the judgment of the Lord could be enquired (Num.27:21).

In our day, however, we have no explicit commands from God to use the lot, whether in a tie vote or otherwise. Nor are the Urim and Thummim any longer available to us. Hence the application of these Old Testament practices to our day is unwarranted.

Moreover, with the Urim and Thummim it was possible for God not to respond. For example, "and the LORD answered him not by Urim" (I Sam.28:6). Yet, in our usage of the lot, we not only compel God to answer but limit His possible responses to a few very specific options, set by us. For all we know, both candidates might in fact be unacceptable to Him who knows all hearts.

Reference is sometimes to the procedure used to choose the successor of Judas: 
And they appointed two, Joseph...and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, Thou Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen..., And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell on Matthias. (Acts 1:15-26)

To what extent is this event normative for us?

Note, first, that there is no mention of a tie vote here, only the nomination of two men who satisfied the criterion of having accompanied Jesus throughout his entire ministry (Acts 1:21-22). Also, some commentators are of the opinion that this was actually a majority vote rather than a casting of lots. Further, there is no indication that this procedure had divine approval, nor that it prescribes how we, in our day, should choose church officers.

Since the twelve apostles had been personally chosen by Jesus, it may well have been thought fitting that also the replacement for Judas should likewise be divinely selected. That this was a special case is further reinforced by the fact that, somewhat later, the seven deacons (Acts 6) are clearly chosen by the brethren, rather than by casting lots. Moreover, let us not forget that in New Testament times, unlike our own age, God was directly active in a special way.

In summary, I believe it erroneous to think that God, through the casting of the lot, directly indicates His choice from among the alternatives we present. There is no biblical evidence to support the notion that, in our present circumstances, God chooses church officers through the lot, particularly not in a tie vote.

Having said that, I see no objection to using the lot as a means to make an unbiased selection between two equally acceptable options - as long as it is clearly perceived as such, and not mistaken for a divine oracle.

However, given the misconceptions regarding the lot, it is probably better to break a tie vote via some other impartial, unbiased mechanism that offers both men equal probability of being selected. This could be by age, alphabetical order, flipping a coin, or even picking a name out of a hat (just as long as we don't call it "drawing the lot"). As such, it could form part of the normal voting procedure, and should involve no special prayer for God's direct revelation.    

(Adapted from my article "On Casting the Lot", Reformed Polemics Vol.7, No.4 (Oct. 28, 2000): 7-8).

No comments: