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Ordained Servant Online

Remembering Robert

Eutychus II

Readers of this journal are perhaps aware that there is disagreement within our little corner of the Reformed world about the nature and extent of natural law. Whatever side one takes, there is one aspect of the "light of nature" to which we all ought eagerly to express our enthusiasm: Robert's Rules of Order. Oh, how love I these rules!

And why not? What General Assembly commissioner has not experienced the despair of sinking into the quicksand of corporate confusion, only to have the body rescued by a crack parliamentarian who knew his Robert's Rules? Just imagine if all of the dilemmas in our lives could vanish by a two-thirds motion to "postpone indefinitely!" Or that our mistakes could be erased by pronouncing a Mulligan and doing it over—simply by moving to reconsider!

Students of American Presbyterian history may recall that 1837 is not considered our finest year. After all, it witnessed the painful Old School-New School division. Still, 1837 yielded one thing worth celebrating—in that same year Henry Martyn Robert was born. Henry was graduated from West Point and eventually became a Brigadier General in the United States Army. But he would truly become famous for penning his eponymous rules.

Come to think of it, that may explain why the Presbyterian division took place. Mr. Robert (a Baptist, actually) wasn't prepared to rescue the Presbyterians from their parliamentary morass. If there had been a timely point of order or a motion to amend, perhaps the split may never have occurred.

Of course, the experienced OP officer knows that we employ a subtly revised version of these rules. For the uninitiated, this includes one important asterisk. Orthodox Presbyterians frown upon the parliamentary device of ending debate by "calling the question," which brings a pending motion to an immediate vote, provided that two-thirds of the body agrees.

This motion routinely goes down to overwhelming defeat, because we have come to appreciate the value of genuine deliberation. Our proof text is Acts 15:7 ("after there had been much debate," emphasis added). I grant that extensive discussion on a pending motion is often lampooned. As one cynic described it: "everything has been said, but not everybody has said it." I suspect that cynic is now in the PCA. (Don't argue with me here—the motion is not debatable.)

Let me take this opportunity to introduce another revision to our beloved rules. We need to exercise greater restraint in recording negative votes. A wise minister once suggested that we should all imagine that we each are allocated two of those votes in our entire parliamentary careers. Think about that. It is fewer than time-outs per football half. So spend your quota wisely.

Do I get an amen? Better yet, can I call for division?

Ordained Servant, December 2009.

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