Q&A: Was It ‘Legal’ to Cast Lots Rather Than Vote for a New Deacon?

Our church bylaws state that members of our board of deacons are to be elected

Our church bylaws state that members of our board of deacons are to be elected at our annual membership meetings by majority vote for three-year terms. At our last membership meeting there was one vacancy to fill. We use a nominating committee that presented three nominees to the membership. There were several ballots, with no candidate receiving a majority vote. The deadlock persisted for 15 ballots. It was getting late and members were starting to leave. Our senior pastor, who was chairing the meeting, suggested that the nominee be selected by drawing lots. This suggestion was approved by unanimous consent, and thereafter the new deacon was selected in this manner. In the days following the meeting, some members began expressing doubts regarding the legal validity of this manner of selection, due to the fact that it is not mentioned in our bylaws and has never been used before. Was this a legal way to break the deadlock and elect a new deacon?
I have known of churches that have selected officers or directors by drawing lots, and this often is based on two biblical precedents. First are the Urim and Thummim that were used by Israel’s high priest to discern God’s will. The Bible does not clarify what these objects were, but many scholars point to 1 Samuel 14:41 as evidence that they were akin to casting or drawing lots: “Then Saul prayed to the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Why have you not answered your servant today? If the fault is in me or my son Jonathan, respond with Urim, but if the men of Israel are at fault, respond with Thummim.’ Jonathan and Saul were taken by lot, and the men were cleared” (NIV).
Another biblical reference to discerning God’s will by drawing or casting lots is more direct. Acts 1:21-26 provides the following account of the selection of a replacement for Jesus’ disciple, Judas (quoting from the NIV):

“Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

Support for drawing lots as a means of selecting a candidate for office finds support not only in Scripture, but also in Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (11th ed.). Section 23 of Robert’s Rules allows for the suspension of procedural rules, including a requirement for a majority vote, by unanimous consent. Further, no objection or point of order was raised by any member prior to the selection of the deacon by the casting of lots. Section 23 further specifies that “points of order regarding the conduct of a vote must be raised immediately following the announcement of the voting result.” Similarly, section 45 states:

After the result of a vote has been announced, members can still propose or demand certain actions that may change the result. A member may raise a point of order regarding the conduct of the vote … or move to retake the vote under another method … . If any of these actions is to apply to a vote after the result has been announced, it must be taken immediately after the chair’s announcement, before any debate or business has intervened. For example, it is too late to take these actions after any member has been recognized and begun to speak in debate.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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