Thursday, July 6, 2017

May Women Vote In Church Decisions?

What does the Bible say about the woman's role in the church? Are they allowed to have any positions of authority? Can they vote when a congregational vote is needed or taken? In this short series I will attempt to address these and kindred questions. I will answer these questions as a Baptist who believes in a congregational form of church government and in a church having only two primary offices, that of bishops (elders or pastors) and deacons.

"Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." (Phil. 1: 1)

Like this epistle to the Philippians, the letters addressed to churches by the apostles were addressed to the entire membership, composed of male and female, children and adults. This is important to keep in mind as instructions in those epistles, addressed as they are to the entire assembly, will help to answer our questions about congregational government and women voting.


Some initial observations need to be made at the outset of this short study. First, the question concerning a woman's place in the church must be looked at within the larger context of what the Bible has to say about ecclesiology. By "ecclesiology" we do not mean "the study of churches, especially church building and decoration," given as the first definition in the Oxford dictionary, but meaning rather "Theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church." 

The Greek word "eklesia" is the word translated into "assembly" or "church" in the English NT. Thus "ecclesiology" deals with the science or doctrine of the church, which includes the type of structure and government of the church. The type of church government will determine, to a large degree, the role of women.

A Difficult Topic

This is not an easy subject. This is because the Bible does not detail a church's structure or government. Nevertheless, enough information is given in the NT to support Baptist belief and practice.

Wrote Dr. Al Mohler, president of SBTS in Louisville, Ky. (emphasis mine):

"A particular emphasis upon the nature and structure of the church has been central to the Baptist vision. In other words, ecclesiology is in many ways the chief contribution and distinctive of the Baptists. Sadly, you would not learn that by observing many Baptist congregations. Baptist ecclesiology has been eclipsed by pragmatism and undermined by neglect." (see here)

Of course, Baptists have traditionally been "congregational," or a mix of "congregational" and "Presbyterian" forms. Though Baptists are uniform in affirming 1) that ultimate authority rests with Christ, the head of the church, and 2) that the two chief offices are elders and deacons, and 3) that each member of the church shares responsibility for the health and work of the church, yet there has been diversity of opinion within that framework respecting ecclesiastical questions. This is certainly true in regard to the role of women and to their being able to vote or participate in congregational decision making. For instance:

1. Some Baptist churches will have only one elder or pastor, while others will have more.

2. Some Baptist churches will have women deacons and some even women elders (though different in authority and function than their male counterparts). But, more on that later.

3. Some Baptist churches allow women to hold lessor offices, such as secretaries, clerks, etc.

4. Some Baptist churches allow women to "speak" in limited ways, while others will not allow them to speak at all.

5.Some Baptist churches allow women to vote when a vote of the congregation is taken, while others do not.

6. Some Baptist churches allow women to do some teaching, while others allow none.

In "Baptist Ecclesiology: A Faithful Application Of New Testament Principles" by Daryl C. Cornett, Assistant Professor of Church History at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary (Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry Vol. 2 No. 1 - Spring 2004) we find some very good information on this topic and on these questions. On page 32, under "Guiding Principles for Church Authority And Organization," Cornett wrote (emphasis mine - see here):

"Instead of examining the typical proof texts from the Bible that Baptist and Presbyterians typically offer to support their tradition, I will submit candidly that I believe that the arguments from both positions tend to rest on implications and not explicit models easily observed. Therefore, I believe it is more helpful to proceed to a principle-based ecclesiology. E. C. Dargan made an astute observation. He wrote, “Our first duty is frankly to consider the difficulties of the subject...It is very hard, if not impossible, to avoid carrying back to the New Testament the ideas of later times, according to the point of view of the investigator.” If an explicit model is not evident in the New Testament, then possibly an acknowledgement of and adherence to key biblical principles concerning the church would be more beneficial and lead us to appreciate the better tradition for all the right reasons."

These are excellent comments that anyone who has looked into the subject to any significant degree will acknowledge as true. I would encourage all to note his words of advice on studying this issue, especially these words - "Our first duty is frankly to consider the difficulties of the subject." It is sad that many do not approach the topic with this degree of honesty.

Wrote Cornett:

"Recent publications evidence an awakening of sorts in Baptist life to this present denominational identity crisis. The specific crisis that has worked to bring about this recent flurry of activity is that more and more Baptist pastors and congregations have either implemented or are currently entertaining the idea of employing elders (ruling or leading) in addition to the traditional offices of pastors and deacons. This has served as the splash of cold water on the face of a theologically slumbering denomination. Baptist pastors and leaders are asking interesting questions about church polity. Many are wondering if an emphasis on Baptist identity is adverse to effective evangelism and church growth. Some are struggling with the historic differences between congregational and presbyterian church polities. Many are sincerely seeking to discern what the New Testament teaches concerning the polity of the local church."

Though Cornett has in view the practice of Baptist churches increasingly adopting a practice where each church is governed by more than one elder, by a plurality of elders, nevertheless his comments are applicable to the practice of allowing women to vote in church conferences along with the male members. Not only have Baptist churches historically differed on the precise type of government respecting a plurality of elders for each church, they have also differed on the practice of women voting. It is an old issue and has been debated for centuries.

Wrote Cornett:

"This essay seeks to address these issues by examining the historical and biblical differences between the Baptist and Presbyterian traditions...the current flirtation of some Baptist pastors and leaders with the elder-rule model. Which model is correct? Or for Baptists, the question is better stated: Which model is more congruent with biblical precedent? Herein lies the dilemma. A major reason that we continue to have disagreement in the area of ecclesiology is because no clear institutional model exists in the New Testament.

Just as there is "no clear institutional model exists in the New Testament" regarding "elder rule," so there are no clear straightforward statements that forbid women the right to vote or express their views when the mind of the church is being determined. There is no scripture that says "women have an equal vote with men when the congregation is voting." Likewise, there is no scripture that says "women may not vote on any matter." What we must do is look at scriptural principles and at inferences. Still, it is my belief, along with many others, that it is scriptural for the sisters to vote with the men when a vote of the general church membership is called for.

Wrote Cornett:

"Baptists over the years have lived by the conviction that congregationalism is not only the best method of church government, but it is the New Testament model."

But, if one allows this to be true (and it is), then the question becomes whether women are to have a voice in the congregation, and if so, what restrictions, if any, are placed upon them.

Wrote Cornett:

"Baptists throughout the generations of their existence have also consistently held to a congregationalism conducted with democratic governance. The Second London Confession prescribed that ministers be selected by “the common suffrage of the church itself.”"

I will have more to say about the Second London Confession and whether it upholds the validity of women voting. Needless to say, the "church" does not consist of only male members and so "the common suffrage of the church" must include the voting of all its members, and this includes women.

Wrote Cornett:

"However, to claim that pastors and deacons are the only valid ecclesiastical positions that can be used, and that democratic rule, with its modern connotation within the local congregation, is explicit in the New Testament is misguided."

Notice the word "explicit." Very little about church government is explicit in the NT. Nevertheless, enough is said to lead us to conclude that it was not against the NT for female members of the church to vote or express their opinions when called for in church conferences.

Wrote Cornett:

"What is evident in the New Testament is the fact that the primitive church was dedicated to the teaching and leadership of the Apostles. It is also clear that various roles within the church were recognized, such as pastor, teacher, deacon, evangelist, prophet and so forth. In addition, other passages describe roles related to persons’ spiritual gifts, resources, and abilities. It is these relationships that are emphasized in the New Testament as a whole rather than any particular form of organization. At this earliest point in the history of the church, it is anachronistic to speak of the church as an institution at all. Christianity was a movement but not yet institutionalized. A community of believers submitted themselves to the Apostles. Over time, institutionalization was inevitable. However, these became largely human constructs determined by many factors other than explicit biblical precedent."

Again, all this ought to lead us to be careful with this subject and not be overly dogmatic. We should seek neither to be too strict or too loose in our views on this subject. We all ought to be able to defend our positions on this topic.

Wrote Cornett:

"The New Testament does not evidence an explicit model for church organization."

That is true. Nevertheless, we are certain that the Baptist manner of church government is in keeping with the teaching of the NT.

In the remaining articles in this series we will look at the arguments for and against the question of women voting. It is my belief that women have the right to vote on matters affecting the church of which they are members and that this in no way violates scripture that forbids them to usurp authority over men.

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