Why are female confessing members not allowed to vote in our churches? I understand that the husband is the head of the household, but what about households where there are only unmarried women or widows? My mother became a widow in her forties and both my sister and I are confessing members in the same church. Despite three memberships, our household does not have any say in church elections. Why is it not one vote per household, rather than one vote per male member?
Rev. Lawrence J. Bilkes suggested answering this question with an article that his father, Rev. Lawrence W. Bilkes wrote a number of years ago. Below is that article:
“Restricting the Vote in the Church to Male Members”
Should the right to vote at ‘congregational meetings’, for example, for office bearers, be restricted to male members? This question is increasingly being asked, also in our churches.
At the outset, it is important to notice how people come to this question. Most of the time, this question is born out of a comparison to how our society allows the vote of women within politics and other social spheres. There the right of the women to vote is supported by the idea of equality and equal rights. Since women have the right to vote in society, some wonder why women cannot do so in the churches. “Is there not an equality between men and women in the churches?” they ask.
The fact that this is the usual startingpoint for this question is significant. It is not so that people read the Scriptures and notice that the church has lost or suppressed important biblical material. This, of course, happened in the Reformation with the important doctrines of grace. They had been obscured and lost, but then rediscovered. That is not the case here. Instead, developments in society have piqued a certain awareness within churches. As a result, people turn to the Scripture to determine whether the “traditional way” is indeed the only way. At that point, many people look at the question already through the lenses of our society and try to explain away certain things in Scripture. I believe this is a subtle, but important angle in this discussion.
Having said this, I do not mean to imply that the question is illegitimate. It can even be helpful to raise it and determine whether our practice can be substantiated on the basis of the Word of God or not. What is important is that Scripture be our standard and not our society or even other churches around us.
We believe that Scripture and scriptural principles compel us to restrict the right to vote on congregational matters to male members. Consider the following grounds:
1. Unlike the nations among which we are privileged to live, the church is not a democracy. Christ is the absolute King of His church. Consider Matthew 28:18: “All power is given unto me in heaven and earth.” This kingship is monarchical. Apart from Christ no one has any authority in church. His will is law and His will alone, and He has chosen to reveal this law in his Word. Every church member has to submit to this will. As King, Christ himself appoints office bearers. As Ephesians 4:11 says: Christ “ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”
2. Being a believer does not itself give anyone the right to participate in church elections. Christian believers do not have some sort of spiritual or ecclesiastical or Christian ‘natural law’ inherent in themselves, from which spring certain authorities or rights. This applies equally to men and women. To attribute a right to believers is in fact an attack on the absolute sovereignty of Christ over his church (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23; Revelation 5:9). Christ has appointed certain channels, means, and instruments for the governing of the church, but these functions are not the inherent right of believers.
3. According to Reformed polity, the congregational vote is the exercise of authority and rule. This fact affects who may vote in the elections. If the congregation could only give advice and nothing more, we might open the vote up to women. Since however, the congregational vote entails the act of ruling, matters are different. The Roman Catholic Church denies the congregation any right with regard to the election of the special office bearers. The bishop, and technically, the chief bishop, the pope as “Peter’s successor” has that right, and he imparts it to the lower bishops as his representatives. Likewise, the Lutheran Church, against Luther’s original intention, replaced the authority of the earlier bishops with the authority of the rulers of the land. It is only the churches of the Reformed persuasion that have taken the position the congregation must elect office bearers, who in turn rule it. They have taught that the congregation is not to be disregarded as being “under age.” The Reformed view of the congregation does justice to the biblical concept of the church. We may refer here to such passages as Acts 1:23; 6:2-6; and 2 Corinthians 8:19.
4. The fact that the vote of the congregation is a matter of authority and rule is confirmed by the fact that the congregation vote delivers a decisive ruling. The consistory does not simply take the vote as a recommendation. Instead, it binds itself to the outcome, except for very rare cases where biblical truth is at stake. 1 Peter 5:1-4 stipulates that overseers are not to rule by constraint or as lords. Thus the vote of the congregation, overseen by the consistory, is accepted as authorative. By way of comparison, it is no accident that the democratic vote in our society is taken as “government by the people.” Thus to vote is to rule.
5. If the vote of the congregation, as we have proven, is to be considered as the exercise of authority and rule, then women are to be excluded according to the biblical command (1 Tim 2:12). Indeed, within the New Testament dispensation, there is a high regard for women, as well as for their gifts within the kingdom of God. Women can possess many gifts and may have much grace, but within the New Testament worldview the women do not have a place in ruling. This is no surprise, for this fact is rooted in the created order, which was good and perfect, and needs not be superseded (see 1 Tim 2:13; 1 Cor 11:3).
6. Scripture nowhere shows that this principle that women are not permitted to rule did not apply to their participation in church elections. In fact, the opposite is true. The Old Testament shows that casting of the lot was done by men according to the heads of families (e.g., 1 Chron 26:13-16). This continued in the practice of determining the authority structure of synagogue in intertestamental and later times. Moreover, as in other matters, the church seems to have followed the synagogue policy and had no New Testament warrant to change this point. The most clear example is the narrative in Acts 1, where the lot was cast between two nominations, Matthias and Joseph. From Peter’s address “Men and brethren” (Acts 1:16), most commentators agree that only men were involved in this early election of an office bearer.
7. Paul’s injunction to women to keep silence in the churches is applicable here as well (1 Cor 14:34-35). The context of this injunction argues for order in church worship and polity (1 Cor 14:33, 40). It is hard to view a vote as anything but an official voice. In this connection Paul recommends that wives confer with husbands at home (1 Cor 14:35). By extension we might say that unmarried or widowed women should confer with their nearest male kin, whether son, father, or brother. If there is no male relative, the deacons could especially fulfill a role in this regard, since they are to tend to the cause of the widows and orphans (Acts 6:1ff.).
It would appear, then, from this survey of Scripture and Scriptural principles, that the argument that Scripture allows or even promotes the opening up of the vote beyond male members may be taking too many cues from sources outside of biblical revelation.
Meanwhile, something that should not be overlooked is the fact that women members of a church can have a helpful role in the matters on which the congregation is to vote. Husbands would do well to consult with their wives on such things as the election of office bearers. Family members would do well to involve their widowed or unmarried women relatives. Women members, in turn, should even feel free to contact elders and deacons with their opinions as to congregational matters. In such cases they are not ruling, but giving advice. Their advice may be heeded or it may not. Much can be gained from this process. Nevertheless, the biblical restrictions for the actual government of the church and official speech within the church should be strictly guarded.