Mailbag #53: Women Voting in Congregational Meetings; Pastoral Oversight and Youth Ministry
We have some members of our church who don’t believe that women should vote in business meetings. Their logic is: 1) According to 1 Timothy 2 women are not allowed to exercise authority over men, and voting would be exercising authority. 2) In the first century business congressional decisions would have been carried out during the regular church gathering, and according to 1 Corinthians 14 women are not permitted to speak in church. 3) Furthermore, there would have been no cultural expectation that women would speak or vote in such a public forum.
First, a tangent. I recently asked a rock-star historian friend how long women have been voting in Baptist churches. He said he has seen evidence in church and association minutes from as early as the eighteenth century. It’s possible women voted even earlier, but he hasn’t yet been able to search older British and colonial churches records to find out. He hopes to at some point. That said, he acknowledged there wasn’t a consensus on the matter in the eighteenth century. That didn’t emerge until around 1830.
Or maybe that wasn’t a tangent. Looking at the third objection to women voting which you cite, it’s worth realizing there was little to “no cultural expectation” that American women would vote in civic elections in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A few jurisdictions allowed women to vote, such as New Jersey (temporarily) and various New England town hall meetings. But universal suffrage didn’t occur until 1920 with the nineteenth amendment to the U. S. Constitution. In other words, Baptist women were voting before most American women. Maybe they read their Bibles?
Early church documents which refer to decisions by the church simply don’t specify gender. For instance, Clement’s first epistle, written around AD 96, refers to “approved men [elders]” who were appointed “with the consent of the church.” Notice that it does specify the gender of the elders, not the consenting church. Perhaps that’s telling? The Didache, probably written in the early second century, instructs its readers to “elect for yourselves bishops and deacons.” Again, there’s no mention of gender, but everything else in the letter, as with the paragraph before (on gathering on the Lord’s Day) and the paragraph after (on watching one’s life), are clearly given to everyone—men and women.
Compare these documents, by way of contrast, with a document from the Jewish Qumran community commonly called “Community Rule.” It was written a century before Christ, and refers to decisions being made “by the majority rule of the men of Yahad.” In other words, people in the ancient Near East both voted and knew how to explicitly restrict their voting to one gender. These Christian documents didn’t. (For more on early church documents on voting, see my Don’t Fire Your Church Members, 86–91).
Besides, since when do Christians determine what they believe by cultural expectations? Was there a cultural expectation that a man would get up from the dead?
Okay, back to the first objection you cite to women voting: I discuss this here, but I’ll summarize. There’s more than one kind of authority in the church, just as there is more than one kind of authority in your workplace (CEO, shareholders, board) or your home (husband, parent). The elders possess an authority of oversight and instruction, which Paul reserves for men (1 Tim. 2:11f). A congregation’s authority, which Jesus calls the keys of the kingdom in Matthew 16 and 18, is grounded in the new covenant and the priesthood of all believers. Think of Paul’s words: “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Jesus puts this truth to work with the keys: every believer belongs to the gospel, and therefore every believer is responsible to protect the gospel and the people of the gospel (see Matt. 16:13–20; 18:15–20; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 6:14–7:1; Gal. 1:6–9).
Imagine, for instance, a church of 20 members, 15 of whom are women, in a Muslim city with no other churches. Suppose the pastor and a majority of the men adopt a false gospel. Would Paul have the women sit silently and let a false gospel subvert their church? Not a chance. Read Galatians 1:6–9. Their gospel life and gospel witness in that city depends on their objecting with mouths and voting hands. That’s why Christ has made all of us priests!
Finally, the second objection you mention: The silence enjoined of women in 14:33–36 seems to refer to the weighing of prophesies, as verses 27–32 suggest (see D. A. Carson’s chapter on the topic in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). And that exercise is probably connected to an elder’s authority to teach (see 1 Tim. 2:11f). What’s even more clear is that the silence Paul enjoins in 1 Corinthians 14 does not preclude the praying and prophesying of women he mentions in chapter 11 (v. 5). And if that’s the case, I see no reason why chapter 14 would preclude voting either (which actually doesn’t necessarily involve talking!).
Hope this is helpful.
Hello 9Marks! How do you see the elder structure with student or children’s ministry? Is an elder “over” that ministry with a children’s minister as something different? Are or should the children’s minister be an elder? How do you see all of that working together?
The Bible says nothing about student or children’s ministers, much less how to organize them. Instead it talks about elders and deacons. My point is not that you cannot use titles never mentioned in the Bible. My church has a “children’s ministry administrator,” another title never named in Scripture. My point is, I want you to think in the framework of elders and deacons no matter what you call a person’s job. Think about the qualifications of elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1). Think about the biblical job descriptions of each. And then make sure you have the right people in the right jobs.
With that framework in mind, back to your question. What’s the student or children’s minister in your church doing? Exercising oversight over the teaching in those respective ministries? Then that person should be an elder. Or, is the individual facilitating and administering the teaching ministry as determined and overseen by an elder or pastor? Then it’s effectively a deacon position. Either way, you want to make sure you have an elder giving oversight “to all the flock” (Acts 20:28), including a church’s student and children ministry. And you’ll probably need deacon-like workers to administer those ministries.
Now, on that matter of titles. I admit I’m not a big fan of the title “minister” precisely because it’s ambiguous. Most of the time, people use that word as synonymous with “pastor.” But sometimes churches use it for non-pastors. That’s confusing, and risks blurring the idea of what an elder is.
Even more confusing is when churches call someone a “pastor” who is not actually an elder. You get this especially with “youth pastors.” I would say, don’t give someone the title of pastor or minister unless they’re an elder. “Pastor” and “elder” are synonymous in the Bible; and “minister” and “pastor” are nearly synonymous, as I said, in common usage. If the person in charge of the youth or children’s ministry is not a pastor or elder, then I’d suggest (i) giving them a title like “director” or “administer” and (ii) making sure an elder oversees anything they do pertaining to teaching.
Thanks for the question.