Representation in Church Government

My friend Steven Wedgeworth has some good thoughts about head of household voting here. Voting by household is fairly common in the CREC, but at the same time it is not so settled as to have no discussion swirling around it. So in addition to what Steven says, let me throw some loose pocket change into the mix.

I believe the broad outlines of church government are taught to us in Scripture jure divino, but that this divine authority does not extend down into the details. For example, we have scriptural warrant for broad, representative assemblies of the church. We have no biblical warrant for the office of secretary or stated clerk, but we do have the full authority to create such offices — using the light of Christian prudence. It is lawful for us to keep minutes (about which the Scriptures say nothing), and to follow a rudimentary form of Robert’s Rules (about which the Bible says even less).

The details of voting belong to both categories. We have ample scriptural warrant for the people selecting their leaders, but we have precious little on voting procedures. When the apostles appointed elders in Acts 14:23, the word used there (cheirotoneo) originally meant to elect by a show of hands, but it remains hard to distill constitutional processes from the etymology of one word.

That said, here are just a few practical observations. First, in our circles, our churches are governed by elders, not by congregational voting. We are small republics, not small democracies. This means that our congregations vote on one or two issues only (selection of church officers, and sometimes constitutional amendments). Other than that, the decisions are made at the session level, by the board of elders.

Also, churches that practice head-of-household voting are not churches that exclude women from voting. We held a joint head-of-household meeting just last night with our sister church Trinity Reformed, and there were women in attendance, heads of their households. It is true that women don’t vote, as women. It is also true that men, as men, don’t vote either. We vote by household, an arrangement that we find convenient, and consistent with Scripture — although we would not maintain that every detail of what we do is required by Scripture.

What do I mean by convenience? Here is an example of just one — as paedobaptists, this solves a practical problem for us concerning when children start voting. When they are first communed? When they get their driver’s license? When they can vote in civic elections? When they can buy a beer in a restaurant? We can simply say that dependent children are represented by their household until they have their own household.

Because we live in a time when egalitarianism is running a full court press, who cannot see that if a disgruntled woman insists on defining herself as “excluded” because her husband cast a ballot (when she did not), that she will continue to see herself as excluded even if she could vote? The vast majority of the votes determining the future of the church will be taken at the session level, which really does exclude women (1 Tim. 2:12).

As a practical matter, when a man and wife agree, all you have done is multiply the entire vote tally by two. When they disagree, all you have done is cancel out the voice of that particular household. What needs to be emphasized in churches that practice this is that the man is representing his household. He is not acting like the one person in that household with something worthwhile to say. Suppose a man thinks a particular elder candidate is “okay,” but his wife has seen him be really cold to his wife on multiple occasions, and the teenaged children in that household, two of them girls, have been in Bible studies where the candidate’s handling of the text was “terrible.” The man votes, representing his household.

One of the great and pressing needs of our day is to get men to take responsibility. This is one device (not an inspired one, but a good one) for helping us do just that. Those pushing against this particular arrangement need to understand that in North America getting men to check out of church is not really a hard thing to accomplish, and that once you have done it, the heartaches are of an entirely different kind. So be careful what you agitate for.

One last thing. I do think there are reasonable questions to ask about this whole thing, and I also believe that there are ways for us to improve what we are doing. But when a certain kind of women gets really worked up over this issue, saying that we are saying that “women are too emotional” to let them “get their pretty little heads” entangled in “the manly business” of church politics, I can only say that this is not my position and I am not arguing for it at all. But if I ever were to change my mind, and decided to argue for it, that kind of woman would be the very first one I would search for because I would need an Exhibit A for my newly adopted position.

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  • rcjr

    Pastor Wilson,
    When a congregation is making a binding decision (choosing elders, amending the constitution, changing denominations) and female heads of households vote, how do you avoid the charge that women rule in that church? If the decision is as binding as another kind of decision made by the elders, why would you exclude women from voting in the one context (as elders) while including them in the other (as heads of households? Thanks

  • Robert

    A practical suggestion on church level meetings where women represent their households is for them to come to the meeting together. I can understand how it can be intimidating for a single mother to go to a church meeting alone that is going to be predominantly men.

  • Kevin

    Excellent thoughts. However, a lot of your pragmatic argument is difficult when confronted with certain demographics. I was in a church for a while that had “head of household voting.” What this practically meant was that the church was ruled by the single men, who had ten out of sixteen votes in the church.

  • Douglas Wilson

    Kevin, well yikes.

  • Douglas Wilson

    RC, thanks. I don’t believe that agreeing to be ruled by someone is necessarily ruling. If it were, then a woman who agrees to marry a man is exercising headship over him.

  • rcjr

    Trouble is Pastor that these votes are not just woman x voting on who will rule over her n the church. She is also determining who will rule over everyone else in the church. Wives may indeed pick their husbands, but they don’t choose the husbands of their friends.

  • Douglas Wilson

    RC, right, I catch that difference. But my only point is has to do with how much authority is vested in the act of selecting someone to be your leader. If a wife must not rule over her husband (which is scripturally unambiguous), then her agreeing to marry him must not contradict that, right? My sole point is that there is a kind of “voting” that is appropriate for those under authority.

    I could see your point if a church had three male-led households, and seventeen widow-led households, and the widows imposed a pastor on the men that they didn’t want. But in normal circumstances, I think it is diffused enough to not matter.

  • rcjr

    Thank you pastor. And I would argue that the principle is the principle. We are self-governed as a nation even when our candidate loses, so ladies voting on any binding issue are in fact, win or lose, exercising rule and authority over men in the church which the Bible forbids. I am happy that you are right, it would be a rare thing indeed for the ladies to out vote the men. I’m afraid, however, that the logic pushes us either to “No congregational vote is binding” or “Women rule in our churches.” Better, in my judgment, for the female heads of households to bring their perspectives and concerns to the elders, but not to vote on anything other than an information gathering vote. Men rule in the church.

  • Jacob Moya

    Could I delegate my wife to go to the HOH meeting and take notes and share our opinions and even vote for me with the understanding that she votes in my stead, the federal head of our whole household? Could I ask my dependent adult son to do the same? I suppose if convenience is taken into consideration then perhaps not.

  • Jay B

    Another option that we had at my previous church was that, in non-unanimous votes for elder, the session had to investigate all negative votes for their scriptural basis. Also, all candidates already had to be approved by the session prior to being presented to the congregation. It was less authority being exercised, and more agreement being voiced. That would avoid the ditches on both sides.

  • jenn

    If voting means that one is ruling, then preventing female heads of household from voting means that all male heads of household who do vote are exercising headship over those women.

  • Mike Bull

    It seems to me that harkening back to all this Abrahamic stuff, as the Federal Cision is wont to do, is a substitute for the “oneness of mind” that the Spirit of God miraculously brings, which is what we see in the book of Acts.

    If your baptism is by the authority of the household (which it is, if you insist on those verses being about “household” rather than the profession of every individual in that household), then it voting is all about drawing lots, which ended the day before Pentecost. And “the household of faith” is something other than what the apostles thought it was.*

    The real problem is the lack of prayer and fasting until the Spirit makes the decision. It’s easy for me to pontificate, not being a pastor, and still struggling personally with prayer and fasting, but based on the “processes” in the Bible, which are totally consistent, we’ve all got the cart before the horse, and missed the point of Pentecost and the New Covenant singlemindedness of the Body. The solution to carnal voting by individuals is not carnal voting by household.

    *The structure of every passage in Acts which mentions “household” implies that Luke is pointing out the fulfillment of the Feast of Booths, not prescribing a new form of circumcision, which most likely appalls him as he looks down from his millennial throne.

  • Duane Garner

    To the conversation in the comments above I would like to put the question – “How is voting ruling?” It seems rather obvious to me that voting and ruling are not the same thing. Voting is registering an opinion. Ruling is, well, ruling.

    The the main body of the post, I don’t know which argument I’m supposed to follow. Either HOH voting is important because it is one way we call men to take responsibility. Or it is not that big a deal, because in presbyterian churches we don’t really vote all that much. Is it important or not?

    To the matter of the supposed absurdity of women cancelling out their husbands’ vote – I’m glad that Jael canceled out Heber’s “vote” and Abigail canceled out Nabal’s. It’s no great tragedy if husband and wife disagree in elections, if we understand that a vote is just an opinion. My unity with my wife doesn’t dictate that we must absolutely agree on the same books, music, food or share the same opinion on whether a certain guy should be put in an office or whether the church should buy the property down the road. Her disagreement is not a lack of submission to me, and to say otherwise is to misunderstand what submission is.

    While I agree that the issue of calling men to responsibility in the church is a pretty big one, I don’t see where we are permitted to create new church offices that are not outlined in the Bible to address this need.

    Treasurers and secretaries and stated clerks are already ordained officers who are being given specific tasks within various bodies of church government. Those are not new “church offices” that we’ve created in the Timothy/Titus elder/deacon sense, they are positions held by duly ordained officers. But we have created a new church office called “head of household” which has precedent neither in the Bible or church history. What reformed confession or Book of Church Order addresses “heads of households”? If there is one, I haven’t found it yet. “Head of household” sounds more like an IRS term than one that has a great foundation of usage and understanding in the Church.

    In fact as has been shown in many other places, “head of household” means something very different when it is used in the Bible, and the way we use it now has all sorts of unsavory implications. For example, your wife is not a part of your household, she’s over it (Pr. 31:15, 1 Tim 5:14) The man is the head of his wife, but the two of them are over their household. Wives are just as much heads of their households as husbands are as partners in their marriage and parents of their children. But I’ve seen more than one “head of household” treat his wife no better than any other household item, and I’m afraid this novel church office has given him the license to do so. (Yes, there are abusive blockheads outside the church too, but for some reason I find that HoH churches are a refuge a high concentration of them.)

    Flowing out of this perspective is this idea gets floated around that the father is the lone conduit of grace, discipleship, discipline and sacraments to his family – an idea buttressed by household membership. But Paul feels free to address wives, children, servants directly – he doesn’t have to go through “Dad” to talk to them. Peter called Sapphira to stand up and answer for herself for her own sins, and didn’t have to go through her husband to get to her.

    So we’ve created this new church office that has no precedent and no qualifications or duties outlined in the scriptures. We’re not speaking the way that the Bible speaks about marriage and families – the Bible never uses this term this way – but we’re doing this all in the effort to preserve marriage and family. Actually I think we’re doing the opposite, the way this thing is working out downstream.

    I’d either like to see more homework done on the “head of household” model to prove that it isn’t a novelty, or to have everyone admit that it is pretty new, and if so, approach it with the same great caution and concern that we do other novelties.

    As always, I am deeply indebted to you for your work, Pastor Wilson, and I love Steven too, but I did want to raise some questions and arguments that I’m not finding reasonable answers to.

  • Douglas Wilson

    Duane, thanks for the comments, and just a couple responses. As far as the novelty goes, suffrage for women didn’t come into the church until very recently. And second, we can’t complain about this arrangement for communicating with parishioners as “arbitrary” when we look at the internal logic of all paedobaptist churches. I baptize one infant, and not another, based on the household they are in. So why can’t I talk to that household?

  • Duane Garner

    Ha! The formatting there looks like I’m pounding the keyboard. I actually had paragraph breaks in there along the way.

  • katecho

    Duane Garner wrote:
    “In fact as has been shown in many other places, “head of household” means something very different when it is used in the Bible, and the way we use it now has all sorts of unsavory implications. For example, your wife is not a part of your household, she’s over it (Pr. 31:15, 1 Tim 5:14) The man is the head of his wife, but the two of them are over their household. Wives are just as much heads of their households as husbands are as partners in their marriage and parents of their children.”


    A distinction that Duane seems to be overlooking is that, while the wife is indeed minister of internal and domestic affairs, the husband is the overall head of the house, and minister of external and public affairs regarding the household. This would be particularly relevant regarding public votes.

    The pattern is perhaps more explicit than Duane may realize. The principle of the headship of the husband and father, as regards the public word of his wife and children, is detailed in Numbers 30 (a short chapter, entirely on this subject). Notice the direction that the overruling authority goes within the household.

    “But if her husband indeed annuls them on the day he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows or concerning the obligation of herself, shall not stand; her husband has annulled them, and the Lord will forgive (pardon/release) her.
    Every vow and every binding oath to humble herself, her husband may confirm it or her husband may annul it.”
    — Numbers 30:12-13

  • Valerie (Kyriosity)

    Just wanted to make sure Steven’s follow-up post was seen here.

  • Robert

    We have to remember that a hughe variable for this is the consequence of the industrial revolution. Before then, women were the weaker sex and were far more dependent on men than they are now. That doesn’t change Scripture, but it does change perceptions if a large number of women are employed independently of father and husband. No one in this discussion has addressed some very hard facts regarding headship, the chief of which is the exceptionally large number of single women whose parents are divorced and who have limited contact with their fathers. Who represents them?

  • katecho

    The problem of absent headship is widespread and real, but, in principle, is not a new problem. I think of the example of the orphan living in an orphanage who is reading her Bible and comes across the commandment to honor her father and mother. She may either think to herself, “whew! I guess I’m off the hook on that one”, or she may conclude, “I need to honor the headmistress since she is the closest that I have to a father and mother”. I hope we can all see the strength of this attitude. This is the heart of someone who will eventually rise above her peers. This is who God uses to tell His best stories.

    If we have a true heart of submission, we will seek to honor godly principles to the best that we are able. I think this is the answer to the question about hermaphrodites that was asked recently. They would seek to identify with a gender as best they are able to do. God sees our hearts and He is righteous and kind to those who are lowly of spirit and contrite.

    If a single woman finds herself without headship, I would hope that, being strongly knit together in the local church, she would seek out an older father figure to counsel her. Not because she’s helpless or intellectually challenged, but because she loves God’s principles and understands honor, and the power behind grateful submission. There is a glorious weightiness and strength that is pictured in this sort of relationship to which few things can compare. It is the small and insecure that are threatened by the idea of submission. It is the strong and secure who embrace and own it, and are rewarded with authority and influence from God.

  • Valerie (Kyriosity)

    This is, at least by Internet standards, an ancient post, but just in case katecho happens to see it, I’m hoping he’ll clarify a bit:

    Are you suggesting that the single woman in your last paragraph should seek out the older father figure for the purpose of coming under his headship? Or do you have some other degree or sort of submission in mind? And either way, wouldn’t such she be submitting to another woman’s husband, contra the biblical injunction for a woman to submit to her own husband?

    Of course she should submit to those in authority in the church, but she is not called to do that because she is a woman, but because she is a Christian. What you’re suggesting is that she submit to a man as a man, which is exactly what she may not do. Of course she should seek counsel from older and wiser believers, but we’re all called to do that, and not because they are men, but because they are wiser.

    And I also have a thought for R.C. re my take on the is voting ruling question:

    If voting for rulers is itself ruling, then men who are not elders should not vote, either, as they have no right to rule in the church. If a vote is a matter of authority, then the unmarried women shouldn’t be submitting to the random unordained men because men as men have no authority over women as women. No one is ever called to submit to anyone on the basis of sex, but on the basis of office. There are offices that may only be held by men, but the authority of the office does not flow from maleness.

    I think that leads us to two options when it comes to choosing officers in the church: Either only those currently ordained may make decisions, including sole responsibility re who will be added to their ranks, or the broader congregation may be included in the decision-making process. If the latter, I think we’ve strayed from scriptural example. If the latter, the only way for a woman without a representative head to be represented in a congregation with a heads-of-households structure is to represent herself.

    Of course all of that is predicated on whether voting for authority is an act of authority over anyone else, and I’m not quite convinced of that.