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Women's Voting Rights?

Women's Voting Rights.doc 

Women’s Voting Rights?

The church is the work of the ascended Christ, and so it is He who gives office bearers to His people.  Central, then, to the process of finding office bearers is calling on the name of the Lord, beseeching Him to show who He wishes to see in the offices of the church.  There is no doubt to my mind that the sisters of the congregation should participate in this most fundamental and powerful aspect of the selection process.  That is why the sisters (and also the children) should be present at the congregational meeting where office bearers are chosen.  In fact, the sisters do well to be involved in drawing consistory’s attention to potential office bearers as well as giving their approbation after the chosen brothers have been appointed.  This, it seems to me, follows from the Lord’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (see Acts 2:17,18).

Should the sisters of the congregation also participate through casting a ballot?  Some faithful churches around the world have answered the question with Yes, with some churches (eg, Free Church of Scotland) granting sisters voting privileges more than a century ago.  Other faithful churches of the Lord have to date answered the question with No.  The Canadian Reformed Churches are amongst the latter.  Upcoming Synod Burlington (May, 2010) has to deal with the question.  It seems to me that Synod Burlington needs to grapple with some very far-reaching questions before a final decision is made.

Some History

Synod Coaldale 1977 appointed a committee to study whether there were Scriptural grounds for the sisters of the congregation to cast a ballot.  This committee presented a detailed report to Synod Smithville 1980 (see Acts, pg 205-225), concluding that “it is more in harmony with Scripture if women are not called upon to be involved in the voting for office bearers” (pg 221).  Further, “the teaching of Scripture and the testimony of church history clearly assert that women are not to exercise privileges that include official ruling and teaching, or … that are linked to official teaching and ruling in the church, such as voting” (pg 222).  Despite these strongly worded conclusions, Synod Smithville felt that some questions remained unanswered, and so appointed a second committee to do further research (see Art 83).

This second committee reported to Synod Cloverdale 1983 (Acts, pg 388-409), recommending that “there are no Scriptural or Church-political grounds which forbid the consistories to call the sisters in the congregation to participate in the election of office bearers by their vote” (pg 409).  Synod, however, declined to go in the direction pointed by the committee because 
the churches as a whole were obviously not persuaded by the argumentation of the committee (that’s a reference to the many letters Synod received from the churches on the subject), 
the committee’s explanations of several key Scripture passages were “rather unusual if not questionable”,
the Dutch churches argue that voting carries a binding character on the Church council and expressing such binding positions would not be consistent with the submissiveness God requires of women.
This conclusion of Synod Cloverdale has represented the position of the Canadian Reformed Churches on the point ever since.  Various attempts in subsequent years to reopen the matter met with no success on grounds that new arguments had to be raised (see Church Order Article 30) and none have yet been brought up.

Synod Smithers 2007 received a request from the church at Hamilton to “finish the mandate extended by Synod Smithville 1980.”  Synod Smithers agreed with Hamilton that “the matter of women’s voting rights has not been dealt with in a conclusive way by any general synod” (Acts, Art 136).  Synod in turn appointed the church of Hamilton to come with a report that would assist Synod Burlington 2010 in finalizing the matter.

Hamilton Report

It turns out that Hamilton has produced not one but two reports on the subject, a majority and a minority report.  The majority report argues that “female communicant members have the responsibility to participate in the election of office bearers, no less than male communicant members, under the supervision of the consistory” (Reports to General Synod Burlington-Ebenezer 2010, Volume 1, pg 249).  The minority report, on the other hand, concludes that “female communicant members do not have the responsibility according to biblical directives nor church orderly requirement, to participate in the election of office bearers” (Reports, Volume 3, pg 23).  

What ought Synod to do with these two reports?  To be honest, I was very disappointed with both reports.  My disappointment lay not in the conclusions reached but in the manner in which the reports were put together.  Both reports begin with their conclusions, and then proceed to prove those conclusions from Scripture.  In the process both reports choose to hear what they want to hear from the Word of God on the subject.  As a result, too much Scriptural data is left untouched.  I do not see, then, how Synod Burlington can use either of these reports to make a definitive decision on whether the sisters of the congregation ought to participate in the election of office bearers through the casting of a ballot.


It seems to me, though, that there is a bigger question that needs urgent attention.  It’s this: why does the matter of women voting in the election of office bearers continue to arise??  Why have the churches had such difficulty in finding a Biblically convincing answer to the question?  Are we perhaps asking the wrong question?

I think we are.  It seems to me that the question of the sisters’ voting is itself a symptom of a deeper unresolved issue.  The deeper question turns on what the actual relation between male and female ought to be.  How did God wish the relation between man and woman to be in Paradise?  Is there a creation ordinance on this point that remains in force for all people of all times, despite the fall into sin?  Does the renewing work of Christ’s Spirit enable believing men and women to seek to act in obedience to the pattern God revealed in the beginning? If Yes (and the answer definitely is Yes) what was that pattern?

It is understood in our churches that the Lord would have the man be the head of his wife and so of his family (see the Marriage Form).  It is also understood in our churches that the Lord has limited office holders in the church to the male portion of the human race.  But here’s the question: does the man’s God-given headship pertain only to marriage and the church, and not to society in general?  Does God’s norm in Scripture allow for a woman to become the company CEO?  Does God’s norm in Scripture allow for a woman to become the principal of the local school?  Was it in agreement with God’s revealed standards that Hillary Clinton ran for the American presidency?

Our society sees nothing wrong with women striving to attain the same positions as men.  In fact, modern western society aggressively pushes to equalize the number of men and women taking up leading positions in government, business, etc.  We are children of our times, and take on similar thinking.  Yet in home and church we insist on a different pattern.  This results in a tension that comes to the fore in a subject as women voting.  If in nation and in business a woman may vote and speak with equal acceptance as a man, why may this not be so in church?  It seems to me that the contradictory positions we afford our sisters in family and church on the one hand and in society on the other cause the question of women’s voting to keep arising.

I’m increasingly convinced that the different positions we afford our sisters in church and society are not Biblically justifiable.  Was Adam in Paradise Eve’s head only at home and when they gave themselves to worship, but not when they laboured together in the Garden?  Had the fall not happened and generations of children been born to Adam and Eve in Paradise, would it have been pleasing to the Lord for one of Adam’s granddaughters one day to become Chief Executive Officer of Paradisial Mining Inc?  Where is the Biblical warrant for the distinction we make between society on the one hand and church and family on the other?  Is the notion that the man’s headship position is limited to those two spheres of life we know as Marriage and Church not a man-made limitation?  

This deeper question needs, to my mind, urgent attention, if only because the flow of our times pushes this fundamental question out of sight – and we’ve gotten pretty used to that.  If Synod would now isolate the issue of women’s voting in church from its context and strive to give an answer to the narrow question-by-itself, the churches would receive no assistance in the bigger question our times are pushing upon us.  And make no mistake: the flow of our times will invariably push onto our agenda the question of whether the offices of the church should be opened to the sisters of the congregation.  We will ultimately have no defence against such a push if we do not come to grips with the bigger question of whether life indeed is to be divided into spheres, with male headship pertaining only to the sphere of church and marriage. 


A second question arises in reaction to the two Hamilton Reports.  Suppose Synod Burlington would agree with the conclusions reached by the Majority Report and allow the sisters of the congregation to join in voting for office bearers.  How is a consistory to implement this decision?  I’m convinced that some sisters (to mention now only the sisters) in our congregation would welcome the decision with enthusiasm.  I’m equally convinced that other sisters of the congregation would decry such a decision with equal displeasure.  In that situation, how could a consistory implement a synodical Yes decision without bringing up division in the congregation?  Equally, for consistory to decline to implement a synodical Yes decision (because some are unconvinced) will also bring division in the congregation (since others are convinced women’s voting is a good thing).  Is there a way to prevent such tension?  I’m not sure how.  So, if Synod thinks it necessary to give the sisters permission to participate in filling a ballot, I would welcome some good guidelines on how to implement that decision in a way that protects peace and harmony in the churches.

C Bouwman
March 12, 2010