Friday, October 7, 2011

Women, Voting, and Authority

In recent months there has been much discussion in Clarion, a Canadian Reformed magazine, as to whether women should vote in the election of office-bearers. In the past, only male communicant members could vote. However, the 2010 Canadian Reformed Synod decided to give each local congregation the option to extend the vote to women.

The Bible teaches that women are not to have authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12). Hence, Reformed churches have in the past excluded women from voting primarily because the congregational vote, having a decisive effect to which the council is bound, was seen to be an exercise of authority.

1. Proponents for women voting deny that voting carries any authority. For example, Dr. J. Visscher contends that the congregational vote merely declares a preference rather than exercising any authority (Clarion Feb.25, 2011: 113). Likewise, Dr. C. van Dam asserts that the vote is merely "advisory, simply stating a preference, leaving the final decision to the consistory with the deacons" (Clarion May 6, 2011:234).

As Rev. Janssen has noted (Clarion Aug.12, 2011:408), such argumentation contradicts the Church Order (Art.3), which states:

"...The consistory with the deacons shall present to the congregation either as many candidates as there are vacancies to be filled, or at most twice as many, from which number the congregation shall choose as many as are needed. Those elected shall be appointed by the consistory with the deacons..."

Rev. Janssen comments that the verb "shall" here indicates that the council is bound to the outcome of the election. Those who elect thus exercise a measure of authority over those who appoint. It follows, "as those who appoint are exclusively men...those who vote are not to be women. For the plain reading of Article 3 CO suggests voting is here defined as an act of authority."

2. Synod 2010 argued (Art. 176, Consideration 3.9) that, even though the congregational vote is binding,  it carries no authority because "in Reformed church polity the consistory is the only governing body". However, Rev. Janssen shows this claim to be erroneous. He (Clarion August 12, 2011: 409) cites the 1923 commentary on the Church Order by J. Jansen, who explains--in line with Voetius (a member of the Synod of Dort 1618-1619)--that women should be excluded from voting because the vote is an exercise of authority, .

Similarly, Dr. H. Bouwman, in his work on church polity, Gereformeerd Kerkrecht (vol. 1 (Kampen: Kok, 1928), pp, 386-394, explains why the Reformed churches do not permit women to vote:

"If now the election ... is an act of church-rule, then the participation of the congregation is also a cooperation in church-rule. And it is also for this reason that, according to Voetius, the woman may not vote in the election of an officebearer, because this is an act of church-rule.... The election of an officebearer is cooperation in the rule of the church.
    This lies in the very nature of the election itself. No one will deny that the election of officebearers by the consistory is an exercise of church-rule. When now the consistory calls together the members of the congregation in order to vote with them, then it is not merely asking for advice, to which it does not have to pay any attention; but it then calls the congregation together, in order to cooperate with the consistory. The vote of the congregation is then, indeed, properly a valid vote that has decisive effect.
This comes out also very plainly in (CO3), where it is stated that the consistory presents a double number to the congregation "and thereupon installs the one-half chosen by it." ...Here, it is not a matter of advice, but of a decisive vote....This is also plainly expressed by the Belgic Confession, which confesses in Article 31: "The ministers of God's Word . . . ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the Church." The intention of the words, "by a lawful election by the Church," is not that the election would be by the consistory . . . but by the members of the congregation....

In short, contrary to Synod 2010, Reformed church polity has historically considered that the congregational vote is an exercise of authority.

3. Having shown that women voting is ruled out by the Church Order (Art.3), Rev. Janssen urges that the churches revise CO3 before implementing women voting. He suggests that the "election" be rephrased as a "consultation"; the congregation still gets to choose office-bearers but its choice is said to be non-binding.

[One wonders here, what about Belgic Confession Art.31 ("...ministers, elders, and deacons ought to be chosen by lawful election of the church")? Should this also be altered?]

Yet, calling the congregational vote a "preference", "advice" or "consultation" makes no difference to what actually happens in practise. Every council has election rules that specify how many votes are needed for brothers to be considered elected.  If the congregation has chosen brother A, no council will break those rules by appointing brother B instead of brother A. That the council voluntarily grants the congregation this power, and that the council retains a theoretical veto--which in practise is virtually never applied--does not nullify the congregation's de facto authority.

These dubious attempts to to make room for women voting simply by redefining words such as “authority” or “election” remind me of the well-known story of Abraham Lincoln. When faced with a similar case where an issue was to be settled by language games, he asked the proponents: "how many legs would a calf have, if we called the calf’s tail, a leg?" When they answered “Five,Lincoln replied, “No--calling a calf’s tail a leg, doesn’t make it a leg.”

To conclude, since the congregational vote in practice determines who is appointed to office, it thereby carries a measure of de facto authority. Since both appointees and appointers are men, and since the Bible prohibits women from exercising authority over men, it follows that women should be excluded from voting.

Thus Synod 2010 erred in permitting women to vote.


Henry said...

Thank you for addressing a much avoided issue. I have a question though, not being from a church where congregational voting occurs.

Why is voting limited to men only when appointing office-bearers? What other issues does a congregation vote upon? Does voting on these other issues not cause women to wield authority over men?

John Byl said...

In the Canadian Reformed denomination it is specifically voting for office-bearers that is at issue.

I believe that legally--according to provincial law— the congregation must also annually approve the appointment of the church trustees (men), as well as the annual church budget. But this is usually done by acclamation, in the absence of any objections. Should it ever come to an actual vote then, yes, the above considerations should exclude women from voting.

MauritsV said...

Dr. Byl,

Thank you for your insightful post. I agree with that.

Personally, I’m afraid that women voting is not a “stand alone issue” but that it fits in a larger development. The CanRC has concerns about the GKv in Holland, as I read in the Clarion, but retains ecclesiastical fellowship until now. One wonders about the influences that might have. Living in Holland I can testify where all those changes taken together lead to.


John Byl said...

Thanks for your comment, Maurits. I concur that this is not a "stand alone issue." No doubt, in due time, the CanRC will be facing more of the issues now plaguing the GKv.

Caleb A said...

Dr. Byl,

Do you believe that women should only be excluded from voting for office-bearers or from all congregational voting?

Could you recommend some reading to help me study this issue?

john byl said...

Hi Caleb

From all congregational voting--see above comments.

You might find the following report (from the RCUS, which limits the vote to male head-of-households) useful: