Congregational Meetings and Woman Suffrage

Last month I wrote an article on congregational meetings. We noticed that these gatherings are not governmental in the sense that consistories, classes, and synods are. Congregational meetings are gatherings at which the consistory informs the congregation regarding matters of interest pertaining to the church and its activities, consults with the membership as to its opinion and preferences, and submits certain matters to a vote, such as the election of office-hearers, the purchase or sale of properties, or the construction of buildings. And consistories submit certain matters to the vote of the congregation with the understanding that they will under normal circumstances execute the decisions reached. But the consistories have the right of review regarding decisions reached at congregational meetings and may, for weighty and compelling reasons, refrain from effectuating such decisions. Decisions reached at congregational meetings are more than advisory; they are binding in character, but they are never unconditionally binding.

This, in brief, is the sum of what I said in my former article. See the Torch and Trumpet of the previous month.

At this time let us discuss the question whether our consistories would be acting in harmony or out of harmony with the Word of God if they should invite the women members of their churches to take part in the activities at congregational meetings.

In seeking to answer the question just suggested one might profitably make an extensive study of both the Old and the New Testament, regarding the place of women in Christian life and in the Church of God. One could write a book on this subject alone. And it might well be an interesting and profitable study.

However, an extensive study of this kind would take us too far afield for our present purpose. And even a somewhat extensive study, though worthwhile in itself, would delay us in answering the very practical question before us just now.

There are especially three passages in the New Testament which are, by common consent, crucial for our question. They are: I Corinthians 11:3–16; I Corinthians 14:33–35; and I Timothy 2:11–15. I shall endeavor to make some brief explanatory remarks regarding these crucial passages, so as to help the reader determine for himself whether or not God’s revelation in these passages permits or perhaps forbids the introduction of woman suffrage at our congregational meetings. I shall not attempt to give a full exegetical study of these passages. For such studies I would refer the readers to exegetical experts such as Calvin, Meyer, Hodge, Van Andel, Codet, and H. Ridderbos. (The latter’s interpretation is incorporated in the Study Report of a Synodical Committee of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, to the Netherlands’ Synod of 1952.)

First of all we consider I Corinthians 11:3–16.

As to the background of this passage, commentators are agreed that Paul was prompted to write these words by the fact that some women in the Corinthian church followed an erroneous reasoning, and a resultant erroneous practice. They evidently reasoned that now that they were Christians, they were in every respect on par with men, In the Grecian world of their day, women occupied very much of a secondary place. In this pagan world they were not esteemed in keeping with the unique and influential position allotted to them by God. They were often treated as inferior beings, and abuse was not uncommon.

Christianity taught the spiritual equality of men and women. (Cf. Gal. 3:28.) Now some of the Christian women at Corinth seemed to think that this spiritual equality placed them in one class with the men in every respect. In this they were of course mistaken. Both bond and free were equal before God, so the apostle also declares in Galatians 3:28. But Paul did not mean to say that the spiritual equality of a believing slave freed him from the duty of serving his Christian master. Thus also Paul does not mean to say that the spiritual equality of women erased for them the God-ordained differences between men and women in this life, Man by God’s decree and creational ordinance occupies a place of priority in certain relationships of this life. This natural God-ordained priority of man, redemption in Christ does not erase. The women at Corinth, elevated by Christianity to new dignity and to the honored position which is theirs, should in their enthusiasm and gratitude not overreach themselves and assume an abrogation of all distinctions between men and women, so the apostle virtually contends.

In keeping with the conception that Christianity erased every differentiation between men and women, the believing women laid aside certain usages which were commonly observed by the women of their day. One of these Grecian customs was the wearing of the veil. The wearing of this head covering was to the people of that day a token of modesty and of submission. But the Christian women at Corinth reasoned that inasmuch as they were spiritually on par with the men, they could appear in public, also at the church gatherings, unveiled, without the customary head-covering.


Now the apostle Paul corrects the women at Corinth regarding both these errors. He says that the spiritual equality of women with men does not spell equality in every relationship of life, here and now. And he instructs the women to observe the customs and tokens of their womanliness and submission to their husbands.

Matters might also be stated thus: In I Corinthians 11 the Holy Spirit, through the apostle declares especially two facts. In the first place, that there are divine, creational ordinances pertaining to the sexes which we must ever respect. And secondly, that there are customs which are expressive of the natural God-ordained differences between men and women which Christians must not brush aside.

We have before us in I Corinthians 11 an intermingling or bringing together of divine, creational ordinances and customs expressive of the abiding differences between men and women. For the former see verses 3, 7, 8–9, 11–12, and 14. For the latter, 46, 7, 10, 13–14, and 15.

The apostle is clear and emphatic in maintaining the headship of man over woman. This headship he compares with the headship of Christ over the Church. Both are abiding. Neither may be ignored or set aside.

Now the natural headship of man over woman is bound to receive expression variously in various lands and at different times. In Bible times and in the Grecian cultural world it received expression through the wearing of the veil by the women. And although it is true that the apostle is first of all thinking of married women,—that being the normal state for women—what Paul says applies to all women, married or single, just as what he says about men applies to all men, married or Single. In verse 3, for example, the apostle refers to men and women in general, just as his reference to Christ and man refers to all men. If this were not so Paul would exclude himself and other single men from the significant Christ-man relationship to which he makes reference.

Does the passage before us help us in answering the question whether or not women may be invited to participate in the activities of congregational meetings?

The passage of course in no way says anything about congregational meetings. Its interest is the appearance, the dress of Christian women at church services or other church gatherings. It enjoins women to follow the custom of the day, and—by implication—not to give offense by doing that which would be unseemly and that which would also give the world of unbelief occasion for criticism.

But in this discussion the apostle does bring to the fore that man in the plan of God occupies a position of headship over woman, and that our women must respect this ordinance of God also in the Church. What the apostle here says harmonizes fully with what he is to say more explicitly later on, namely, that the positions of government are to be occupied by the men in God’s Church and not by the women. The offices are not for her, but for the men.

But supposing a certain consistory deems it wise to invite the women members to attend the congregational meetings with the men members, would such a consistory act in conflict to I Corinthians 11? Hardly. To give our women the right to express certain preferences in common with the men, and to give them the right to cast a ballot, designating whom they would prefer as their ministers, elders, and deacons, cannot be said to militate against God’s revelation in I Corinthians 11. Our women can well exercise the privileges just suggested, without ignoring their womanliness and setting aside their feminine modesty. I would not say that some women might not begin to act unbecomingly and out of keeping with the position allotted by God to the gentler sex. But these would be thexceptions against which we should guard ourselves. Men often abuse their privileges also. Yet we do not for that reason necessarily terminate their privileges.

Let us next consider I Corinthians 14: 33c–35. This passage reads as follows: “As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.”

At first reading this passage might seem to deal rather directly with the matter under discussion. But it should be borne in mind that the apostle in the present chapter is not talking about gatherings comparable to our congregational meetings, but he is speaking of gatherings which we would call worship services. The reading of the 14th chapter makes this very evident to every careful reader. Of course these worship services were not arranged as our worship services arc today. The early church services were modeled after the worship services of the synagogues, at which not only the officers would speak, but other male worshippers also. Now some women at Corinth, doubtlessly moved by the same mistaken conception, explained earlier in this article, also wanted to speak at these worship gatherings. They desired for themselves the privilege of instructing or edifying the congregation just as the men had this privilege.

But this desire on the part of the Corinthian women the apostle condemns. He forbids it. He bids the women keep silence in the churches; that is, in the church services. It is not permitted unto them to speak, says Paul They must be in subjection. That is, they must, also at the church gatherings, subject themselves to the Godordained priority of men. The apostle adds: As also saith the law. Commentators all hold that here Paul refers tGenesis 3:16, “And he shall rule over thee.” The position of leadership and of governmental authority of the men, as expressed by God in this Genesis passage, is here by Paul applied to the non-leadership position which women are to occupy in the church. The apostle even rules out the asking of questions by the women in these congregational worship gatherings, for by asking certain questions some women might still seek to lead and to instruct the men.

The apostle goes so far as to call the speaking of women at the worship services a shameful thing. The Greek word here translated shameful refers to something ugly, deformed, (Hodge) base, disgraceful (Thayer) or improper. Why would the speaking of women in these worship gatherings of the church be something shameful and improper? Because it would be in conflict with the more passive, non-aggressive nature of womanhood in comparison with man in the plan of God; and secondly because it would conflict with the common customs of the day.

We may conclude that this passage certainly militates against those churches which place the women on par with the men as to the church offices. The ordination of women as ministers, elders, and deacons, as this is practiced in some churches, certainly stands condemned by this passage.

The general implication is also that in all mixed church gatherings women shall not seek to assume positions of leadership. Women must not try to break out of their own orbit. They must never usurp the place allotted by God to men.

But now if congregational meetings had been held in Paul’s day as we know them today, then would the apostle have barred women from such gatherings? Would he have objected to their casting ballots at such gatherings?

It seems to me that no one can say with certainty that such would have been the position of the apostle. The passage before us concerns the worship services of thchurch. It does not speak of gatherings at which the rulers of the church confer with the membership of the church and at which certain ballots are cast for the designation of office-bearers and other important issues.

One can say that if certain consistories should decide to invite the women to participate in the activities at congregational meetings, that then the directives of the present passage should tell the women never to forget their more passive, non-leadership position assigned to them by God also in and for the church. In the church also the woman should remember that she is man’s help-meet.

The third passage which requires our special consideration is found in I Timothy 2:11–15. In I Timothy 2 the apostle is doubtless again thinking of what we today would call worship services, of gatherings at which the believers would make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings.” (cf. vs. 1) The apostle returns to this matter in vs. 8, saying, “I desire therefore that the men pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and disputing.And then he proceeds to give certain directions to the women, instructing them first of all to dress soberly and without outward show. And then he continues to tell them that—at these church gatherings of which he is speaking—they shall not teach or rule. The women are to learn in quietness with all subjection. They are not to speak in these gatherings, and they are to submit themselves to the leadership exercised by the men (vs. 11). Then Paul for emphasis’ sake repeats himself as follows: “But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness.”

The apostle fortifies this Scriptural mandate by pointing to the creational ordinance regarding man’s natural priority in many relationships of life. And in verses 14 and 15 Paul then says that in God’s providence the woman is less suited for positions of leadership, for Eve was beguiled, not Adam; and secondly, that the woman has her own, unique sphere and duty. She is saved from inSignificance through her childbearing and all that goes with it, that is, home-making as wife and mother. For as the husband is the head of the home, so she is the heart, and her career, rightly conceived and executed, is exceedingly important.

We therefore conclude that this meaningful passage also fails to say anything directly applicable to other congregational meetings. This passage also refers to the worship gatherings of the churches of Paul’s day. But in connection with these congregational worship gatherings, attended by both men and women, by young and old, certain specific directions are given, which also have significance for our present day congregational meetings.

I think that we should all agree that according to these directions the offices in the church are not for the women. Nor should they occupy any position or activity of leadership in the general gatherings of believers. These positions and activities of leadership in the general gatherings of believers, God here as elsewhere assigns to the men.

I would not say that this passage forbids consistories to invite women to take part in the activities at congregational meetings, in order that the women also may be able to indicate by their vote whom they desire as ministers, elders, and deacons in their churches, and so that they may make their preferences known regarding other important matters which the consistories submit to the judgment of the congregations. But I would immediately add a proviso and say: Provided that the women will remember the clear and emphatic injunction of God’s Word all we find it in I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2, and that they therefore refrain from seeking to guide and to rule at these gatherings. Happily the vast majority of our women would have no desire to guide and to rule at congregational meetings. The vast majority of our women are true to their essential nature and respect God’s ordinances.

On the basis of the findings indicated I am persuaded that Synod will be justified in deciding to give its approval to those consistories which desire to extend an invitation to their women members to attend their congregational meetings.

Synod may well reach this decision also because of the fact that women as well as men share the general three-fold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. The right of suffrage at congregational meetings would give our women a very specific way in which to exercise this three-fold office.

But we should also grant that there is no rule or directive in the Word of God which is being transgressed or ignored if a consistory does not, or does not immediately, extend said invitation to its women members. It certainly cannot be said that the Reformed Churches, for the last 400 years, have been acting in violation of the Word of God, when they did not invite the women to their congregational meetings. Changed circumstances may make it advisable that we at this time begin to invite the women to these meetings also. But consistories which deem it better not to do so, are not violating the Word of God. And inasmuch as the advisability of going in this new direction depends much upon local conditions and circumstances, Synod should do no more than give its approval to those consistories which find that the time is ripe for them to invite the women to their congregational meetings. In other words, Synod should not rule that the introduction of women suffrage is something which is incumbent upon every consistory.

The advisability of a matter of this kind, and its proper time, should be left to the competency of each consistory.