The Question of Woman Sufferage in the Church

EDITORIAL NOTE: With this article Prof. Martin Monsma of Calvin Theological Seminary addresses himself to a problem of current interest in the Christian Reformed denominations. Unlike many churches, the Christian Reformed Church has usually allowed only the male communicant members to vote at the congregational meetings.

We welcome the Rev. Mr. Monsma as a contributor to Torch and Trumpet, believing that his knowledge and experience as pastor and teacher will insure a competent statement of this problem and its solution.

Should our women receive the right to vote at Congregational Meetings?

This question has been before our Christian Reformed churches the past few years; officially ever since 1947. Classis Muskegon overtured the Synod of that year “to study further the question or the proper function of the Congregational Meeting among our ecclesiastical assemblies and to properly delineate the authority of that assembly with a view to the solving of the problem of allowing women members to vote at Congregational Meetings.”



Synod decided in harmony with the Muskegon overture and appointed a committee to study this matter.

This committee reported to the Synod of 1950. The findings, tentative conclusions, and advice of the study committee may he found in the Synodical Acts of 1950, pages 267–280. In harmony with the recommendations of the committee, Synod of 1950 decided to ask the advice o[ the next Reformed Ecumenical Synod. Our Synod suggested that advice from the Ecumenical Synod should especially concern the nature and authority of Congregational Meetings in our Reformed system of church government, and that it should include an exegetical study of all Scripture passages which have bearing on the question at hand.

The Ecumenical Synod of 1953, meeting at Edinburgh, Scotland, complied in part with the request of our Synod, in that it adopted an expression on the question of women suffrage in the churches. This advice reached our Christian Reformed Synod this past summer. Our Synod appointed a committee to study the report of 1950, together with the advice of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, and to come with recommendations to one of our early Synods. (Study committees have twO years at their disposal, but they may report at the very next Synod.)

Having been requested to write on this very important subject for Torch and Trumpet, I shall not at this time seek to present whatever views I personally may have on the subject. In the first place, because I would want to study some of the issues involved more thoroughly before formulating my personal conclusions, and in the second place, Synod appointed me to the committee which is to study this whole question and which is to advise our churches regarding this matter. For me to go into print at this time regarding this subject, attempting anything like a final formulation would surely be unwise and premature.

I shall rather try to reproduce the issues involved objectively. That may help a bit to promote study, reflection, and discussion on this subject. Such reflection, and discussion are highly desirable on this and all weighty matters which concern the life of our churches and the promotion of God’s Kingdom.

The mandate which the Synod of 1947 gave the study committee appointed by it included particularly two matters. A delineation of the nature and authority of Congregational Meetings, and a study of the question of women suffrage at our Congregational Meetings.

Why should Synod or 1947 include a study of the nature and authority of Congregational Meetings in its charge to a study committee? The answer to his question is near at hand. For the answer to the question whether or not our women should vote and take part in the activities at our Congregational Meetings stands closely related to this other question: what are our Congregational Meetings? Are they essentially governing in character, or are they merely advisory in character? When our men discuss various issues at Congregational Meetings and vote on these issues, then are they merely expressing their opinions and are they advising the Consistory, or do these gatherings reach certain decisions which have binding significance and according to which the Consistory must take certain actions?

If decisions reached at Congregational Meetings are really no more than advice then it cannot be said that if our women should speak and vote at these meetings, that they are exercising a measure of governmental authority. If, on the other hand, decisions reached at Congregational Meetings are more than advice, more than an expression of opinion on the part of the congregation for the benefit of the Consistory; if these decisions are binding and authoritative, then it follows that our women taking part in these meetings, would be exercising governmental authority in and for the church of Jesus Christ. The assumption, it should he noted, is that the men, according to the Bible, may help to govern the churches, but not the women. Whether or not this assumption is correct, is another question; that question we are not now considering. I merely call this assumption to the reader’s attention to indicate why the question of the nature and authority of Congregational Meetings comes to the fore as a prior question, as soon as we seek to answer our first question, i.e., may our women vote at Congregational Meetings?

Now the study committee of 1947 pointed out that the generally accepted opinion in our circles has been that our Congregational Meetings are not authoritative, but advisory in character. Not the congregation, but the Consistory, is the ruling body of the church.

In favor of this position the committee just referred to calls attention to statements by Dr. F. L. Rutgers, Kerkrechterlijke Adviezen, 1, p. 159; 11, p. 169, and Prof. Wm. Heyns, Kerkrecht en Kybernetiek, p. 288, and Handbook for Elders and Deacons, pp. 130–133. The committee also points out that Art. 29 of the Church Order mentions the governing assemblies which we maintain and acknowledge. The article does not mention Congregational Meetings. Moreover, the Church Order repeatedly speaks of matters which are to be submitted to the congregation for its approbation. (cf. Art. 4, 5, and 22) The Church Order uses the word approbation, not decision.

The study committee however came to the conclusion that the traditional position cannot be maintained. It took the position that our Congregational Meetings are governmental in character and not merely advisory.

Here are the arguments of the Committee in brief summary: “The Creeds attribute more than advisory power to the congregation. The answer to question 85 of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of the office-bearers as “those who are appointed by the church.” Art. 31 of the Confession of Faith speaks of Elders and Deacons chosen “by a lawful election by the church.”

The Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons speaks of these office-bearers as “lawfully called of God’s church.”

Art. 22 of the Church Order speaks of nominees being presented, “to the congregation for election,” and of the one-half of the nominees “chosen by it.”

A model set of Articles of Incorporation, sanctioned by our Synod of 1926, contains statements such as the following “…no such purchase, sale or conveyance, mortgage, lease or fixing of salaries shall be made unless the affirmative vote of a majority of the members of this church organization, of which said trustees, are officers, shall first be obtained at a meeting of such members of this church or congregation present and entitled to vote…”

Certain authorities in the field of Reformed church government attribute more than an advisory voice to the congregation. They attribute governmental authority to certain decisions reached at Congregational Meetings. Voetius, 1589–1676, the outstanding authority regarding Reformed church polity, so the committee found, considered participation in the election of office-bearers as belonging to the governmental authority of the church. Pol. Eccle. (I, pp. 33, 225). The committee gives the following translation of one of his statements: “Whether this or that person is chosen, directly, by the membership or indirectly through the consistory, it certainly is true that ruling power is imparted to the individual through a lawful election by the members of the congregation” (Pol. Eccl. I, p.228).

Prof. H. Bouwman, Prof. S. Greydanus, and others, as members of a Synodical Committee for the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands in the year 1930, made the following statement: “That according to Reformed church polity election to office by the members of the congregation is not advisory in character, but rather a cooperative act of the members of the congregation with the Consistory in designating persons of office.”

Prof. K. Dyk stated in 1919 that among the Reformed brethren in the Netherlands it is the prevailing opinion that election of office-bearers belongs to the ruling power of the church and is an exercise of governing authority. He himself has certain reservations, See Bowwen en Bewaren, Sept.16, 1949.

The committee also quotes Calvin at length to indicate that he also accorded an authoritative voice to the congregation. See Calvin’s Institutes; Book IV, Chap. Ill, Par. 15.

As to the teaching of Holy Writ regarding the nature and character of Congregational Meetings, I would quote the study committee of 1947 in full. The committee has this to say: “Scripture docs not present specific regulations for the election of office-bearers, but it does reveal certain principles which the church must observe in this matter.

“A. Scripture makes it perfectly plain that the congregation is not to exercise free choice in the election of office-bearers as in the church is simply a society of individuals voluntarily united for the attainment of a common goal. On the contrary, the church is the body of Christ and it is the duty of the office-bearers to safeguard the recognition of the authority of Christ and to direct matters in such a way that all things are done in orderly and worthy fashion. (cf. passages cited above; and Eph. 4:12–16.)

“B. It should be noted that. the apostles did not appoint to office. They did not “lord it” over the church, expecting the members of the congregation simply to obey. The apostles did give leadership, did emphasize the qualifications for holding office, and did ordain to office; but they recognized the fact that the congregation must have a voice in the election to office, and acted accordingly. Office-bearers have the obligation to request cooperation or the congregation so that the will of Christ may be done. Guidance through the office and choice by the congregation go hand in hand. To regard this voting at congregational meetings as advisory in character is to reduce it to a mere formality. (cf. Acts 14:23; Titus 1:50.)

“C. Scripture demands that we shall reckon with the office of believers. The members of Christ’s body share in His anointing. Each one is called to active participation and to that end has received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It should be remembered that the offices are representative of Christ, but He designates who shall fill these by revealing His wilt through a Spirit-guided church. Just as the body functions through the various organs, so the body of Christ or the church expresses itself through the offices. It must be maintained that the office in the church does not originate apart from the church and stand above it, but comes up out of the congregation itself. Intrinsically a group of believers has the right of self-government. Would anyone deny that a company of Christians isolated because or shipwreck or some other reason, would have the right to organize and to choose office-bearers, thus making provision for their necessary spiritual care? Even the apostles were first disciples, believers, or members of the church, before being called to apostleship. (Eph. 4:12–16)”

The committee concludes this part of its investigation with the following words: “In view of all this it should be clear that our congregational meetings do more than advise. They exercise a measure of ruling power. They influence and help direct the affairs of the church and or God’s Kingdom. It now remains for us to investigate what bearing this has upon the question of woman suffrage at our congregational meetings.”

The summary of the committee’s findings on this specific and very important practical question we hope to offer in the next issue of Torch and Trumpet.