Woman Suffrage in the Church II

In the October–November 1954 issue of Torch and Trumpet it was my privilege to present to the readers the issues involved in the question of ecclesiastical woman suffrage. Our Christian Reformed denomination has had this problem under advisement for a number of years. My first article aimed to be an objective statement concerning certain findings of a synodical committee which reported to our Synod of 1950. In the present article I shall continue to reproduce the findings of the synodical committee. After the committee had stated its findings regarding the issues involved in the question at hand, they approached the Bible with this specific question: Which place does the Bible assign to women in the church of Christ?

The ACTS and Woman Suffrage

In seeking to answer this question the committee, understandably. first turns to the book of Acts. And the brethren have this to say:

The passage which comes to mind first of all is that found in Acts 1, with such related passages as Acts 6, and Acts 14:23 receiving some consideration. An analysis of this material reveals the following:

1. It is doubtful whether the disciples with their Jewish background would have been ready at that time to give the woman a vote in actual choosing of Matthias.

2. It is uncertain whether there were women in the multitude which Peter addressed and of which it is said: “And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show of these two the one whom thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas fell away, that he might go to his own place. And they gave lots for them; and the lot fen upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:23–26). Acts 1:14 might lead one to conclude that women were present, but Acts 1:15, which seems to indicate a break with the preceding context, leaves this matter in doubt.

3. The term of address used by Peter, “men and brethren” would seem to exclude the women, although there is a difference of opinion amongst commentators on this point. We agree with the exegesis furnished us by Dr. William Hendriksen, who states:

. . . . it is at least of some significant: to point to the fact that according to tile original—which is not brought out very clearly in the American Standard Version-PeteT addressed his audience not merely as adelphoi but as andres adelphoi. On this point Lenski has the following comment: andres adelphoi is the formal address to a body of men and is commonly used thus it is less familiar than adelploi, so that the translation of the A.Y. is preferable to that of the R.Y. The assembly considered of men, otherwise andres could not have been used; adelphoi might include adelphoi, just as today “brethren” may include “sisters,” but andres could not include gunaikes just as to this day the address ‘men’ omits ‘women.’



4. There was no actual election. The matter was decided by casting the lot. At most we have beTe a case of approbation.

5. The material in the book of Acts does not plead for woman suffrage in the church of Jesus Christ. Nowhere in this book does one find clearout evidence that the women cast a ballot or took some other active part in the election of office-bearers.

The Epistles

Next the committee proceeds to consider three passages found in the epistles which have direct bearing on the question of the place of women in the New Testament church. These are I Corinthians 11; I Corinthians 14; and I Timothy 2:12. But the committee prefaces its discussion of these significant passages with an observation. I shall let the committee speak for itself, and quote the most salient part of its remarks on this point:

It is remarkable that in each of these passages Paul bases his position upon the teaching found in the Old Testament, with the creation ordinances especially important in his discussions. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to examine what light the Old Testament sheds on the issue before us. and then to proceed on that basis to an analysis of the material in the New Testament.

It is clear that the Scripture teaches both the equality and inequality of the woman with the man. The equality of the woman is very clearly indicated in Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Evidently in this first chapter of Genesis the woman is viewed as an individual in her relation to God and not first of all in her relation to the man, and it is emphasized that as image-bearer of God she is man’s equal.

On the other hand, the inequality of the woman is evident from Genesis 2, which reveals that she was made after, because of, out of, and for the man. She was meant to be a help to the man and was fashioned in such a way that she would be peculiarly fitted for such a position in life. It is quite evident then, especially in view of verse 24, that in this second chapter the woman is introduced to us as wife and helpmeet. As such she differs from the man both physically and psychologically; and this difference rooted in creation is such that ideally she finds her place in life especially in the home. She must show deference to the man as her head; and, although obligated to cooperate with her husband in ruling over the family, she is duty bound. by virtue of her position as a helper and helpmeet, to recognize that the man has a certain priority in the exercise of authority and in government. It ought to be remembered that although this pertains especially to the marriage relationship, the differences between man and woman are inherent in their very nature. Since man was created and qualified by God to be the leader and aggressor, and the woman was created by God to be man’s helper and complement; it follows that, on the one hand she is constituted differently and is required to recognize that the man certainly has priority in the sphere of government; on the other hand, since she complements the man and has her own gifts she is both privileged and obligated to make her own distinctive contribution.

The difference between man and woman was accentuated by the fall. Whereas according to Genesis 3 the man was cursed in his work, the woman was cursed in her person, and was punished as woman, wife, and mother. The natural, creational relationship between man and woman was not. erased through sin, but it was maintained after sin. The curse of sin would rest upon man as man, and upon woman as woman. Adam was to rule over Eve. Said God: “I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy conception; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Gen. 3:16). Mall has repeatedly over-reached himself and ·has subjected the woman to abuse and domination. This sad fact accounts for practices such as polygamy, concubinage, arbitrary divorces, the treatment of wives as chattel property, etc. These abuses stand condemned by the Word of God. But the creational priority of man in the home and in every realm of life where authority is exercised is not cancelled through man’s fall into sin, but this priority is specifically maintained since by reason of sin men would be inclined to rebel also against this form of God-ordained authority.

The committee also remarks that both the Old Testament and the New Testament demand that women shall be held in honor, and their position and influence in the home is to be held in high esteem. Moreover the committee indicates that as a believer the woman is a sister in the Lord and that she shares equally with man in all the redemptive benefits of Christ. But it also adds that this must not be understood to mean that the natural differences between men and women are annulled or abrogated by Christianity. I Corinthians 11, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3:18; I Peter 3 are referred to, and the remark is made that even as the natural differences between Jew and Gentile were not wiped out as they became one in Christ, so also the natural differences between male and female were not annulled through their oneness in Christ. “In other words,” the committee states, “this creation ordinance governing the relationship between man and woman was not nullified by redemption, but continues in effect even today.”

After these and like preliminary observations the committee turns to the three New Testament key passages, those indicated earlier in this article.

I shall reproduce the committee’s remarks regarding these three passages in full. We read:

1. I Corinthians 11:1–15. We agree with those who hold that Paul is here speaking of what took place in public worship rather than in private assemblies. Be that as it may, it certainly is clear that Paul is not speaking of congregational meetings. This material therefore has indirect but nevertheless important bearing on the question at hand.

There were in that church some extreme emancipationists who thought that their being in Christ freed them from obedience to the creation ordinance governing the relationship between the man and the woman. The wearing of the veil in those days was a symbol of the woman’s subjection and modesty. and was indicative of the fact that the woman reorganized the creation ordinance. Paul does not forbid the creation ordinance. Paul dot’s not forbid women to prophesy but insists that when they do they shall manifest a proper regard for the ordinances of God. To that end be emphasizes the relationship between the woman and the man as rooted in creation and revealed in the Old Testament. In order to meet the objection that man in distinction from the woman would be autonomous, the apostle points out that the head of the woman is the man; the head of the man is Christ; and the head of Christ is God. (cf. I Cor. 11:3.)

2. I Corinthians 14:34, 35 – “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.” Here we note the following points.

a. Commentators are agreed that Paul in this passage is speaking of public worship, although it must be remembered that such worship was far more informal at that time than it is today. It is not true that when the church passed out of the mission stage into a well-organized church, the male members also lost the right of free discussion?

b. The context clearly indicates that Paul is speaking of the use of the charismatic gift of prophesying and that he is insisting that all things shall be done in good order. (cf. verses 22, 24, 26, 29–33, and 40. )

c. This injunction given the women apparently has reference primarily to married women. (cf. I Cor. 14:35.)

d. The injunction that women shall “keep silence in the churches” cannot be given general application. It is a fact that women were allowed to prophesy. (cf. I Cor. 11:1–15.)

e. What the apostle Paul forbids is that women shall take part in the discussion and critical evaluation which took place in public worship at that time in connection with the revelation given to the early church by means of the charismatic gifts of prophesying and speaking with tongues. Paul insists that the women show deference to their husbands by being silent listeners, and that such questions as they might have be asked of their husbands at home. For them to take part in the discussion would, according to Paul, be a violation of the creation ordinance.

3. I Timothy 2:12 – “But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness.” This passage must be interpreted in the light of what Paul has taught in I Corinthians. Certainly none of us would maintain that it is always wrong for a woman to teach. We use women as teachers in our Christian schools and in our Sunday schools, as well as on our mission fields. We expect mothers to teach their children. The text realty speaks for itself for it is evident from the succeeding phrase that Paul does not forbid women to teach, but ·that he condemns any teaching on the part of women which would constitute a usurpation of the authority which rightfully belongs to the man. She may not by her teaching exercise dominion over a man. It would seem to be a very convincing argument against permitting women to hold a teaching or governing office in the church; but that does not happen to be the question with which our mandate deals.

The committee makes the observation that these three key passages do not deal with the question of women speaking and voting at our congregational meetings, but it does feel that the teachings of these passages have Significance for our present question.

Summary of Pros and Cons

Before presenting its recommendations the committee summarizes the pro and con of the arguments regarding woman suffrage in the church in the following words:


1. Congregational meetings are merely advisory in character. No ruling power is exercised at these gathering—so those who speak and vote at these meetings do not help to govern the church.

2. There are no passages or principles in Holy Writ which would forbid the churches from according to women the same rights which men are permitted to exercise at congregational meetings.

3. Not only is the woman used for many important functions in the church today,—think of the help she gives in our Sunday Schools, our work of evangelism, and through our women’s organizations, —but she also has the right of approbation and of protest, and insofar the churches have already accorded to women the right to help govern the churches.

4. Several Reformed church bodies have for years given to their women the right of suffrage at their congregational meetings—such as the Reformed Churches of Scotland. Switzerland, Germany, and Hungary, and also the Hervormde Kerk of the Netherlands.


1. Congregational meetings are more than advisory gatherings. They exercise a measure of ruling power, and decisions duly taken at these meetings are decisive in character. Those who speak and vote at these gatherings help to govern the church.

2. There are certain passages and principles in Holy Writ which forbid the churches from according to women the same rights which men are permitted to exercise at congregational meetings.

3. Our women are indeed worthy and valuable helpers in the churches today—as they already were in the day’s of the Apostles—but the labors which they perform may be classified as helps which harmonize fully with the nature and calling of womanhood. Furthermore, there is a difference between the rendering of silent and inactive approval, and the act of speaking and voting at congregational meetings; as also then: is a difference between an appeal for vindication of a protest against an injustice, and the active participation in the governmental business at congregational meetings.

4. It is true that some Reformed Church bodies have introduced woman suffrage. However, the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands have ruled as recently as 1930 that Holy Writ gives no warrant for introducing woman suffrage in the churches.

It should be remarked that since this report was written the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands have reversed their traditional stand, and have decided to allow women to vote for office-bearers. This decision was taken at their Synod of 1952.

The committee which drafted the report to our synod of 1950 did not feel itself ready to present a specific advice on all the issues involved in this very important question. Regarding some matters the committee members saw eye to eye. But regarding other questions not. However, they all agreed that the synod of 1950 should not attempt to make a final judgment on the question of woman suffrage in the church. The basic issues involved, so the brethren felt, had not come to sufficient clarity in our churches, and the desirable measure of agreement could not be expected at that time.

Specifically the committee advised the Synod to adopt the following:

First, to urge all our leaders, consistories, and Classes to study the questions basic to this issue, giving particular heed to the Scriptural passages cited in this report.

Secondly, to request the next Reformed Ecumenical Synod for advice regarding the matter of women suffrage at congregational meetings. This request for advice, as we see it, should embrace a study of the nature and authority of congregational meetings in our Reformed system of church government, and likewise an exegetical study of all Scripture passages which have bearing on this question.

It should be understood that pending the outcome of this further investigation no church should undertake to introduce women suffrage at its congregational meetings.

Synod of 1950 followed this advice and adopted these suggestions.

In a following article I shall endeavor to report on the action which the Reformed Ecumenical Synod of Edinburg took regarding the request of our 1950 synod, and the decision of the Christian Reformed synod of 1954 regarding the declarations of Edinburgh.