Friday, September 18, 2009

RPCUS Distinctives and the Westminster Standards, Part 5 -9/18/09

A Continuation...part 5 of 6

By John M. Otis

Congregational Voting Limited To Male Heads of Households

The fourth distinguishing characteristic of the RPCUS is that we believe that only male heads of households have a right to vote in a congregational meeting. The RPCUS believes that other Presbyterian and Reformed denominations do not go far enough in limiting the role of women in the church. I Corinthians 14:34 ,35 states, “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.” The text is clear that women are prohibited in speaking in church worship services. If they have theological questions they are to look to their own husbands. The governing principle is that they are to be in subjection. To speak in worship is not to be in subjection. The contrast is clear in the passage – “for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves,…” I Timothy 2:11-14 gives a similar admonition – “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression.”

Many denominations have correctly understood this passage as a prohibition against women officers (teaching and ruling elders and deacons). However, they have fallen short of its total prohibition. A congregational vote is an exercise of rule in the church. It is an exercise of ecclesiastical power. One of the foremost responsibilities of a congregation meeting is the selection of church officers, from the pastor to ruling elders and to deacons. This selection has tremendous and long term affects in the ministry of any particular church. The selection of officers is probably the most important decision in the life of any church. Since it is not unusual for women to constitute a greater number of communing or voting members in a church, this means that women can out vote the male members and determine who is to be church officers. It is not uncommon for Presbyterian pulpit committees ( a committee selected by the congregation to locate prospective pastors and bring recommendations to the congregation for a vote) to be comprised of at least one woman. This means the woman’s vote carries even more power, seeing that the pulpit committee is not that large. The ability to select one man over another as a church officer is an exercise of authority or rule in the church. It is totally out of accord with biblical admonitions that the women are to be submissive to men and remain quiet in church. I Corinthians 11:3 is very forthright in the line of authority – “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” The principle of submission is magnificently brought out in I Peter 3:5,6 regarding the submission of wives to their husbands – “For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children id you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.” Yes, this context along with I Corinthians 11 has primary reference to the relationship of husbands and wives; however, the principle of womanly submission to male headship is not totally restricted to the marriage relationship, for we noted earlier that Paul’s prohibition against women having authority over men is also grounded in the principle of submission. Note carefully that Paul prefaces this prohibition by I Timothy 2:11 which says, “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.” For a woman to possess the power of a congregational vote is totally inconsistent with the cultivation and manifestation of submission to male headship in the life of the church.

The question might be raised by some, “The RPCUS has sought to give a biblical defense of their prohibition against women’s suffrage, but where in the Westminster Standards is this position defended?” First, any doctrine that is biblical is also a doctrine that is either explicitly or implicitly set forth in the Standards. As we examine the Westminster Standards, we will find no explicit chapter or catechism question and answer dealing with the issue of women’s suffrage in the life of the church, but we should not be misled to think that the issue is not addressed in some form. For example, we do not find any explicit mention in the Westminster Standards prohibiting women from holding church office. Are we to interpret this to mean that the Standards do not have a position regarding this issue? In the historical context, this was not an issue. However, the Westminster Standards are not completely silent regarding the role of women in the church. We can implicitly build a case by looking at the Scriptural proof texts given in the document entitled, The Form of Presbyterial Church Government.” In the section of this document dealing with pastors, we find the following comments concerning the public reading of the Scriptures: “That the priests and Levites in the Jewish church were entrusted with the public reading of the word is proved. That the ministers of the gospel have as ample a charge and commission to dispense the word, as well as other ordinances, as the priests and Levites had under the law, proved, Isa. Lxvi. 21. Matt. xxiii. 34 where our Saviour entitleth the officers of the New Testament, whom he will send forth, by the same names of the teachers of the Old.” It is clear from this statement that a parallel is being drawn between the priests and Levites of the Old Testament with ministers of the gospel in the New Testament. Obviously, there are dissimilarities between the two groups, but there are similarities as well. The similarities are addressed in the proof texts. Deuteronomy 31:9-11 and I Timothy 3:2 are cited. In these two proof texts, we find that Moses wrote the law, giving it to the priests, the sons of Levi for them to publicly read to the congregation of Israel. We are told in I Timothy 3:2 that one of the qualifications for an elder is that, if he is married , he is to be the husband of one wife. Hence, we see that the Westminster Standards do implicitly teach from their proof texts that only males are to hold church office.

In The Form of Presbyterial Church Government, we read in the section on ordination the following definition: “Ordination is the solemn setting apart of a person to some publick church office.” The proof text given for this point is Numbers 8:10-22. This portion of Scripture deals with the presentation of the Levites to the Lord for their priestly service. Numbers 8:9,10 reads, “So you shall present the Levites before the tent of meeting. You shall also assemble the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, and present the Levites before the Lord; and the sons of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites.” Only the male representatives were engages in setting apart other males for religious service. Keil and Delitzsch state in their commentary on Numbers, “Moses was then to cause them to draw near before the tabernacle, i.e., to enter the court, and to gather together the whole congregation of Israel, viz., in the persons of their heads and representatives. After this the Levites were to come before Jehovah, i.e., in front of the altar; and the children of Israel, i.e., the tribe princes in the name of the Israelites, were to lay their hands upon them…..that by this symbolic act they might transfer to the Levites the obligation resting upon the whole nation to serve the Lord in the persons of its first born sons, and might present them to the Lord as representatives of the first born of Israel, to serve Him as living sacrifices” (Commentary on the Old Testament, p. 48).

It is vital to note that the phrase “the whole congregation” is expressed in terms of male heads who laid hands on other male representatives for religious service. This principle is carried forward into the New Testament in the ordination of ministers of the gospel. The Form of Presbyterial Church Government states, “Every minister of the Word is to be ordained by imposition of hands, and prayer, with fasting, by those preaching presbyters to whom it doth belong.” If church elders, who are to be males, are installing other elders into church office by the laying on of hands, it is totally inconsistent to imagine women have any part in the selection of these elders by a congregational vote. The problem with our churches is that they seem to think that the existence of women’s suffrage in the broader society must or should be exercised in the church. The legitimacy of women’s suffrage in the civil realm is an equally important issue that should be given a biblical critique, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to give such an assessment.

It is interesting to note the impact of this view upon women in the RPCUS. This author has talked with women in our churches about the prohibition of female voting in congregational meetings. They did not view this prohibition as an act of tyranny or as an attempt to control or subjugate the women in the church. Some said that they viewed this prohibition as a blessing in that they felt relieved of the burden of responsibility that more properly belongs to their husbands.

The point is: Church sessions, don’t be afraid to enact this policy. If your church is grounded in the Word of God, your women will desire faithful male headship in all areas of life, including local congregational life. Regardless of what you think the response of the women in your church will be, you must act biblically. Be courageous, and the Lord will honor you.

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