Should ladies have the right to vote for their own rulers in the elections of church officers? The question is scriptural, practical and perennial; and, as it deals with ‘rights,’ it sometimes incites fervor in those whom the question affects. What saith the Lord?
Order of Contents
The Scottish Church
The Westminster Assembly
Fentiman, Travis – ‘An Analysis of Rutherford and M’Crie on whether Ladies have the Right to Vote for Church Officers’ 2015 21 pp. with Samuel Rutherford and Thomas M’Crie appended on the subject
Rev. Fentiman analyzes the alternative positions of Rutherford and M’Crie on the question and comes to a third middle viewpoint in-between both. His conclusions are:
(1) The voting of ladies was defended and practiced during the best time of the Church of Scotland;
(2) Voting in elections for Church officers is not an act of ruling;
(3) The grammar and context of Acts 6 does not exclude ladies;
(4) The exegetical argument from ‘no male nor female’ (Gal. 3:28) for every-member-voting, grounded on church membership, is strained and inconclusive;
(5) There is a third, middle-view in-between the alternatives of every-church-member voting and head-of-household voting;
(6) The congregation’s consent to its rulers is necessary by natural law, and Scripture enforces this natural right;
(7) This is the substance of all that presbyterians have ever generally
desired to maintain from the pertinent passages of Scripture;
(8) The congregation holds this right of election in common, though this does not specifically stipulate that each member has the right of a particular vote;
(9) The method of election in discerning the will of the congregation is not clearly prescribed by scripture and is hence indifferent;
(10) This was essentially the view of M’Crie.
Thus, the election of officers, whether by the vote of every church member, the heads-of-households, the session of elders (in their representative capacity) or otherwise, is indifferent and adaptable.
This viewpoint (specifically points 7-9) are consistent with, and essentially that of the Church of Scotland during the Westminster era (see below on this page).
Rutherford, Samuel – Ladies have the Right to Vote in Ecclesiastical Elections 1644 2 pages, being pp. 476-7 of his The Due Right of Presbyteries, with a 3 page Introduction by Rev. Travis Fentiman
Rutherford, the Westminster divine, argues that ladies have the right to vote in ecclesiastical election as the right of election of officers is a privilege, not an act of ruling, and it belongs to the every member of the Body of Christ, as there is no ‘male nor female… in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal. 3:28)
M’Crie, Sr., Thomas – On the Right of Females to Vote in the Election of Ministers and Elders 1822 8 pp. a letter, re-edited and with explanatory footnotes.
This is the classic, historic piece arguing ‘no.’ M’Crie’s letter is a model of principle mixed with humility and charity. M’Crie was an early 1800’s Scottish presbyterian of the Seceder tradition, and a foremost historian of the Scottish Covenanters.
Kayser, Phillip – Universal Suffrage: a History and Analysis of Voting in the Church and Society 2007 21 pp.
This is the fullest and most detailed argument against ladies voting in both the Church and State.
The Scottish Church
(See also Rutherford above and pp. 10-11 of Fentiman’s article)
The Church of Scotland, 1600’s
M’Crie, Jr., Thomas – p. 232 of The Story of the Scottish Church See especially the 2nd paragraph of the footnote. The context, from p. 228, is the discussion of patronage.
M’Crie Jr. was the son of M’Crie Sr., and was also a minister in the Secession Church of Scotland and a renowned historian of the Scottish Church.
M’Crie here describes (especially in the footnote) the view and practice of the Church of Scotland from 1649 (though not mentioning females), with a note about the relation of the Independent controversy. M’Crie summarily states what Gillespie argues for below.
Gillespie, George – Ch. 2, ‘Of the Elections of Pastors with the Congregations Consent’ in A Treatise of Miscellaneous Questions Unknown date, printed in 1649
Gillespie argues and delineates the very nuanced theory and practice of election in the Church of Scotland during the Westminster era.
He does not mention females specifically, but seems to imply their consent in the consent of the congregation. Gillespie, while affirming the necessity of the consent of the congregation, gives the chief part in election to the elders of the session of the local church. Fentiman’s view (see especially pp. 16-18 of his analysis) is consistent with this.
Excerpt, pp. 4,11,13:
“The question is not…
whether the whole collective body of the Church ought to be assembled, and their voices severally asked in elections, for all may consent when none vote in elections but the representative body of the church…
nor whether liberty ought to be granted to the whole congregation, or any member thereof [females are members], to object against the man’s life or doctrine, or against his qualifications for such a particular charge…
but the question is whether it be necessarily required to the right vocation of a pastor that he be freely elected by the votes of the eldership [session] and with the consent (tacit or expressed) of the major or better part of the congregation, so that he be not obtruded renitente et contradicente ecclessia [‘resisting and contradicting the Church’].
Neither, in this same point of elections, do we homologate [agree] with them [Independents, Anabaptists and Separatists] who give to the collective body of the church (women and children under age only excepted) the power of decisive vote and suffrage in elections, we give the vote only to the eldership or church representative, so that they carry along with them the consent of the major or better part of the congregation… out of Thomas [Aquinas] this difference betwixt consent and election, that though every choosing be a consenting, yet every consenting is not a choosing.
 The liberty of consent is one thing;  counsel or deliberation another thing;  the power of a decisive voice in court or judicatory a third thing. I speak of a constituted church (for where there is not yet an eldership there can be no such distinction; yet, however, be there an eldership, or be there none, the church’s consent must be had).
The first of these [consent] we ascribe to the whole church, without whose knowledge and consent ministers may not be intruded;
the second [counsel & deliberation] to the ablest and wisest men of the congregation, especially to magistrates, with whose special advice, privity and deliberation, the matter ought to be managed;
the third [a decisive voice in court], which is the formal and consistorial determination of the case of election, consists in the votes of the eldership.
Their way [Independents, etc.] is much different than this, who would have the matter prepared by the conference and deliberation of the eldership (as we used to do in committees),¹ but determined and decided by the votes of the whole congregation.
[¹There was a change in the Church of Scotland’s practice on this, probably due a response to the Independents. See Thomas M’Crie (the younger), p. 232 of The Story of the Scottish Church See especially the 2nd paragraph of the footnote. The context, from p. 228, is the discussion of patronage.]
I conclude with a passage out of the Ecclesiastical Discipline of the Reformed Churches in France, ch. 1, ‘The silence of the people, none contradicting, shall be taken for an express consent…”
Henderson, G.D. – pp. 216-225 of ch. 6, ‘Controversy’ in The Scottish Ruling Elder 1935
“The Order for the election of elders in use at Edinburgh at the Reformation gave the Session the duty of selecting a number of names from which the congregation chose half to be elders. This Order was generally confirmed by the Assembly of 1582. According to the Second Book of Discipline the Session nominates and the people approve. The names of those proposed were always brought before the congregation in order that any objection might be brought forward. [John G.] Lorimer, quoting the Presbyterian Review, 1834, makes a vain attempt to insist that there was real popular election in the seventeenth century… Everybody, however, was satisfied that the people’s rights were amply preserved when the Session elected.
In 1642 the Assembly stated the rule that the old Session should elect the new [elders] both in town and country, always of course with the consent of the people [contra patronage]… The same custom was followed in the churches of Strassburg, France and Holland…
…On these occasions [in 1654, 1656, 1658, 1669, which were enumerated by Henderson, though not quoted here] the congregation apparently was not present, though the regular edicts with regard to objections had been submitted; but clearly it was more usual to admit elders publicly before the congregation, as for example at Yester in 1683. Nevertheless, at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth elders at Oldmachar were regularly admitted simply at a Session meeting.
But the idea of popular election really came in with the Secessions [1733 ff.]. Currie, of Kinglassie, a Church of Scotland minister, had attempted something approaching popular election before 1740. In 1761 Aberdeen Associate Church minutes that ‘this congregation knows that the right of election belongs to such as are in full communion with us.’
In the Church of Scotland some of the Evangelicals favored popular election, and Lorimer devotes a chapter [ch. 10] in his Eldership of the Church of Scotland to advocating the method. It had been definitely rejected by Assembly a few years previously, but in 1842 it was carried, and it became the rule in the Free Church. At Urquhart Free Church in 1845 elders were elected at a meeting of male communicants and male heads of families…”
The Secession Church of Scotland 1733 ff.
Brown of Haddington, John – Letter 10, ‘Of the Election of Ministers’ in Letters on the Constitution, Government and Discipline of the Christian Church, pp. 62-71 especially p. 69
Brown of Haddington (1722-1787) was a leading minister and professor in the Secession Church of Scotland during the mid-to-late 1700’s.
Thomas M’Crie Sr. (1772-1835, also a Secession minister) said, regarding the voting of females in ecclesiastical elections, that “I am satisfied it was not the practice in the Secession [Church of Scotland] at the beginning [1733 ff.].” M’Crie refers to two pieces of evidence for this, only one of which he cites. The wording in the citation is a bit ambiguous and is up for interpretation (see more on this below).
The documentation below casts great doubt on M’Crie’s claim, if not partly overturns it. If head of household voting was not the practice of the Secession Church (the leading evangelical Church in Scotland during the 1700’s), it also casts doubt that head-of-household voting was the accepted, societal, practice of the Scottish Christian Churches of that era, which M’Crie assumes.
Brown frames the question as “whether visible believers, adult, blameless, have a right to choose their pastors and other officers…” (p. 63)
One of his opponents (who is arguing for patronage: for civil citizens, who are not church-members, having a vote in the election of a church officer) poses the question: “Shall a cottager, poor, unlearned, who pays not one farthing of the stipend [to the minister]… have an equal choice of a minister with his [civil] master…?” (p. 67)
In responding, Brown says, “If worldly privileges and endowments cannot make one a subject of the Mediator’s spiritual kingdom; how can they entitle any to, or raise him above his brethren, in the privileges thereof? If by the Son of God the poor cottager has been made free indeed… has received a kingdom which cannot be moved…” Brown goes on to mention “the poorest believer”. (pp. 67-8)
In this context, on the grounds of the right for Church election, Brown says: “How easy to find the herdman, the silly woman, who will endure a trial on Christian principles to far other purpose than many of your rich, your great!” (p. 68) Brown goes on to say, “While in Him, there is neither male nor female… headship over a family can found no claim to a spiritual privilege.” (p. 68)
Brown continues: “Your great man bears the load of the [minister’s] stipend no more than the poorest cottager… might not a poor widow’s two mites be more in Jesus’s account than all he gives? Will you… indulge the thought that the gifts of God, the spiritual privileges of his Church, are to be purchased with money?” (p. 69)
Brown again frames the question on p. 70 as, “in the choice of a pastor, where none but the visible members of Christ’s mystical body, adult and blameless, were admitted to act in the choice… To deprive the Christian people of their privilege in choosing their pastors and give it to others…”
Brown’s framing of the question and arguments that he supports it with are only coherent if lady-church-members had a part in electing their officers.
Letter 11 makes it clear that Brown did not consider the election (partly by females) of officers to be an act of ruling power or that it confers power on the officer. Rather the power by which the officer was ordained and installed was that of the elders: “Election marks out the person; confers not the office,” (p. 71) etc.
M’Crie makes his argument for the Secession Church in its early period only having male-voting by the use in his historical quote of the terms: ‘brethren’, ‘brotherhood’ and related words. However, in a quote above (and in Brown’s chapter and book generally), as Brown considers females to have a right to vote for ecclesiastical officers, his use of the term ‘brethren’ must refer to the body of male and female church members, and not males only.
The Oxford English Dictionary (1979, the most standard and authoritative dictionary of the English language), defines ‘brother’ and its plural use (‘brethren’) through the 1500’s to 1800’s (citing numerous examples) as inclusive of the meanings:
“A fellow member of a Christian society, or of the Christian Church as a whole; a fellow Christian; a co-religionist generally.”
“‘The Brethren’: in N.T. the members of the early Christian churches; hence, sometimes adopted by (or applied ironically to) members of various Christian associations, claiming to adhere to New Testament principles; e.g. the Puritan party in the Church of England under Queen Elizabeth…”
Thus, it is clear that the historic English usage of the terms could follow, and often did follow (especially in a religious context) the usage of the New Testament Greek terms (which included females, see Fentiman, pp. 9-10).
The Westminster Assembly
In debates at the Westminster Assembly over Church government, the ‘Dissenting Brethren’, seven leading Independents, put in their objections to the proposals of the largely presbyterian Assembly. The Assembly responded in detail to this new way of Church government and their objections with detailed, Scriptural arguments.
The presbyterian Assembly held and argued that one public meeting would not have been able to hold all of the Christians in Jerusalem, and that multiple congregations of Christians in the city were united under one presbyterial government. The Independents argued, on the other hand, that there was only one public meeting of the church in Jerusalem. In seeking to prove that all the Christians in Jerusalem met together in one place, the Independents argued that the ‘whole multitude’ of ‘disciples’ in Acts 6:2,5, which were met together to elect church officers (Acts 6:3,5-6), designated all of the believers in Jerusalem.
The Westminster Assembly argued that the phrase ‘all the multitude kept silence’ in the Jerusalem synod in Acts 15:12 (where only male elders would have spoken) did not refer to every believer in Jerusalem, and that the Independents affirm this. If this is true in Acts 15:12, then there is no reason to interpret the similar phrase in a local, church election in Acts 6:2,5 differently.
In the presbyterian Assembly making this argument, they distinguish themselves from the Independent practice of not allowing women and children ‘their suffrages’ (votes), which the Assembly implicitly held to be due to them. ‘Children’ here could very well have been meant to include, rather than young children, teenagers and single men under the roof of their father.
The Westminster Assembly’s statements are consistent with Gillespie and Rutherford’s testimony (above) that not allowing women and ‘children’ to vote was a novel distinctive of the Independents, and not a characteristic of presbyterians.
The Answer of the Assembly of Divines unto the Reasons of the Seven Dissenting Brethren, against the Proposition of Divers Congregations being United under one Presbyterial Government in The Grand Debate, The Reasons Presented by the Dissenting Brethren Against Certain Propositions Concerning Presbyterian Church Government (Naphtali Press, 2014), p. 118, Reason 5, Answer 1
“‘Then all the multitude kept silence,’ [Acts 15:12] which even themselves [the Independents] will not expound of ‘all’ the church [every last person], but only of such as were men of age and discretion [that is, the elders in the Jerusalem synod who would have been speaking], excluding women and children, who if excluded from the multitude there [in Acts 15:12], why not here? [in Acts 6:2,5] Especially considering that this meeting [in Acts 6:2,5] was for the choosing of church officers, wherein we suppose our [Independent] brethren will not allow women and children their suffrages.”