Whether Ladies have the Right to Vote for Church Officers

 

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

Analysis
Pro
Con
The Scottish Church

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An Analysis

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).

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Pro

1600’s

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)  

 

 

Con

1800’s

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. 

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Contemporary

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.

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The Scottish Church

(See also Rutherford above and pp. 10-11 of Fentiman’s article)

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The Church of Scotland, early to mid 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.

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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 1800’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 through the 1500’s to 1800’s (citing numerous examples) as including the meanings of:

“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).

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Related Pages

Ladies

Ladies in the Church

Church Membership

Church Government

 The Offices of the Church

The Regulative Principle of Church Government

Presbyterianism

Congregationalism and Independency