So I haven’t written much on this blog in a while, and I thought the best way back would be a nice, juicy, controversial topic. Well, ok, it doesn’t have to be that opportunistic, but I’ve had the issue of church organization, specifically the practice of “head of household” grouping and voting, on my mind for some time. It is a common practice in my denomination (the Communion of Reformed and Evangelical Churches), and we even practice it at my church. It’s also very controversial, within my own church (though we are all well behaved about it) and among other churches that I’ve known. There are some people who are very unhappy with it, and the concern often raised is what a church’s means of representation says about its larger theology. There also people who think it’s really great. So let’s talk.
1) First let’s define our terms. It might surprise you, but people almost always equivocate on “the church.” Baptists have a different definition of the word than do Presbyterians, and Presbyterians have a different definition than do Lutherans, and Lutherans have a different definition than do Episcopalians, and they all have a different definition from Roman Catholicism, so let’s say what exactly we are talking about.
For matters of church polity and voting, we are talking about congregations. We are not talking about “the church triumphant.” We are not talking about the invisible church. But neither are we talking about “the whole church” nor “the church catholic.” Why not? Because they don’t all go to your church. The only people who are included in the discussion about church voting are the people who will be voting at your church. Some churches don’t even have votes. Did you know that? So we have to be honest that we are specifically talking about how members of an individual congregation relate to each other and their (elected/appointed) leadership. That might take a little bit of the shine off a discussion like this, since it means we are talking politics, but it is the inescapable truth.
So we are talking about how a particular congregation organizes itself, particularly its members, and then how it chooses to represent those members. Voting, of course, is only one means of political representation. That we take it for granted today simply shows our thorough contextualization. Can you find a congregational vote in the Bible? I’m not implying that they’re wrong, I’m just pointing out that they are historical and political constructs, things we made in order to make things run smoothly. So again, we are taking another step away from the mystical and heavenly and towards the earthly and normal.
2) I’m going to upset the die-hard Presbyterians, the hardshell Baptists, and most of the Roman Catholics here, but the Bible does not actually command any one form of church government and organization. Descriptions are not prescriptions, but even still, the New Testament has relatively few descriptions of church offices as such. It has a few lists, but basically you get pastors, bishops (or just “presbyters), elders, and deacons. There’s nothing specific about how to perpetuate these offices, nor about how congregations should relate to other congregations in different regions. And there’s certainly nothing about how to organize a church roll.
So where did our traditions of church membership, voting, etc. come from? We created them for the sake of efficiency and expediency. The not-so latitudinarian John Calvin explains:
First, then, let us understand that if in every human society some kind of government is necessary to insure the common peace and maintain concord, if in transacting business some form must always be observed, which public decency, and hence humanity itself, require us not to disregard, this ought especially to be observed in churches, which are best sustained by a constitution in all respects well ordered, and without which concord can have no existence. Wherefore, if we would provide for the safety of the Church, we must always carefully attend to Paul’s injunction, that all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). But seeing there is such diversity in the manners of men, such variety in their minds, such repugnance in their judgments and dispositions, no policy is sufficiently firm unless fortified by certain laws, nor can any rite be observed without a fixed form. So far, therefore, are we from condemning the laws which conduce to this, that we hold that the removal of them would unnerve the Church, deface and dissipate it entirely. For Paul’s injunction, that all things be done decently and in order, cannot be observed unless order and decency be secured by the addition of ordinances, as a kind of bonds. In these ordinances, however, we must always attend to the exception, that they must not be thought necessary to salvation, nor lay the conscience under a religious obligation; they must not be compared to the worship of God, nor substituted for piety. (Inst. 4.10.27)
This means that any time humans get together they are going to have to make some rules. This is the only way to follow Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor. 14:40 to “let all things be done decently and in good order.” Since Paul didn’t write a Book of Church Order, it is left up to various congregations to do so on their own. Once these “laws” are agreed upon and finalized, they should ordinarily be followed. This is the key to unity and harmony. Calvin’s only caveat is that we should never make these rules “necessary to salvation” nor assume that they have been given directly form the hand of God and are on the same level as divine worship and holiness. They could well be wrong. They just need to be followed until appropriately amended. In other words, they are typical examples of human law.
But what about the Old Testament? The Old Testament is a great place to go for principles of wisdom, morality, and general equity. It is not a great place to go for proof-texts. This is because most of the examples people turn to are taken from the civic arrangement of Israel. In other words, they are political establishments for a particular nation in a specific time and place. And they do change over time, particularly as the people move from tribes and clans to a nation and then to a diaspora and then to a vassal state within a foreign empire. The positive laws that actually do refer to the religious institution as such are almost always bound up in the Aaronic priesthood, an order that is definitively fulfilled in Christ. It’s actually not very easy to locate “the church” in the Old Testament, if by that we mean an institution distinct from the temple and sacrificial system but also from the family and civil government. The concept is there, of course, but there isn’t any sort of blueprint for institutional arrangement.
So all that was a great big set up for this simple statement: There is no single “right way” to organize a congregation. Head of household voting may or may not be the best way to go, but it would be wrong to say that it is either always right or always wrong. Whenever someone makes either of those arguments, they are operating on a legalistic assumption of the church. Make them define the terms and explain themselves, and you’ll see how complicated everything gets.
3) But how was “the early church” organized? As I just said, we don’t know all of the specifics. We do know a few things. They had officers of some sort: Acts 1:15-26, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 14:23, Acts 15, (esp. vs. 22-23), Acts 20:17, 1 Timothy 3:1-13, 1 Timothy 4:14, 1 Timothy 5:17, and Titus 1:5. They also maintained traditional family structuring within congregations. This is where some critics of head of household voting go astray. It is quite evident that the Apostle Paul did not mean to say that natural familial distinctions and roles “go away” within the visible church, even though “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female… in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). Liberal Christians try to go all the way with this sort of argument and claim that homosexuality is no longer a sin and that prohibitions against female clergy are contrary to the gospel. Most conservatives, while not going so far (because there are just too many other obvious texts which argue against it), still go part of the way down this road of thinking. Since there is neither male nor female in Christ, they argue, we must have some form of egalitarianism when it comes to internal church relations. But that’s pretty clearly not the way the Apostle Paul thought about things.
Take the following verses for an example:
Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.
Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor. 11:2-16)
Most evangelicals try to steer clear of this passage because they don’t want to have to deal with the headcovering issue. Since they aren’t going to ask their wives to wear a hijab, they just sweep this whole section aside. But that’s not really faithful to a desire to learn from the Bible as a whole. I don’t think that women have to wear headcoverings in church today, though it might well be a good idea for some places. I think the underlying principle is what matters: wifely submission must have an evident external form. The particulars can vary, but the point is that even in questions of decorum, the Biblical principle of submission should be affirmed and even promoted. And if Paul thinks that this matters within the liturgy, then that means that the practice of the visible church does not subsume or override the natural social and familial order. We could say a lot more about that passage of Scripture, but that will have to do for now.
Also consider these unpopular verses:
Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. (1 Cor. 14:34-35)
The point here is not to beat up on the women, nor to give you a new set of rules that you have to go implement. Remember that I said earlier in this post that there isn’t just one right way to do things. But still, Paul’s philosophy of social relations is pretty clear, even within the church meeting. Women’s roles as women continues to be very important. And in verse 35 we do see an example of household representation. Paul instructs the wife to ask her own husband at home. He is appealing to a principle of subsidiarity: handle your business on the most local level of authority possible.
Here’s one final quote, from the same book:
For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. (1 Cor. 7:14)
Here is another example of familial representation, this time having to do with holiness. The entire “household” (or domestic family unit) is objectively sanctified, even apart form personal belief. This is the philosophical foundation for those “household” baptisms in the book of Acts (Acts 16:15, 16:33). Neither sanctification nor baptism are atomistic activities, but rather involve a society, most immediately (whenever possible) that of the natural family.
And so the only examples of intra-congregational social relations that we have are those which retain a central place for the family. Whatever sort of “congregational meetings” they would have (and they would have certainly had some sort of internal gathering for communication–again, we see this in Acts), they would certainly have been familial and with hierarchical representation of some sort. James Burtchaell’s From Synagogue to Church has an extended investigation of the various continuities between synagogue-organization and that of the early church. This can all get pretty complicated, but the short story is that the early Christian churches continued earlier forms of ecclesiastical arrangement with certain modifications. They were not revolutionary, and they certainly did not usher in some new “era” of human social existence.
4) So am I really saying that head of household organization is the way they did it in the early church and therefore “the way to go”? Not exactly. But I am saying that’s there’s not any sort of biblical argument against it. Familial solidarity was the historical and civic norm for the time, and thus the early church was modelling its own organization after the normal, natural social organization of its people. That can and does change, and it depends upon the particular factors and motivations behind those changes to determine whether they are good or bad.
In fact, in most of the modern world, head of household voting works the opposite of the way it did in the early church. What I mean is that rather than reflecting the natural way that the people organize themselves, it is now the different and “weird” thing to do. Most churches in America and the West organize themselves more or less individualistically, and they do this because that is how their civil societies organize. So you could make an argument that for the church to simply organize itself the way society does, which is what the New Testament largely did, would be for it to not have head of household voting, but rather individual membership and individual voting. Following the “weaker brother” principle, churches should not give unnecessary cultural and civic offense, thus they shouldn’t try to do anything strange or weird with their polity. That would be a perfectly reasonable argument, one that I’ve made in the past.
The response to that, though, would be to question just how “normal” our current individual representation is, why we do it, and the prevailing philosophy which underlies it. If any of those are particularly problematic, and especially if they teach and encourage destructive patterns of thought and behavior, then it might be pastorally wise to challenge them inside the church, if that can be done in a non-extreme or revolutionary (in the strict sense) manner. I think this is where I’m starting to land now, honestly. In an age where family identity, human sexuality, respect for authority and tradition, and overall pious humility are very much in question, then a strong family representation within the church might be a very helpful and important witness to the world. After all, it doesn’t make much sense to have a strong emphasis on “family economics” in the secular world but not inside the church. Household organization within the church might be the “crunchy” way to go!
5) As I said at the beginning, we have to define our terms. “Household” is a pretty tricky term itself. It doesn’t simply mean “biological family” and definitely not the “nuclear family.” It means the domestic sphere of influence, particular when it comes to nurture, legal guardianship, and economic provision. In some cultures, then, the “household” would include multiple generations and even domestic servants. We might do well to question our notion of the family here in America and in the West, but for now we have to start with what we’ve got. These are complicated matters calling for wisdom, but they are also great opportunities for both learning and teaching.