After I posted my essay on head of household voting, Pastor Douglas Wilson was kind enough to link to it and add his thoughts. In the comments, however, RC Sproul Jr added his opinion that women should not be allowed to vote at all, even if they are heads of households, because this would be an example of women having “authority” or “rule” over a man. It is not my intention to “go after” Dr. Sproul on this point, but I do think it’s a good opportunity for me to further clarify my own position and show that it is distinct from “male only” voting. I think that Dr. Sproul’s concerns are founded on faulty reasoning, and as such, I think that women can be heads of households in certain conditions and that, in those conditions, they can and should vote, if the congregation chooses to have such a style of voting.
First, can a women ever be a head of a household? Since a household is a basic domestic unit, defined by legal jurisdiction, provision, and protection, whoever is the senior provider and protector is identified as the head. The New Testament says that “wives” should submit to their “husbands,” but it never says simply that “women” should submit to “men” across the board. This is a pretty significant distinction, as it means that there can be any number of situations where some men have to submit to some women. For instance, an elder son is still expected to submit to his mother until he leaves the home and goes out on his own (and even then he has to honor her and show appropriate respect). If you are visiting another family’s home, you should do what the woman of that house asks of you, as long as it is within reason. Also men must submit to a queen, if they have one. There’s even the unusual but famous example of Deborah the female judge in Judges 4. Looking at it from the other side, it would be wrong for a wife to submit to someone else’s husband. She has to submit to her own husband. And a husband has no business trying to exert authority over someone else’s wife. That’s outside of his jurisdiction. Thus the Bible does not have an absolute prohibition on women being in authority, nor does it say that every man is in charge of every woman. The normative principle is rather that of husbandly and paternal authority.
Two ordinary examples of female “heads” in current times would be widows and single adult women living on their own. Since they do not have husbands to whom they must submit, and since they are no longer living under their father’s rule (evidenced by the fact that they are financially and legally independent), they have no other head. They are, as it were, autocephalous. Paul even says that a widow is “free” from her husband’s “law” (Rom. 7:3, also 1 Cor. 7:39).
But do we ever see women mentioned as heads of households in the New Testament? Yes. Commentators disagree on the exact number of women singled out for special mention by Paul, but some stand out as particularly obvious. The first is Lydia (Acts 16:14). She is described as being a woman of some renown in her city, possessing a high-profile civic vocation. Notice that Acts 16:15 calls it “her household.” There’s no Mr. Lydia mentioned as the head of the house. It is Lydia’s house, and it appears that a congregation began meeting there (Acts 16:40). Second is Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11). Her household is so close with Paul that they serve as messengers, relaying what’s going on at the church in Corinth. And again, the text calls it “Chloe’s” house. So we can speak of female “households” with Biblical warrant.
The next relevant question for our conversation is then whether or not these women would have had some sort of “authority” by virtue of their headship. I argue that the answer is a clear yes, and here’s how. If these women are heads of houses which have some men in them, whether sons or domestic servants, then some men are under the authority of these women. Furthermore, if these women are donating their house for church meetings, and the early church was famous for having female patrons, then it stands to reason that they got some sort of “say in the matter” at some point in that process. Even a basic, “Why yes, I’d love to have y’all meet in my house!” would count as a form of permission. A man’s getting a woman’s permission to make a church decision as important as where to meet and when is surely as “authoritative” as a typical congregational vote.
A third example is also instructive here. Though not described as a head of a house, Phoebe is invested with some measure of authority from Paul:
I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also. (Rom. 16:1-2)
There’s no need to debate whether Phoebe was a sort of office-holder in the church or not. All we need to see is that she was on a business trip of some sort and that Paul is asking the church in Rome, which includes men, to listen to what she needs and comply with what she asks. So again, we have a woman conducting church business, and Paul is telling the church to do what she says. That is some measure of “authority” on her part, of a specific sort, to be sure, but it would nonetheless extend “over” the men in the congregations she visits. Can you imagine someone objecting to Paul here and saying “But I can’t have a woman telling me what to do!” Me neither.
Thus Paul’s prohibitions against women “teaching” and “having authority” over men in places like 1 Tim. 2:12 are along the lines of principled architectonic community-rule. Women should not be pastors or elders, and they should not “lead the group.” But unless one is an absolute democrat, congregational votes are not forms of architectonic rule but rather occasions for the congregation to represent itself and give their elders, those who have been invested with architectonic rule, their opinion on the matter. Voting for rulers is not the same thing as ruling, unless, again, you are a hardline democrat and congregationalist.
Also, if a husband is not abdicating his authority within the marriage by asking for his wife’s considered opinion on a matter and even at times deferring to that opinion, then a church’s elders are likewise not abdicating their authority by doing the same to their membership, including the female members. And of course, if the vote is by anonymous ballot, then one wouldn’t even know which votes came from the men and which from the women. To say that allowing female heads of households to vote is equivalent to having them “rule” the church is just too much of a stretch.
It seems to me that denying women heads a vote is to effectively deny their household a vote. It subsumes them under someone else’s household, and thus in the name of patriarchy some households are ruled by other households, quite apart from the marital covenant and normal domestic association. This perhaps subtle equivocation results in a very different outcome. It is not longer rule by fathers or husbands, but simply rule by men as men. This is then not an extension of the protector/provider principle and thus it loses the unity of the father/husband jurisdiction. In other words, the whole logic of authority and jurisdiction falls away, leaving merely the question of sex.
So my position is that women can and sometimes are heads of households, namely in the case of widows and adult singles. If the congregation has head-of-household voting, then these female heads can and should vote. The principle here is family representation, based upon the makeup of any particular congregation. My position seeks to preserve this principle of family solidarity without simply arguing for male-only voting, all to be handled with pastoral prudence apart from simple appeals to absolute law.