Can Women Be Heads of Households?

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.


22 thoughts on “Can Women Be Heads of Households?

  1. Well said Steven, and am grateful you didn’t “go after me.” I’m not as fleet of foot as I once was. There are precious few points in your piece here that I would disagree with. I have no quarrel with ladies voting in a context in which the vote is not binding. When the elders are seeking information, would the congregation rather have fried chicken or pizza for Wednesday night prayer meetings, do they prefer this hymnal to that one, etc. by all means let everyone vote whose opinion the elders are interested in, even visitors. I also agree that women can be heads of households. My position is not, “Church votes should be by head of households, and ladies can’t be head of households.” Instead it has been, “Those church votes which are binding should only be done my men.” Or, male heads of households.

    Which means I think that we are agreed in principle, but have some minor differences in application. I disagree that a female head of household, in inviting the congregation to make use of her home is ruling, binding, exercising any authority in the church. Her home is her own. She is sharing it with the church. But she is not ruling in the church. On the other hand, votes on who should rule in the church, if they are binding (they need not be), changes in the governing documents, changing denominations, these are in fact the exercise of rule in the church. And ladies oughtn’t to do that. Hope that helps. God bless.

  2. On the other hand, votes on who should rule in the church, if they are binding (they need not be), changes in the governing documents, changing denominations, these are in fact the exercise of rule in the church. And ladies oughtn’t to do that.

    Dr. Sproul,

    I just don’t think this follows. Let’s suppose that there are 30 votes, two of them cast by women. This is roughly the situation at my own church. Now let’s suppose that the vote is to nominate a man for elder, and the result is something like 27 for and 3 against. The two female votes are with the majority. How is that women ruling over men in any meaningful sense? Put them on the other side. I still don’t see it. I suppose you could imagine a scenario where they cast “the deciding vote,” but still, why credit them with the deciding vote. Why not say it was one of the other men? This all seems too much of a stretch.

    Furthermore, even in the event of a binding vote, it isn’t the individual voters who are the “governing body.” Rather they are providing a sort of equality-check/voice of permission for the governing body, the session, who actually make the authoritative action- the ordaining or dismissing of a candidate. In these scenarios, legally speaking, it will be the session and the congregation (as a whole) taking the action. There’s no direct subordination of the men to the women in this scenario at all.

  3. Steven,

    Are you suggesting that when Senator A votes on a bill, a. that if the bill goes the other way he is not ruling or b. if his is not the vote that reaches majority that he is not ruling? And are you in turn saying that women can serve on the session so long as a. they only vote on the losing side or b. never vote when their vote could create the majority victory? That’s what it sounds like to me. Finally, as I said, and will now say for the third time, any vote seeking information is fine.

  4. I’m curious if Dr. Sproul would object to having a queen, or to the 19th amendment.

  5. It seems that the largest number of women led households are divorced women with children, not widows. Makes sense. If you have a church that really reaches out to the world, that what will come in.

  6. I’m not sure what I think. I believe, as our fathers believed, that Paul’s admonition applies directly and immediately to rule in the church. Whether or not it applies to the civil sphere I could not say. Why do you ask?

  7. Dr Sproul,

    Your analogy to the Senate is actually helpful, and I think it supports my point. Who are the Senators ruling over? We don’t normally think of one Senator being “over” another Senator, except for committees of various sorts or the whip or majority leader, etc. But within the Senate as such, they are equal representatives, ruling over their constituency. Thus, mutatis mutandis, the women heads of household are not ruling over other households, but rather their own. And in the case of presbyterian polity, the “senators” would be the elders, not the heads of household. The heads of households are just the citizens, arranged by family.

    I think that this question is actually determined by one’s political philosophy and basic assumptions about human gatherings. If one is starting off with a sort of strict atomostic democracy (as in congregationalist polity and in much of contemporary American civic thought), then the “vote” is the seat of ultimate authority, and each individual is a unique and autonomous voter. In fact, there really aren’t any rulers at all, since everyone is essentially a self-ruler who simply contracts together in order to exist as a group. But still, at the end of the day, the vote is the muscle. The voter is the ruler.

    But if we believe that the authority is actually in the office, then the situation is different. The office-holders are the “rulers” by nature of the church’s polity, and the voters, in the “legally binding” votes, are acting as a sort of accountability device. After the vote, it is still up to the rulers to actually make the action and ruling. If they don’t, then the congregation doesn’t simply take over control (though they can always walk out), but rather appeals to another judicial body, in our case the presbytery. So again, to have a woman voter is not equivalent to having a woman officer, magistrate, or ruler.

  8. Sorry brother, but I’m not getting this. My concern with women voting on binding matters is not that they are ruling over other voters, but that they are ruling in the church. They are ruling the church. Senators rule the nation. Elders rule the church. Elders are to be men. Ladies are not to rule the church.

  9. It looks to me like you are agreeing with me. You end up denying that the congregation can have a binding vote. As I’ve said now for the fourth time I have no quarrel with ladies giving their opinions. If that’s all the vote is, let them have it. If, however, it is binding, if the vote of the congregation is what makes the thing so (these men are now elders/deacons; the Constitution now only allows male head of households to vote on binding matters; we’re leaving the CREC and going RE) then it is legally binding. It is rule, and it is wrong for women to do it in the church.

  10. Dr. Sproul,

    I understand your position, and I am contrasting it against my own in these ways:

    1) Neither the members of the congregation nor the heads of households are rulers in the church.
    2) Voting is not a means of direct ruling but rather a right granted by the rulers in order to provide voluntary but binding (per the constitutional agreement) input from the congregation for the purpose of keeping the rulers accountable and fair-minded towards their inferiors.
    3) In the event of a vote, the legal authority is not actually vested in the people as individuals, but in the corporation as a whole, of which the vote is to be reflective.
    4) In the event of any dispute between this (constitutionally arranged) congregational input and the rulers, the congregation would still not become the seat of rule but rather would have to appeal to some other (higher or outside) authority.
    5) The elders are thus always the rulers of the church, even in the event of a binding vote, and therefore the male-only requirement applies to them and not to the congregation.

    My argument in summary is that the Apostle Paul’s prohibition against women authority, as well as the larger Biblical teaching, is not aimed at women having authority per se, but rather at a specific relationship: women having authority over men, which would be contrary to the natural order, subverting the role of father and husband. In the absence of such a relationship, however, a woman may rule herself and her household without violating this natural principle. And there is no principle in the Bible which states that a household must submit itself to another household in the absence of a mail head. Therefore allowing women heads equal participation on the congregational level is consistent with the larger principle and does not constitute her having authority over a man (which, btw, is precisely what Paul highlights in 1 Tim. 2:12).

  11. I asked because Elizabeth I was head of the Church (though you may object to the monarch being head of the Church), and because St. Paul ties the prohibition to creation, not to ecclesiology per se, so it would seem that the same argument would work in any area of life.

  12. I think this issue is precisely why Elizabeth chose to stay unmarried. Also, in the English monarchical system (per The King’s Two Bodies) Elizabeth could be publicly “male” by virtue of her office, which is why she was always Elizabeth Rex officially, and female in her “private” person. It is irregular, but they tried to retain the principles.

  13. I’m just trying to come up with a hypothetical scenario to show how something could be voluntary and binding:

    Say I give my wife the grocery budget every month and tell her she can spend it how she wants and I’ll be happy to eat whatever buys/makes with it. I have given her the decision of what we’re having for dinner. That doesn’t mean I’ve abdicated authority in that area. I have voluntarily chosen to bind myself to what she decides. I’m still exercising authority even though she is making the decision. (Presumably if she were to cook horse-head stew, I might then intervene and tell her not to buy a horse’s head again. She could then, presumably, appeal to our church elders that I’m making life difficult for her and am not being a loving husband. The elders could sort it out as a higher outside authority, but it would be the elders, not my wife, exercising authority over me.)

    Another example might be the Queen of England. She gives the elected Prime Minister permission to set up a government in her name and binds herself to the decisions of the Parliament. That doesn’t mean the queen ceases to be an authority, or even the ultimate authority, in the government. Case in point, Elizabeth II has dissolved the Canadian Parliament 3 times since 2008.

  14. Also, “voluntary and binding” is at the foundation of political covenants. One does not have to so agree, but once they do, they are bound to keep their agreement until some further licit change. We see this when Moses calls upon God to keep his Own promise, even when it seems that God is threatening to break it. For Moses to do this does not make Moses “over” God. It makes God’s own promise the highest authority.

  15. Thank you gentlemen. It seems you all have a sufficiently unbound view of binding that we are in agreement. In Rick’s example he can over-rule on the horse head. Which means the authority isn’t actually binding. I cannot, of course, say to my wife, “I hereby grant you all authority in our home” and affirm that I’m still in charge because I’m the one that gave her that authority. George III can’t say to the colonists, “It is because I am in charge of you that I can give charge over you to Parliament.” In short, we can delegate authority but not give it up. As long as the congregation cannot impose a decision on the session, then it is a voluntary situation, and again, anyone can be polled. The session can jump up and down and insist that they will take the polling very, very, very seriously. But if they can overrule what the poll wants it is voluntary. If they cannot, it is binding, and women are ruling in the church.

  16. I think I agree with what you’re saying, but at the same time because of the nature of the relationship, the session is in some way “bound” and the congregation can call them to accountability for their decisions. Let’s try these examples.

    Bob and Tom are both put forward by the session for an elder election. Both men are imminently qualified. Neither has anything that would disqualify him. The heads of household (including a few widows) overwhelmingly vote for Bob. But after counting the votes, the members of the session start to talk. “Hey, you know, Tom has an in-ground pool and a barbecue pit at his house. That sure would make our deacon-elder meetings a lot more fun.” And so Tom, instead of Bob, gets confirmed as elder. Would the congregation in this situation have a right to say, “Hold on a minute! You can’t do that!”? I think they would. And I don’t think that means that the elders do not have authority.

    On the other hand, if the congregation gets together and unanimously elects Unitarian Bill for elder, the session would be well within its rights to say, “Nope, not gonna do that.” and the congregation, in this case, would have no right to complain.

    Once again, the same situation in a household: Does a husband, as the authority in his house, have the right to deny his wife that new minivan that will put the family in debt for the next eight years? Absolutely. Does he have the right to deny her food and clothing? Absolutely not! Does this mean he’s not an authority in his household because he is bound to do certain things? Not at all. He bound himself voluntarily at the altar when he got married, and on the basis of those of those promises (promises supported by his authority) he must perform certain things like provide his wife food and clothing even though he’d rather spend that money on a new hunting rifle.

  17. Rick,

    What you are describing is the authority of the constitution or the covenant. For a woman to appeal to that and demand (even through a binding vote) that a man who has sworn to that obey it does not require her to herself be “over” the man.

  18. Steven,

    Absolutely. I should have clarified that I was directing my response to RC.

  19. The headship of widows is addressed in Acts 6 when the Apostles set the pattern to ordain men as their providers, protectors, & advocates.

  20. Steve,

    That only follows for those women who are dependent in such a manner. For those widows who have other family members and other means of provision, 1 Tim. 5:4 applies: “But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God.” Interesting that the term “piety” there is eusebien, the duty owed to superiors. Not a great way to teach that the widows should be subordinated to others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s