I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:14–15)
It is no coincidence that we are preaching through 1 Timothy as we lay the foundation of our new church. In this inaugural period in particular, we need instruction in how “one ought to behave in the household of God.” And so we turn to Scripture for help as we seek to be constituted as a local church. We look to the word for God for direction in establishing faithful polity, processes, and policies.
And Scripture is sufficient to that purpose.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)
Every good work includes planting a church and writing a constitution and by-laws and electing church officers and everything else we need to do.
That said, the sufficiency of Scripture doesn’t necessarily mean that it answers every single question that we might have. Scripture isn’t a “church planting manual” if by that we mean an encyclopedic checklist of explicit instructions regarding each and every situation that we might encounter. Scripture is sufficient, but it often speaks by implication rather than explicitly.
This is why there is wide diversity among churches in regards to governance. Some churches are elder-led, others are deacon-led or have some other committee calling the shots; some have one pastor, others have a plurality; some churches are under an overarching synod or presbytery, others are not.
Likewise with the issue of voting. Churches are all over the map when it comes to voting.
Should churches even vote? Not all churches have congregational voting. That there is at least some form of congregational involvement seems clear in Scripture, but the principle of congregational involvement doesn’t necessarily demand the practice of voting and so not all churches do so.
But assuming they should, on what should they vote? The color of the carpet? The brand of coffee that is served? The songs that are sung? The text that will be preached each week? Different churches answer that in different ways. I know of churches that have been split because of the brand of coffee and color of the pews. That seems absurd to most of us and yet life is sometimes stranger than fiction.
Granting for the sake of argument that churches should vote (or at least that voting is a potential practice to help achieve the biblical principle of checks and balances) and that there is a clear delineation of the scope of the matters on which they should vote, who should do so? Anyone who has professed faith? All who have been baptized? All those over 16 or 18? All adults, men only, landowners, only those who are married, all attendees or only members? Should there be a theology test or some other such qualification?
Historically, Baptist churches have had some level of congregational voting. That said, the scope of that vote differs dramatically from one church to another. Some only vote for really central issues while others vote for nearly everything.
At Reformation, we allow the congregation to vote on a handful of large issues (budget approval, election and removal of church officers, and changes to the constitution and the statement of faith) while other decisions are made by the elders, staff, deacons or some other representative group. That said, we practice something that is a bit more unusual in the Baptist world (though more common among our Reformed and Presbyterian brethren).
Namely, we don’t vote as individuals, but rather as households. That household could be a single man or woman, a married couple, or even a larger family with kids. In each case the head of the household would cast a vote on behalf of the entire family. In most cases that would mean that the husband/father would vote on behalf of his wife and/or children. Exceptions would apply if the head of the household wasn’t a believer or in cases where there is no male presence (such as with young single women, widows, divorcees, etc.).
To be clear, we do not think that Scripture absolutely demands this practice. Churches which allow all individuals to vote are certainly not doing so unbiblically. So we don’t think Scripture demands the practice of household voting, but neither do we think it prohibits in. In fact, we think that this particular practice is actually more helpful than individual votes in pursuing some overarching theological and philosophical principles.
So what are those commitments? Why do we believe that household votes are a better expression of church governance than merely allowing all individuals to vote? Below are a few reasons:
- Household votes stress the importance of the biblical concept of representation. It is not exaggeration to say that the entire structure of redemptive history rests on the idea of representation. Paul makes this explicitly clear in Romans 5 by suggesting that all of mankind is represented by one of two individuals (federal heads is the theological term). We are either in Adam or in Christ. Either Adam is our representative head and we therefore inherit what he purchased by his disobedience OR Christ is our head and we therefore inherit His reward. Regardless, our hope is decidedly representative in nature. Household votes help to communicate the concept of representation and headship.
- Household votes emphasize the importance of family. There are two primary institutions through which the triune God works in the world – the church and the family. Rather than divorcing those, household votes merge these two spheres by suggesting that the church isn’t merely composed of individuals, but of households as well. This is why we see evidences of household baptisms in Acts and why mothers and fathers bear primary responsibility for discipling their kids and so forth. By voting as households, we communicate this picture of the importance of the family.
- Household votes push back against individualism. Contemporary society is noted by a sense of fragmentation. Unlike previous generations, modern Christians are generally less patriotic, generally less likely to work at the same place their entire life, less likely to live in the same neighborhood, house or even city their entire lives, less likely to remain committed to churches, etc. In general, we have lost the historic need to identify ourselves by virtue of our relationships with others. We are fractured and fragmented. Instead of viewing ourselves in relationship with and interdependent with others, we emphasize and define our identity on a very individualistic basis. Household votes pull us back toward viewing ourselves as communal beings. Though our faith is personal, it is not private.
- Household votes emphasize an essential yet neglected nuance of marriage. What does it mean that a husband and wife are one flesh? If that means anything, it should speak to a depth of unity that should permeate beyond mere symbol. Should it not also extend to voting such that one flesh means one vote? Is there a context in which a husband and wife would vote differently and that should be celebrated biblically? Does it seem reasonable that God would lead a husband and wife to vote differently? That would seem to undermine the concept of headship and unity (see 1 Corinthians 11). After all, God holds Adam responsible for Eve’s sin and tells husbands to wash their wives in the water of the word (Ephesians 5) and tells wives to look to their husbands for leadership in learning (1 Corinthians 14). Though it is certainly possible for husbands to abuse this responsibility, they bear the responsibility nonetheless. By practicing household votes, we are hoping to encourage wives to talk to and trust their husbands and husbands to listen to and understand their wives (1 Peter 3) and vote not as two distinct individuals, but rather as a unified voice of love, mutual respect and understanding. We are asking them to incarnate the idea of a one flesh relationship and allow that reality to penetrate more deeply into their identity.
- Building off the previous point, household votes push men to take responsibility for their homes. One of the tragic realities of culture (even evangelical culture) today is the abdication of the husband and father’s role in the discipleship of his family. By and large, men have outsourced the discipleship of their kids to their wives or churches and have relegated the growth of their wives to the latest women’s Bible study. Those things can be helpful as supplements, but when they are substitutes for masculine involvement, that is a dangerous and unbiblical trend. Household votes are an attempt to staunch the tide of passivity that infects the church and to spur men on to greater responsibility. Our hope is that fathers would sit down with their families to talk and pray about the voting options and to disciple their kids into understanding what is happening.
- For most of world history (from the Greeks to the early Americans), leadership was invested in the paterfamilias. As an implication of this, he was responsible for voting for and otherwise representing the interests of the family. In addition to that, the Bible itself tends to acknowledge this pattern by counting the number of men and then adding “and women and children.” This wasn’t because women and children were irrelevant, but rather because authority, inheritance, responsibility and so forth was invested in men in ancient Israel and the church. That biblical pattern might be uncomfortable today because of the effects of individualism and feminism, but it is nonetheless biblical and thus a right, good, and helpful pattern to emulate where possible.
- In some sense voting is a form of fractional leadership and leadership in the church should be invested in duly-qualified men. In fact, Paul says that he doesn’t allow women to teach or exercise authority over men in the church (1 Timothy 2:12). Why then do we allow single women or women married to unbelievers to vote? Well, for the same reasons that though inheritance by law passed to men in the OT, there were exceptions in cases where there was no male heir (Numbers 27). Likewise, household voting is in general represented by the believing husband and father, but when such is not possible, an exception is made. In other words, we think that Paul’s prohibition of female authority has some bearing on the issue of voting, but also believe that it isn’t sufficiently clear as to establish an absolute prohibition. There is some relationship, but not a one-to-one correlation between voting and exercising authority.
For these reasons, we like the idea of household votes, but again, this is not to suggest that the Bible demands the practice or even that this is the only means to pursue these goals. Anytime we move from principle to practice, we have to recognize that there are plethora other potential practices that might be equally valid. We simply believe that household votes are the best practice for us given these principles.
We realize that this practice is counter-cultural. Perhaps some may even find it archaic and oppressive. Even if this article doesn’t convince you that this is the best practice, hopefully it gives opportunity for deeper thought and stirs up healthy conversation for the sake of our continued edification and encouragement as a body. For members or potential members with questions or concerns, any of our elders are happy to buy you a cup of coffee and chat so please let us know how we can help.