Mailbag #44: Applying “Husband of One Wife”; Leaving the Church but Attending Bible Study; Women Voting in the Church

Mailbag
12.09.2016

What does “husband of one wife” mean? That a prospective elder must have never been divorced?»
Someone who left our church still wants to attend our church’s ladies’ Bible study. Is that okay?»
Does 1 Timothy 2:12 forbid women from voting in congregational meetings?»

Dear 9Marks,

I am a solo pastor/elder in a congregation of 22 members, and am looking for guidance on accepting a man as an elder. Till now, the church has treated the qualification “husband of one wife” as requiring a man to have only been married once. So anyone who has married, been divorced, and subsequently married is disqualified. But studying this issue closely I see there is some disagreement over the issue.

We have a man in this situation who has been very faithful to his wife of 20-plus years and meets all the other requirements for elder. How does your church and elders look at this requirement?

—Lucas, Ohio

Dear Lucas,

To my knowledge, our elders have never faced this matter first-hand, so I cannot speak for them or the congregation as a whole. I can only speak for myself.

If Paul wanted to say “never divorced,” he could have said so. But he didn’t. He said a man must be a “one-woman man” (to translate the Greek literally). And unless you want to say that Paul also meant to rule out the remarried widower, then the requirement that a man is a “one-woman man” means that he has a reputation for being a faithful husband to his wife. So the question is this: does your would-be elder have a reputation, right now, of being a faithful husband?

Here are four follow-up questions help to answer that.

First, was the divorce “biblical” (on grounds of adultery, abandonment, or abuse), and who initiated it? What role did he play?

Second, if the divorce was his fault in one way or another, how does he talk about it? Does he pass it off to youthful indiscretion or does he describe it as sin that required repentance? Does he recognize the moral gravity and tragedy of divorce, no matter whose fault and no matter when it occurred? Basically, I’d want to know that a man mourns the divorce, hates that it ever happened (as much as he trusts the Lord’s sovereignty and loves his wife today), and is now utterly committed to never repeating such a thing. In other words, I’d want to know that the man who got the divorce is a “different man” than the one I and the congregation know today.

Third, how long ago did it happen? The more the divorce was his fault, then, honestly, the more time needs to have passed.

Fourth, does he have a long-standing reputation for being a faithful husband now? It takes time to earn a reputation for being a faithful husband. And I do mean “earn”! Grace is unmerited, to be sure. But the qualifications for eldership are qualifications—they are merited. You earn them over time.

To summarize, no, I’m not convinced that Paul is establishing an automatic “one divorce and you’re forever disqualified” principle. At the same time, I’m urging great caution. Is this a man whom you can put in front of the church and say, “Here is a man whose marriage and husbanding I commend to you. Follow his example!” If a man has been faithfully married to the same woman for 20-plus years, I’d assume the answer is yes.

I say that with caution, because I expect godly people disagree with me. Still, that’s where I come down on the issue.

One more important pastoral matter, though: if a sizable minority of your church disagrees with you, I very well may hold back from nominating this man. You want your church to trust its elders and agree they should be elders. So, even if you know a majority would agree to this man’s nomination, don’t risk division if it’s a bare majority. If I’m in a church of 200, and two people have problems, I would probably push ahead. But if I’m in a church of 22, and 7 people really struggle with this, I would slow down. Teach. Give the seven more time to be persuaded of your position. Or even just back off entirely for a while. This man can still “elder” even if he doesn’t have the title. His “status” as elder is not worth division or causing other sheep to stumble.

I pray all this is useful, biblical, and wise.

Dear 9Marks,

We recently had a few families leave our church because they strongly disagree with the Reformed soteriological views being taught through the exposition of Scripture. However, one person (who was probably the one most openly and adamantly opposed to the teaching) is still attending the church’s monthly ladies Bible study. It seems to me that this is unhelpful on a couple fronts: (1) It may give the impression that the Bible study and the Sunday preaching are not theologically united; and (2) It seems to give an unbiblical notion of fellowship and church life—that she can maintain a type of fellowship with the ladies of the church, yet this fellowship now has nothing to do with a commitment to the local church body.

We’ve made it clear that we desire for them to stay at the church and that we’d love to work through these doctrines with them. Any insight would be welcomed!

—Nate

Dear Nate,

So long as this woman has joined another church, and so long as your church’s women’s Bible study is generally open to non-members (for instance, I assume a non-Christian could attend?), I would guess it’s fine that this former member attends. First, there’s nothing wrong with sharing fellowship with saints from other churches. No, you don’t want it to prevent her from building fellowship in her new church, but I don’t think this is something you can force. Be patient. Second, you have the opportunity to demonstrate that fellowship is possible and love can be shared between those who affirm and don’t affirm Reformed soteriology. There are actually some people out there who act as if this is not possible! Here is a chance for you to demonstrate otherwise.

Dear 9Marks,

Is there an article or small book that addresses the issue of women voting in congregational meetings? One of the pastors I meet with in a very small Reformed Presbyterian church does not allow women to vote, and he and his elders would like to bring a change forward.

—Joe, Minnesota

Dear Joe,

I address this briefly in Don’t Fire Your Church Members. Otherwise, I’m unaware of resources. In general, it’s easy to address this topic for congregationalists, a little more difficult for Presbyterians, but still quite possible. Let me explain.

A congregationalist like myself explicitly affirms that the authority of church government comes from the gospel. So everyone who belongs to the gospel has a share in church government. The gospel establishes a rule of equals, you might say. Yes, different jobs will be assigned in the society of the gospel. But no one individual or class of individuals possesses dominion over the rest, empowered to say, “You’re in” or “You’re out!” Final earthly authority over the basic elements that make a church a church belongs to the people. Everyone with the gospel, therefore, is responsible to protect both the gospel itself and the basic integrity of the gospel people (church members).

(Just think of the biblical theological backdrop: Through the gospel, every saint has assumed the throne of King Adam. So, every member must work the garden while keeping an ear tuned for lying serpents. Through the gospel, every saint has been consecrated as a priest of Israel. So every member must make sure that nothing unclean enters the temple, that the line between holy and unholy is kept.)

In the debates of the day over whether or not women can be pastors, one side points to the equality of men and women in the gospel: “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Congregationalism affirms this gospel instinct. Not only that, it establishes a political mechanism for putting this instinct to work: the shared rule of every member over everything that makes a church a church—its essential beliefs and its people.

Yes, congregationalists historically have also affirmed that the rule of equals in the church is coupled with male pastoral leadership (1 Tim. 2:12). God has gospel-teaching purposes here, too (cf. Eph. 5:22–33). Want to rule well, church? Imitate these men as they imitate Christ, who sacrificially laid down his life to lead his bride. After all, the gospel does not provide a license to rule however one pleases. It calls Christians to imitate truth and righteousness. The whole church should submit their thinking and living to the pattern these men set. Still, we live under the New Covenant, and so every member is ultimately responsible for the gospel faithfulness and integrity of the church. That means, in these basic gospel matters of what makes a church a church, every member, male and female, has a vote. (In other words, the highest human authority in a church belongs to men and women.)

Now, dominant streams of historic Presbyterianism affirm many of the same things about church authority resting with the whole church. Specifically, tell your Presbyterian church friends to look at James Bannerman’s chapter “The Primary Subject of Church Power” in his classic volume, The Church of Christ. (Bannerman was a high point of nineteenth-century Presbyterianism.) Bannerman affirms the following: “The primary grant from Christ of Church power is virtually, if not expressly and formally, made to believers” by virtue of their union in Christ. After all, he says, a church on a desert island whose pastors all die “must have within themselves all power competent to carry on the necessary functions and offices of a Church.” And one place that congregational authority expresses itself, according to Bannerman and nearly every Presbyterian, is in the electing of elders.

Of course, Bannerman is hardly the first Presbyterian to affirm the congregation’s authority to vote on its elders. You can rewind the tape back to presbyterians George Gillespie or Calvin or even all the way back to Augustine and Cyprian. Or fast forward the tape to the PCA or OPC books of church order.

But here’s the key: insofar as the (Presbyterian) congregation’s authority to choose its elders roots in our union with Christ, we should say that that authority belongs to both men and women.

I say all this is easier for congregationalists to explain because congregationalists put the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers in the driver’s seat when discussing church government. So it’s familiar territory for us. It’s harder for Presbyterians, perhaps, because this doctrine is in the car, but it’s quietly sitting in the back seat. I point to Bannerman just to say, “Yes, you Presbyterians have this resource too, so make use of it for this conversation.”

I hope this helps.