Heads of Household Membership & Male-Only Voting in the Church
May 28, 2024

Increasingly, I have been made aware of an idea and practice floating around in Reformed circles of the need for heads of household membership in a church, with its sometimes attendant practice of “male-heads-of-household voting.” What follows are my thoughts on the practice.

The Nature of Church Membership

For an increasing number, church membership is seen and recorded as “by” household. Here are my problems with this position, first from the standpoint of the Reformation tradition and then from Scripture:

Reformed Orthodoxy

People become members of the church for themselves, not by household. I realize that some justifications of infant baptism have obscured this basic fact, but it nevertheless remains the case and is demonstrated by the fact that babies in a Christian household are, indeed, baptized. The baptism of the head of the household does not somehow automatically count for his or her dependents. Rather, each dependent must be separately baptized.

The fact is, to say that dependents are members of the Church by virtue of the admission of the head of household is to say something radically at odds with Reformed doctrine. According to the Westminster Confession, baptism is “for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church” (ch 28, p. 1). Article 37 of the Belgic Confession states likewise:

We believe and confess that Jesus Christ…having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, has instituted the sacrament of baptism instead thereof; by which we are received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions.

Also chapter 20 of the Second Helvetic Confession:

What it means to be baptized. Now to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the sons of God; yes, and in this life to be called after the name of God; that is to say, to be called a son of God.

Furthermore, the baptism of infants has never entirely depended on them being under a Christian father as “covenant head.” First of all, we baptize the children of believing women with unbelieving husbands. More significantly, the church has baptized orphans who were to be raised in a Christian orphanage even though they were not members of a Christian family (see Princeton Review July 1843, pp. 422 & 423 for an example cited by Charles Hodge). The issue is simply whether the children are going to be brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This is usually done in a household, but that is not the essential requirement. The essential requirement is discipleship. We baptize babies for the same reason we baptize those old enough to profess faith: because of a commitment to discipleship for which baptism is a precondition.

Obviously the family is an institution ordained by God. But the Reformed (and for that matter, the historic Christian) Faith has always understood the Church to also be an institution ordained by God. It has never understood the Church to be a confederation of Christian families. This is an entirely novel doctrine and practice. If there is Biblical reason for this new doctrine, then fine. But, if not, then it seems to be an unbiblical response to modern unbiblical feminism. Thus, we must turn to Scripture to settle the issue.


Baptism is the door to the church, and the fact that both men and women enter through it is emphasized in the Scriptures:

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26–28, emphasis added).

In my opinion, this does not comport with the idea that church membership should be distinguished according to one’s status as male and female.

Additionally, we have set before us in Scripture what it would look like for wives and daughters to be members of the church by virtue of their relationships to the husbands and fathers. From the time of Abraham onward the mark of initiation in the covenant was for males only. Women were simply “counted” as part of the covenant community on the basis of their relationship to circumcised males. That is no longer the case. We don’t baptize all the males and simply “include” the females as members of the covenant community by virtue of their relationship to baptized men. Since now both men and women are marked out as belonging to God by a visible sign, there is no basis for making the status of a woman as one of God’s people depend upon her relationship to a head of a household.

By now marking our women as well as men with the sign of the covenant, God has communicated a rather significant discontinuity in the way the covenant community is organized. Thus, while before Christ came, under the previous administrations, the church was spoken of as being made up of households, but that is no longer the case in the era of the New Covenant. Compare the following references to the Old Covenant and New Covenant Church (emphasis added):


Numbers 1:16: These are they who were called of the congregation, the leaders of their fathers’ tribes; they were the heads of divisions [or clans] of Israel.

Numbers 7:2: Then the leaders of Israel, the heads of their fathers’ households, made an offering (they were the leaders of the tribes; they were the ones who were over the numbered men).

Deuteronomy 1:15: So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and appointed them heads over you, leaders of thousands, and of hundreds, of fifties and of tens, and officers for your tribes.

Deuteronomy 5:23: And it came about, when you heard the voice from the midst of the mountain was burning with fire, that you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders.

Joshua 21:1: Then the heads of households of the Levites approached Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun and the heads of households of the tribes of the sons of Israel.

Joshua 22:30: So when Phinehas the priest and the leaders of the congregation, even the heads of the families of Israel who were with him, heard the words which the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the sons of Manasseh spoke, it pleased them.

1 Kings 8:1a: Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the fathers’ households of the sons of Israel.

1 Chronicles 5:24: And these were the heads of their fathers’ households, even Epher, Ishi, Eliel, Azriel, Jeremiah, Hodaviah, and Jahdiel, mighty men of valor, famous men, heads of their fathers’ households.


Acts 14:21–23: And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed

Acts 15:2–6: And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue…And when they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them…And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.

Acts 13:39–40: And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.

Acts 15:22–23: Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas-Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, and they sent this letter by them, “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.”

Acts 20:17: And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.

Acts 21:17–18: And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And now the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.

Notice that under the Mosaic economy the leadership of the church is constantly spoken of as being the heads of households and the congregation is described as a collection of households. But in the New Covenant Church such language simply vanishes. Rather, the church is made up of “the brethren” or “the disciples.” The elders are never described as heads of households. This is exactly what one would expect from a shift in the mark of initiation into the covenant. The institutional church has come to its maturity and is no longer overshadowed by the family.

Furthermore, the whole arrangement of divisions according to heads of household is part and parcel of the tribalism of that age of the Church. The above texts from the Old Testament show this rather clearly. Israel was organized by families because it was organized by tribes. Again, none of this is practiced today nor was it practiced in the New Testament era.

In the transition from Moses to Christ, we have a transition from tribalism to cosmopolitanism. The Church is no longer made up of tribes any more than it is made up of political kingdoms. The Church is an institution in her own right without the need to depend (to the same extent on family or state). To go back to heads-of-households as the means of identifying membership in the Church seems like a move back from the fullness of Christ into the shadows of the Old Covenant. If so, then it is a rather severe error.

Is there any justification for male only voting in the Church?

My reading of the Old Testament would indicate that there were female heads of households who acted as their male counterparts did:

Then the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph, came near; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah and Hoglah and Milcah and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the leaders and all the congregation, at the doorway of the tent of meeting, saying, “Our father died in the wilderness, yet he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah; but he died in his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be withdrawn from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.” And Moses brought their case before the Lord. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in their statements. You shall surely give them a hereditary possession among their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer the inheritance of their father to them. Further, you shall speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. And if he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. And if he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his nearest relative in his own family, and he shall possess it; and it shall be a statutory ordinance to the sons of Israel, just as the Lord commanded Moses’” (Numbers 27:1–11; cf Joshua 17:1–5).

Now, if we posit that voting was by heads of household in Israel (I won’t argue for this, but it is the obvious premise of many), then we have here a clear case that, in the absence of the male, the female gets to exercise the rights on behalf of her family. Why should only males get to vote?

If there is any doubt about this consider Judges 4:4–5:

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. And she used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment.

Now, here we have a woman holding office. Are we to believe that no woman was permitted to vote for an office that a woman could actually hold?

Women Ruling in the Church?

Finally, we need to understand something rather basic. Voting is not ruling. Having a say in who is given pastoral oversight of you does not constitute your having pastoral oversight over yourself or anyone else. A voter is not a sort of “officer” in the church. The point of voting is merely that Christians ought to have some say in their rulers (Deuteronomy 1:13). But it is the rulers who rule, not all members.

Thus, there is nothing wrong with women exercising the vote and having a say as to who possesses pastoral oversight over them. The Apostle Paul states rather emphatically that women are not to be rulers in the church. There is no reason to go beyond the clear teaching of scripture and invent a prohibition on women voting.

I realize that, on the issue of voting, the church has managed to exist for centuries without having women vote (at least that is my impression from church history; I’ve never really studied the issue). However, the fact is that for much of church history there was, as far as we know, no voting at all. Some sort of general approbation from the congregation was sought after, but no more. This is a thin reed to lean on for a case against women voting. In any case, despite the mythology of feminism, there is some such thing as sexism and/or male chauvinism, and there is no reason to assume that the Church could never have been guilty of it in the past.

Confronting the Culture

My hunch is that there is another impetus for the former division of church membership into heads of households and the practice of male-only voting. I suspect that there is a real desire to deal with the modern apostasy of feminism by embodying some form of patriarchy within the Church.

Now, first of all, the Church is required to embody patriarchy in a variety of ways. Off the top of my head these include: 1) Confessing God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; 2) Reading the Bible, a rather “non-inclusive” text; 3) Only ordaining men to the Ministry and to the rule of the Church; 4) Teaching that wives ought to submit to their husbands. These distinctives which must mark a church that is faithful to the Word of God are incredibly offensive to modern people. I have had friends attacked by their own siblings for daring to belong to denomination who hold to these things. But, apparently, this is not enough. It seems to be thought that churches which are marked out by these distinctives are rather muted in their Biblical witness. Rather, a truly committed Church should add more androcentric doctrines and practices to truly deal with the culture we are in.

But such a philosophy is contrary to the Apostolic directives to the Church. We are supposed to be “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:22). We are supposed to “give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Cor 10:32). We are commanded, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18). The offense of the Bible is enough; we should not add unnecessary offense to the Gospel.

Furthermore, we should not unnecessarily alienate fellow believers. If we change our present practice I as a pastor am in the rather uncomfortable position of telling women who have submitted to exclusively male leadership in church and family all their lives, and men who have upheld the same, that they have not gone far enough. Apart from the fact that I have no Biblical warrant for telling them this (!), it seems wrong to imply that such people are quasi-feminists. I’m not saying anyone would actually say such a thing to anyone, but by making an issue of who votes we have basically classified everyone else as not quite as committed as we are to male headship. Frankly, it is spiritually dangerous (though necessary) to risk this attitude over things which the Bible requires. How much more should we avoid such attitudes over things which the Bible nowhere requires?

The Most Basic Institution

There is another reason sometimes offered for Heads of Household membership: the idea that the family is the “central” institution in society. When this is said, it is usually treated as self-evident that allowing for individual membership in the Church is a result of displacing this central institution. Thus Doug Wilson:

Just as [God] deals with mankind through covenants, He created us in such a way that we also must deal with one another under Him by means of covenants. At the center of our lives we find that such covenants are inescapable–we cannot function apart from them because they are built into our bones. The covenants in this category are those of marriage (Mal. 3:14–15), the institution of the church (Luke 22:20), and the civil order (Rom. 13:1–7).

These three covenant institutions have been established among us directly by the hand of God. We have no authority to alter or abolish them to suit our tastes or liking. But it is not enough for Christians to acknowledge their existence; we must also correctly understand their relationship to one another. It would be a serious mistake to line them up in a row of three, and then simply assign respective biblical duties to each. Each covenant institution certainly does have its respective duties, but we must first understand that the covenanted institutions of church and civil society are made up of covenanted family units.

Each family has certain assigned duties within its own sphere–education, health care, provision of food, etc. But together families also contribute a molecular strength in the makeup of the two other trans-family governments—the church and the civil order. That is, each family makes this contribution for blessing when it is offered in understanding belief, and it is received by the two broader covenant communities with the same believing mind.

It is true that there are three fundamental institutions. It is true that we should not simply “line them up in a row.” But it is emphatically false that the most basic or important of these three is the family. Indeed, Jesus was quite clear that the community he was forming around himself was an alternative to the family and would be in opposition to the family:

And brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death…Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me (Matt 10:21, 34–37/Luke 13:25–27).

While He was still speaking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. And someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” But He answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold, My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12:46–50/Mark 3:33–34).

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, shall receive many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life (Matt 19:29).

And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. (Matt 23:9).

Jesus may be speaking hyperbolically, but there is still a point underlying his rhetoric that must not be missed. As an extension of the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant was bound up in families. But Jesus established a New Covenant which surpassed and superseded these other covenants. He was following the path set by John the Baptist:

Do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father”; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham (Matt 3:9/Luke 3:8).

What we find then, after Jesus, is a new family, the institutional Church. Thus the Apostle Paul writes “so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Those who were not members of Abraham’s family, the Gentiles, are told that they are, nevertheless, members of God’s family: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household” (Eph 2:19).

In line with the identity of the Church as God’s new family, we see Church officers taking on the names of family relationships for their function in the Church:

I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I exhort you therefore, be imitators of me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church (1 Cor 4:14–17).

This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith (1 Tim 1:18–19; cf 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2).

The Apostle Paul doesn’t restrict himself to father-son language, but also compares himself to a eunuch or matchmaker for the divine husband to the Church, his bride:

I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness; but indeed you are bearing with me. For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ (1 Cor 11:1–3).

Of course, we find this language to some extent Hebrew Scriptures as well. Israel was God’s son and bride. So the language from Paul’s epistles cannot prove that the church is not longer to be structured by household. However, this language does point to something to which the biblical faith has always pointed and for which it has longed for. From Abraham onward the people of God were centered on one special family and eventually a special nation. The Prophets spoke of God’s love for the nations, but his covenant remained especially attached to a particular ethnic group and government. It is not until Pentecost that we begin to see the Church truly break free all this and become a genuinely transnational institution.

Likewise, it makes sense that now the language describing the Church as a real family, indeed the most important family, would demand that we cease treating the Church as a collection of households and tribes (to the extent that this was done before Christ). This conclusion becomes all the more evident when we consider Jesus’ almost outrageous language against the family in the gospels, some of which was quoted above. The family has been judged by Jesus and found wanting.

What is going on is a transition from the first covenant with Adam to the second covenant in Christ as the New Adam. God instituted the family through Adam and Eve and gave them the dominion mandate. Adam and Eve promptly rebelled against God and lost their dominion. What was needed was a new Adam who could undo the work of the first Adam and again take dominion. This second covenant was provisionally established soon after Adam sinned. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and others were new Adams in a sense. Ultimately, of course, they fell short. They themselves were themselves partakers of the first Adam. They sinned; they died; and the covenants established through them did not last.

Nor were they able to establish a new institution to replace and fulfill the Adamic family. Jesus, however, was the true New Adam who did all these things. In addition to living a perfect life, rising from death, and establishing a new and everlasting covenant, he re-published the Dominion Mandate not to heads of households who were to procreate, but to eleven men who were to establish and spread the Church (Matt 28:18–20). Dominion has been given to the institutional Church:

And He [God] put all things in subjection under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph 1:22–23).

The reference to “all things in subjection under his feet” is an allusion to Psalm 8:6, which comments on what God has given to humanity in Adam:

What is man [Hebrew: Adam], that Thou dost take thought of him?

And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him?
Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God,
And dost crown him with glory and majesty!
Thou dost make him to rule over the works of Thy hands;
Thou hast put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen,
And also the beasts of the field,
The birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.

Here the psalmist reflects on the nature of humanity and uses the language of Genesis 1 where Adam [Hebrew for humanity] was given dominion over the cattle, beasts, birds, and fish in principle, and the commission to subdue creation as a result of that principle. This mandate given to Adam and Eve as the first family is transferred now, says the Apostle Paul, to the Church as the Body of Christ, the Second Adam. What once essentially mandated procreation (Gen 1:28; 9:1, 7; 35:11) now primarily involves discipleship. Procreation has its place, of course, along with adoption, but the emphasis is on discipleship (Eph 6:4; Col 3:21).

Talking about what is the “primary” or “most basic” institution can be rather vague. I’ve centered on the Dominion Mandate in order to get a better grasp on what such language might mean. If God has given the Dominion Mandate as the Great Commission, not to the family, but to the Church, I think we can be quite certain that it is the Church, not the family, that is “central” to society—at least to Christian society.


There is no need to obscure what the Bible teaches about men and women in the Church with an unbiblical network of inferences which are at the very best a matter of adiaphora and quite probably just wrong. Let’s free ourselves from such hindrances and run the race God has placed before us without unnecessary obstructions. Let us honor the family by teaching husbands and wives and children to fulfill their God-given roles. Let us honor the Church by treating it as God’s household, not as a confederation of human households.

Mark Horne is a member of the Civitas group, and holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. He is assistant pastor at Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, and is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications. He writes at, and is the author, most recently, of “Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men” from Athanasius Press.

First published in 2000 at and available at

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