By Donnie V. Rader
In discussions about women in business meetings, one of the main passages that is introduced is Acts 15.This chapter deals with the “conference” at Jerusalem about the matter of circumcision. This passage is cited as proof that women may attend and participate in decision-making business meetings.
Let’s consider the argument that is made from the text and then we’ll see whether Acts 15 supports the contention.
The Argument Made on Acts 15
I. The Argument: Those who think Acts 15 allows women in business meetings tell us that this chapter is an example of women being involved in making decisions for the church. They think they see that in more than one spot in this chapter.
a. These brethren contend that the whole church at Antioch (including women) determined to send Paul and Bamabas to Jerusalem (vv. 2-3). Thus, women were involved in making that determination.
b. We are told that more than just the apostles and elders (v. 6) were present and discussed the matters at hand. The “multitude” (v. 12) or “whole church” (v. 22)was present. Thus, this was a congregational meeting to discuss the problem.
c. The contention says that the “whole church” (including women) was involved in the decision to send a letter to Antioch and in choosing some of their own to accompany Paul and Bamabas to Antioch (v. 22).
d. Then, we are told, that the whole church gathered to receive the letter at Antioch (v. 30) and not just the elders or the men of the congregation.
Their conclusion from the above points is that women may attend and participate in business meetings.
Some are using Acts 15 to say that women may attend business meetings, but she cannot participate. Others are using the same passage to say that a woman may attend and she may participate. Still others are saying that this same text teaches that she must be in the business meetings and be involved in the decision-making process.
Some contend that Acts 15 teaches that women can be in the business meetings in the absence of elders. Others say women are to be a part of the decision-making process even when there are elders. In fact, some are saying that elders cannot make any decision without a congregational meeting.
B. Those who are giving Acts 15 as proof that women are permitted in business meetings. Vance E. Trefethen wrote in his book, Confusion or Consensus,
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the whole congregation, under the leadership of the apostles and elders, was involved in the decision to send this letter, and in the drafting of its contents (p. 30).
What’s really amazing about Acts 15 is how similar the pattern of congregational decision-making is with elders as it was without elders in Acts 6 (p. 31).
Acts 15 is the only passage in the New Testament that shows how elders function in the decision-making process of the local church (p. 32).
The same writer used Acts 15 in his recent debate with Tom Roberts (Guardian of Truth, August 18, 1994, p. 495).
Joan H. Rieber wrote an essay entitled “A Woman’s Perspective” which appeared as a chapter in Trefethen’s book, Confusion or Consensus. In it she said,
One of the responsibilities I needed to accept was attending the assemblies of the “whole multitude” to discuss and decide the work of the local church . . . this is the way it was done in Acts 6 and Acts 15 (p. 94).
There are also scriptures that prevent the exclusion of even one woman from congregational assemblies: Acts 6:2-5; Acts 15:12,22 (p. 95).
Dale Smelser’s unpublished essay, “The Rule of Elders,” is quoted in Confusion or Consensus in which he refers to Acts 15 and says,
It is impressive how meticulously the Holy Spirit reiterates the participation of the congregation in all this. Here is precedent illustrating function of elders and congregation. Any oversight that excludes similar participation, is not scriptural oversight. Any oversight that determines everything apart from congregational participation, and simply announces its decision to which all are obligated to submit upon pain of rejecting God’s appointed authority, has rejected God’s authority (p. 36).
The same writer wrote an article, “Business Meetings and Oversight” in Sentry Magazine (December 31, 1986, p. 2) saying,
With elders the body should still function and work together, to the same extent, and even at times be able to meet and participate in discussion (Acts 15).
Again in an article, “Do Men Hold a Monopoly On the Business Meeting?” (Sentry Magazine, December 31, 1987, p. 2-3) Smelser stated,
But if the example of whole church involvement is problematical to you, it is in harmony with what took place in Jerusalem and afterward at Antioch and Jerusalem again … “they” (the brethren of Acts 15:1) determined to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, and they were brought on their way “by the church” (Acts 15:2-3). It was the whole church that did all this. That includes women. … That the whole church was present for the discussion and its resolution is evident from the fact that it seemed good to the apostles and elders, “with the whole church,” to choose and send men with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to confirm the acceptance of the Gentiles (Acts 15:22).
Lynn Trapp is quoted from The Messenger (Glen Burnie, MD Church of Christ, December 13, 1987) in Confusion of Consensus (p. 107),
If we are intent on following the New Testament in every way, isn’t it necessary that we observe all of its teachings? The closed door “business meeting” (except as a part of a general congregational meeting, Acts 15:1-12) is just as foreign to the New Testament as is instrumental music in worship.
Alpha (an anonymous writer) in debate with Omega on women in business meetings affirmed the proposition, “The scriptures teach that Christian women may attend and participate in the decision-making meetings of the church” (With All Boldness, July 1994). His second affirmative said,
To this list of passages from our first affirmative we can add Acts 15:1-29. . . Once again we see “the whole church” involved in a decision of the church (p. 9).
Samuel G. Dawson’s booklet, Women and Men in a Local Church states,
The New Testament contains at least four examples where women clearly participated in congregational meetings, i.e., where the whole church weighed, pondered, and considered their action (p. 19).
One of the examples he cites is Acts 15 (p. 20).
Answering The Argument
1. The question about women and Acts 15: The question is not: (a) whether there was a gathering of the whole church (including women), (b) whether the whole church (including women) listened to the speeches recorded in vv. 7-21 or (c) whether the whole church (including women) agreed with the proposal of sending a letter to Antioch. To prove that women were involved in the above (which is what the text says) proves nothing about women in business meetings. The question is whether women were involved in any decision-making process.
2. There were private and public meetings in Acts 15. There were at least three meetings: two public and one private.
(a) There was a public meeting involving the church (v. continued on next page
4). This was the meeting in which Paul and Bamabas gave their report of what “God had done with them.” Some of the Pharisees were present and caused a stir in this meeting (v. 5). “It seems that the assembly adjourned to meet again at another hour” (J. W. McGarvey, Original Commentary On Acts, p. 183).
(b) There was another meeting of the apostles and elders (vv. 6-22) along with the “multitude” (v. 12) or the “whole church” (v. 22).
(c) There was also a private meeting in which Paul met with those “of reputation.” “I did so in private to those who were of reputation” (Gal. 2:2, NASV, emphasis mine DVR). This private meeting must have been either prior to or between the public meetings (see McGarvey, Original Commentary on Acts, p. 183; New Commentary on Acts, Vol. II, p. 60).
There was a decision made in this private meeting to accept Paul into fellowship (Gal. 2:9). Keep in mind that only men were present in this meeting (Gal. 2:1,2,9). And to think there was none of our modern thinkers there to tell them that could not be done!
3. Those who participated in the discussions were men. (a) It was the apostles (men) and elders (men) who were to consider the matter (vv. 2, 6). (b) Those who addressed the meeting were men: Peter (v. 7), Paul (v.12), Barnabas (v. 12) and James (v. 13). (c) Those who wrote the letter also gave commands (v. 24). The statement “to whom we gave no such commandment” implies that some commandment was given. Who are the “we”? Were women included in giving commandments? If so, could they do so today? (d) There is no evidence that any woman said anything in either of the public meetings in Acts 15! In fact, the multitude kept silent (v. 12). While it is true that the church (including women) was pleased (v. 22), “we are not told how they reached the decision, whether all the members were consulted, or whether the membership expressed agreement with the apostles and elders. The apostles and elders led in the agreement as they did in the discussion” (H. Leo Boles, Acts, p. 241). Those who abuse Acts 15 confuse approval or being pleased with some action with direct participation in decision-making.
To assume that women must have spoken and participated in these meetings is to make the same kind of assumption that our Methodist friends do with the house-hold of Lydia.
Since the “whole church” (v. 22) was in one place, women could not have spoken and participated in any discussion (1 Cor. 14:34-35, cf. v. 26).
4. God was directly involved in these meetings of Acts 15. Unlike our business meetings today, God called this meeting. Paul said he went “by revelation” (Gal. 2:2). Furthermore, when the decision was made about circumcision, it was made by the Holy Spirit (v. 28). I hardly think we could attribute some of the decisions we make in business meetings to the Holy Spirit.
What took place in Acts 15 is really not parallel to business meetings. Acts 15 would be more parallel to having some public discussion (debate) on a doctrinal matter.
If women can participate in discussions where the whole church is gathered (referred to as “assemblies” by some of the advocates of women in business meetings), she can address the assembly. If she can do that and not violate 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12, I wonder why she could not preach without violating those same text? Those who contend that women can participate in congregational meetings (citing Acts 15) cannot consistently keep women from addressing any other assembly.
Guardian of Truth XXXIX: 3 p. 18-20
February 2, 1995