One of the forgotten debates from the first decade of the 20th century among Churches of Christ is whether audible participation in the assembly through prayer, singing, and exhortation was a woman’s privilege or a subversion of the created order. May a woman lead prayer in the assembly? May a woman lead singing in the assembly? May a woman exhort, edify or comfort the assembly through audible speech? May a woman read Scripture in the assembly?
These were live issues among Churches of Christ at the turn of the 20th century. In writing an article to be published this summer, I read through the Firm Foundation, Gospel Advocate, The Way, The Octographic Review, Christian Leader, and the Christian Leader & the Way for the years 1897-1907. During those ten years Churches of Christ established their “distinct and separate” identity from the Christian Church. 1897 is a good beginning point since this is the year that David Lipscomb recognized a “radical and fundamental difference” between the disciples of Christ and the “society folks” (GA, 1897, 4). 1907 is a good ending point since that year Lipscomb acknowledged that the Churches of Christ were a “distinct and separate” body from the Christian Church (GA, 1907, 450).
During those ten years Churches of Christ also struggled (and continued to struggle beyond that decade) over the exact form and nature of that identity. One issue that was debated–heatedly and pervasively–was the question of female privilege or silence. Is it a woman’s privilege to participate audibly in the assembly or must they be wholly silent except for singing? In the next few posts I will explore this largely forgotten discussion.
I begin with the common ground among Churches of Christ (represented by the papers listed above) that distinguished them from the more progressive among the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church). There are at least two areas in which the editors of these papers stood united against the “digressives.”
First, they all agreed that women should not be “public teachers” in the “public assemly” of the church or exercise ruling authority in the church such as belongs to the elders of the congregation (some, like Lipscomb, did not like the idea of “ruling authority,” but still objected to women functioning as shepherds in a congregation). While arguing that women are not totally silenced in the assemblies by the New Testament, J. C. Frazee in the Octographic Review acknowledges that “we understand that they are not permitted to teach (usurp authority), taking the oversight of the Church, as officals (elders, bishops, etc.)” (OR, 1904, 2). Some, like Theodore DeLong, argued that public teaching was the only thing denied a woman in the public assembly: “Is there any other good thing that women are commanded not to do except teach in public?” (CLW, 1905, 2). More specifically, James A. Harding argued that “the speaking that is forbidden in the church is that in which the woman becomes a leader, one in authority” and the reason it is forbidden is because “God made man to be the leader, the ruler, and the woman to be his helpmeet” (CLW, 1904, 8).
It was one of the characteristics of the “digressives” or progressives that women sometimes functioned as preachers and evangelists. According to John T. Poe, it was “common among the digressives for women to preach, lecture and pray now as among any of the other sets. But,” he added, “it must not be so in the church of Christ” (FF, 1901, 12). This became an identifiable marker that distinguished the Christian Church (“digressives”), though not even all or most of their congregations, from the Churches of Christ. Indeed, this point (“woman is not to usurp authority, is to keep silence in the church”) is so plain, according to Lipscomb, that he did “not see why the teaching that Jesus is the Son of God may not be set aside by the same rule and reasoning” that this “teaching is set aside” (GA, 1897, 356). [Lipscomb's article was reprinted in the Firm Foundation.]
Second, they all agreed that women should not participate in the organization, leadership and function of various ecclesiastical societies or any activist society (e.g., the temperance movement).
At one level this was directed against the “digressives” who encouraged women to organize local societies. “Dear sisters,” wrote William Wise in the Firm Foundation, “do not suffer yourselves to be organized into women’s aid societies. Do all your work in the Lord’s house–His church” (FF, 1904, 3). Such participation is divisive because God has not authorized such societies. Thus, “women who build societies and become presidents and public leaders,” according E. G. Sewell, “bring troubles, bring wounds and heartaches among brethren, cause division and strife in churches and throw a blight over Christian unity wherever they prevail” (GA, 1897, 469). [Sewell's article was reprinted in the Firm Foundation.] The standard warning, voiced by Wise, was: “Don’t let any digressive click organize you into their societies” (FF, 1901, 2).
At another level this was directed toward any activism by women outside the home or church. The public sphere was not accessible to woman as determined by God’s created order, according to the argument. This perspective was strongly embedded within the Tennessee Tradition flowing out of the teaching of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding. I will begin my next post elaborating this position and how it shaped discussion among Churches of Christ.
More to come….
Theodore DeLong, “The Woman Question,” Christian Leader & the Way 45 (7 November 1905) 2.
J. C. Frazee, “Your Women,” Octographic Review 47 (5 July 1904) 2.
James A. Harding, “Woman’s Work in the Church,” Christian Leader & the Way 18 (8 March 1904) 8-9.
David Lipscomb, “The Church of Christ and the ‘Disciples of Christ,” Gospel Advocate 49 (18 July 1907) 450.
David Lipscomb, “The Churches Across the Mountains,” Gospel Advocate 39 (7 January 1897) 4.
David Lipscomb, “Women in the Church,” Gospel Advocate 39 (10 June 1897) 356.
David Lipsomb, “Women in the Church,” Firm Foundation 13 (13 July 1897) 2.
John T. Poe, “Female Evangelists,” Firm Foundation 16 (29 January 1901), 2.
Elisha G. Sewell, “Woman’s Real Position in the Church,” Gospel Advocate 39 (29 July 1897) 469.
Elisha G. Sewell, “Woman’s Real Position in the Church,” Firm Foundation 13 (24 August 1897) 1.
William Wise, “Woman,” Firm Foundation 16 (2 April 1901) 2.
William Wise, “Woman’s Work in the Church,” Firm Foundation 21 (3 May 1904) 3.