James A. Harding began his publication The Way in 1899 in order to disseminate to a larger audience what he taught at the Nashville Bible School. At the same time J. B. Briney, a longtime friend and now adversary of Harding, started his own monthly paper entitled Briney’s Monthly, The two papers sparred back and forth on several issues, including the role of women in the public assembly.
Though Briney (pictured here) and Harding were at one time close associates (Briney had preached at Harding’s hometown church in Winchester, KY for four years}, they found themselves on different sides of the fence on issues like instrumental music, missionary socieites, and the role of women in the public assembly.
When The Way merged with Rowe’s Christian Leader in 1904, Harding found himself in some heated discussions about the role of women. Briney’s paper (which would come to represent some of the conservative thinking among the Christian Church) and Daniel Sommer’s paper (Octographic Review) essentially held the same position on the role of women in public worship. Harding responded with quite a few articles on the topic.
In the exchange below, Harding reprints an article by George Bersot (who attended Eminence College in KY with Briney) on the privilege of women to which Harding responds. This is simply one example among many of the kind of discussion that engulfed the Stone-Campbell Movement in the first decade of the 20th century. Along with instrumental music, missionary societies, higher criticism as well as various sociological and sectional perspectives, the role of women became a dividing line between the Christian Church and Churches of Christ.
Harding’s views extended beyond the public assemblies of the church into the public roles of women in society. In another place than given below, Harding argued that the
“New Testament does not allow women to usurp authority over men by teaching and leading in the church, because it is wrong for her so to usurp authority anywhere. It seems clear to me that the same principles that prevent her from teaching in the church, prevail in the schoolroom or anywhere else; it is a question of women usurping authority over men and becoming leaders of them” (“Questions and Answers,” The Way 4 [5 March 1903], 417).
Harding’s own position may be summarized in this way:
- Women should have no public role in the church and society.
- Women are forbidden any public leadership in the church and society.
- The voice of women should only be heard through singing in the public assembly.
- Women should wear a veil (covering) as they participate in the public assembly.
Bersot’s position, similar to Sommer’s, is that women may audibly participate in every aspect of the assembly except those speaking roles which involved “authoritative” teaching (e.g., evangelists and bishops).
Below is the text of Bersot’s article followed by Harding’s response.
G(eorge) G. Bersot, “Woman’s Privilege in the Work and Worship of the Church,” The Way 4 (16 October 1902) 227-228, reprinted from Briney’s Monthly.
This subject should be closely studied for two reasons: (1) To place limitations upon her privilege in the work and worship of the church that the Word of God does not warrant is to deprive the church of an element of power God has placed in it, and by so doing we incur a fearful responsibility and may also turn her activities into less worthy ways. (2) To take away restrictions that the Word of God places upon her is to assume an equally fearful responsibility in disregarding divine authority.
We premise the following as a rule to guide us in this investigation: Whatever woman did in the primitive apostolic church with apostolic permission, she may and ought to do now. And whatever she was forbidden to do by the apostles, she is forbidden to do now, and may not and ought not to do it.
If there is any error in this premise we would be glad to have it pointed out. I know that those who lay heavy restrictions upon her privilege argue that things were permitted or suffered that were only to be temporary, and were not intended to continue after that state of things passed away. Again, those who take off all restrictions, on the other hand, say that there were restrictions laid upon women then that were peculiar to the apostolic age, and were not intended to continue when that state of things passed away. Now there is just as much sense in one of these positions as there is in the other, and to my mind no sense in either of them. If the apostles expressly stated the one or the other of these things, then the argument would be a legitimate one; but they have made no such statement, hence our premise must stand.
With this premise before us we begin our investigation. We find limitations placed upon her in two places in the New Testament. 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 reads in the Revised Version as follows: “Let the women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. And if they would learn anything let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in the church.” Again, 1 Timothy 2:11,12: “Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness.”
Here some limitation is placed on woman’s privilege in the work and worship of the church. The extent of this limitation is the question to be settled. Does this silence extend to all parts of the work and worship of the church? If there was nothing else said anywhere else in the New Testament on this subject, we would naturally conclude that it did; but if we find her taking some part in the worship with apostolic permission in other places in the Book, then we must conclude that this silence was not intended to extend to all parts of the worship.
This same principle extends to other apparently absolute statements of Scripture. Jesus says: “For every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” If there was nothing else said anywhere in the New Testament on the subject of prayer, we would conclude that there was no limitation to the things for which we might pray with the expectation of receiving. But James tells us that “ye ask and receive not because ye ask amiss that ye may spend it in your pleasures.” We find here limitations placed upon our. Hence one passage of the Word of God must be explained in the light of other passages on the same subject. If this is not a true rule of interpretation, then I know not how to arrive at a true conclusion on any Bible subject.
Now did the women take any part in the worship of the primitive apostolic church, with apostolic permission, which modifies the statements quoted above? If so, then these general statements must be explained in the light of these special ones as illustrated by the subject of prayer.
Now let us look at this statement of Scripture. 1 Corinthians 11:4,5: “Every man praying or prophesying having his head covered dishonoreth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head; for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven.”
Here we find that the women in the church at Corinth took part in public worship along with the mean, and the apostle does not forbid the praying of women any more than he does that of the men. Both are directed how to conduct this part of the service in a becoming way. Is not this a fair interpretation of this Scripture? Is not this its obvious meaning?
The more general statement that women must keep silent in the churches must be understood in the light of this particular one. Then we are led to ask to what extent they are to keep silent? We answer to the extent of the matter that was before the mind of the apostle when he issued his order. This must be gathered from the statement made and its contents. In these two Scriptures we have these statements: “It is not permitted unto them to speak, but let them be in subjection.” “Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man.” The speaking and teaching to which he here refers is that kind of speaking and teaching which would take them out of the sphere of subjection and place them in authority, and give them dominion over men. What kind of speaking and teaching in the church would do this? Not the prayers that a woman might pray, nor her prophesying, which is to “speak unto comfort and consolation,” but the authoritative speaking of an evangelist and teaching of the bishops of the congregation. These things are inconsistent with the subordinate place she occupies by reason of the order of creation and of transgression.
Now if this conclusion is correct, have we as evangelist and elders the Scriptural right to forbid them taking any part in prayer meetings except to sing?—Briney’s Monthly
James A. Harding, “Woman’s Privilege in the Church,” The Way 4 (16 October 1902) 226-227.
At another place in this issue the reader will find an article from Brother G. G. Bersot, on “Women’s Privilege in the Work and Worship of the Church.” He concludes that women may lead the prayers of the church, and that they may make addresses that are for comfort and consolation; but “that the authoritative speaking of an evangelist and teaching of the bishops of the congregation” are forbidden to them.
Let us study the passages bearing on this question carefully and see if this conclusion is correct. My quotations are from the American Standard Version of the Revised Version. Notice that in this edition, at I Corinthians 14:33, the verse is divided, the first sentence of it being placed in one paragraph and the second one in another. The following is the paragraph in full that bears upon our question:
“As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church. What? Was it from you that the word of God sent forth? Or came it unto you alone?” (1 Corinthians 14:33-36). Paul then adds of these things, “that they are the commandment of the Lord.”
To Timothy he says: “I desire therefore that the men pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and disputing. In like manner, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefastness and sobriety; not with braided hair, and gold or pearls or costly raiment; but (which becometh women professing godliness) through good works. Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness. For Adam was first formed, then Eve; and Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression: but she shall be saved through her childbearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification and sobriety” (I Timothy 2:8-15).
To Titus Paul says, “Speak thou the things which befit the sound doctrine: that aged men be temperate, grave, sober-minded, sound in faith, in love, in patience: that aged women likewise be reverent in demeanor, not slanderous nor enslaved to much wine, teachers of that which is good; that they may train the young women to love their husbands to love their children to be sober-minded, chaste, workers at home, kind, being in subjection to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed” (Titus 2:1-5).
To the Corinthians Paul says: “Now I praise you that ye remember me in all things, and hold fast the traditions, even as I delivered them to you. But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head; for it is one and the same thing as if her head were shaven. For if a woman is not veiled, let her also be shorn; but it is a shame to a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be veiled. For a man indeed ought not to have his head veiled forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man: for neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man: for this cause ought the woman have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, so is the man also by the woman; but all things are of God. Judge ye in yourselves; is it seemly that a woman pray unto God unveiled? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. But if any man seemeth to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God” (I Corinthians 11:2-16).
Now from these quotations it seems to me that the following conclusions are clearly deductible: In all the churches of the apostolic age the woman were required to keep silent; that is, they were not allowed to speak, to make public addresses to the assemblies. They were not to assume the leadership in assemblies in which men were present, because Adam was made first, then Eve; Eve was deceived, not Adam; because man is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man; the man was not created for the woman, but the woman for the man. The woman must have her head veiled when she prays or prophesies, as a sign of authority, being subject to the man; but the man must be unveiled because he is the image and glory of God. For these reasons a woman is not allowed to teach nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness. “It is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.” But a woman is allowed to teach women and children. She is allowed also to teach men in private, where the meeting is informal and there is no assumption of leadership. At such a meeting Priscilla with her husband taught Apollos. (See Acts 18:24-28.) This was an informal meeting, no leadership being assumed by any one of them. In a regular assembly he who addresses the meeting is the leader of it, controlling and directing its thought for the time being. This a woman is not allowed to do in the churches; she must not assume authority over men, she must be in subjection. She is not even allowed to ask questions in the meetings of the churches, though men frequently did this; she is required to learn in quietness with all subjection; and, if she would learn anything by a question, to ask it a home. In asking a question she would thus far control the assembly, directing its thought, presenting that which it was to consider, and even to this extent she was not allowed to be a leader of the church.
In that apostolic age women prayed and prophesied, but there is not the slightest evidence that they led the prayers in the churches or prophesied in them. Every Christian, male and female, should pray in the meetings of the church; but men should lead the prayers. He who leads the prayers directs the thought of the meeting, and is for the time being the leader of it, the one in authority. This is a position which God does not allow a woman to hold over a man in the church even for one minute.
Philip the Evangelist had four daughters who prophesied. To prophesy is to speak by inspiration of God. Any one who speaks by inspiration of God is a prophet. Whether he speaks of the past, the present or the future, he is a prophet. Philip’s four daughters spoke by inspiration, but there is not the slightest evidence that they prophesied publicly in the churches. They would not have allowed to it. “As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches: for it’s not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law.” Before the New Testament was written not only these four daughters of Philip, but a thousand other women endowed in like manner could easily have found ample scope for the exercise of their prophetic gift without violating God’s law by speaking in the public assemblies. It is more than probable that Priscilla prophesied when she and her husband privately taught Apollos. If she spoke by inspiration she did. By all means let the women teach, and the more the better, if they teach God’s truth; but let them not violate God’s law by doing it in the assembly of the congregation. And by all means let them pray in the congregation, when some brother leads the prayer, and in secret; and in meetings of women and children, where there is nothing to hinder their leading the prayers, that I know of; but let them be veiled when they pray, even though it be in secret. This “sign of authority” a woman should have on her head “because of the angels.”
The question is often asked, “Does not this law forbid a woman to sing in the church?” I believe the word “speak” is used by Paul in the sense of making an address. It is often so used. We say, “Brothers Smith, Brown, Jones and Johnson spoke in the meeting to-night,” meaning that each made an address. That this is the Spirit’s meaning is evident from the fact that in the same paragraph in which the women are forbidden to speak, and are required to keep silent, they are also forbidden to ask questions. For had the word “speak” been used in the absolute sense, meaning unbroken silence, it would not have been necessary to forbid the asking of questions.
It is also evident that they were not to lead in the prayers; for the prayer is itself an address made to God by the assembly; and the leader of the prayer is the leader of the church in this address. Hence the apostle says: “I desire therefore that the men pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and disputing.” He then tells what he wants the women to do. It was the custom for those who led in the prayer to lift up their hands. (See also 1 Kings 8:22; Exodus 9:33; Ezra 9:5.) This passage makes it plain that it was the men whom the Holy Spirit wanted to lift up the hands in prayer, that is, to lead the prayer.
Brother Bersot assumes that as the women were to pray, they were to lead the prayers, the very thing to be proved; and that as they were to prophesy, they were to make public addresses in the church, the very thing God forbids them to do. It is strange to me that such a man as George Bersot should be guilty of a logical fallacy so flagrant and manifest. The things forbidden to the women are those which involve leadership, authority, such as making addresses, leading the prayers and asking questions; and these three things are specifically forbidden. Singing in concert is not specifically forbidden, nor does it involve necessarily authority, leadership. Let us not loose where God has bound nor bind where he has loosed.