In recent weeks, some within Churches of Christ have discussed the rising participation of women in worshipping assemblies. Some find this disturbing, even rebellious, while others think it encouraging. Whatever one’s perspective, sometimes we hope to find some resource within our past to guide or enlighten us. I think this is legitimate–not so much as a “source of authority” but for a sense of historic identity.
David Lipscomb is sometimes quoted on this topic, and he is quoted on both ends of the discussion!
I fear that while one may quote Lipscomb to encourage women teachers and the another quotes Lipscomb to reject women teachers, sometimes we do an injustice to Lipscomb’s own views and Lipscomb is used to merely serve our own interests.
One recent Facebook page cited Lipscomb’s comments on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 from his 1 Corinthians commentary in the Gospel Advocate series (p. 216).
No instruction in the New Testament is more positive than this; it is positive, explicit, and universal; and however plausible may be the reasons which are urged for disregarding it, and for suffering women to take an active part in conducting public worship, yet the authority of the inspired apostle remains positive and his meaning cannot be misunderstood. He looks at it from every viewpoint, forbids it altogether, and shows that from every consideration it was to be regarded as improper for them to take any active part in conducting the public service.
There is no question that this represents Lipscomb’s understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. He opposed any audible participation by women in the assembly except singing, and particularly opposed any public leadership of the assembly through speaking. (See my understanding of this text in an 1990 paper.)
At the same time, Lipscomb was often quick to add that women should teach. When asked whether women should be permitted to teach in Sunday School, he wrote (Questions Answered, 736):
Yet women have the right to teach those who know less than themselves. Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos. (Acts 18:24-26.) So I am sure that a woman may teach the Bible to old or young, male or female, at the meetinghouse, at home, at a neighbor’s house, on Sunday or Monday or any other day of the week, if they know less than she does, if she will do it in a quiet, modest, womanly way. I have seen wrongs done by them at home, in the parlor, the dining room, the kitchen. This does not mean she cannot do right in all of these places. She can do right in the Sunday school.
In an article in the Gospel Advocate (25 August 1910), Lipscomb further encouraged women teachers (pp. 968-9):
Philip’s daughters prophesied at home to Paul and his company. (Acts 21:8, 9.) Men and women are so universally addressed together as one and the same that it is rejecting the word of God to say women are not as much commanded to teach the Bible as men are. The only difference is, they are not permitted to teach at certain times and in certain manners. Women may teach and be taught at home, at the houses of strangers, as they travel through the country, at the meeting for preaching; they may take an ignorant preacher to themselves and teach him ‘the way of the Lord more accurately.’…At the Sunday school the woman does not usurp the place of a man in teaching all present. Only a few who wish to be taught or to teach attend. The woman does not teach before all who are present. She takes her class, old or young, to themselves and teaches them. I never saw it otherwise. In this course they obey the command given to teach the word of God to the people and to avoid the things prohibited to women as teachers and leaders of the men….Suppose a number of men, women, or children, or all combined, were willing to study the bible, and a woman was the best teacher they could find, and they were to meet at her house to get her help, and she was to teach them in studying the Bible; would she do wrong in helping them?…Suppose it was more convenient to meet at the meetinghouse and study the Bible at an hour not used for the regular church meetings, would this be sin? What makes it a sin to meet at the meetinghouse to study the word of God? 
So, while Lipscomb thought it unbiblical for a woman to publicly teach or preach in the assembly of the church with all present, he did not think it inappropriate for a woman to teach a subset of the assembly in a bible class or Sunday school at the meetinghouse, whether men, women, or children. He did not think it inappropriate for women to lead a bible study in their home, even with men present.
When one quotes Lipscomb’s views on the public assembly because they agree with them, one should also recognize that Lipscomb disagreed with them when it comes to women leading home groups and teaching mixed gender classes at the meetinghouse.
So, what was the difference for Lipscomb? At the root of Lipscomb’s analysis are several principles. The fundamental principle is that a woman’s role is a modest, submissive one, which suits her for domesticity rather than public leadership. Consequently, she should take no public roles in public institutions or movements. She may act privately, but she should not speak publicly, as this would subvert the role God intended for her in creation.
For women to enter the work of public speaking or of leadership in the affairs of this world is to cut them off from childbearing (Gospel Advocate [3 July 1913], 635).
Woman’s work in life is to bear and train children. No higher, holier, more sacred work has ever been committed to human beings. This is her chiefest work in life. If there were not a passage of scripture on the subject except to indicate this, it would forbid her engaging in any work incompatible with this. Public speaking in any of the callings of life that demand a constant strain on the mind, a constant anxiety and care in reference to the public affairs of church or state, an excitement of the ambitions for place and power, not only destroy her taste for and cause her to neglect the home and family duties, the duties of wife and mother, but such a strain on the mind destroys the ability for childbearing (Questions Answered, 739).
Lipscomb strongly objected to the increasing participation of women in any public sphere, whether it was in an activist movement like the temperance movement or in any public institution, including the church. “Women,” Lipscomb thought, “ought not to be encouraged to make public speeches on any subject” (Gospel Advocate [13 February 1913] 155-6). This is contrary to a woman’s “nature and disposition” which is more “suited to a quiet, retiring service.” Therefore, “all public teaching and speaking on any subject at any place puts woman out of place, out of her God-given work.” The whole tenor of Scripture “condemn[s] woman’s leadership” in every place “as well as in the church on Lord’s day” and “forbids woman to take a leading public part in teaching people at any time” (Gospel Advocate [19 January 1911] 78-79).
Lipscomb opposed women speaking publicly on any subject and taking any public role in society. He thought this subverted the role God gave them in creation. So, in other words, Lipscomb’s view on 1 Corinthians 14 actually extends to society as well as to the church assembly because this is what creation teaches. Creation applies to society as well as the assembly, according to Lipscomb.
“Among the children of Israel a few women were inspired as leaders and teachers of the people, but they always came as a punishment of the people because the men were unworthy and were unfaithful…Isa. 3:12…It may be that the same principle holds good now and women are justified in teaching or leading only when the men refuse to do the work. The women taking the lead ought to be considered a reproach and reproof of the men for their deficiency” (Gospel Advocate [13 July 1913] 634-5).
Interestingly, the exception still applies. But the rule also still applies. Consequently, Lipscomb would oppose any leadership role for women in any public sphere, including lawyers, presidents, etc., unless there were no men willing or capable of assuming those roles.
Where are we, then?
1. Lipscomb opposes all public speaking by women, not just in the public assembly of the church.
2. Lipscomb encourage women to teach everyone who knows less than them, including teaching men as Sunday School teachers at the meetinghouse.
3. Lipscomb thought, however, there were exceptions, as indicated by biblical history, such that in some circumstances women could lead the assembly when men were unwilling or unqualified to do so.
But there is more! The vast majority of those who do or might quote Lipscomb’s comments on 1 Corinthians 14 would be unwillling to do so regarding 1 Corinthians 11 (though some would be quite willing to do so).
Lipscomb believed that the “positive” instructions of 1 Corinthians 11 were just as “positive” as those in 1 Corinthians 14. In other words, women–in the public assembly–were required to were some kind of head-covering other than their hair.
The custom referred to must be women wearing short hair and approaching God in prayer with uncovered heads. He reasoned on the subject to show the impropriety, but adds in an authoritative manner, if any are disposed to be contentious over it, neither we nor the churches of God have any such custom (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 169).
Lipscomb was as certain about the head-covering as he was about the silence. The two stand or fall together for him. We need to recognize both when quoting one or the other.
Further, Lipscomb’s comment on 1 Corinthians 14 stresses the word “positive.” This is an important word in Lipscomb’s hermeneutic (how he interpreted Scripture). Many regarded Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 as “positive” instructions.
O. A. Carr, “Woman’s Work…No. 3,” Christian Leader & the Way (30 May 1905) 1: “The language is plain and positive.”
J. Perry Elliott, “Queries,” Christian Leader 11 (5 January 1897) 2: “Paul’s language—plain and positive as it is…”
Henry Hawley, “Woman and Her Work,” The Way (20 August 1903) 810: “the Lord positively forbids it.”
John T. Poe, “Female Evangelists,” Firm Foundation (29 January 1901) 2: “she will preach in the face of God’s positive command not to do it.”
E. G. Sewell, “What is Woman’s Work in the Church (Again?),” Gospel Advocate (22 July 1897) 432: “This decree is like the one in Eden: it is positive.”
This language assumes a distinction between “positive” (like, “don’t eat from this tree”) from “moral” (like, “don’t commit adultery”) commands. This reflects a legal hermeneutic as this language is rooted in British jurisprudence (cf. Hobbes) and the regulative principle of later Puritanism. A “positive law”—a specific legal injunction regarding the worship assembly, for example—cannot be disregarded without dire consequences. “When God positively commands,” Harding writes, “we should meekly obey” (James A. Harding, Christian Leader & the Way [17 December 1907] 8). For example, “positive law” prescribed the five acts of worship and those who add (e.g., instrumental music) to that number sin against God’s law. Yet, “nothing in the Bible is more positively forbidden” than public speaking by women in the church. When women are permitted to speak (teach or pray) in the public assemblies, the positive injunction against such is violated and violaters fall under the same condemnation as Nadab and Abihu (Sewell, Gospel Advocate 39 (4 November 1897) 692).
This hermeneutic understands “positive” commands as timeless, absolute dictums, which are unaffected by the occasion, circumstance, and context of their articulation. Further, they are so absolute that Deborah becomes an exception (rather a trajectory that points to something more), and every theological principle or movement within Scripture is trumped by the “positive” declaration. The “positive” command is more important than any redemptive movement of Scripture toward full inclusion of women in public leadership others might see. The “positive” command trumps any theological hermeneutic because the legal hermeneutic is the basic one as one seeks to discern what the Bible requires.
If this is the case, according to Lipscomb, those who seek to obey the positive command of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 should also seek to obey the positive command of 1 Corinthians 11.
Further, if one quotes Lipscomb to support a current practice, then it is only fair (historically) that one remember that Lipscomb also opposed any public role for women in society as well as the church and required women to wear a head-covering in the assembly.
Those who use Lipscomb to support women teachers in Sunday School classes would also do well to remember that Lipscomb’s position is based on a public/private distinction, which may not reflect the views of those who use his position to further their own.
In other words, when quoting historical persons in favor of (a) or (b), the “love your neighbor” principle requires that we quote them with fairness, equity, and honesty. Sometimes it is difficult to do, but love requires it.