Response to Gardner’s Review of Women Serving God

I am grateful for Steve Gardner’s 7000 word review of my book, Women Serving God. I appreciate the careful reading and attention he has given to it. This response is almost 3500 words.

Steve himself, as readers of his blog Authentic Theology know, has devoted significant biblical and historical attention to the question my book addresses. His blogs also address larger considerations related to this topic that I don’t address in my book. I encourage everyone to read his blog.

My book is intended for leaders, ministers, and elders among churches of Christ. Steve recognizes this, though he thinks parts of it might be useful in an academic setting and perhaps overly technical for some readers in my target audience. He is probably right. I attempted to communicate without too many textbook technicalities. Nevertheless, some technical details demand attention.

Thank you, Steve, for the helpful summary of the book and its strengths.

The majority of Steve’s review is focused on weaknesses in the book. Every book has weaknesses; mine is no exception. He identifies three weaknesses in two paragraphs (#words) and then focuses on what he considers the book’s major weakness for ten printed pages (#words).

The first weakness is what appears to be an implication that “changing’s one hermeneutic is needed to reach a conclusion of ‘full participation’.” That critique makes sense to me, though it is not the nature of my own journey. Can one come to a full participation perspective through a blueprint hermeneutic? I think they can. If one understands 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 the way I suggest in the book, potentially one can still hold a blueprint hermeneutic and affirm full participation. Perhaps I should have made that clearer. In fact, my book, hermeneutically, is much more exegetical than theological.

At the same time, there are some expectations and processes embedded in the blueprint hermeneutic (as I have described it in Searching for the Pattern as well as in Women Serving God) that create unnecessary (though perhaps not insurmountable) hindrances to the full participation of women in the assembly. For example, the search for a specific authorization for assembly practices rather than a theology of giftedness may entail the exclusion of women even if 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 are understood as I have argued in the book. The blueprint hermeneutic expects that God has fully regulated the assembly, and where we lack examples, commands, and necessary inferences to specifically and explicitly identify a practice, it is–as I note below–safer to exclude rather than include.

The second weakness is that I did not “meaningfully address centuries-long” interpretations that demeaned women as ontologically inferior, uniquely blameworthy for the human condition, and inherently weak and unfit for public leadership. That is fair. I did not focus on these points. I did, however, identify some of these perspectives when I wrote about Lipscomb, Harding, Sewell, and Bell or the church’s opposition to suffrage and the “New Woman Movement.” My narrow focus on my own journey and how the history of churches of Christ illuminated that for me did not push me to call attention to this larger story.

I acknowledge Steve’s point. This larger story needs to come into play when one fully and systematically assesses gender in the history of churches of Christ. My third volume will address this point. I will locate the exclusion of women from leadership in the larger story of Christian tradition, especially as I address more specifically and more fully the question of “male headship.” I recognize the legitimacy of Steve’s point.

The third weakness is my use of “giftedness” in lieu of “calling.” I don’t find this compelling because I see “giftedness” as assuming a call to use one’s gifts. Moreover, I did not emphasize the “calling” dimension because I focused on specific language in Scripture related to the exercise of gifts, God giving gifts, etc. My intended audience is best addressed, in my estimation, with the biblical language of gifting rather than calling. However, I acknowledge “calling” as a legitimate and important dimension of the discussion. As Steve noted, my responders in the book appealed to “calling” more than I did, though they also spoke of giftedness as an important aspect of their own stories.

The primary weakness Steve identifies is my historical interpretation of the participation of women in assemblies of Restoration Movement congregations in the mid-19th century. Steve spends ten pages (#words) responding to two pages in my book (pp. 48-49; about 700 words).

My purpose in sharing this historical perspective was to lay some brief groundwork about the 1830s-1880s (pp. 48-49) for the major discussion of the 1880s-1930s (pp. 50-62). The claim that the audible and visible participation of women in some assemblies was not “uncommon” and was part of “many” congregations is not a claim that it was dominant or the majority. Rather, it is a recognition that such participation was not totally excluded from the experience of churches in that period and it was not rare. “Some” would have probably been better than “many” in my claim. “Many” may leave the impression that it was far more common than I actually think it was, though how widespread particular practices were is ultimately unknown (perhaps even inaccessible to contemporary historians).

I think the evidence I provide sufficiently demonstrates my basic claim, but perhaps I should have provided more evidence and greater detail. However, considerations of space and the relatively minor function this section played in my book did not merit a fuller treatment for my purposes.

While Steve thinks my assessment is not consistent with Bill Grasham’s outstanding article in the 1999 Restoration Quarterly, I think the two are complementary and essentially agree. He has details I don’t have and vice versa. The reader can decide for himself. Here is a link to Grasham’s piece. His opening sentence is: “There has never been a completely uniform view of the role of women in the work and worship of the church in the Restoration Movement, and this was particularly true in America at the turn of the 19th century.” By the mid-20th century, churches of Christ did establish a broad uniformity: women were totally excluded from audible and visible leadership in the assembly.

I understand Steve’s concern is that (1) I may have conflated churches of Christ and the Christian Church with some of the sources I used, and (2) if my reading of the evidence is skewed, as he claims, then the larger problem is I fail to acknowledge how indebted churches of Christ are to the historic traditions of the Christian faith regarding women. These are two legitimate concerns.

On the first, I was careful in my section on the 1880s-1930s to use sources who were associated with churches of Christ and the conservative regions of the Restoration Movement. For example, Daniel Sommerwho defended the privilege of limited participation in the assembly—was, according to Leroy Garrett, in some sense the founder of churches of Christ through the Sand Creek 1889 Address and Declaration. The Christian Leader & Way, which was conservative-leaning (James A. Harding was co-editor), published many articles defending the limited participation of women (see some citations here). Moreover, Benjamin Franklin was a conservative leader in the Restoration Movement, the spiritual ancestor of Daniel Sommer. Earl West’s biography of Franklin, Elder Benjamin Franklin: The Eye of the Storm, demonstrates this. Certainly Franklin believed that women should not participate in assemblies gathered for official business and decision-making, but he defended their participation in limited ways through prayer and exhortation. Both Sommer and Franklin, along with others in their tradition among churches of Christ, advocate a wider expression of female voices than typical among churches of Christ in the 1940s-1950s.

Nevertheless, Steve’s point is important to consider, and if my narration conflates the practices of the churches of Christ with the Christian Church (as that distinction emerged in the 1900-1920s), then it needs revision. However, I was careful to pay attention to such, and I don’t think I did conflate them. Nevertheless, I am could have overlooked something in my sources and interpretation. It bears checking.

On the second concern, it is important to remember that revivalism in the 18th and 19th centuries included female exhorters and a wider participation of women within assemblies and in what came to be called “camp meetings.” This became even more the case in the Holiness Movement in the second half of the 19th century. The revivalist tradition included women in ways that was not true of earlier Christian traditions. This influenced some in the Restoration Movement, and this may account for some of the diversity present in the 19th and early 20th centuries (even in what we know as churches of Christ).

I appreciate the detailed attention Steve gives to my evidence on pages 48-49. I welcome his engagement here, and it was helpful as a fuller record. He addresses Faurot in the Millennial Harbinger, Benjamin Franklin from his American Christian Review, Krutsinger in the Gospel Advocate (accessible in the Gospel Advocate here) Charlotte Fanning (her biography by Emma Page [p. 16] and William Anderson’s [p. 370] comment in Franklin College and Its Influences), and Lipscomb in the 1876 Gospel Advocate. I don’t find the critique of Faurot, Franklin (as I mentioned above), Fanning, and Krutsinger compelling, but Steve does have a point, I believe, about Lipscomb.

Concerning Faurot, my point is the one Steve makes. Faurot only knows of “two churches outside of Bethany that completely prohibit women from all acts of worship, including exhortation and singing.” In other words, women typically participated in the assemblies and two congregations (that Faurot knew) completely silenced women. In other words, while women were silenced in Bethany (not totally, however, due to congregational singing), they were not silenced in most other congregations in Faurot’s experience.

Tolbert Fanning preached, and Charlotte Fanning led singing. Their summer vacations from teaching school were used to conduct Gospel meetings or revival meetings throughout the Mid-South, especially in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. Page, writing in 1909, called it leading singing and paralleled it with Tolbert’s preaching. In the chapel of Franklin College, Charlotte “led singing” sitting down, to be sure (at least in Anderson’s memory ). That form of participation, however, is out of sync with most churches of Christ today as sitting praise teams are discouraged or forbidden in most congregations, in part, because they include women.

Clearly, Lipscomb and Harding disagreed with Krutsinger. I made that point in the ensuing pages in the book, though I did not call attention to it on p. 49. I would not expect his view to have any dominant or frequent place in the Gospel Advocate, though Lipscomb printed Silena Holman’s advocacy for a similar position in the 1880s-1910s. The years from the late 1880s to the 1920s were filled with articles about women, church, and society. A variety of views are represented in queries, articles, and responses. Lipscomb even once commented that he had received so many inquiries and so often that he could only occasionally comment on the subject since it had already been discussed so often in previous articles. For example, the “Woman Question” was a “difficult question to settle. It is repeated almost every week” (Gospel Advocate, January 19, 1911, p. 78). During those years, the editors and staff writers of the Gospel Advocate, as I make clear in the book, opposed the audible and visible leadership of women in the public assembly.

I think Steve’s critique has the most weight with respect to the interpretation of Lipscomb’s 1876 article in the Gospel Advocate. I remember mulling over that article for close to a whole day in my research. I thought about leaving it out totally and perhaps I should have. It is subject to diverse interpretation, though I think my understanding is a credible one. What struck me in the article, however, is that when Lipscomb refers to the worship and work of the church in which every member (inclusive of male and female) is to participate it included not only  ministering to the sick but also reading verses and not only reporting someone as needing teaching but also praying. At the same, as I note in the book, Lipscomb did not believe women should be official leaders in the church or speak authoritatively in the assembly. In my opinion, in 1876, Lipscomb was not fully convinced about the private/public distinction he would stress in the 1880s-1910s. But I may be wrong about that.

While Steve’s critique focused on pages 48-49, my main intent was to stress how the years from 1888 to 1938 reflected a turbulent time of discussion within churches of Christ. [I chose 1888 because that was Silena Holman’s first engagement on the topic and 1938 because of the publication of Nichol’s book in that year.] I make no claim that the majority of churches of Christ favored or practiced the limited participation of women in the assembly. However, I do make a case that a significant segment of churches of Christ did. This included Sommer’s circle of influence north of the Ohio where 10% of churches of Christ lived in 1906. There were also parts of Texas where it was not totally foreign for women to pray audibly and exhort in the assembly. There were scattered advocates throughout the south as well (including people like Silena Holman).

A series of articles by Mrs. H. L. Knight of Unity, Maine, illustrates how movement sometimes took place among some in the 1900-1910s. In 1907 her congregation hosted John T. Lewis (who returned several times to the area), and later they would host T. B. Larimore. She lived in the orbit of the Gospel Advocate and churches of Christ. She wrote six articles in the 1911 Gospel Advocate (July 20 & 27, August 3, 10, 17, & 24) describing her struggle with whether women have the privilege of “individual” speaking in the public assembly. She practiced and advocated “individual” speaking for several years, was “tossed” about for eight years, but adopted a different stance within the past “two” years with a peaceful conscience. In her fifth article she stated: “It is made evident that both sides have convincing arguments to sustain them, and a person might with reason be as honest in contending for one side as the other; the arguments on one side seem to be as firm a foundation upon which to stand as those on the other side, and one might perhaps find as secure a foundation in the arguments of one side as the other” (August 17, 1911, p. 899).

For herself, though she recognized the difficulty and struggle in thinking about the subject, she concluded women should only participate in “congregational speaking,” not “individual speaking,” in the assembly. But her larger concern was “Christian Unity” (cf. Gospel Advocate 30, 1909, 1660-1), and she applied it to this question. She decided unity is based on the “safe side” (August 24, 1911, 931) as we follow commands and examples in the New Testament. In other words, be safe and follow the blueprint. This approach to unity is what distinguished churches of Christ from denominational bodies, according to Knight.

This became a dominant argument for the exclusion of female voices from leadership in the assembly. When asked questions about women teaching, Bible classes, and “woman’s work in the church,” John T. Hinds, for example, in the 1930 Gospel Advocate (p. 1223), wrote, “it is always better to err on the side of safety.”

A brief exchange between John Straiton (Firm Foundation, Aug. 14), G. C. Brewer (Gospel Advocate, Oct. 25), and John T. Lewis (Gospel Advocate, Nov. 15) in 1934 illustrates the move toward a greater (perhaps more rigid) uniformity. Straiton noted Moses Lard’s advocacy of audible prayers by women in the January 1868 Lard’s Quarterly, which had been published by B. C. Goodpasture in the July 1934 issue of the Gospel Advocate. Brewer recalled how in his past experience, though not in his present, women prayed in sentence prayers and sometimes “shouted” in the assemblies, but Lewis said that was not his experience. Brewer suggested the church should be willing to “survey our ground and see if the churches have been educated in the wrong direction.” Lewis thought it was dangerous to do so when Scripture is so clear. This exchange reflects a dynamic toward uniformity but with some memory of diverse past practices. The uniformity, however, was fast congealing and some thought they had arrived at and were maintaining solid apostolic ground.

Another example of diversity is found in the Firm Foundation, though there was agreement on the silence of women in the formal Sunday public assembly. For example, in 1933-1934, J. Luther Dabney (Nov, 28, 1933 and January 30, 1934) and J. D. Malephurs (January 16 and April 10, 1934) exchanged several articles. While both agreed that when the whole church was gathered, women should be silent, Dabney believed women may teach and preach in other settings even with men present. His particular interest was in “young people’s meetings” where he encouraged girls to pray and make speeches as part of the gathering. “It is much better to train our girls to prophesy and pray than to do nothing at all with them” (Nov. 28, p. 5). Malephurs, however, thought the biblical restrictions applied to all settings where men and women prayed and worshipped together, which is the understanding I advocated in the 1970s. Malephurs concluded that it is “not safe to have girls do anything in a training class that they are forbidden to do before” the church. “My girls,” he wrote, “are not developed to lead prayers and make speeches before boys, for Paul forbids them to make use of such training in the church” (April 10, p. 5). This is an example of the sort of discussions that were happening in the 1930s.

C. R. Nichol’s 1938 God’s Woman, which defended limited participation, might have been the last gasp of limited participation among churches of Christ. His book reflects, however, practices in his own Texas world and a defense of them.

Nevertheless, women were effectively silenced by at least the 1940s. F. W. Smith, the respected long-term minister (36 years) of what is now the 4th Avenue congregation in Franklin, Tennessee and an esteemed writer for the Gospel Advocate, illustrates the sort of decision that was made (Gospel Advocate, 1929, 778-9; emphases are his).

“To what extent a Christian woman has the right to participate in public worship has never appeared as clear to me as I could wish, and for that reason I feel unable to deal with the question. . . I conclude, therefore, not dogmatically, but to be on the safe side, that since the word of God does not clearly and explicitly inform us that it would be Scriptural for a woman to lead the prayer in the assembly of the saints, it would be best to conform to the custom in this respect of the ‘loyal’ churches.”

Safe and loyal would become the watchwords of churches of Christ on this question as well as others. Smith reflects something of a transition in the making among conservatives. Sommer’s position, though largely forgotten, died the death of marginalization as southern churches of Christ (under the influence of the Gospel Advocate primarily) overwhelmed them in number, influence, and institutional power (e.g., colleges and papers).  In the context of the loss of frontier revivalism, the Christian Church division, opposition to cultural movements (suffrage, temperance, and “New Woman”), and the marginalization of the Sommer tradition, by the mid-20th century churches of Christ emerged as a prime example of a Christian tradition that excluded women from all audible and visible leadership in the assembly. Interestingly, they emerged as such at the same time other traditions were becoming more inclusive.

I am grateful for Steve’s work in the sources. His acquaintance with them and his intent to double-check my citations is highly commendable. Thanks, Steve. I appreciate the commendation of the book despite its weaknesses.

Peace, my friend.

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