Privilege or Silence: Women in Churches of Christ (1897-1907) I

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.

8 Responses to “Privilege or Silence: Women in Churches of Christ (1897-1907) I”

  1.   Matthew Says:

    It is really shocking that these debates happened in those years. You would think that no discussion would have taken place. I look forward to the rest of the story.

  2.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Considering the fact that nothing happens in a vacume, it makes me wonder how much their conclusions were shaped by scripture and how much was shaped by both the cultural views of the day regarding women and the reaction to what was going on in the Christian Churches. Of course, the same question can be asked of us as well. How much are our conclusions (whether traditional or non-traditional) shaped by scripture and how much is shaped by what is taking place in our own specific cultural/contextual settings.

    We all can offer a fair amount of assesment on these questions regarding those who lived 50+ years ago. It is impossible to answer those same questions about ourselves. Only time will render a verdict upon us. FOR THAT REASON, we all should have humility in how much we press our conclusions and caution in allowing our conclusions to become divisive.

    Grace and peace,


  3.   Stan Says:

    I would like to hear thoughts on how anyone can pray WITHOUT teaching. Teaching even comes out in our prayers.

  4.   David Braden Says:

    I think Rex raises some excellent points. Just how much does cultural perspective influence our thinking on biblical questions both now and in the formative years of the churches of Christ? I recently read Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism and found some of his perspective persuasive. As always I look forward to your thoughts in this study.

  5.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Stan, we might also say that it would be difficult to see how one might sing without teaching as well, but we still recognize a difference–at least practically–between the functions of prayer, singing and teaching (didactic discourses). Prayer is, at least, directed toward God (more vertical) while teaching is directed toward others (more horizontal).

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    David, more on culture in the post to come tomorrow or tonight. Indeed, it is culture in reverse. Whereas Grudem might argue that culture has shifted Evangelicalism toward feminism, we will see in the next post how culture also functioned in the late 19th century to blind or confirm (depending on one’s perspective) one’s theology.

  7.   Johnny Melton Says:

    The question is not whether one teaches in prayer or in singing or through drama or through Bible Reading or by example, the question is when does that teaching become authoritative. The teaching that occurs in prayer, singing, Bible reading, drama, and even testifying to one’s experience of the gospel is not inherently authoritative. On the other hand, to teach the church, on behalf of the church, by preaching the Word, reproving, rebuking, exhorting, etc, it seems to me, constitutes teaching with authority.

  8.   preacherman Says:

    Wonderful post and discussion.
    I think this is so important.
    “For we are all one in Christ Jesus!”


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