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

In my next post I will turn my attention to “privilege,” but in this one I dig deeper into the argument for silence.

The Tennessee Tradition regarded public silence as godly submission on the part of faithful women. Given the Tennessee understanding that women were inferior to men in terms of leadership capacity and excluded from any “public” life as outlined in my previous post, it is not surprising to see the New Testament construed in a way that fits that presupposition. When seeking to inductively collect and harmonize the New Testament’s teaching on “woman’s work,” the Tennessee Tradition concluded that the most significant distinction was public versus private. Women “must pray and teach, but not publicly” (Bell, The Way, 1903, 1046).

Priscilla taught Apollos with Aquilla. Phillip’s daughters prophesied. Corinthian women prayed and prophesied. “Women announced the resurrection to the eleven” and the Samaritan woman “proclaimed” Jesus “as the Christ to the people of her city.” “The fact that,” Harding continued, “women in the apostolic age prophesied (spoke by inspiration) makes it clear to my mind that women who know God’s Word now should teach it.” But this “by no means necessarily implies that she taught in the public meetings of the church” (Harding, CLW,1904, 8).

The discerning principle is not whether a woman may teach or not teach, or pray or not pray. Rather, it is the sphere in which she teaches or prays, and the sphere determines the nature of the leadership involved. Her sphere is the home rather than the “great assembly.” Since God created man as “the leader, the ruler,” when a woman “assumes the leadership” through prayer or teaching in the public sphere as she “directs and controls” the “thoughts” of others she then “takes a place for which she was not made” (Harding, CLW, 1904, 8). That sphere belongs to men whereas woman was given “the humbler, better place and more difficult work,” that is, the domestic life (Hawley, The Way, 1903, 810). “Her place,” Poe wrote, “is at home to guide the house [and] rear the children” (Poe, FF, 1901, 2). This principle is rooted in Creation and illustrated by the Fall. Eve “wrecked things when she took the leadership in Eden” (Harding, The Way, 1902, 393).

The home, however, is a place where women may teach and pray, and she may teach even her own husband—“even though he be a very great man”—as well as her children. When, for example, Priscilla studied the Scriptures with Apollos, “no leadership was assumed;” but rather “there was a social home-circle talk about the things of the kingdom of God” (Harding, CLW, 1904, 8). In another place, Harding offers a further characterization of this kind of “home” environment. When there are “private meetings of a social nature, where no organization is thought of, no leaders appointed, a Christian woman may teach” men, women or children and pray with them. “But when the meeting is organized, called to order, and leaders are appointed, those leaders should be men always” (Harding, CLW,1906, 8). Bell—one of Harding’s prize students—summarizes it this way: a woman “can teach anybody anywhere except in cases where publicity is connected with it” (Bell, The Way, 1903, 777).

But may she teach in a “mixed” Bible class on the first day of the week? Is that connected to “publicity;” is it public? Both Bell and Harding believed that a woman may read Scripture (when asked), answer questions (when asked), ask questions, and thereby “teach” in a Bible class on Sunday when to do any of these in the public assembly would be sinful (Harding, The Way, 1902, 393; Bell, The Way, 1903, 777). Consequently, the assembly is “public” in a way that the Bible class is not. The distinction is important for them because “teaching is not denied her.” She may teach in a Bible class through reading, questioning and answering questions. What is forbidden is “publicity or exercising dominion” over men. Consequently, she may answer or ask questions in a Bible class when she does so “in a quiet, submissive way, being in subjection to the public leader” (Bell, The Way, 1903, 777).  

Interestingly and at the same time raising the question of consistency, the Bible class has a “public leader” even though it is not “public” in the same way as the assembly, according to Bell, but when a woman participates in the class she does not engage in “publicity” which presumably means the only “publicity” in a Bible class is located in the “public leader” or appointed teacher. Though a woman may teach other women and children in a Bible class as the lead teacher (Harding, The Way, 1903, 417), she is not permitted to teach men as the “public teacher” because this would involve a public exercise of authority over men. Yet, a woman is able to audibly participate in a class as a student (read, ask questions and answer questions) while she is not permitted to audibly participate at all in the public assembly. It appears that the definition of “publicity” shifted somewhat between the assembly and the Bible class.

Lipscomb and Sewell, however, do not seem to have a problem with a woman teaching a Bible class including men if they teach in a “quiet, modest, womanly way” (Questions Answered, 736).  Sewell gives the example of the Tenth Street Church in Nashville (Questions Answered, 741-2): 

“after singing, the reading of the lession, and prayer, the different classes take their places in different parts of the house, so that each class is entirely to itself as a class, and the lesson is gone over by each class, and the teacher, just as if each class were in a house to itself. Some of these classes are taught by sisters and some by brethren. But the sisters who teach these classes are as private in their work as if they were teaching at home…If churches can find enough competent brethren that will teach all the classes, that is all well; but that is seldom the case; and when that fails and women teach classes, we think that allright also.”

And, of course, “when the hour nears its close, the class work is closed, and at eleven o’clock the church assembles in one body and the regular service begins. In this service not a woman says a word, except in singing” (Questions Answered, 741). Not even a sound, we might say, because 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 says women should be silent in the assembly when the whole church is gathered as one body.

But did not women audibly pray and prophesy in the Corinthian assembly? Harding argued that when 1 Corinthians 11 is read as a positive answer to that question it contradicts 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Rather, Harding suggested that 1 Corinthians 11 applies to “any time or place” when women pray or teach (home, class or assembly) but that 1 Corinthians 14 regulates this general instruction with a specific prohibition against speaking in the public assembly. The point of 1 Corinthians 11 is a woman should always, whether in public or private, pray or teach “with her head covered” (Harding, CLW, 1906, 8). Harding, along with many others in the Tennessee Tradition, believed a covered head was a normative obligation for women whenever they prayed or taught (though some, like Lipscomb, thought long hair was a sufficient covering; but if the hair was not long, then the woman needed a further artificial covering–see Questions Answered, p. 706). 1 Corinthians 11 does not subvert 1 Corinthians 14. Instead, 1 Corinthians 14 regulates 1 Corinthians 11. This is confirmed, according to Harding and others who argued similarly, by 1 Timothy 2:8 where the prayer leader—the one who raises “uplifted hands”—is specifically designated as a male (Harding, “Brother C. D. Moore,” CLW, 1907, 8).

The seriousness of this conclusion should not be underestimated. Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 were understood as “positive” instructions for the assembled, worshiping church. Below are some examples (emphasis mine).

 “The language is plain and positive” (Carr, CLW, 1905, 1).
“Paul’s language—plain and positive as it is…” (Elliott, CL, 1897, 2).
“[T]the Lord positively forbids it” (Hawley, The Way, 1903, 810).
“[S]he will preach in the face of God’s positive command not to do it” (Poe, FF, 1901, 2).
“This decree is like the one in Eden: it is positive” (Sewell, GA, 1897, 432).

This language is overtly legal in nature. The Stone-Campbell Movement inherited the use of “positive” and “moral” descriptions of divine law from their English Reformed (Puritan) heritage. 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”(emphasis mine; “Brethren Faurott,” CLW, 1907, 8). For example, “positive law” prescribed the five acts of worship and those who add to (e.g., instrumental music) that number sin against God’s law. “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 into the same category as Nadab and Abihu (emphasis mine; Sewell, GA, 1897, 692).

Consequently, the consensus among Southern churches—in both Texas and Tennessee as represented by respected editors—was that this was a line in the sand just like instrumental music or baptism itself. “That women are not allowed to make speeches in the meetings of the churches,” Harding noted, “is just as plainly and strongly taught as that believers are to be baptized” (Harding, “Was Paul Mistaken,” 1907, 8). When congregations permit women to “lead the prayers, to speak and to exhort in the meetings of the church,” Harding did not believe “God’s law was ever more flagrantly violated than…at this point” (Harding, “Brethren Faurott,” 1907, 8). These differences were just cause for separation and distinction, that is, division.

My next post will articulate a different perspective–the “privilege” of women to publicly lead prayers, read Scripture and exhort the assembly. The defense of that “privilege” comes from a rather unexpected source(s) within Churches of Christ at the turn of the century.

More to come….


R. C. Bell, “Woman’s Work,” The Way 5 (3 December 1903) 1046.

O. A. Carr, “Woman’s Work in the Church, What She Should Do in Public Worship. No. 3,” Christian Leader & the Way 19 (30 May 1905) 1.

J. Perry Elliott, “Queries,” Christian Leader 11 (5 January 1897) 2.

Harding, “Brethren Faurott, Sands and the Woman Question,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 (17  December 1907) 8.

Harding, “Bro. C. D. Moore, Sister Chloe’s Letter and the Woman Question,” Christian Leader & the Way 21 (29 October 1907) 8.

James A. Harding, “Questions and Answers,” The Way 4 (5 March 1903) 417.

James A. Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 3 (20 March 1902) 393.

James A. Harding, “Was Paul Mistaken, Or Did He Lie About It, or Are I Cor. 14:33-35 and I Tim. 2:8-13 Both True?” Christian Leader & the Way 21 (26 November 1907) 8.

James A. Harding, “Where and How Shall Women Speak and Pray?” Christian Leader & the Way 20 (31 July 1906) 8.

James A. Harding, “Woman’s Work in the Church,” Christian Leader & the Way 18 (8 March 1904) 8.

Henry H. Hawley, “Woman and Her Work,” The Way 5 (20 August 1903), 810.

John T. Poe, “Female Evangelists,” Firm Foundation 16 (29 January 1901) 2.

Elisha G. Sewell, “What May Women Do in the Church?” Gospel Advocate 39 (4 November 1897) 692.

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

  1.   Cole Satterfield Says:

    Grecian and Hebrew cultures and methods of worship were colliding in these newly formed Judaic and Greek Christian worship assemblies in Corinth and Ephesus where east meets west. Paul had experienced it himself and heard of the strife and division it was causing. In a effort to calm opposing factions and restore harmony, Paul instructed the women to SHUT UP. And for the men to keep their wives silenced and teach them Christianity at home. We know these instructions by Paul were given to promote harmony within the assembly; our objective as well. And as we try to heed Paul’s instructions, we acknowledge that we won’t understand it the same. When it comes to silence, how silent? When it comes to authority, how do we exercise it and how to others submit to it?

    We certainly don’t want to practice biblicism where we simply adopt rules by rote and do things without rhyme or reason. These issues are not so easily defined. If a woman utters a peep, has she broken the silence rule? Or if she does anything that causes division, has she broken the intent of Paul’s instructions even if done in a whisper or without using words at all?

    Kindly, Cole

  2.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I think one must force a definition of ekklesia upon scripture that is not there in order to come away with the conclusion that Harding held regarding 1 Cor 11. Also, I believe a good exegesis of 1 Cor 14.34-35 would show that the silence Paul is invoking upon the women/wive has nothing to do with prayer and prophesy but instead is in reference to the disruptive questions they are asking.

    Nevetheless though we do not agree with every conclusion Harding and Lipscomb held, we must appreciate the sincere desire to follow Jesus and devotion to be students of the scriptures. We owe a debt of grattitude for the way they allowed God to use them for his glory and kingdom.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.


  3.   Johnny Melton Says:

    What is the justification for creating different categories of assemblies where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name? As Rex points out, it appears that different definitions are being forced. If ekklesia is “assembly,” then whenever and wherever 2 or 3 assemble in Jesus’ name you have “church” (and whatever rules and regs govern “church” should apply to all assemblies). Was the effort to create a “public assembly” or a “church service” (as opposed to a class or private assembly – thus the different categories of assembly) a practical matter that appears early in church history, or was it a more modern development that occurs with the legal, positive law interpretation of Scripture?

  4.   Johnny Melton Says:

    Does Ignatius’s slogan, “ubi Christus, ibi ekklesia,” have any bearing here? If Jesus is in the midst of 2 or 3 gathered in his name, does that constitute ekklesia (church)? Or do the two or three gathered in Jesus’ name have to “intend” to worship, or “intend” to be the church in order to actually worship or be the church. For instance, if a Bible class gathers in Jesus’ name, begins with prayer, sings a song of praise, and engages in the study of the Bible, does it remain something other than church, simply because the people present do not intend to be church? Or, what about a gathering on Thursday of senior saints. They gather in Jesus’ name, beginning with prayer, they sing a hymn, read and discuss the Bible, bless food and eat together, and then they dismiss with prayer. Is Jesus present on this occasion? Is it church? Or, does the fact that these good people did not intend to be church, mean that this gathering really isn’t church? In both the class and the luncheon, women have a greater latitude for participation than these same people would grant when they assemble on Sunday morning and evening with the intention of being church. Is it ubi Christus, ibi ekklesia when we intend it, or does the presence of Christ make a gathering of Christians ekklesia regardless of their intention?

  5.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    The forced definition of ekklesia that is so often imposed upon scripture reminds me of a chapel service at Harding University in Searcy. We gathered (and I assume that most in attendance consider themselves to be Christians), began with a few announcements and a prayer. Then we sang a few songs and another prayer. This last prayer was the “official closing prayer” so that worship was over. Following that prayer, a Christian woman came up to speak on her journey to hope (she was sexually abused as a child, suffered from eating disorders as a young adult, and even attempted suicide once). She spoke… actually she came up to the podium and preached as a prophet of God proclaiming the healing that only God can bring. Though most at HU would consider it wrong for a woman to speak (preach) in a Christian assembly, this was not wrong because we had already had the closing prayer.

    I think this is a good example of one way that even today Christians still force a definition of ekklesia that is not there. I was actually surprised tht HU even allowed the woman to speak under those circumstances and I understand the fine line they were trying to walk by having an official “closing prayer” (even though chapel was not dismissed) but if it is wrong for a woman to speak/preach in the assembly in any circumstance then this surely was wrong. If I remember correctly, some were explaining that it was no longer an assembly since there was a “closing prayer.” Others were saying it was not a Christian assembly since this was a university chapel and not Sunday morning worship in a local church. Others saw the inconsistencies and those on the more traditional side saw her speaking at all as wrong while those on the progressive side applauded HU for having her speak but criticized the university for the way it was handled.

    Any ways, I think it shows just how much we still try to force our own preferences and meaning on the word ekklesia in an attempt accomodate aspects of our culture (and in this case, accomodate the cultural expectations of both traditionalist and progressives). I hope this does not sound like I am dogging on HU because I don’t want to do that, it just is a great contempory example of the same problem. Also, I am sure they are not the only CoC univeristy that done something like this.

    Grace and peace,


  6.   rich constant Says:

    looks like i am falling behind

    big time RATS FOR ME ..NO GOOD!!!!!!!

    blessings and gods good to all



  7.   rich constant Says:


    OF GOD AS TAKEN in translateing from eph. the sword of the Spirt which is the WORD
    THE WORD was made flesh
    two different words in greek
    having two different theoligical conotations
    which are generally mis represinted
    by the church

    i understand the sword of the spirit to mean
    the witness of the profets and the law as in pauls useage in
    rom. 3:21 “being witnessed by law and pro…

    yes? john mark

    blessings got to go


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