19th Century Middle Ground: Women in the Assembly

Benjamin Franklin (1812-1878) was the leader of northern conservatives in the mid-19th century within the Stone-Campbell Movement. His American Christian Review was the most widely read periodical of the movement after the Civil War. He led the fight, for example, against the introduction of instrumental music into worship assemblies and grounded the argument for an exclusive “five public acts of worship” in the idea of positive law. He represented the “right wing” of the Stone-Campbell Movement in the postbellum North.

Recognizing this context lends weight to his moderate position concerning the presence of the female voice in the public assemblies of the gathered church. He took this moderating position because he found, to his satisfaction, explicit ground for it in Scripture. When asked his opinion on “sisters taking part in public worship,” he responded (ACR 3.5 [1860] 18):

It depends on upon what part in the public worship is meant. They are not allowed to teach, or to usurp authority over the man, but that they may not sing, pray, commune and exhort, we think no man can prove. The words “suffer not a woman to speak,” we think, is of the same import as “suffer not a woman to teach,” in another place. It is clear that women prayed in the primitive church, or Paul’s speaking of their “praying with the head uncovered” would have been without meaning.  They could not have prayed without speaking, but they could without teaching.

Franklin was convinced that there were “two extremes–the one not permitting women to open their lips in any worshipping assembly, and the other making them public preachers and teachers” (ACR 10 [2 July 1867] 213).

The practice of northern “Churches of Christ”–extending into the early 20th century with Daniel Sommer among others–encouraged women to pray audibly, exhort the congregation and participate in the leadership of the song service. This pervasive practice among northern congregations was ultimately overwhelmed by the practice of the more dominant southern “Churches of Christ” who regarded any public role by women as unseemly and unbiblical (e.g., David Lipscomb and James A. Harding). Their influence squelched the practices of the northern churches and silenced the women in the assembly except for congregational singing. Daniel Sommer noted this trend and remonstrated against it.

It is good to see some congregations of “Churches of Christ” renewing the practice of their 19th century northern ancestors and opening the assembly to hear the female voice in prayer, reading, and exhortation.

22 Responses to “19th Century Middle Ground: Women in the Assembly”

  1.   Alexander Basnar Says:

    I agree, but firmly and strongly insist that the veil then must be applied, too; since this is the constant reminder ofthe undisputed limitation to teaching and “usurping authority”. For those capable of German, you may watch this short teaching of mine on the subject:

    What churches of Christ did from the 1960ies on was grotesque anyway: Taking away the sign of order, but insisting on complete silence at the same time (one wing) or denying all gender-distinctions in Christ’s church (the other wing). Either way is not in harmony with scripture, and even more sinful than instrumental music, since the veil is not based on silence. (just to make it clear: I am all for a-cappella, too)

  2.   eirenetheou Says:

    The distinction between “preaching” and “exhorting” in the nineteenth century continues to interest me for several reasons. i suspect that the distinction would be lost on most disciples of Jesus in the twenty-first century, since most of the “preaching” we hear is actually, more nearly, “exhorting.” Exploring that historical distinction might be a way to open up avenues in which more female voices could be heard.

    God’s Peace to you.


    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks, Don. I think you are quite correct. We don’t hear the kind of “textual” preaching that was “teaching” in Campbell’s day. Much preaching is more exhortations based on Scripture rather than the teaching of Scripture.

  3.   Lyn Farris Says:

    I am curious about the distinction between exhorting and teaching.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Teaching was usually associated with the sermon which was an exposition of Scripture with detailed doctrinal teaching. Exhorting was sometimes done by one person after the sermon (or even as part of the sermon) where people were encouraged to apply the sermon to their lives. Sometimes it was part of “mutual exhortation” where multiple people would exhort the congregation to obedience. Or, sometimes it was a time in the service where people could exhort about any number of themes or share a “testimony” of sorts. It was a common practice throughout the 19th century, but particularly in the early and middle of the century.

      •   Carisse Berryhill Says:

        The separation of these two practices is rooted in the 19c “faculty psychology,” the concept that these two forms of discourse appeal to different faculties of the mind, which ought to be addressed in sequence: reason, imagination, emotion, and will.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        Thanks, Carisse. Your point is right on target.

      •   Clark Coleman Says:

        That is an interesting 19th century distinction, but is it Biblical? By coincidence, with no relation to the sexes, I was studying last week about the Biblical concept of “prophesying” or preaching. The three aspects are edification, exhortation/encouragement, and consolation/comfort. It would take a while to examine all uses of these biblical terms, but Paul brings them together in one phrase in 1 Corinthians 14:1-4, where he teaches about “prophesying.” I suppose the 19th century distinction amounts to a claim that “edification” is “teaching” but the other two aspects are not. It could be that Paul intended for women to engage in the other two aspects of “prophesying” but not in “edification” of the body, i.e. teaching, but it is hard to tell. We have to consider that encouragement/exhortation in Biblical language includes moral correction and encouraging someone to change their conduct, not merely encouraging them in the sense of cheering them up or providing “positive encouragement” as we would say today. So, I wonder if we can maintain this distinction and claim that exhortation/encouragement is not “teaching.” It is difficult (at least to me) to discern the distinctions that Paul intended.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        I’m not interested in maintaining the distinction. I imagine that Franklin (and others in that tradition) would suggest that exhortation is encouragement and edification but that “teaching” was the exposition of Scripture in order to give the church doctrinal instruction.

  4.   Drew Chapados Says:

    John Mark just a curious question–sometimes I have heard it said that 1 Corinthians 11 may apply to a service where men and women were not in the same room. Is that a possible explanation?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      It seems to me that men and women are praying together in a common assembly in 1 Cor 11. Why talk about them both if they are not together. I see no reason to separate this description from the regular assembly. It is the practice of an assembly (church; v.16). Praying and prophesying were done in an assembly as per 1 Cor 14.

  5.   JSpencer Says:

    I was visiting a church (not a Church of Christ) once and the member who was to read the scripture that day was absent. The preacher stepped to podium and said, “Jane Doe, I’m going to ask you to come read the scripture today. It’s Psalm 23, so it’s familiar. John Doe is not here today and Jane didn’t know I was going to ask her to read, but come on up here and read for us. ” Jane was holding a young child, so with her child on her hip she went up and read, as she’d been asked to do.
    In my opinion, she didn’t usurp any authority, and actually was being submissive. I’d love to hear what others think of this.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      It seems to me that reading Scripture is never an authoritative act over another. It is the word itself that is authoritative.

      •   JSpencer Says:

        So why do we not allow the women in our Church of Christ fellowship to participate in this manner? It seems like we have classified all public participation as “leadership” activities, when, in fact, most things that happen in the worship service are not actually acts of leading.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        The primary distinction that led (at least was a significant part) to silencing women was the view that any public speech by women was forbidden or indecent. Consequently, it was not simply that it was “leadership” but rather that it was “public leadership.” And “public” may have received more stress than leadership originally. For example, Lipscomb and Harding both thought women should participate in small, family or home settings but that it was different when the assembly was “public.”

  6.   rich constant Says:

    pretty hard for me to keep quiet over these last 4 , John Mark
    let’s see what would Jesus do? what would Jesus say?
    I wonder John Mark if the traditionalist in all of us make each and everyone of us as blind to the scripture:( that would be new and old) God doesn’t ever change his way of seeing good from evil

  7.   rich constant Says:

    pretty hard for me to keep quiet over these last 4 , John Mark
    let’s see what would Jesus do? what would Jesus say?
    I wonder John Mark if the traditionalist in all of us make each and everyone of us as blind to the scripture:( that would be new and old) God doesn’t ever change his way of seeing good from evil, and we just can’t seem to get over regulatory printable, positive law, and use the New Testament is the only scripture of bailable

    •   rich constant Says:

      that would be use the New Testament as the only scripture available.
      for the phrase.
      what the Scriptures speak.
      or the silence of the Scriptures.
      1 thing Jesus got crucified for.
      was read interpreting exactly what God wanted to say.
      and not with a traditionalist were saying.

      •   rich constant Says:

        love is an ever changing Social dynamic and how we should approach a social dynamic.
        good never changes.
        God heals a broken world he does not condemn it.
        question is the church as stagnant.
        in their traditions.
        as were the Jews in Jesus times.
        where is Jesus today John Mark

      •   rich constant Says:

        I personally think we’re in a world of hurt

      •   rich constant Says:

        I wish you could edit this thing for me because I’m on my phone. and voice activation.
        blessings big guy I love you

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