When Quoting David Lipscomb about Women…..

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? [5]

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.

Lipscomb, of course, knew the story of Deborah and the public role a few other women took in Israel’s history, but he regarded these as the exceptions which prove the rule.

“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.


20 Responses to “When Quoting David Lipscomb about Women…..”

  1.   Leo Woodman Says:

    The thing that fascinates me is that a man’s opinion, or teaching on this subject is quoted as though it were a guide as to how we should respond to the issue at hand. Both sides using one man’s opinion, whether it is used accurately or not is just as disturbing to me as the issue itself.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Actually, I think it is important to listen to others since no individual can make a claim to the truth. We learn from others, and we all have mentors in the present or in our nurturing. It would be a shame is we were not also mentored by people in the past, including Lipscomb. If we think of one man’s opinion as absolute, however, then we have a problem, but I don’t think anyone thinks like that or makes that claim. Rather, we listen to the past because we stand on their shoulders. We are indebted to them as they pasted on the faith to us through their teaching. We cannot, however, absolutize any single person’s teaching. Instead, we listen, learn and dialogue with each other in the hopes of coming to an increasing understanding of the story into which God has called us.

      •   Hans van Erp Says:

        Hello John Mark,

        I do not agree with the above mentioned approach by you. I think it is more important to let God’s Word speak for itself concerning this subject. If we say we need the imput from others we basically claim that God’s Word is not revealing the truth on this subject. Letting ourselves being mentored by people , besides ONLY the Bible, can lead and has lead to a lot of problems in the Church. If we need to listen, learn and dialogue with other people in the “hope”….of coming to a better understanding of God’s plan for us, we again claim that God’s Word is not powerful enough to do this. There is always a tendency in people to find support for certain views in the comments or writings of other people.I think that even if we say that we will also take notice of what God’s Word teaches about a subject, we will often unconsiously put to much emphasis on the thougts or writings of other people who live now or have lived in the past to reach certain conclusions. Blessings, Hans

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        Hans, while I agree that only Scripture is our normative authority, we have all be taught by someone, and we all recognize that we don’t know everything. We need other people. Indeed, even Scripture itself encourages people to teach people. Was the Word insufficient when the Eunuch asked for help and guidance in understanding the Scriptures?

        There is nothing inappropriate in listening to others, learning from the past, and being mentored by other people (just as Timothy was mentored by Paul, and Paul instructed Timothy to teach/mentor others). If we ignore other people, then we are simply alone and isolated. We need others to help us see truths in Scripture to which we might be blinded.

        So, I think we listen to others, including the past, but we are not bound by the past.

  2.   Michael Arena Says:

    It’s always about the worship service. Matt. 9:13.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Actually, for Lipscomb–as the post indicates–it is not about the worship service. Rather, it is about living life in the way in which God intended in creation. It is about both life and assembly, and the same rule (principle) governs both.

  3.   J Love Says:

    If memory serves, I think Lipscomb was also against life insurance policies. Something about it being akin to gambling or somesuch.

  4.   ATHA comiskey Says:

    What about service, prayer, reading ((not ‘preaching’) scripture? These are not teaching/preaching in worship service, but allowing Godly women to do what we are called to do, as well as what Godly men are called to do. Are women serving the Communion, leading the Church in prayer, singing and reading scripture aloud during worship non-scriptural? If so, please teach me why. Thank you.

  5.   Ronald Quilaton Says:


    I was researching on this issue before and I stumbled across a resource (which I unfortunately couldn’t remember) that sort of added another perspective on the issue. I followed your other link on this post and read through the article and the comments, but I didn’t find any mention of it. I’m wondering what your take may be on it.

    The resource, as far as I can remember, agreed with your 2009 article and claimed that Paul was prohibiting a different kind of “talking” in I Cor. 14, since he has already hinted in chapter 11 that women can indeed “talk” in the assembly (whether that may be a “church assembly” like we have on Sunday morning or just any kind of Christian gathering–e.g., a picnic). They can pray and prophesy as long as their heads are covered just as Lipscomb interpreted above. The author mentioned that, as he explicated possible scenarios of new Christians coming in from Graeco-Roman culture, Paul prohibited the kind of talking that usurped the authority of men. The reason for some women doing this perhaps could be that they found liberty in the church (cf., “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free…”) as opposed to the outside Graeco-Roman society where they had no voice. With their newfound excitement and redeemed self-worth, they voiced their opinions just like men would, disregarding the “haustafeln” of the society. Naturally, if non believers would come in to the assembly and witness the chaos and the disrespect, the church would not have quite a nice reputation; and obviously that’s a big no no for the Apostle.

    If such a situation is plausible, then the interpretation of the text highly depends on the situation and culture, especially when the women-be-silent passages (I Corinthians, I Timothy, and the women be subject to your husband passages in Ephesians and Colossians) were written as occasional documents. If this was the case, then the interpretation of such texts cannot immediately become a definitive rule; rather it has become an if-then case. And if we take the I Cor. 14 an if-then case, then women being silent can’t be a definitive rule; rather, it is a rule based on a situation where women are usurping the authority of men. What seems to be a more definitive rule then is the practice in I Cor. 11. According to my resource, women can speak in the assembly as long as they meet these two conditions: (1) they’re not usurping the authority of men, and (2) they wear head coverings.

    Obviously there’s another hurdle for the hermeneutic of such practice to today’s setting (i.e., cultural differences); but aside from that, I’m curious about your take on the possibility of such situation and interpretation.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      My article was written back in 1990. So, it does not necessarily reflect my perspective now. But I do believe that women spoke in the assembly (prayed and prophesied) in an assembly where the church was gathered to sing, pray, eat the Supper, etc.

      There are cultural factors that situate the texts. It is difficult to see them as timeless, positive injunctions like Lipscomb did. There are contextual, occasional factors. The one you mention is certainly a possibility. It is difficult, however, to discern. Nevertheless, it has some merit.

  6.   Ben Wiles Says:

    How much of Lipscomb’s view on the silence of women in the public sphere was rooted in his views on the Christian’s involvement in government & society as a whole? That is to say, how many of these restrictions that he believed appropriate for women would he place on Christians of either gender?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Lipscomb would discourage any political involvement or role in the government for either gender. But I think his restrictions for women in society are rooted in his understanding of creation–the very nature of male and female, and how God ordered their relationship. So, for example, a woman could not be the president of a school or bank, etc. Some close associates of Lipscomb who addressed this question specifically excluded women from the ranks of medical doctors and lawyers. That is based on gender rather than on his views regarding political involvement.

  7.   Maria Arvizu Says:

    I can’t help but be outraged at Mr. Lipscomb’s writings. His quotes are perfect example of the misuse of scriptures to diminish women’s value as members of the church. I’m particularly infuriated at his conclusion that the banning of women from public speaking and leadership in church extends to society as well. What a destructive type of teaching and legacy. I have no respect for this man or any religious authority who follows these ridiculous principles.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I agree his views are extreme here. At the same time, he widen the doors in ways for women that others did not (e.g., women teaching and lead home groups and groups of Bible studies at the meetinghouse). So, it is a mixed bag. Nevertheless, we do not have to follow him in any of his extremes nor should we (in my opinion).

      At the same time, I would caution that to “have no respect for this man” fails to recognize the many good dimensions of his character, life, and obedience to God. For example, he was much more progressive than others in opposing racial hatred and segregation, and he cooperated with all Christian people in serving the poor and helping the sick (e.g., the epidemic; see http://johnmarkhicks.com/2011/02/23/david-lipscomb-on-the-cholera-epidemic-in-nashville-june-1873/).

      So, I caution that we not make one question a litmus test of our respect and honor. We all have blind spots. Lipscomb had several, as do I. Unfortunately, the problem with blind spots is that we are blind to them.

      Blessings, and thanks for reading, Maria.

  8.   City Girl Says:

    One way to analyze the information in the NT is to divide it into its several strains. Three prevalent strains come from Jesus, Paul and pseudo-Paul. The controversies about women arise from pseudo-Paul so the question is why D Lipscomb is so focused on pseudo-Paul.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Of course, Lipscomb does not believe there is pseudo-Paul, and he believes that Jesus and Paul are in perfect harmony. Actually, Lipscomb is not focused on pseudo-Paul since the quotation that most prominently figures in his account is 1 Corinthians 11 & 14 (unless one thinks that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is an interpolation).

      You are correct that one way to analyze the information in the NT is through these three streams, but I don’t think it is the best way myself. In fact, the Jesus stream comes to us in four versions, and there are other dimensions of the Christian story that are present in the New Testament other than the three you mention.

      Also, I think the “controversies about women” are broader than pseudo-Paul. They figure in the Petrine material, they are part of the Gospel material, and other parts of the NT. Yet, the two primary “restrictive” texts are 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 (both of which some would regard as pseudo-Paul).

      Thanks for reading.

  9.   Owen Slaughter Says:

    Bro. JMH –

    Thank you for articulating this so well. We too often jump to extremes ourselves when addressing an extreme. How quickly we forget to look at the wholeness of ones view or scripture when doing so. This has pointed me toward much more study.

    Humbly –


  10.   Jeff McVey Says:

    And consistency requires it, also….


  1. David Lipscomb, Church of Christ Foundational Leader: “All the Teaching of the Bible is Against Women Speaking in Public” (It Gets Worse)  – Authentic Theology

Leave a Reply