Soft Complementarianism Among Churches of Christ in the Late 19th Century

James Madison Mathes (1808-1892), who edited the Works of Barton W. Stone, authored an article in the 1882 Gospel Advocate (pp. 490-91) entitled “Woman’s Work.” Mathes was a fellow-journeyman with the conservative leader Benjamin Franklin of Indiana. Franklin shared his perspectives on this topic.

He staked out what he thought was a middle ground between the “extremes” of silencing women in the assembly and inviting them to preach. He did not believe 1 Corinthians 14:34 silenced all women but only those creating a disturbance, and he believed there were “no female apostles, evangelists, or overseers in the apostolic churches.”

“The question of woman’s work in the church is one of the live questions of the hour. . .the apostle does allow Christian women to pray and prophesy in the public assembly. . .The apostle here says not a word against women praying and prophesying in the public assemblies, provided they wear long hair, or have their heads covered with a veil. (1. Cor. 11:6). And it is very evident that Christian women did occupy prominent positions in the apostolic churches. Paul commends Phebe [sic], as a deaconess of the church at Cenchrea.”He recommends the pamphlet Woman’s Work in the Church for those who want to study the topic more. That pamphlet was written by Abigail M. Mathes (James’s second wife) in 1878.

The biography of Benjamin Franklin (The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, p. 163), written by Benjamin’s son Joseph, describes sister Mathes: “She was long a teacher in the schools of Cincinnati, and is a very ready writer. She is the author of a very worthy tract, entitled “Woman’s Work in the Church,” which has had a large sale.”

Abigail M. (Rickoff) Mathes, Woman’s Work in the Church of Christ (1878).

Some congregations of the churches of Christ practiced and a number of conservative leaders advocated for the visible and audible participation of women as leaders in worshipping assemblies.

Abigail was one of them.Abigail was a school teacher and wrote for various periodicals. She was the second wife of James M. Mathes (1808-1892).

She offers a middle path between what she called two extremes. She did not think women should have public authority in either society (including voting) or church but did not think women should be silenced in worshipping assemblies or have no voice on social and political questions. This is a version of what is today known as “soft complementarianism,” though her version applies 1 Tim 2:12 to all of life and not just to the church.”

“Some women and men have gone to the extreme of placing woman upon an exact equality with man in every department of Church work, and even demanding for her political equality with the elective franchise and the right to hold office, and to exercise authority in the Church as Elders and Preachers of the Gospel. Another class, going off to another extreme and denying to her all religious, political and social equality with man, and condemning her to absolute silence in the Church, not even allowing her the privilege of praying or exhorting in the social prayer meeting…making her a religious nobody graciously permitted to be a member of the Church, but mute and inactive in all the public and social duties of membership.” p. 4

“We doubt the propriety of women taking the pulpit as pastors and evangelists, because it seems to take her out her proper sphere, and place her in a position from which her modest nature would seem to shrink, as unsuited to the true position of woman, as the assistant and help-mate of man. But I would not be understood as saying that women have no right to teach, exhort, sing and pray in the congregation. Very far from it. For I believe that she has the scriptural right to do all these things, and more.” p. 10

“May the sisters exhort, teach, sing, and pray in the worshipping assembly without violating the law of Christ? We answer in the affirmative. . . .We are aware that in some communities there is s sort of prejudice, as we think, growing out of ignorance, against the sisters taking any part in the social worship beyond the singing. They would make Paul’s prohibition general and universal [1 Cor 14:34-35] and condemn all women to absolute silence in the worshipping assembly.” pp. 12-13.

James M Mathes (1808-1892) was a close friend and ally of Benjamin Franklin (1812-1878), Together, they led a conservative element north of the Ohio in the mid-19th century (e.g., they opposed instrumental music in the assembly). Franklin held the same view as Abigail Mathes. 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” (American Christian Review 10 [2 July 1867] 213).

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