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

April 10, 2021

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).


FOURTEEN QUESTIONS ABOUT AND TWELVE INTERPRETATIONS OF 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

March 15, 2021

“I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent [or quiet].” 1 Timothy 2:12 (NRSV)

Some suggest the above text is clear, obvious in its meaning, and uncomplicated. Quite the contrary, I think, and for at least three reasons: (1) fourteen questions that reflect how difficult its interpretation is, (2) twelve distinct but seemingly viable interpretations of the text, and (3) its history of interpretation.

These considerations, among others, make this one of the most problematic texts in Paul to understand and apply. 2 Peter 3:16 recognizes some texts in Paul are “hard to understand.” Is 1 Timothy 2:12 one of them? Perhaps so, given its history of interpretation and applications.

FOURTEEN QUESTIONS ABOUT 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

  1. Does “man” refer to any male (including eight year old persons), all baptized/born again men in the church, all men (whether Christian or not) at a certain age, or to only husbands (as a domestic teaching rather than a “church” or assembly teaching)?
  2. Does “woman” refer to any female (including eight year old persons), all baptized/born again women in the church, all women in creation (whether Christian or not), or to only wives (as a domestic teaching rather than a “church” or assembly teaching)?
  3. Does “a woman” refer to a specific woman who was a protagonist of some sort and creating a disturbance, or is it generic for all women, or only some women like those identified in 2:9-10?
  4. To what does “teach” refer—official church authority, instruction of any kind, singing? Does it include speech like making announcements, reporting on mission work, serving on a praise team, leading worship in song and prayer?
  5. Is the purpose, content, or style of teaching part of Paul’s concern in this text? Or is it only the act of teaching itself?
  6. What is the meaning of the rare word for “authority”—is it negative, positive, neutral, official, leadership in any form, or a specific form of leadership? What is the lexical meaning of authentein (“to have authority”)–legitimate authority, oppressive authority, domineer? Why does Paul only use this word once in all his writings, and why did not Paul use one of his typical words for leadership/authority that are present elsewhere in the Pastoral letters?
  7. What is the grammatical relationship between “to teach or have authority over a man”—is it is it about the manner/style of teaching, or two separate but related acts, are the two verbs both positive/negative or mixed, does “over a man” apply to teach as well as having authority?
  8. What is the setting for the prohibition—assembly, home, society, public, private, etc.? Is it limited to any of these settings, or is it universal in intent?
  9. Is the intent situational (addressing a specific problem for a limited moment), universal and timeless, or both? What is the universal principle and how is it related to the situation? Is the statement itself the universal principle or an application of a principle within a particular situation? Why does Paul uses a word that typically addresses a limited situation (“permit”) instead of a more general and often used verb to “command” in the Pastorals?
  10. What is the meaning of “silent” or “quiet”—does it refer to voice, demeanor, submissiveness (but to what or to whom—husband, all men, church authorities, church teaching, the assembly, God)?
  11. How do we apply this text in our contemporary settings—what is “leadership” in our contemporary church architecture (serving communion while standing, serving on a praise team before the assembly, etc.), what is the line between teaching and non-teaching in this text (is there a difference between teaching and prophesying, making announcements, giving a testimony a baptism or in the assembly, requesting prayers, confessing sin, etc.?), what kind of authority (leadership?) is envisioned in our present settings, and are women to be “silent” with their voice, only “quiet” in their demeanor, or both?
  12. Where do we apply this text in our contemporary settings—small groups, home devotionals, public assemblies, Bible classes, street preaching, one-on-one evangelism, PTA meetings, etc.?
  13. What is the social, cultural, and historical context of this text? How would this have been heard in its context in light of the particular situation of the Ephesian house churches?
  14. What is the literary context of this verse, the purpose of the letter itself, and the disturbances surrounding women in Ephesus evident in the letter?

TWELVE HISTORIC INTERPRETATIONS OF 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

Bold=the NRSV text; Italics=an interpretative perspective

1.   I permit no woman to teach at all or have any authority over a man in any circumstance whether in society, home, or church; she is to keep silent in all contexts where men are present and submit to all men.

This was the typical interpretation for most of the Post-Constantinian church (fourth century onward). Women may only teach, have authority, or lead an assembly or group in female-only environments, whether in public or private. At times, women were not even permitted to write for publication, which is a form of teaching.

2.   I permit no woman to teach in any public (though it is permitted in private) venues where men are present or to have authority over a man in any public contexts, including social, political, and educational ones; she is to keep silent in public situations and maintain her role as a keeper of the home.

This was, historically, the interpretation of the vast majority of Christian traditions. Women were excluded from all public venues whether in society or church, though often encouraged to teach in private (within certain parameters). For many, “man” is defined as any adolescent male or any male that has been baptized/born again.

3.   I permit no woman to teach any man in any religious context whether at home or church (including small groups, Bible classes, and other religious venues) or have authority over a man in the life of the home or church (though she is permitted to do so in social contexts); she is to keep quiet and submit to men in the home and church.

This modern interpretation restricts its meaning to the church and home. A woman is not permitted to lead (have authority over) men in any public or private gatherings of the church in any way. This excluded women from leading small groups that included men in their home as well as teaching Bible classes, and it excluded women from leading prayers in such setting (sometimes, including leading their own husbands in prayer). It is represented by many traditional (“hard”) complementarians. For many, “man” is defined as any adolescent male or any male that has been baptized/born again. However, women may teach and have authority over men in social, educational, political, and other contexts.

4.   I permit no woman to teach any man in any public church context or have leadership authority over a man in any public way; she is to keep silent rather than teach; she is to submit rather than exercise public authority in the assembly. But she is permitted to teach in private contexts and public social venues.

This modern interpretation restricts the prohibition to public church contexts. A woman is not permitted to lead men in the public gatherings of the church in any way, whether visible and/or audible. However, it gives women space to teach in other settings such as small groups, Bible classes, or report on mission work to a group (depending on what is considered public or private). Some “soft” complementarians understand the text in this way. For many, “man” is defined as any adolescent male or any male that has been baptized/born again. However, women may teach and have authority over men in social, educational, political, and other contexts.

5.   I permit no woman to teach any man as an official church authority figure or in any way to have official authority over a man as a preacher (e.g., the official senior minister), pastor, or elder; she is to keep quiet by submitting to the authority of male church officials, though she is permitted to teach and have authority in private contexts, various religious gatherings, and social venues.

This modern interpretation restricts the prohibition to official authoritative speeches and decisions within the church. Primarily, this restricts women from becoming pastors (including the regular “preaching minister”) and elders. A woman may teach in religious contexts such as Bible classes, small groups, and even preach on occasion to the whole assembly as long as she does not assume the role of elder, senior minister, bishop, or some official authoritative representative of the church. Some “soft” complementarians understand the text in this way. However, women may teach and have authority over men in social, educational, political, and other contexts.

6.   I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man in the sense that she may not usurp or take by force an authoritative teacher role in the public assembly; she is to keep an appropriate quiet[ness] in the public assembly.

This modern interpretation affirms women teachers (including the public assembly) as long as they are serving quietly under the leadership of church male authority (e.g., elders). Some suggest there is a hard theological boundary (e.g., no women elders or preachers) as to what church officials may permit while others believe elders are guided by a spiritual wisdom that discerns what is culturally appropriate for the sake of the health of the congregation.

7.   I permit no [wife] to teach or have authority over a [husband]; she is to keep a quiet demeanor in relation to her husband at home and in public, especially in the public assembly of the church.

This modern interpretation restricts the teaching to the relationship between a husband and wife in public or in the public assembly. Some limit it to only domestic relationships, and thus it does not apply to church organization or assemblies. It is limited to the interaction between a husband and wife. Consequently, it contains no other limitation on the participation of women in the public assemblies of the church.

8.   Accommodating to the Roman cultural setting for the sake of the gospel, I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep quiet as they submit to God so that the gospel might get a hearing.

This modern interpretation reads the text similar to the way many handle slavery texts. Living within the Roman culture, Paul does not take a revolutionary approach but a quiet subversive one. The gospel must be heard first before any revolutionary changes are possible in cultural dynamics. But Paul does not intend this as a universal, timeless prohibition. It is an accommodation to the domestic patterns of Roman culture.

9.   For now, I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man due to the turbulent circumstances surrounding women in the Ephesian house churches; she is to keep a quiet demeanor in all her activitives.

This modern interpretation affirms the situational nature of Paul’s statement. It is peculiar to Ephesus in some sense and is Paul’s response to those specific circumstances. Paul does not intend this as a universal, timeless prohibition but is limited to the peculiar circumstances of the Ephesian house churches.

10. I permit no deceived woman to teach false doctrine or to have authority in a way that negatively and abusively overwhelms or dominates a man; she is to keep a quiet demeanor in all her activities, just like all believers. Once she has learned, then she may teach.

This modern interpretation affirms the situational nature of Paul’s statement and identifies it as a problem with some women who have been deceived by false teachers and were active among the house churches. Paul does not intend this as a universal, timeless prohibition but is limited to the specific circumstances of the Ephesian house churches.

11. Correcting male and female overseers (bishops) in the midst of a congregational struggle with false teachers, Paul wrote, I permit no unlearned or deceived woman to teach in an incorrect or overbearing manner; she is to learn with a quiet demeanor, submitting to the truth of the gospel.

This view understands 1:18-3:16 as focused on leadership in the church, particularly overseers. Paul has already excommunicated two male leaders, and now he instructs Timothy in the appropriate decorum regarding leadership in the church. Men were arguing and women were dressing immodestly (disorderly) and acting (teaching) in overbearing ways.

12. Paul or one of his disciples wrote, I permit no woman to teach at all or to have any authority over a man in any circumstance whether in society, home, or church; she is to keep silent in all contexts where men are present and submit to all men. But this is an enculturated perspective that is no longer viable in our contemporary context.

This modern interpretation suggests the author is simply wrong, though his direction was appropriate for his own cultural location or perhaps was blinded by his own cultural values. This perspective understands the prohibition in the same way as the Post-Constantinian church, which is #1 on this list.

*If you are interested in my own view, you can watch this video, or read the appropriate chapter in this book.*

SOME RELEVANT HISTORY FOR CHURCHES OF CHRIST

In the nineteenth century, many leading teachers among the churches of Christ believed that 1 Timothy 2:12 had universal application. It was not limited to the assemblies of the church but also applied to societal relationships and vocations. Consequently, 1 Timothy 2:12 was used to deny women the vote, oppose public speaking by women in any social situation, and reject any kind of public leadership on the part of women.

If the historic, traditional interpretation that dominated for centuries in the Post-Constantinian era is correct, they had a point. If the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2:12 is rooted in some kind of “order of creation” (primogeniture or firstborn), then it applies universally—whether in church assemblies or educational and political ones. Whatever is rooted in creation, complementarians typically believe, applies to every aspect of human life.

It would seem a consistent application of 1 Timothy 2:12—if one thinks this expresses a timeless prohibition—excludes women from any public leadership or authority, whether in the church or in society. That is how our “forefathers” read it until women were given the right to vote, hold political office, sit on juries, serve as judges, and become Presidents of universities as well as sit on the boards of Christian universities. Subsequently, we no longer believed that, adjusted our interpretation, and decided that the text only applied to (any?) assemblies of the church (and/or home) while continuing to ground the prohibition in some kind of “creation order.”

This came into specific focus when the woman’s suffrage movement—the movement to secure the right of women to vote in local, state, and federal elections—became a prominent question among the churches.

In 1874, D. G. Porter, a minister within the American Restoration Movement, wrote an article entitled “Republican Government and the Suffrage of Women” (Christian Quarterly [October 1874] 489-90) in which he concluded that women do not have the right to vote “unless, indeed, it is proposed to proceed upon what seems the absurdest of all principles; namely, subordination at home and in the Church, but independence and equality abroad. We call this proposition absurd, because it would seem that if woman can be equal to man in authority anywhere, it must be at home and in the Church; and that her equality here, if indeed that ought to be her position, must be the foundation of her equality in external affairs.”

According to this argument, 1 Timothy 2:12 forbids women to have authority over men because this is the order God instituted in creation. If this order is rooted in creation, it is universal. It cannot apply simply to the home or church, but it must apply to society as a whole. Consequently, women do not have the right to exercise the authority of voting or have authority over men in any social situation.

This was a common argument in the late nineteenth century, and we can see it or something similar among some of the most respected leaders among Churches of Christ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

David Lipscomb (d. 1917) wrote:

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).

R. C . Bell (1877-1964) in The Way (1903), p. 776:

[W]oman is not permitted to exercise dominion over man in any calling of life. When a woman gets her diploma to practice medicine, every Bible student knows that she is violating God’s holy law. When a woman secures a license to practice law, she is guilty of the same offense. When a woman mounts the lecture platform or steps into the pulpit or the public school room, she is disobeying God’s law and disobeying the promptings of her inner nature. When God gives his reason for woman’s subjection and quietness, he covers the whole ground and forbids her to work in any public capacity…She is not fitted to do anything publicly….Every public woman—lawyer, doctor, lecturer, preacher, teacher, clerk, sales girl and all—would then step from their post of public work into their father’s or husband’s home, where most of them prefer to be, and where God puts them….You are now no longer a public slave, but a companion and home-maker for man; you are now in the only place where your womanly influence has full play and power.

History enlightens us. Even among Churches of Christ we have not always interpreted this text the same way–and many other examples could be cited, including no women teachers at all. This ought to give us some pause, especially if we think we understand this text correctly and have no doubts about our conclusions.

CONCLUSION

A text with such difficulties, questions, and history of interpretation (where only an extreme minority would hold the traditional, historic interpretations of #1 or #2) should not be the basis of excluding women from teaching in the public assembly because . . .

  1. the diversity of interpretation is disorienting to some degree,
  2. the questions are debatable at every turn, especially the meaning of authenteo,
  3. other texts affirm women prophesying with men present,
  4. the story of women in the Bible runs against the grain of this text (e.g., Miriam as a leader of Israel [Micah 6:4], Deborah has authority to judge and prophesy [Judges 4:1-3], etc.),
  5. the application of this text is wildly inconsistent,
  6. the history of interpretation indicates the church has often been wrong in the application of this text,
  7. the understanding of this text, even among traditionalists and complementarians, has changed in the light of further study and positive (as well as negative) illumination of cultural contexts.

Consequently, any certain application or interpretation of this text does not take full account of its difficulties. 1 Timothy 2:12, given our distance from the situation the text addresses, the problems of grammar, and a critical issue of lexicography, is not a clear and unequivocal text.

Given the principle of interpreting the more obscure texts in the light of the clearer texts, it is best, then, to interpret this text in the light of clearer texts such as the gifting of women to prophesy among other texts.

Peace upon God’s church


Response to Gardner’s Review of Women Serving God

October 1, 2020

I am grateful for Steve Gardner’s 7000 word review of my book, Women Serving God. I appreciate the careful reading and attention he has given to it. This response is almost 3500 words.

Steve himself, as readers of his blog Authentic Theology know, has devoted significant biblical and historical attention to the question my book addresses. His blogs also address larger considerations related to this topic that I don’t address in my book. I encourage everyone to read his blog.

My book is intended for leaders, ministers, and elders among churches of Christ. Steve recognizes this, though he thinks parts of it might be useful in an academic setting and perhaps overly technical for some readers in my target audience. He is probably right. I attempted to communicate without too many textbook technicalities. Nevertheless, some technical details demand attention.

Thank you, Steve, for the helpful summary of the book and its strengths.

The majority of Steve’s review is focused on weaknesses in the book. Every book has weaknesses; mine is no exception. He identifies three weaknesses in two paragraphs (#words) and then focuses on what he considers the book’s major weakness for ten printed pages (#words).

The first weakness is what appears to be an implication that “changing’s one hermeneutic is needed to reach a conclusion of ‘full participation’.” That critique makes sense to me, though it is not the nature of my own journey. Can one come to a full participation perspective through a blueprint hermeneutic? I think they can. If one understands 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 the way I suggest in the book, potentially one can still hold a blueprint hermeneutic and affirm full participation. Perhaps I should have made that clearer. In fact, my book, hermeneutically, is much more exegetical than theological.

At the same time, there are some expectations and processes embedded in the blueprint hermeneutic (as I have described it in Searching for the Pattern as well as in Women Serving God) that create unnecessary (though perhaps not insurmountable) hindrances to the full participation of women in the assembly. For example, the search for a specific authorization for assembly practices rather than a theology of giftedness may entail the exclusion of women even if 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 are understood as I have argued in the book. The blueprint hermeneutic expects that God has fully regulated the assembly, and where we lack examples, commands, and necessary inferences to specifically and explicitly identify a practice, it is–as I note below–safer to exclude rather than include.

The second weakness is that I did not “meaningfully address centuries-long” interpretations that demeaned women as ontologically inferior, uniquely blameworthy for the human condition, and inherently weak and unfit for public leadership. That is fair. I did not focus on these points. I did, however, identify some of these perspectives when I wrote about Lipscomb, Harding, Sewell, and Bell or the church’s opposition to suffrage and the “New Woman Movement.” My narrow focus on my own journey and how the history of churches of Christ illuminated that for me did not push me to call attention to this larger story.

I acknowledge Steve’s point. This larger story needs to come into play when one fully and systematically assesses gender in the history of churches of Christ. My third volume will address this point. I will locate the exclusion of women from leadership in the larger story of Christian tradition, especially as I address more specifically and more fully the question of “male headship.” I recognize the legitimacy of Steve’s point.

The third weakness is my use of “giftedness” in lieu of “calling.” I don’t find this compelling because I see “giftedness” as assuming a call to use one’s gifts. Moreover, I did not emphasize the “calling” dimension because I focused on specific language in Scripture related to the exercise of gifts, God giving gifts, etc. My intended audience is best addressed, in my estimation, with the biblical language of gifting rather than calling. However, I acknowledge “calling” as a legitimate and important dimension of the discussion. As Steve noted, my responders in the book appealed to “calling” more than I did, though they also spoke of giftedness as an important aspect of their own stories.

The primary weakness Steve identifies is my historical interpretation of the participation of women in assemblies of Restoration Movement congregations in the mid-19th century. Steve spends ten pages (#words) responding to two pages in my book (pp. 48-49; about 700 words).

My purpose in sharing this historical perspective was to lay some brief groundwork about the 1830s-1880s (pp. 48-49) for the major discussion of the 1880s-1930s (pp. 50-62). The claim that the audible and visible participation of women in some assemblies was not “uncommon” and was part of “many” congregations is not a claim that it was dominant or the majority. Rather, it is a recognition that such participation was not totally excluded from the experience of churches in that period and it was not rare. “Some” would have probably been better than “many” in my claim. “Many” may leave the impression that it was far more common than I actually think it was, though how widespread particular practices were is ultimately unknown (perhaps even inaccessible to contemporary historians).

I think the evidence I provide sufficiently demonstrates my basic claim, but perhaps I should have provided more evidence and greater detail. However, considerations of space and the relatively minor function this section played in my book did not merit a fuller treatment for my purposes.

While Steve thinks my assessment is not consistent with Bill Grasham’s outstanding article in the 1999 Restoration Quarterly, I think the two are complementary and essentially agree. He has details I don’t have and vice versa. The reader can decide for himself. Here is a link to Grasham’s piece. His opening sentence is: “There has never been a completely uniform view of the role of women in the work and worship of the church in the Restoration Movement, and this was particularly true in America at the turn of the 19th century.” By the mid-20th century, churches of Christ did establish a broad uniformity: women were totally excluded from audible and visible leadership in the assembly.

I understand Steve’s concern is that (1) I may have conflated churches of Christ and the Christian Church with some of the sources I used, and (2) if my reading of the evidence is skewed, as he claims, then the larger problem is I fail to acknowledge how indebted churches of Christ are to the historic traditions of the Christian faith regarding women. These are two legitimate concerns.

On the first, I was careful in my section on the 1880s-1930s to use sources who were associated with churches of Christ and the conservative regions of the Restoration Movement. For example, Daniel Sommerwho defended the privilege of limited participation in the assembly—was, according to Leroy Garrett, in some sense the founder of churches of Christ through the Sand Creek 1889 Address and Declaration. The Christian Leader & Way, which was conservative-leaning (James A. Harding was co-editor), published many articles defending the limited participation of women (see some citations here). Moreover, Benjamin Franklin was a conservative leader in the Restoration Movement, the spiritual ancestor of Daniel Sommer. Earl West’s biography of Franklin, Elder Benjamin Franklin: The Eye of the Storm, demonstrates this. Certainly Franklin believed that women should not participate in assemblies gathered for official business and decision-making, but he defended their participation in limited ways through prayer and exhortation. Both Sommer and Franklin, along with others in their tradition among churches of Christ, advocate a wider expression of female voices than typical among churches of Christ in the 1940s-1950s.

Nevertheless, Steve’s point is important to consider, and if my narration conflates the practices of the churches of Christ with the Christian Church (as that distinction emerged in the 1900-1920s), then it needs revision. However, I was careful to pay attention to such, and I don’t think I did conflate them. Nevertheless, I am could have overlooked something in my sources and interpretation. It bears checking.

On the second concern, it is important to remember that revivalism in the 18th and 19th centuries included female exhorters and a wider participation of women within assemblies and in what came to be called “camp meetings.” This became even more the case in the Holiness Movement in the second half of the 19th century. The revivalist tradition included women in ways that was not true of earlier Christian traditions. This influenced some in the Restoration Movement, and this may account for some of the diversity present in the 19th and early 20th centuries (even in what we know as churches of Christ).

I appreciate the detailed attention Steve gives to my evidence on pages 48-49. I welcome his engagement here, and it was helpful as a fuller record. He addresses Faurot in the Millennial Harbinger, Benjamin Franklin from his American Christian Review, Krutsinger in the Gospel Advocate (accessible in the Gospel Advocate here) Charlotte Fanning (her biography by Emma Page [p. 16] and William Anderson’s [p. 370] comment in Franklin College and Its Influences), and Lipscomb in the 1876 Gospel Advocate. I don’t find the critique of Faurot, Franklin (as I mentioned above), Fanning, and Krutsinger compelling, but Steve does have a point, I believe, about Lipscomb.

Concerning Faurot, my point is the one Steve makes. Faurot only knows of “two churches outside of Bethany that completely prohibit women from all acts of worship, including exhortation and singing.” In other words, women typically participated in the assemblies and two congregations (that Faurot knew) completely silenced women. In other words, while women were silenced in Bethany (not totally, however, due to congregational singing), they were not silenced in most other congregations in Faurot’s experience.

Tolbert Fanning preached, and Charlotte Fanning led singing. Their summer vacations from teaching school were used to conduct Gospel meetings or revival meetings throughout the Mid-South, especially in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. Page, writing in 1909, called it leading singing and paralleled it with Tolbert’s preaching. In the chapel of Franklin College, Charlotte “led singing” sitting down, to be sure (at least in Anderson’s memory ). That form of participation, however, is out of sync with most churches of Christ today as sitting praise teams are discouraged or forbidden in most congregations, in part, because they include women.

Clearly, Lipscomb and Harding disagreed with Krutsinger. I made that point in the ensuing pages in the book, though I did not call attention to it on p. 49. I would not expect his view to have any dominant or frequent place in the Gospel Advocate, though Lipscomb printed Silena Holman’s advocacy for a similar position in the 1880s-1910s. The years from the late 1880s to the 1920s were filled with articles about women, church, and society. A variety of views are represented in queries, articles, and responses. Lipscomb even once commented that he had received so many inquiries and so often that he could only occasionally comment on the subject since it had already been discussed so often in previous articles. For example, the “Woman Question” was a “difficult question to settle. It is repeated almost every week” (Gospel Advocate, January 19, 1911, p. 78). During those years, the editors and staff writers of the Gospel Advocate, as I make clear in the book, opposed the audible and visible leadership of women in the public assembly.

I think Steve’s critique has the most weight with respect to the interpretation of Lipscomb’s 1876 article in the Gospel Advocate. I remember mulling over that article for close to a whole day in my research. I thought about leaving it out totally and perhaps I should have. It is subject to diverse interpretation, though I think my understanding is a credible one. What struck me in the article, however, is that when Lipscomb refers to the worship and work of the church in which every member (inclusive of male and female) is to participate it included not only  ministering to the sick but also reading verses and not only reporting someone as needing teaching but also praying. At the same, as I note in the book, Lipscomb did not believe women should be official leaders in the church or speak authoritatively in the assembly. In my opinion, in 1876, Lipscomb was not fully convinced about the private/public distinction he would stress in the 1880s-1910s. But I may be wrong about that.

While Steve’s critique focused on pages 48-49, my main intent was to stress how the years from 1888 to 1938 reflected a turbulent time of discussion within churches of Christ. [I chose 1888 because that was Silena Holman’s first engagement on the topic and 1938 because of the publication of Nichol’s book in that year.] I make no claim that the majority of churches of Christ favored or practiced the limited participation of women in the assembly. However, I do make a case that a significant segment of churches of Christ did. This included Sommer’s circle of influence north of the Ohio where 10% of churches of Christ lived in 1906. There were also parts of Texas where it was not totally foreign for women to pray audibly and exhort in the assembly. There were scattered advocates throughout the south as well (including people like Silena Holman).

A series of articles by Mrs. H. L. Knight of Unity, Maine, illustrates how movement sometimes took place among some in the 1900-1910s. In 1907 her congregation hosted John T. Lewis (who returned several times to the area), and later they would host T. B. Larimore. She lived in the orbit of the Gospel Advocate and churches of Christ. She wrote six articles in the 1911 Gospel Advocate (July 20 & 27, August 3, 10, 17, & 24) describing her struggle with whether women have the privilege of “individual” speaking in the public assembly. She practiced and advocated “individual” speaking for several years, was “tossed” about for eight years, but adopted a different stance within the past “two” years with a peaceful conscience. In her fifth article she stated: “It is made evident that both sides have convincing arguments to sustain them, and a person might with reason be as honest in contending for one side as the other; the arguments on one side seem to be as firm a foundation upon which to stand as those on the other side, and one might perhaps find as secure a foundation in the arguments of one side as the other” (August 17, 1911, p. 899).

For herself, though she recognized the difficulty and struggle in thinking about the subject, she concluded women should only participate in “congregational speaking,” not “individual speaking,” in the assembly. But her larger concern was “Christian Unity” (cf. Gospel Advocate 30, 1909, 1660-1), and she applied it to this question. She decided unity is based on the “safe side” (August 24, 1911, 931) as we follow commands and examples in the New Testament. In other words, be safe and follow the blueprint. This approach to unity is what distinguished churches of Christ from denominational bodies, according to Knight.

This became a dominant argument for the exclusion of female voices from leadership in the assembly. When asked questions about women teaching, Bible classes, and “woman’s work in the church,” John T. Hinds, for example, in the 1930 Gospel Advocate (p. 1223), wrote, “it is always better to err on the side of safety.”

A brief exchange between John Straiton (Firm Foundation, Aug. 14), G. C. Brewer (Gospel Advocate, Oct. 25), and John T. Lewis (Gospel Advocate, Nov. 15) in 1934 illustrates the move toward a greater (perhaps more rigid) uniformity. Straiton noted Moses Lard’s advocacy of audible prayers by women in the January 1868 Lard’s Quarterly, which had been published by B. C. Goodpasture in the July 1934 issue of the Gospel Advocate. Brewer recalled how in his past experience, though not in his present, women prayed in sentence prayers and sometimes “shouted” in the assemblies, but Lewis said that was not his experience. Brewer suggested the church should be willing to “survey our ground and see if the churches have been educated in the wrong direction.” Lewis thought it was dangerous to do so when Scripture is so clear. This exchange reflects a dynamic toward uniformity but with some memory of diverse past practices. The uniformity, however, was fast congealing and some thought they had arrived at and were maintaining solid apostolic ground.

Another example of diversity is found in the Firm Foundation, though there was agreement on the silence of women in the formal Sunday public assembly. For example, in 1933-1934, J. Luther Dabney (Nov, 28, 1933 and January 30, 1934) and J. D. Malephurs (January 16 and April 10, 1934) exchanged several articles. While both agreed that when the whole church was gathered, women should be silent, Dabney believed women may teach and preach in other settings even with men present. His particular interest was in “young people’s meetings” where he encouraged girls to pray and make speeches as part of the gathering. “It is much better to train our girls to prophesy and pray than to do nothing at all with them” (Nov. 28, p. 5). Malephurs, however, thought the biblical restrictions applied to all settings where men and women prayed and worshipped together, which is the understanding I advocated in the 1970s. Malephurs concluded that it is “not safe to have girls do anything in a training class that they are forbidden to do before” the church. “My girls,” he wrote, “are not developed to lead prayers and make speeches before boys, for Paul forbids them to make use of such training in the church” (April 10, p. 5). This is an example of the sort of discussions that were happening in the 1930s.

C. R. Nichol’s 1938 God’s Woman, which defended limited participation, might have been the last gasp of limited participation among churches of Christ. His book reflects, however, practices in his own Texas world and a defense of them.

Nevertheless, women were effectively silenced by at least the 1940s. F. W. Smith, the respected long-term minister (36 years) of what is now the 4th Avenue congregation in Franklin, Tennessee and an esteemed writer for the Gospel Advocate, illustrates the sort of decision that was made (Gospel Advocate, 1929, 778-9; emphases are his).

“To what extent a Christian woman has the right to participate in public worship has never appeared as clear to me as I could wish, and for that reason I feel unable to deal with the question. . . I conclude, therefore, not dogmatically, but to be on the safe side, that since the word of God does not clearly and explicitly inform us that it would be Scriptural for a woman to lead the prayer in the assembly of the saints, it would be best to conform to the custom in this respect of the ‘loyal’ churches.”

Safe and loyal would become the watchwords of churches of Christ on this question as well as others. Smith reflects something of a transition in the making among conservatives. Sommer’s position, though largely forgotten, died the death of marginalization as southern churches of Christ (under the influence of the Gospel Advocate primarily) overwhelmed them in number, influence, and institutional power (e.g., colleges and papers).  In the context of the loss of frontier revivalism, the Christian Church division, opposition to cultural movements (suffrage, temperance, and “New Woman”), and the marginalization of the Sommer tradition, by the mid-20th century churches of Christ emerged as a prime example of a Christian tradition that excluded women from all audible and visible leadership in the assembly. Interestingly, they emerged as such at the same time other traditions were becoming more inclusive.

I am grateful for Steve’s work in the sources. His acquaintance with them and his intent to double-check my citations is highly commendable. Thanks, Steve. I appreciate the commendation of the book despite its weaknesses.

Peace, my friend.


Extending the Kingdom Theology of Lipscomb and Harding

June 12, 2019

2019 Christian Scholars Conference Presentation, Lubbock, Texas

Part of my academic work has sought to identify and characterize the theological dynamic that shaped students at the Nashville Bible School (now known as Lipscomb University) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This dynamic has its roots in Barton W. Stone and Tolbert Fanning prior to the Civil War, and David Lipscomb and James A. Harding subsequent to the war. The latter two co-founded the Nashville Bible School in 1891. I have labeled this the “Nashville Bible School Tradition” or the “Tennessee Tradition” in contrast to traditions which arose in Texas (represented by Austin McGary and the Firm Foundation) and Indiana (represented by Daniel Sommer and the Octographic Review). These were competing ideologies engaged in a struggle for the soul of Churches of Christ who emerged as a distinct sect at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 2006, Bobby Valentine and I published a book entitled Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding. We accentuated the positive in that book because we wanted to propose a way forward for Churches of Christ and highlight some positive dimensions of the Nashville Bible School Tradition. We did not critique the aspects of their legacy that hindered that way forward, and some of those hinderances are still present among Churches of Christ.  In this paper, I will briefly summarize what lies at the heart of the positive agenda in their theology, and then I will identify two critical dimensions that hinder its witness.

Central Convictions

“The chief end” of divine rule, according to Lipscomb, “is to reestablish the authority of God on earth as the rightful ruler of the world, to so bring the world back into harmonious relations with the universe that the will of God shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.”[1]

We might characterize this Tennessee theology as fundamentally an eschatological struggle for the full reign of God in the creation. In other words, we are, as Harding put it, “foreigners” living in our own home.[2] We are foreigners because we do not belong to the evil powers that presently reign over the creation, but the creation is still our home (both now and eschatologically), and it is worth the struggle to fill it with the glory of God. This is, on the one hand, a high view of creation—God created something good, will redeem it from evil, and renew its future. At the same time, this process of redemption and renewal is apocalyptic. This means the future is, in some sense, already present and in process but its fullness involves a future divine act of redemption. This apocalyptic vision is a form of inaugurated eschatology, which calls us to live in the present as if the kingdom of God has fully arrived in anticipation of that fullness. The looming shadows of the reign of God filled the Nashville Bible School with a powerful ethical vision. Biblical faith, according to Lipscomb and Harding, is lived as if the future is already present, as if the heavenly city has already been planted on the earth. And the present church on the earth is that heavenly city.

For Lipscomb and Harding this meant that there was an inherent conflict between the kingdom of God and the powers that currently rule the earth. According to Lipscomb, “the two are essentially antagonistic.”[3] Each has their role, but “they must forever remain distinct.”[4] They are mutually exclusive because the origins and spirit of each are radically different. The two cities, a divine polis and a human polis, are in perpetual conflict. “Who shall govern the world?” was the question that formed their ministry, ethics, and eschatology.[5]

This conflict is not between heaven and earth per se but between two kingdoms on the earth that seek sovereignty over the earth and the hearts of its peoples. Both kingdoms are earthy, that is, they exist upon the earth in order to rule the earth. The contrast lies in their origins, missions, weapons, spirits, and destinies.[6] History is the story of the conflict between these two kingdoms, these two cities. They serve different masters, imbibe different spirits, use different weapons, and one must come to an end for the other to fill the earth.

Consequently, the question “who governs” is really a question about allegiance or worship. “The Christian,” according to Lipscomb, “owes no allegiance” to the civil powers but only “to God.”[7] Just as Jesus responded to Satan’s offer of the kingdoms of this world, so the Christian must respond: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matthew 4:10). The question “who shall govern the world” is more fundamentally the question “whom shall we worship?”

R. C. Bell, a student at the Nashville Bible School in the 1890s and a colleague of Harding at Potter Bible School in Bowling Green, Kentucky, taught in higher education among Churches of Christ for close to fifty years. In his 1951 autobiographical article he observed that Churches of Christ had lost this apocalyptic trajectory (though he did not call it that). He believed the church needed a strong infusion of that transformative perspective in order “to save [it] from changing divine dynamics to human mechanics.”[8] Bell not only saw the church increasingly align itself with patriotic nationalism and the cultural patterns of the nation, he also observed how the church now lived out its calling through the mechanical implementation of prescribed patterns within the New Testament. Faith was no longer a dynamic life empowered by the Spirit that envisioned the kingdom of God but conformity to an ecclesial blueprint. The loss of pacifism, kenotic service, kindness and gentleness as well as the opposition to evil cultural forms was due to the loss of Lipscomb and Harding’s apocalyptic vision.

Two Hindrances

While Bell saw the loss of this apocalyptic dynamic in his own day, and there was a time when it was vibrant and regularly articulated, there is also a sense in which it was hindered by other convictions that shaped the Nashville Bible School and Churches of Christ as a whole. If we are to recover this apocalyptic vision, something for which I advocate, we must also seek a corrective to what hindered it in the past.

Before I address the two hindrances I have in mind, I want to provide a specific context in which these hindrances emerged and essentially subverted the kingdom agenda. I have in mind, particularly, the problem of racial reconciliation. At one level, Lipscomb saw the mission clearly.  For example, he wrote:

The true mission of the Christian religion is to raise [humanity] above all these narrow, selfish, sectionalizing influences—to break down these middle walls of separation and strife erected by human selfishness, human ambition, and human wickedness, and to bind all the dissevered, broken, discordant and belligerent factions and fragments of Adam’s fallen and sinning family, irrespective of race, language or color, into one peaceable, fraternal and harmonious body in Christ.[9]

When it came to the church, Lipscomb had a strong, mostly consistent, voice and loudly opposed the segregation of congregations along racial lines.

At another level, Lipscomb provided little, if any, social witness. The pages of the Gospel Advocate rarely (almost never) discuss racial injustice as a social question, and only occasionally refer to the frequent lynchings in the South.[10] Lipscomb thought that if the church would become what God intended as a witness to the kingdom of God, then social practices would gradually reform society through the church’s moral leavening. He believed over time a healthy “religious spirit and practice” would “gradually work out the social duties and relations.”[11] As Christians live out their witness and “cultivate kindly and Christian relations,” he believed “the social conditions will adjust themselves.”[12]

What, however, generates this lack of social witness? And, particularly, why is Lipscomb so socially vocal about war and political relations but is virtually silent about social relations, especially on racial questions? I suggest there are at least two dimensions to this, though most certainly others could be named as well.

First, Lipscomb and Harding, as well as Churches of Christ as a whole, were too ecclesiocentric and anti-institutional. Their ecclesial vision excluded participation in or cooperation with any non-ecclesial institution. Consequently, churches did not partner with social movements or political agendas, even where Lipscomb’s ethics fully supported the agenda, including the Temperance Movement as well as movements toward racial equality. In other words, Lipscomb’s other-worldliness and his conflict with the world excluded any cooperative partnership, including those he thought were doing good work in the social arena. Lipscomb had little sense of how the relative good in which government participates or the good that social institutions promote might contribute to the fullness of the kingdom of God.  His radical separation from all institutions, whether governmental or otherwise, isolated the church from any sort of participation in any kind of Civil Rights Movement.

Second, the historic pneumatology of Churches of Christ has limited our vision for God’s work in the world. While Harding, and to some degree Lipscomb, embraced a robust theology of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual believer, they did not appreciate how the presence of the Spirit empowered the mission of church for corporate action within the world. For example, though Harding helpfully articulated a vision of the Spirit’s work in guiding, leading, and empowering believers in their daily life, he did not see how the Spirit also called the church as a corporate body into the mission of Jesus to liberate the oppressed and speak for the powerless. Their ecclesiology has little social vision, and this is due, in part, to their limited pneumatology.

For example, the work of the Spirit, according to John 16, is to “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment,” which are social realities as well as personal ones. However, both Lipscomb and Harding, along with the vast majority of Churches of Christ, limited this empowerment to the apostles. The Spirit gave these truths to the apostles, and the apostles passed them to the church, and thus the church understands its relation to, for example, social justice through the teachings of the apostles or, as we have it now, the New Testament. The New Testament, then, prescribed the limits of social action, which, in their view, was ecclesiocentric and non-institutional.

These ecclesiological and pneumatological hindrances empowered Lipscomb to sincerely, though naively, affirm: “The Christian religion did not break up social or political relations. It laid down the principles of religious duty, and left them to gradually conform the social and political relations to the principles of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[13]

I think we need to enlarge Lipscomb’s vision without subverting his basic theological insight. We do not expect the kingdoms of this world to serve their peoples as the kingdom of our Lord, but we do hope that the kingdom of our Lord will subvert the evils of these worldly kingdoms both now and in the future.


[1] David Lipscomb, “Difficulties in Religion” in Salvation from Sin, by J. W. Shepherd, ed. (Nashville, Tennessee: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1913) 341.

[2] Harding, “The Kingdom of Christ Vs. the Kingdom of Satan,” The Christian Leader and the Way 5 (15 October 1903) 931.

[3] Lipscomb, “Questions for the Editor,” Gospel Advocate 10.2 (January 14, 1869) 30.

[4] Lipscomb, “Church of Christ and World-Powers, NO. 6,” Gospel Advocate 8.10 (March 6, 1866) 146.

[5] Lipscomb, “The Church of Christ and World-Powers, NO. 5,” GA 8.9 (February 27, 1866) 129.

[6] This is the burden of David Lipscomb, On Civil Government: Its Origin, Mission, and Destiny, and the Christian’s Relation To It (Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Co., 1913).

[7] Lipscomb, “Reply to Bro. Lipscomb’s Long Article on Politics and Voting,” Gospel Advocate 18.32 (August 17, 1876) 799.

[8] R. C. Bell, “Honor to Whom Honor is Due,” Firm Foundation 68 (6 November 1951), 6.

[9] Lipscomb, “The Advocate and Sectionalism,” Gospel Advocate 8.18 (May 1, 1866) 275 (emphasis added).

[10] This is one of a few examples.  David Lipscomb, “General News,” Gospel Advocate 34.52 (December 29, 1892) 828: “Another stone was toppled from the wall of good order, Dec. 19, by the lynching of a negro at Guthrie, Ky., charged with attempting to assault a woman in that vicinity.”

[11] Lipscomb, “The Negro in the Worship—A Correspondence,” Gospel Advocate 49.31 (August 1, 1907) 489 (emphasis mine).

[12] Lipscomb, “Are the Negroes Neglected?” Gospel Advocate 68.24 (June 14, 1906) 377 (emphasis mine).

[13] Lipscomb, “The Negro in the Worship—A Correspondence,” Gospel Advocate 49.27 (July 4, 1907) 425 (emphasis mine).


Traditional, Complementarian, or Egalitarian?

January 11, 2017

[An audio version is available here (under January 8)]

In this post I have no interest in advocating for any position, and my taxonomy is primarily applied to the historically controversial question about what function/role may women serve in the public assembly of the church gathered to communally praise/worship God. Rather than advocating a position, my goal is to further mutual understanding, that is, what positions have Christians typically held, and what hermeneutical reading strategies have grounded these positions in Scripture?

For me, the “labels” simply facilitate discussion by providing a way to locate particular understandings. I attach neither a pejorative nor an affirming meaning to any of these terms. They are only descriptors.

There is, of course, much more one could say about each of these positions both historically and theologically as well as exegetically (what do the biblical texts actually say?). My goal is to summarize rather than to fully articulate these positions in all their nuances.

1.  Traditionalists assert a “strong” principle of “male headship” (or, male spiritual leadership) and interpret this to mean that women are not permitted a “leading” voice in the assembly. This not only includes reading Scripture, preaching, or presiding at the table but also excludes women from making announcements, audibly requesting prayers, voicing a prayer, asking questions, or testifying about an answered prayer.  In other words, women must be “silent” in the public assembly of believers; women may not audibly lead the assembly in any way. Consequently, women have no “voice” in the assembly other than singing with the congregation (including, for some, responsive readings) or their public confession of faith before baptism (which usually consists in a brief answer to a question, such as, “Yes” or “I do”).   This is also extended beyond the assembly as women are excluded from other leadership functions in the church structure or ministries. For example, typically and historically, women cannot chair committees on which men sit, teach in any setting where men are present, or  vote in “men’s business meetings.”

Among Traditionalists, there are some variations and exceptions.  For example, in some congregations (particularly African American ones) women are encouraged to make prayer requests or offer testimonies in the assembly.  Generally, however, women may not “speak” (audibly lead) in the public assembly.

This is an historic position among Churches of Christ.  For example, both David Lipscomb and James A. Harding believed women should not speak in any public way when the church was assembled for worship because they thought the Bible taught such. However, they did encourage women to teach all who would listen (male, female, children) privately in classes and homes. They believed the distinction between public and private settings was key for the application of traditionalist principles (for more on this, see this blog).

For Traditionalists, like Lipscomb and Harding, women were also excluded from the vote, public leadership of any organization, and some even objected to their entrance into some professors (e.g., Lawyer or Doctor).  They believed the “order of creation” (Adam was created first, then Even) applied not only to home and church but also to society and culture as well. (For more information on this, see this link or this blog).

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology?  Essentially, it is something like this. Biblical texts are timeless and normative statements to which every situation and culture must conform. Every statement in Scripture is absolute and is never relative to or dependent upon the circumstances, situations, or occasions in which they are written except those that apply to dispensational distinctions (e.g., “Mosaic Law” in contrast to “New Testament” instructions). Thus, every application contained in Scripture should be reproduced in our situation.

As a result, texts like 1 Corinthans 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are understood as normative, timeless statements of God’s intent for women in the public assemblies of the church.  These function as explicit directives or “positive laws” (to use Harding’s phrase) to which the church must conform in order to remain faithful to its calling, and these laws are rooted in creation itself since God created man as the head of woman from the beginning, which is reflected in the order of creation as well as the reason for creation (woman was created for man, not man for woman).

2. Complementarians assert a “soft” principle of “male headship” (or, male spiritual leadership) in terms of role and function. Typically, they think of this leadership or headship in terms of responsibility and accountability rather than some kind of strict authority. Men are not empowered to order women to conform as much as men are accountable for the spiritual health of the community. As such, men, as Christlike “heads,” should  serve women, empower them, and sacrifice for them. Consequently, it maintains many traditional practices are oppressive and deny women the freedom God permits and encourages. As a result, this group is open to more significant and visible participation by women in church life and in the assembly since, importantly, not every form of leadership bears a “headship” function.

For example, Complementarians do not regard every function in the assembly as a “headship” function.  When Scripture is read, the authority lies in the text; when prayers are prayed, this serves the community rather than exercising authority over it; and whoever passes the trays, serves the community rather than standing over it.

There are a wide range of applications within this group.  Some are fairly limited in this permission and stand closer to Traditionalists while some encourage a broad inclusion, including exhorting the church, teaching in its theological schools, teaching Bible classes in the church, etc. Some churches encourage the participation of women in the assembly in every way except as senior minister (the “regular preacher,” some might say) and as (ruling) elders within the community.

Churches of Christ have known such Complementarians in its history. For example, the churches north of the Ohio who were influenced by Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Sommer regarded the participation of women as both a privilege (the honor to participate) and a right (a matter of justice). They encouraged women to read Scripture, lead singing, and exhort the church on occasion, though preaching as well as ruling as elders was not permitted. There were also similar congregations in Texas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (For more information, see this link.)

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Essentially, it is something like this.  Biblical texts contain the principles (theology) to be applied though the application of those principles may vary from culture to culture. We read Scripture to discern theological principles. Today we apply the principles rather than necessarily duplicating the applications. The same principle may yield different applications given different circumstances (both in the past and the present).

A key principle for Complementarians is “headship.”  Their understanding of the principle, however, does not entail exclusion from all leadership functions in the assembly. For example, they believe 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 addresses an assembled community where women audibly prayed and prophesied even while they honored their “heads.”  In other words, male headship–drawn from 1 Corinthians 11:3–does not deny women all forms of leadership.  Women in Corinth, for example, prayed and prophesied in the assembly without subverting headship or dishonoring their heads. This means women may have a voice in the assembly as long as they honor their heads when they do so, and men–when they are Christlike heads–empower women to participate because it is their privilege and gift to participate.

The principle of headship is rooted in creation. Complementarians believe the original vision for humanity included male headship, which is then played out in the history of God’s people (priests are men, Jesus called only male apostles in his ministry, and men serve as elders in the early church), and when this leadership is abdicated (as in the case of Adam and Eve) serious consequences follow.

Though the principle is the same (male headship), the application is both different and the same.  While head-coverings are no longer required, women still have the privilege of exercising their gifts in the assembly as long as they honor their heads.

3. Egalitarians assert the full equality of role relationships and functions within the leadership and ministry of the church. This position opens all functions in the church/assembly to women according to their gifts though the intent is to advocate for such with cultural sensitivity and deference to local customs or traditions.

Egalitarians seek to open all facets of the church to the inclusion of women. While some couch this primarily in the language of rights and justice, others frame it in the light of gifts and privileges, and still others emphasize both. At the very least, Egalitarians suggest the inclusion of women’s gifts is for the common good of the body, and if the Holy Spirit gifted women in  particular ways (just as the Spirit gifted men as well), then the Spirit calls the church to use these gifts for the edification of the body of Christ.

To what degree cultural sensitivity comes into play is difficult. On one hand, some assert a kind of justice which demands inclusion irrespective of local customs and subcultures.  However, many affirm, for the sake of love and unity, a more sensitive approach which calls for mutual formation toward the goal of full inclusion. This acknowledges that the cultural path to equality in some congregations is a long one.

On the other hand, the cultural situation in the United States calls for the full inclusion of women. Unlike the Greco-Roman culture of the early Roman Empire, the inclusion of women is not a cultural scandal, which biblical writers both accommodated and subverted to some extent. Rather, the exclusion of women is a cultural scandal in the present United States, and if Egalitarians are correct in their understanding of biblical theology, it is the church who oppresses women when it should be liberating them.

What kind of hermeneutical strategy grounds this theology? Egalitarians typically read Scripture as a witness to the goals of God.  Scripture points us beyond its own circumstances and specific applications through “seed” texts (e.g., Galatians 3:28), paradigm shifts in the story (e.g., the pouring out of the Spirit on women in Acts 2), and the original vision of equality in creation fulfilled in new creation (Genesis 1-2). This approach suggests God calls us to live in the future Scripture imagines.

Scripture address people within a culture. For example, the Torah addresses what to do with women who are captured in battle, or how women inherit from their parents (which they do not unless there are no male heirs). These encultured case laws assume cultural values (e.g., patriarchy) while at the same time seeking to subvert them in mild ways, and contemporary Christians recognize the problematic patriarchy in such texts. Yet, the mild subversion of some patriarchy in some of these texts point us to something beyond culture.  Deborah is an example of this kind of “seed” vision within the text which empowers women beyond cultural (patriarchical) constraints.

Egalitarians believe Scripture points us toward a new vision of humanity–a new creation–where humanity is one. This captures the original vision of creation itself, and it moves us into a new age (new creation) where men and women are equally empowered for ministry and service in the community of God as expression of the priesthood of all believers. Some in Churches of Christ now advocate this perspective (see this blog), and some congregations have embraced it.

Slavery was accommodated in the biblical text (and subverted in significant ways), yet we understand that the gospel contains the seeds for its abolition. In a similar fashion, Egalitarians believe patriarchy was also accommodated (and subverted in significant ways as well), yet the gospel contains the seeds and vision for its abolition. Consequently, the seed texts (e.g., Galatians 3:28) and vision texts (e.g., Acts 2) call us into a future where God’s people are one rather than divided by gender in the ministry of the body of Christ.

I imagine within many congregations of the Churches of Christ Traditionalists, Complementarians, and Egalitarians live side-by-side in their communities.  Congregations vary in their practice, and discussions will become ever more explicit as culture raises the questions for us and presses the church for a response.

Our first task, it seems to me, is mutual understanding. We must first listen and listen carefully. Do I understand what the other is saying, how they read Scripture, and what their desire for the church is in love and unity? We cannot talk if we do not first listen.

May God have mercy!

Below are some questions for possible use among those who want to discuss these thoughts in their community.

  1. How do you see these same three positions mirrored in various cultures throughout the world? For example, in some cultures, “Traditionalism” is still practiced in society. How has this changed in US culture over the years?
  1. Given these three positions, how has this changed in “church” cultures in the last few centuries or even decades?
  1. What do you regard as the key point—whether biblical text, cultural situation, or theological idea—in each of these positions?
  1. In what ways are you able to appreciate each position? State how you may complement each position and value something in each?
  1. One goal is “mutual understanding,” that is, we understand why each holds the position they do and we can appreciate the reasons why they do. How is that working for you?

What Will Become of the Earth: A Nashville Bible School Perspective

August 8, 2015

Eschatology.

Millennialism.

Second Advent.

Judgment.

New Heaven and Earth.

Nineteenth century Restorationists, from Alexander Campbell to David Lipscomb, spoke and wrote about these subjects. They often disagreed, however.

Alexander Campbell was a postmillennialist. James A. Harding was a premillennialist. Walter Scott changed his mind several times. David Lipscomb was uncertain.

However, these all agreed that the most important aspect of the Christ’s second coming was the regeneration not only of the soul, but the body and the whole cosmos. They believed God will refine the present cosmos by fire and transform (renew) it into a “new heaven and new earth,” just as God will raise our bodies from the grave and transform them into bodies animated by the Holy Spirit fitted for living on the new earth. They believed, as Alexander Campbell put it, that “the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life” in “the new earth and the new heavens” was essential to the Christian vision of life and hope, central to the gospel of grace itself (Millennial Harbinger, 1865, p. 494).

Many are surprised to learn this about our forbearers in the faith because they associate a renewed, material earth with fringe groups and strange ideas. But it was the dominant perspective among churches of Christ in the late nineteenth century, particularly as articulated by David Lipscomb and James A. Harding, co-founders of the Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University).

What exactly did they mean by this, and why was it so important to them?

Creation. When God created the cosmos, God came to dwell upon the earth with humanity in the Garden of Eden. This was God’s sanctuary, and God enjoyed fellowship with humanity there. More than that, God shared dominion (rule) with humanity, and, made in God’s image, humanity was equipped to reign with God in the universe. Humanity was designed to reign with God forever and ever.

Fall. However, humanity turned the cosmos “over to Satan,” and a war began between the kingdom of God and the “kingdoms of this world, under the leadership of Satan” (Harding, The Way, 1903, p. 1041). God, in one sense, “left this world as a dwelling place” (Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin, p. 36), and now “Satan dwells upon the earth” to deceive the nations and devour Christians (Harding, The Way, 1902, p. 57).

Messianic Age. Beginning with Israel, but revealed in the presence of Jesus the Messiah, God sought to restore dominion over the cosmos through a kingdom people whose lives reflected the glory and character of God. God drew near to Israel by dwelling in the temple, then came to dwell in the flesh, and now dwells in Christians by the Spirit. God’s restorationist and redemptive mission are presently advanced through the church in the power of the Spirit. God battles the forces of Satan through the church.

New Creation. God’s mission is to fully dwell again upon the earth just as in Eden and restore the full reign of God in the cosmos. On that final day, when the heavenly Jerusalem descends to the new earth (Revelation 21:1-4), “God will take up his abode himself with his great family upon this new, this renovated and purified earth” (Harding, Christian Leader & the Way, 190, 1042). Then the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5), and all children of Abraham—through faith in the Messiah—will inherit the cosmos (Romans 4:13).

The creation—both humanity and the cosmos (heaven and earth)—is lost, then contested, and ultimately won and purified. On that day, Lipscomb writes, “earth itself shall become heaven” (Gospel Advocate, 1903, 328). The creation will again become God’s home. This is the story that shapes the mission of the church for both Lipscomb and Harding.

God’s good creation, then, is regained and renewed. It is not annihilated or eternally lost. The creation, including the children of Abraham, is redeemed.

While there was much diversity on many questions regarding the “last days” among our Restorationist forbearers, they agreed on one thing: God will not give up on the cosmos—God will renew it and come again to dwell within it.

And this calls us to do battle with the forces of Satan for the sake of restoring God’s kingdom to the earth, which includes both a reconciled humanity and a purified, renewed earth. We are called to practice both reconciliation and sustainability. Christians are both peacemakers and environmentalists.

[This article first appeared in Intersections of Faith and Culture (Summer 2015), a publication of Lipscomb University.]

Sources:

David Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin (Nashville: McQuiddy, 1913).

David Lipscomb, “The Kingdom of God,” Gospel Advocate 45 (21 May 1903), 328.

James A. Harding, “For What are We Here?,” The Way 5 (3 December 1903), 1041-2.

James A. Harding, “Man Was Created to Reign for Ever and Ever, “ The Christian Leader and the Way 19 (6 June 1905), 8-9.

James A. Harding, “The Kingdom of Christ Vs. the Kingdom of Satan,” The Way 5 (15 October 1903), 930-932.


1897 Graduation Program for the Nashville Bible School

June 10, 2015

The Nashville Bible School, founded on October 9, 1891 with nine students, steadily grew throughout the first years of its existence. At the end of October 1891, it would have nineteen students, and twenty-six by Feburary and conclude the year with thirty-two students In succeeding years it would have forty-two, fifty-three, eighty-eight, and then one hundred and ten.

The Nashville papers were impressed. “The Nashville Bible School, which has grown up so quietly in this city during the last five years, is becoming one of the mighty powers of this section” (The Nashville American, May 29, 1896, p. 2). The “verdict of a critical audience” at the 1895 graduation exercises “was that the institution has not only attained results which give to it eminent character in the community, but that the great good worked by it recommends it to the support and well wishes of the city and State” (The Nashville American, May 31, 1895, p. 8).

In addition–and more important to Lipscomb and Harding–was the fact that over that five years its graduates and students had baptized more than 3,400 people and planted over twenty-eight congregations (as reported by James A. Harding at the 1896 graduation exercises; The Nashville American, May 29, 1896, p. 2).

Given both the public assessment of the Nashville Bible School and the productive work of its students, the institution was regarded as a great success. It had fulfilled its two major purposes: (1) to provide a cultured education that equips young people as useful and successful citizens, and (2) to nurture them in the Christian faith that they might serve as Bible teachers, evangelists, elders, and deacons in their communities. (See Harding, Gospel Advocate, 21 October, 1891, p. 661 and Gospel Advocate, 7 June 1894, p. 362).

It was an education, however, that was designed for the poor and working classes (though not excluding the wealthy) since they had no other opportunity in the city. “We differ from many other schools,” Harding wrote, “in that we freely admit all who are not able to pay free of charge. Our Master preached the gospel to the poor; we are trying to imitate him” (Gospel Advocate, 3 June 1897, p. 338).

In 1897, the school graduated four (they had graduated five in the previous year). The Nashville American provided the details of the exercise (4 June 1897, p. 8).

Opening Song: “Somewhere”

Prayer: Elder J. W. Grant.

Reading: Miss Clara M. Benedict read her essay, “Unselfishness.”

Oration: “Lessons from the Past,” by A. B. Lipscomb.

Song: “Oh, Be Joyful in the Lord,” sung by Misses Clara Sullivan, Tennie McAlister and Woodson Harding, and Messrs. W. H. Sewell, J. M. Murphy, J. B. Bostick and T. H. Hales.

Address: “What is the Destiny of Man?,” David Lipscomb. “He said self-denial was the only way to be happy. The mission of all preachers should be to go among the sick and lowly.”

Diplomas, awarded by Superintendent J. A. Harding to Miss Clara Benedic, of Nashville; Miss Cynthia Gill, of Allensville, KY; J. B. Bostick, of Fresno, CA, and A. B. Lipscomb, of Nashville.

Song: “Gliding Away”

Benediction: Elder C. A. Moore.

 

 


When Quoting David Lipscomb about Women…..

December 29, 2014

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.

 


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 3)

August 22, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first and second blogs in this series are here and here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here.]

Have You Not Read the Scriptures?

“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  Matthew 12:7

Shank reads Scripture with the goal of getting it “right” in order to be saved. One must be baptized for the “right reason,” and one must be faithful to the “true [right] church.” We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right. So, if you don’t get it absolutely and precisely “right”—in teaching and practice—then one is lost and “headed for eternal destruction.”

The Right Baptism and Right Church

What must we get right? Here is Shank’s list, at least as it appears in the book:

  • Baptism is absolutely necessary
  • Baptism for the right reason is absolutely necessary
  • Faithful to the true church of Christ
  • A right name
  • The right organization (autonomous congregationalism)
  • Right leadership (when qualified: elders, deacons, and evangelists)
  • The right “articles of worship” in the assembly
  • Weekly Lord’s Supper and only on Sunday
  • Weekly free will offerings and only on Sunday (no tithing)
  • A cappella singing
  • Teaches the biblical plan of salvation, that is, how to obey the gospel through hearing, believing, repenting, confessing and being baptized.

These are teachings and practices within churches of Christ that have a long history of discussion. I will not take the time to deal with each one in the list in this short blog, though they are important and deserve attention (and I have done some of that in the ebook). Rather, I am more concerned about what lies underneath, that is, the assumptions that shape this way of reading the Bible.

But, first, there are at least two problems with the list itself. Notice (1) what is missing from this list. When Randall seeks to identify the “true church of Christ,” there is nothing about the ministry and mission of the church but only the form and procedures of the church. The list says nothing about what the church does outside the building, how it ministers to the poor, or what the mission of the church is. That is not to say that Shank does not have opinions about these points—I would assume he does and sometimes they come out in marginal ways in the book, but his book defines the nature of what it means to talk about the church in an evangelistic tract. His purpose is polemical—to convince denominationalists that their denominations are wrong. Consequently, it is not ultimately about the fullness of the church of God and its mission in the world, but rather about specific items that, in effect, defend the teaching and practice of the “churches of Christ” (the ones with that name on their signs) in contrast to the denominations.

(2) I also have a problem with the function of this list. Is every one of these necessary in order to have a faithful church? Must one be a member of a group of Jesus-followers who practice Christianity in precise conformity to this list in order to be “faithful to the church”?

If we answer “Yes,” then it is rather strange that the New Testament does not have this list somewhere present within its pages as a list? If this is a prescribed list, then where is the list of prescriptions within the pages of the New Testament?

If we answer “Yes,” then are we an unfaithful church if we are missing any one of these items or fail to do them perfectly? Is this also true if a congregation does not minister to the poor, fails to speak out against injustice in the world, refuses to fully integrate, etc., etc. How perfect does a congregation need to be in order to be “faithful,” and how well must a congregation comply with this list in order to be “faithful”?

Such a list does not appear in the New Testament, and Paul, for example, does not engage congregations through his letters in ways that assume a kind of perfectionism or an assumption of prescribed list of forms that identify the true church of Christ. Instead, he calls us to transformed living, encouraging assemblies that conform to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, living together in love, and a missional orientation to the world. Paul points us to the heart of Jesus rather than to the forms of a legal code.

Consequently, Shank’s evangelistic tract reads quite differently from the New Testament itself. While Shank’s book is filled with prescribed, perfectionistic legal technical lists about how to “do church,” there are no such lists in the New Testament, and what lists there are encourage transformed living (e.g., Galatians 5:22; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

Legal Approach to Scripture

Shank, in effect, uses the Bible to discover the law codes embedded within the story and finds them even where there are no codified prescriptions in the text. Narratives are turned into legal prescriptions. This seems reasonable to Shank because his primary question is, “What does the Bible require us to do?” So, he searches for the requirements and finds them in narratives and letters in order to construct a pattern for the church. And, surprisingly (if indeed the Bible is intended to provide such a pattern), this pattern is nowhere simply and/or fully stated. It has to be pieced together like a puzzle, and we have to find the pieces scattered throughout the Bible. We must connect the dots through inference, assumptions, and expectations of what we think the Bible is supposed to tell us.

Shank expects a pattern and therefore searches till he finds one even if he has to piece it together with examples and inferences. He has to fill in the blanks with more than explicit statements. And where the pieces (specific commands) are missing, we infer their presence (by example or inference). In effect, he finds it because Randall followed an interpretative model (coupled with assumptions) that constructed the pattern for him without questioning the exegesis (interpretation) of the texts utilized and without recognizing his assumptions about how he is reading the Bible.

This is a major concern with Muscle and A Shovel. It reads the Bible with a central concern to discover something it expects to find, and the book assumes that the way to find it is to piece together scattered prescriptions (and non-explicit [even unstated] prescriptions like examples and inferences) in order to construct a pattern that is not explicitly there.

There is a better way to read the story of God in Scripture.

Here lies a fundamental difference between how Shank reads the Bible and how I read it. For Shank, the fundamental question the Bible answers is, “What does God require of me?” For me, the fundamental question is, “What is the story into which God invites me?” The former is a legal question, but the latter is a missional one. The former wants to know what is legal or illegal. The latter wants to know the divine mission and how we might participate in it.

Muscle and a Shovel misses the central story of Scripture. Shank reads the Bible with a legal concern operating at the heart of his hermeneutic. This obscures the missional nature of Scripture itself. There is little to nothing in Muscle and a Shovel that gives us much hint about the grand narrative of Scripture—a loving God who created and nurtured the world for the sake of loving fellowship, who chose Israel as a light among the nations, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth to redeem the sin, pain, and hurt of this world, and who poured out the Holy Spirit to sanctify and empower a community that they might be dedicated to good works. As an evangelistic tract, it does not tell the story of the gospel. Rather, it converts people to a church pattern, the data for which is mined out of Scripture, abstracted from its original historical context, and then used to construct something that does not exist in Scripture, that is, a specific legal blueprint for how to do church. It converts people to a plan (a church pattern) rather than to Jesus.

When Paul called Titus to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), that healthy teaching included an ethical life, an understanding of what God has done in Christ, the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of eternal life (Titus 2:2-3:8). It did not include the specifics of a church pattern as outlined in Shank’s book. Rather, telling the gospel story (much like Paul summarizes in Titus 3:3-8) is how one builds communities of faith who are dedicated to good works. I don’t think Muscle and A Shovel followed that pattern, that is, the book does not follow the example of Paul in teaching the great truths of the Christian faith.

The hermeneutical (how we read) shift from “shaped by a story” (regulated by the gospel story narrated in the ministry and life of Jesus, anticipated by Israel, and lived out in the early church) rather than “codified in the prescriptions” (rulebook) is a huge one for many people. The former permits contextualization while the latter is rigid replication. The latter often thrives in fear (did we get that right?) or arrogance (we got it right!) while the former stimulates incarnational, missional practice (how might we embody the story in our context?).

When we read Scripture though the lens of a legal, perfectionistic lens, we have to get it right in order to be saved. We have to be baptized for the “right reason,” and we have to be faithful to the right church. We have to get it “right” because God does not accept anyone who doesn’t get it right.

When we read Scripture through the lens of a missional God, the story unfolds as the divine pursuit of a people whom God transforms into the image of God for the sake of mission to the world. That story is more about direction than it is perfection, and God accepts and welcomes imperfect seekers.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

When I finished reading Shank’s book, I was neither angry nor enthused. I was sad.

Over my forty-plus years of preaching and teaching I have slowly shifted from reading Scripture as a legal textbook designed to provide a specific pattern to reading Scripture as a story in we participate by imitating God. Rather than servile slaves whose obedience is rewarded and disobedience is punished based on keeping the technicalities of the law, we are God’s partners in the divine mission who are enabled by the power of God to participate in the unfolding story of God. 

The fundamental problem with Muscle and a Shovel is that it exalts sacrifice over mercy (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 12:7). It assumes that humanity was made for rituals (baptism, church patterns, etc.) rather than rituals made for humanity. It prioritizes “sacrifice” (ritual patterns) over “mercy” (transformation).

In other words, Muscle and a Shovel makes the same mistake that the Pharisees made. It does not understand that God desires mercy over sacrifice, that is, God embraces the heart that seeks mercy over the heart that exalts rituals—even prescribed ones!—over seeking, trusting hearts.

May God have mercy!

 

 


Review of Muscle and a Shovel by Michael Shank (Part 2)

August 21, 2014

[Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: A raw, gritty, true story about finding the Truth in a world drowning in religious confusion (5th edition, 2013; Kindle version). I have cited the book with chapter number first, then the Kindle location. For example, Chapter 1, location 245 is cited as 1:245.]

[My first blog in this series is here. I have expanded my three-blog review into a 21,000-word review, which is available here. In my first post, I described the purpose of Shank’s book and the ways in which I appreciate its effort. However, I have some serious concerns about the book which I will now address in two posts. A full review of 21,000 words is available here.]

Gracious Speech

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.”   Colossians 4:5-6

Kindness to All

How Shank describes “denominational” leaders and churches is polarizing and disrespectful. This is a significant problem.

It sets up a not-so-subtle contrast—even if true—between “the denominations” and “the truth” that is emotional in character. The portrayal of denominational leaders as unhelpful and greedy, for example, contrasts with Randall and real truth-seekers. Denominational leaders are dismissed categorically. This plays well emotionally in some quarters, but it is an unfounded generalization.

Denominational leaders do not come off very well in this book. They are “arrogant Pastors” (8:1115), and Michael’s Baptist Pastor, in particular, is “condescending” (8:1083), “pompous” (9:1149, 28:4778), greedy (23:3694), and “lives off our donations while [he] parks his fat a__ in that fancy chair that we pay for” (8:1095). “Denominational preachers seem to love and crave the glory that is of men more than the glory that is of God” (28:4752). They are nothing but “false teachers” (30:5063) who pervert the gospel (40:6543-45) and thus are anathema (cursed) by God. Pastors, or “denominational preachers,” are “religious experts” (24:3858), “high-paid, well educated, professional clergyman” (24:3884) who “no longer endure sound doctrine” (28:4747) and demand others “call them by a spiritual title [Reverend] with a word that’s used in the [KJV] Bible exclusively for God’s name” (28:4744). This language judges motives, sincerity, and their love for God.

As such, the narrative implies a personal, character-driven, question: Who will you believe? Would you believe Michael’s pastor who “responded in a condescending tone that conveyed an unspoken message which told me I was stupid for wasting his precious time with such a rudimentary and trivial question” (8:1084) or Randall who was “encouraging, meek, respectful, and it was evident that he really loved God” (5:853)? The narrative sets us up so that if we believe the denominational preachers, then we have chosen the “bad” character in the narrative over the hero in the story. This is nothing more than an emotional appeal based on broad generalizations and narrow experiences.

Denominational churches don’t come off well either. While I could go point-by-point with repeated misunderstandings and caricatures of denominational teachings (including Michael’s historical errors, which abound in the book–see my book review for some details), I will note only how Michael assesses the “Community Churches.” His critique is particularly harsh based on a visit to a Bible class in an unidentified community church. From this experience (and a few others) he provides a sweeping characterization of community churches. They are “no brain, no backbone, all fluff” and they stand “for almost nothing” (20:3222). Recognizing his attitude “wasn’t exactly Christian,” he regarded the community church folk as “a bunch of idiots” (21:3267). The “Community Church crowd” is “sweaty-palmed, weak-kneed, rosy-cheeked, wishy-washy, feel-good, stand-for-nothing, ineffectual, spineless, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-just-get-along garbage” (21:3293). They “accept everything except true Bible unity,” and the community he visited “needed psychiatric help” (22:3547).

The language is unkind and lacks gentleness. Michael’s rants sound more like extreme political rhetoric (whether left or right) than something that belongs in an evangelistic tract proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Scripture calls us to a different sort of engagement with people than what is reflected in these attitudes expressed by Michael (and some stated by Randall). Hear the word of God:

“Remind them…to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, apt to teach, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25

I leave it to the reader to judge whether Shank’s book reflects the values expressed by the above Scriptures.

The book does not listen well. Denominational preachers and churches are summarily dismissed as inept and ignorant. The narrative oozes with disrespect for others, and there is no extended attempt to listen to them, their views, or give them a fair hearing. Counter-arguments are rarely advanced, and nuances are overlooked. Denominational preachers and churches are caricatured rather than heard. It is insulting rather than spiritually forming.

Jesus calls us to be, like God, “kind to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35) and to live with mercy toward others (Luke 10:37) because “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

The book’s language appeals to emotion, prejudice (towards education, ministerial profession, etc.), and class-envy.

Honest Hearts

Honesty is a key word in Michael’s story. It appears, in some form, thirty-four times. It is the undertow of the book. Honesty is the key virtue in reading the Bible correctly. And, of course, honesty is a godly virtue.

At the same time, the way honesty appears within Michael’s story is condescending and lacks humility. Since Michael was honest, and if everyone else is as honest as he was and as diligent as he was, then everyone would come to the same conclusion that he did. In other words, people are only truly honest and sufficiently diligent if they agree with Michael.

Michael sometimes recognizes that there are many honest people among the denominations. To his credit, he acknowledges that there are good, honest, and sincere people in various denominations (17:2532, 24:3804) though “blind guides” lead them (24:3861). But—and this is the significant point—they are misguided, deceived, or satisfied with their present circumstances to the extent that they will not question received traditions. In other words, denominational people (especially leaders) won’t deal honestly with the text or its context. “They won’t reason together honestly,” Michael opines, “They won’t sincerely listen” (5:815). Such judgments of motives are unkind, and Michael has no way of knowing whether they are actually true or not.

It is almost as if when one disagrees with Michael, they are insincere and dishonest. Is that really a fair characterization? Is that the standard of honesty? Is one dishonest because they disagree or thinks that a text should be interpreted differently than Michael interprets it?

Michael believes that his particular understanding of the “gospel is so simple that every person of sound mind and accountable age can understand it and obey if they choose to,” and this will happen if “honest-hearted people” read the Bible for themselves. In other words, if you are honest and your use your muscle and shovel (show due diligence), you will agree with Michael. And if you don’t agree with Michael, then you—assuming you are of “sound mind and of accountable age”—are dishonest, lazy (including apathy and other similar vices), or, more ominously, rebellious and unwilling to listen to the truth.

Randall, in fact, says: “Mr. Mike, there is no rational spiritually honest person in the world who can refute God’s plan of salvation” (that is, the way Randall construes that “plan;” 35:5782). And, Michael counsels, “if you are honest with yourself and with God you’ll flee from man-made denominations” (38:6165). “No honest individual after studying” the Bible could do otherwise (39:6375).

Listen to how Michael summarizes this point near the end of the book (39:6279)

Denominationalists refuse to accept the entirety of God’s plan of redemption for mankind. They ignore the elements that they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept.

However, when honest, sincere, good-hearted, moral, Truth-seeking people research the entirety of the Scriptures, they consistently and unanimously find God’s marvelous plan of redemption and salvation, which is [and then we have the five steps of salvation listed, JMH; my emphasis]

So, if one does not come to the same conclusion as Michael, then they lack one of the virtues listed. They are dishonest rather than “honest,” or they are insincere rather than “sincere,” or they are malevolent rather than “good-hearted,” or immoral rather than “moral,” or apathetic rather than “Truth-seeking,” or perhaps they were too lazy or apathetic to research it sufficiently. But if anyone has these moral virtues along with a due exercise of muscle and a shovel, then they will join with everyone else who has those virtues because it is consistent and unanimous in the lives of good-hearted, honest, moral and sincere people. In summary, if you don’t agree with Michael, you are either “ignorant or dishonest with God’s Word” (39:6366).

I think that is an unfair account of life. It lacks humility and kindness. In other words, it loudly declares to fellow-believers in Jesus, “I know I’m right, and if you disagree with me, then there is something wrong with you! There is something wrong with your heart!”

May God have mercy!