Women and the Ministry


THE first and most common objection urged against the public exercises of women is that they are unnatural and unfeminine. Many labour under the very great but common mistake of confounding nature with custom. Use, or custom, makes things appear to us natural which in reality are very unnatural, while on the other hand novelty and rarity make very natural things appear strange and contrary to nature. So universally has this power of custom been felt and admitted that it has given birth to the proverb, 'Use is second nature.'

Making allowance for the novelty of the thing, we cannot discover anything either unnatural or immodest in a Christian woman, becomingly attired, appearing on a platform or in a pulpit. By nature she seems fitted to grace either. God has given to woman a graceful form and attitude, winning manners, persuasive speech and, above all, a finely-toned emotional nature, all of which appear to us eminent natural qualifications for public speaking.

We admit that want of mental culture, the trammels of custom, the force of prejudice and one-sided interpretations of Scripture have hitherto almost excluded her from this sphere, but before such a sphere is pronounced to be unnatural it must be proved either that woman has not the ability to teach or to preach, or that the possession and exercise of this ability unnaturalizes her in other respects; that so soon as she presumes to step on to the platform or into the pulpit she loses the delicacy and grace of the female character. We have numerous instances of her retaining all that is most esteemed in her sex, faithfully discharging the duties peculiar to her own sphere, and at the same time of her taking her place with many of our most useful speakers and writers.

Why should woman be confined exclusively to the kitchen and the distaff, any more than man to the field and the workshop? And if exemption is claimed from this kind of toil for a portion of the male sex on the ground of their possessing ability for intellectual and moral pursuits, we must be allowed to claim the same privilege for women; nor can we see the exception more unnatural in the one case than in the other, or why God in this solitary instance has endowed a being with powers which He never intended her to employ.

As a labourer in the gospel her position is much higher than in any other public capacity. She is at once shielded from all coarse and unrefined influences and associations, her very vocation tending to exalt and refine all the tenderest and most womanly instincts of her nature. As a matter of fact, it is well known to those who have had opportunities of observing the private character and deportment of women engaged in preaching the gospel, that they have been amongst the most amiable, self-sacrificing and unobtrusive of their sex.

'We well know,' says the late Mr. Gurney, a minister of the Society of Friends, 'that there are no women among us more generally distinguished from modesty, gentleness, order, and right submission to their brethren, than those who have been called by their divine Master into the exercise of the Christian ministry.'

But, say our objecting friends, how is it that women should venture to preach when female ministry is forbidden in the word of God? This is by far the most serious objection which we have to consider and, if capable of substantiation, should receive our immediate and cheerful acquiescence; but we think that we shall be able to show, by a fair and consistent interpretation, that the very opposite view is the truth; that not only is the public ministry of women unforbidden, but absolutely enjoined by both precept and example in the word of God.

First, we will select the most prominent and explicit passages of the New Testament referring to the subject, beginning with 1 Corinthians 11:4, 5: 'Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered, dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.'

Says a talented writer, 'The character of the prophesying here referred to by the Apostle is defined in 1 Corinthians 14:3, 4 and 31. The reader will see that it was directed to the edification, exhortation and comfort of believers, and the result anticipated was the conviction of unbelievers and unlearned persons. Such were the public services of women which the Apostle allowed, and such was the ministry of females predicted by the prophet Joel and described as a leading feature of the gospel dispensation. Women who speak in assemblies for worship under the influence of the Holy Spirit assume thereby no personal authority over others; they simply deliver the messages of the gospel, which imply obedience, subjection and responsibility, rather than authority and power.'

Dr. A. Clarke on this verse says, 'Whatever may be the meaning of praying and prophesying in respect to the man, they have precisely the same meaning in respect to the woman. So that some women at least, as well as some men, might speak to others to edification, exhortation and comfort. And this kind of prophesying of teaching was predicted by Joel (2:28) and referred to by Peter (Acts 2:17). And had there not been such gifts bestowed on woman, the prophecy could not have had its fulfillment. The only difference marked by the Apostle was that the man had his head uncovered, because he was the representative of Christ; the woman had hers covered, because she was placed by the order of God in subjection to the man and because it was the custom among both Greeks and Romans, and an express law among the Jews, that no woman should be seen abroad without a veil.'

We think that this view is the only fair and common sense interpretation of this passage. If Paul does not here recognize the fact that women did actually pray and prophesy in the Primitive Church, his language has no meaning at all; and if he does not recognize their right to do so by dictating the proprieties of their appearance while so engaged, we leave to objectors the task of educing any sense whatever from his language.

If, according to the logic of Dr. Barnes, the Apostle here, in arguing against an improper and indecorous mode of performance, forbids the performance itself, the prohibition extends to the men as well as to the women; for Paul as expressly reprehends a man's praying with his head covered, as he does a woman's praying with hers uncovered.

With as much force might the doctor assert that, in reproving the same church for their improper celebration of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20, 21), Paul prohibits all Christians, in every age, celebrating it at all. The question with the Corinthians was not whether or not the woman should pray or prophesy at all (that question had been settled on the day of Pentecost), but whether, as a matter of convenience, they might do so without their veils. The Apostle kindly and clearly explains that by the law of nature and of society it would be improper to uncover her head while engaged in acts of public worship.

A barrister writing on the above passage says, 'Paul here takes for granted that women were in the habit of praying and prophesying; he expresses no surprise nor utters a syllable of censure; he was only anxious that they should not provoke unnecessary obloquy by laying aside their customary head-dress or departing from the dress which was indicative of modesty in the country in which they lived. This passage seems to prove beyond the possibility of dispute that in the early times women were permitted to speak to the "edification and comfort of Christians," and that the Lord graciously endowed them with grace and gifts for this service. What He did then, may He not be doing now? It seems truly astonishing that Bible students, with the second chapter of the Acts before them, should not see that an imperative decree has gone forth from God, the execution of which women cannot escape; whether they like or not, they "shall" prophesy throughout the whole course of this dispensation; and they have been doing so, though they and their blessed labours are not much noticed.'

Well, but say our objecting friends, hear what Paul says in another place: 'Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.' (1 Corinthians 14:34, 35).

Now let it be borne in mind that this is the same Apostle, writing to the same church, as in the above instance. Will anyone maintain that Paul here refers to the same kind of speaking as before? If so, we insist on his supplying us with some rule of interpretation which will harmonize this unparalleled contradiction and absurdity. Taking the simple and common-sense view of the two passages--that one refers to the devotional and religious exercises in the church, and the other to inconvenient asking of questions and imprudent or ignorant talking--there is no contradiction or discrepancy, no straining or twisting of either.

If on the other hand we assume that the Apostle refers in both instances to the same thing, we make him in one page give the most explicit directions how a thing shall be performed, and in a page or two further on, and writing to the same church, expressly forbid its being performed at all. We admit that 'it is a shame for women to speak in the church,' in the sense here intended by the Apostle; but before the argument based on these words can be deemed of any worth, objectors must prove that the 'speaking' here is synonymous with that concerning the manner of which the Apostle legislates in 1 Corinthians 11.

Dr. A. Clarke on this passage says, 'According to the prediction of Joel, the Spirit of God was to be poured out on the women as well as the men, that they might prophesy, that is, teach. And that they did prophesy or teach is evident from what the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 11) where he lays down rules to regulate this part of their conduct while ministering in the church. All that the Apostle opposes here is their questioning, finding fault, disputing, etc., in the Christian church, as the Jewish men were permitted to do in their synagogues (see Luke 2:46); together with attempts to usurp authority over men by setting up their judgment in opposition to them; for the Apostle has reference to acts of disobedience and arrogance of which no woman would be guilty who was under the influence of the Spirit of God.'

If anyone still insists on a literal application of this text we beg to ask how he disposes of the preceding part of the chapter where it occurs. Surely, if one verse be so authoritative and binding the whole chapter (1 Corinthians 14) is equally so, therefore those who insist on a literal application of the words of Paul, under all circumstances and through all time, will be careful to observe the Apostle's order of worship in their own congregation.

But, we ask, where is the minister who lets his whole church prophesy one by one, and he himself sits still and listens while they are speaking, so that all things may be done decently and in order? But Paul as expressly lays down this order as he does the rule for women, and he adds, 'The things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord '(verse 37). Why then do not ministers abide by these directions? We anticipate their reply: 'Because these directions were given to the Corinthians as temporary arrangements, and though they were the commandments of the Lord to them at that time they do not apply to all Christians in all times.'

Indeed; but unfortunately for their argument the prohibition of women speaking even if it meant what they wish, was given amongst those very directions, and to the Corinthians only, for it reads, 'Let your women keep silence . . .' and for aught this passage teaches to the contrary, Christian women of all other churches might do what these women were forbidden to do. Until, therefore, learned divines make a personal application of the rest of the chapter they must excuse us for declining to do so of the twenty-fourth verse, and we challenge them to show any breach of the divine law in one case more than in the other.

Another passage frequently cited as prohibitory of female labour in the church, is 1 Timothy 2:12, 13. Though we have never met with the slightest proof that this text has any reference to the public exercises of women, nevertheless, as it is often quoted, we will give it fair examination. 'It is primarily an injunction respecting her personal behaviour at home,' says the Rev. J. H. Robinson. 'It stands in connection with precepts respecting her apparel and her domestic position; especially her relation to her husband. No one will suppose that the Apostle forbids a woman to "teach" absolutely and universally. Even objectors would allow her to teach her own sex in private; they would let her teach her servants and children and, perhaps, her husband too. If he were ignorant of the Saviour, might she not teach him the way of Christ? If she were acquainted with languages, arts or sciences, which he did not know, might she not teach him these things? Certainly she might! The "teaching", therefore, which is forbidden by the Apostle is not every kind of teaching any more than, in the previous instance, his prohibition of speaking applied to every kind of speaking in the church; but it is such teaching as is domineering, and as involves the usurpation of authority over the man. This is the only teaching forbidden by St. Paul in the passage under consideration.'

'This prohibition refers exclusively to the private life and domestic character of woman,' says a barrister writing on the same subject, 'and simply means that an ignorant or unruly woman is not to force her opinions on the man whether he will or no. It has no reference whatever to good women living in obedience to God and their husbands, or to women sent out to preach the gospel by the call of the Holy Spirit.'

If the context is allowed to fix the meaning of this text, as it would be in any other, there can be no doubt that the above is the only consistent interpretation; and if it be, then this prohibition has no bearing whatever on the religious exercises of women led and taught by the Spirit of God.

Whether the Church will allow women to speak in her assemblies can only be a question of time; common sense, public opinion and the blessed results of female agency will force her to give us an honest and impartial rendering of the solitary text on which she grounds her prohibitions. Then, when the true light shines and God's works take the place of man's traditions, the doctor of divinity who shall teach that Paul commands woman to be silent when God's Spirit urges her to speak, will be regarded much the same as we should regard an astronomer who should teach that the sun is the earth's satellite.

Another argument urged against female preaching is that it is unnecessary; that there is plenty of scope for her efforts in private, in visiting the sick and poor and working for the temporalities of the Church. Doubtless woman ought to be thankful for any sphere for benefiting her race and glorifying God. But we cannot be blind to the supreme selfishness of making her so welcome to the hidden toil and self-sacrifice, the hewing of wood and the drawing of water, the watching and waiting, the reproach and persecution attaching to her Master's service, without allowing her a title of the honour which He has attached to the ministration of His gospel.

Nor did our Lord manifest any such horror at female publicity in His cause as many of His professed people appear to entertain. We have no intimation of His reproving the Samaritan woman for her public proclamation of Him to her countrymen, nor of His rebuking the women who followed Him amidst a taunting mob on His way to the Cross. And yet, surely, privacy was their proper sphere!

As to the obligation devolving on woman to labour for her Master, I presume there will be no controversy. The particular sphere in which each individual shall do this must be dictated by the teachings of the Holy Spirit and the gifts with which God has endowed her. If she has the necessary gifts, and feels herself called by the Spirit to preach, there is not a single word in the whole book of God to restrain her, but very many to urge and encourage her. God says she shall do so. Paul prescribed the manner in which she shall do it, and Phoebe, Philip's four daughters, and many other women, actually did preach and speak in the Primitive Church. If this had not been the case there would have been less freedom under the new than under the old dispensation, a greater paucity of gifts and agencies under the Spirit than under the law, few labourers when more work required to be done.

Who will dare to dispute the fact that God did under the old dispensation endue his handmaidens with the gifts and calling of prophets answering to our present idea of preachers. Strange indeed would it be if under the fullness of the gospel dispensation there were nothing analogous to this, but 'positive and explicit rules' to prevent any approximation thereto. In the New Testament we read of Anna that 'she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the Temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in at that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of Him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem' (Luke 2:37, 38). Can anyone explain wherein this exercise of Anna's differed from that of Simeon, recorded just before? It was in the same public place, the Temple. It was during the same service. It was equally public, for she 'spake of Him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.'

After the Resurrection, 'as they (the two Marys) went to tell His disciples, behold Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held Him by the feet, and worshipped Him. Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell My brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see Me' (Matthew 28:9, 10). There are two or three points in this beautiful narrative to which we wish to call the attention of our readers.

It was the first announcement of the glorious news to a lost world and a company of forsaking disciples, and it was as public as the nature of the case demanded, and intended ultimately to be published to the ends of the earth. Mary was expressly commissioned to reveal the fact to the apostles, and thus she literally became their teacher on that memorable occasion. How could it be that our Lord chose a woman for this honour? One reason might be that the male disciples were all missing at the time. They all forsook Him and fled. But woman was there, as she had ever been, ready to minister to her risen, as to her dying, Lord.

As if intent on doing woman honour and rewarding her unwavering fidelity, He reveals Himself first to her and as an evidence that He had taken out of the way the curse under which she had so long groaned, nailing it to his Cross. He makes her who had been first in the transgression first also in the glorious knowledge of complete redemption.

We are expressly told in the Acts of the Apostles that the women were assembled with the disciples on the day of Pentecost, that the cloven tongues sat upon them each and the Holy Ghost filled them all, and that they spake as the Spirit gave them utterance. The Spirit was given alike to the female as to the male disciples, and this is cited by Peter as a peculiar specialty of the latter dispensation. What a remarkable device it is of the devil that he has so long succeeded in hiding this characteristic of the latter day glory! He knows, whether the Church does or not, how eminently detrimental to the interests of his kingdom have been the religious labours of woman, and while her Seed has mortally bruised his head he ceases not to bruise her heel; but the time of her deliverance draweth nigh.

As we have before observed, the text, 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35, is the only one in the whole book of God which even by a false translation can be made prohibitory of female speaking in the church. How comes it then that by this one isolated passage, which according to our best Greek authorities is wrongly rendered and wrongly applied, woman's lips have been sealed for centuries, and 'the testimony of Jesus' which 'is the spirit of prophecy' silenced when bestowed on her? How is it that this solitary text has been allowed to stand unexamined and unexplained, nay, that learned commentators who have known its true meaning have upheld the delusion, and enforced it as a divine precept binding on all female disciples through all time?

By this course divines and commentators have involved themselves in all sorts of inconsistencies and contradictions, and worse, they have nullified some of the most precious promises of God's word. They have set the most explicit predictions of prophecy at variance with apostolic injunctions.

If the word of God forbids female ministry we would ask how it happens that so many of the most devoted handmaidens of the Lord have felt themselves constrained by the Holy Ghost to exercise it? Surely there must be some mistake somewhere, for the word and the Spirit cannot contradict each other. Either the word does not condemn women preaching, or these confessedly holy women have been deceived.

Further, it is a significant fact that the public ministry of women has been eminently owned of God in the salvation of souls and the edification of His people. Paul refers to the fruits of his labours as evidence of his divine commission (1 Corinthians 9:2). If this criterion, be allowed to settle the question respecting woman's call to preach, there can be no fear as to the result.

We have endeavoured to establish, what we sincerely believe, that woman has a right to teach. Here the whole question hinges. If she has the right she has it independently of any man-made restrictions which do not equally refer to the opposite sex. If she has the right and possesses the necessary qualifications we maintain that, where the law of expediency does not prevent, she is at liberty to exercise it without any further pretensions to inspiration than those put forth by the male sex. If, on the other hand, it can be proved that she has not the right, but that imperative silence is imposed upon her by the word of God, we cannot see who has authority to relax or make exceptions to the law.

Judging from the blessed results which have almost invariably followed the ministrations of women in the cause of Christ, we fear it will be found, in the great day of account, that a mistaken and unjustifiable application of the passage, 'Let your women keep silence in the churches,' has resulted in more loss to the Church, evil to the world and dishonour to God than any of the errors we have already referred to. We think it a matter worthy of consideration whether the circumscribed sphere of woman's religious labours may not have something to do with the comparative non-success of the gospel in these latter days.

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