What role has fundamentalism played in the Church of Christ hermeneutic regarding the role of women in the church?

In my article last week I discussed the role of women in Churches of Christ. I explored how the “public, populist hermeneutic” born out of the movement that continues to this day has never accomplished what it was intended to, which was lead to a “plain meaning” of the text. You can read the whole article and a brief history of Churches of Christ here. https://www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/march/kelly-edmiston-and-women-in-churches-of-christ.html?fbclid=IwAR0jaFnpCQ9iINYgjRJU6XFiTBazjGZeXBDXxDbWNxLgxz5mV73vXgYVtOo

In this article, I will examine the inverse correlation between fundamentalism and women leading in public roles in the church. In short, as fundamentalism was on the rise, women in leadership plummeted.

What is Christian fundamentalism?:

  • A cultural and theological “war on theological liberalism” that began around 1919. (Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 345)
  • A reaction against modernism that led to:

It is clear that at the beginning of the Restoration Movement, women led in public roles. Here are a few names you can research.

  • Mary T. Graft
  • Mary Morrison
  • Mary Ogle
  • Mary Stogdill
  • Ellen Grant Gustin
  • Emi B. Frank
  • Melissa Garrett Terrell
  • Laura G. Garst
  • Mary L. Adams
  • Josephine W. Mith
  • Clara Hale Babcock
  • Jessi Coleman Monser
  • Sadie McCoy Crank
  • Bertha Mason Fuller
  • Clara Epsy Hazelrigg

(The Encylopedia of the Stone/Campbell Movement, page 777)

All of these women were publicly ordained and many served as evangelists and missionaries. They performed baptisms in the assembly, planted churches and preached sermons. As the Movement split into Churches of Christ/Disciples/Christian Churches, and by the end of the 20th century, women leading in public roles in Churches of Christ had almost disappeared. Why?

As one Church of Christ historian puts it:

The decline of women serving in public roles was due to “the church’s strong relationship to the ideals of the emerging fundamentalist movement…as both an intellectual and a popular movement because of gender and family issues. Fundamentalist periodicals glorified the domestic sphere, using select scriptures repeatedly (e.g. 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15) to mandate that women remain silent in the church” (Ibid, 779).

Consider common magazines of the time propagating the fundamentalist ideal of a woman. She is in the kitchen, at the stove and “triumphing” over the traditional role that she has (clearly) chosen. [Consider the image of this post.]

This fundamentalist ideal fits perfectly within the hermeneutical framework of denying women leadership roles. In this framework, women do not lead prayers or preach sermons. Instead, she is content to stay home and to cook and clean for her family. This is her “God-ordained” role.

Here is the problem. Since the beginning, Churches of Christ, have insisted that their doctrine and church practice were derived directly from the first century church. This is why many Churches of Christ today still insist on acapella music (we don’t see that the early Christians used instruments in worship). Some Churches of Christ also insist on not having kitchens in the church building and not having bible class. The reason is that they don’t see that the early church had kitchens or bible class. Churches of Christ observe the Lord’s Supper every week because they believe that the early church did. They practice baptism by immersion only because this is the model they see in the early church. But Churches of Christ have failed to draw their doctrine and practice concerning the role of women from the first century church and instead have allowed fundamentalism to be the driving force behind their hermeneutic. If they were to believe what they say they believe, they would not have neglected these notable first century models for women in leadership.


Junia is the first and only woman in Scripture to be explicitly identified as an apostle. Apostles travelled, taught and evangelized all over the first century world. Paul, Timothy, Barnabas Silas and Apollos were all apostles, as were Andronicus and Junia.

Romans 16:7, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”


Phoebe is identified as a deacon, which in the New Testament refers to a teacher and leader in the church. Deaconess” is not a word in the Greek. We made that one up.

Many scholars (including Scot McKnight) believe that Phoebe was the courier for the letter to the Romans. Since couriers were charged with the responsibility to explain the letters, Phoebe probably read the letter aloud and answered questions the Roman Christians may have had. Therefore Phoebe was the first to commentate on the letter to the Romans. Romans 16:1


Tabitha is described with the feminine form of the word “disciple”—mathetria. The word literally means “pupil,” or “apprentice,” which may suggest that at some point, Tabitha studied directly under Jesus, like Mary of Bethany. Acts 9:36

Prayer Leaders and Prophets:

Paul assumes that women are praying and prophesying in the church, which is why he instructs them on how to do so with propriety. “And every woman who prays or prophecies with her head uncovered dishonors her head-it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head (while praying and prophesying), she should have her hair cut off, and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.”

1 Corinthians 11:5-6 parenthesis added.

Instead of looking at the apostolic church as a guide for the appropriate role of women in the church, Churches of Christ have allowed fundamentalism to become the driving force behind their hermeneutic.

Christa Sanders Bryant is a good example of this. You can read her view on women’s roles here. https://christianchronicle.org/should-women-preach-mixed-gender/ Women like Sanders Bryant are common in Churches of Christ in the south where fundamentalism is still the weapon of choice for “waging war on liberalism.” These women, in large part, gave up their own careers or education to be ‘stay at home” moms and home-school their children. They fear that their children could be exposed to sex education or evolutionary theory in public schools. Fundamentalism today is still rejecting a /historical approach to reading the bible. Fundamentalism today fuels the patriarchal worldview that leads women to submit first to their fathers and then to their husbands “spiritual headship” based on Ephesians 5:23, and the fact that Adam was created first, because this is the way to salvage the decline of family life in America.

However, fundamentalism is not the problem. The problem is in failing to admit the role of fundamentalism in interpreting the text and instead calling it representative of the first century church.

If women like Christa Sanders Bryant are financially privileged enough to stay home, home-school their children, and pursue a Master’s degree while never planning to use that knowledge in a mixed gender setting, that is fine. Good luck to Sanders Bryant on finding an all- female college classroom to teach in! But that is her choice.

If women like Christa Sanders Bryant, (and lots of others who hold to complementarian values), admit the role of fundamentalism in interpreting the text, they might say something like this,

“We acknowledge that there were many first century women who served in a host of public roles including apostles, leaders and preachers. (Not to mention the examples in the OT). This is why the Stone/Campbell movement began with many women leaders. However, it is our experience today, as we fight liberalism with fundamentalism, that leads us to interpret the bible with a belief that these public roles are reserved for men only, and that women are better suited to follow, submit and support the men.”

It is time that Churches of Christ believe what they say they believe. If the movement is to represent the apostolic church, they are missing the mark on women in leadership. If the movement is to be a branch of Christian fundamentalism, they are on the right track.