My recent article on biblical criticism and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 has generated some helpful conversations regarding the contemporary issue of women in leadership. The issue of how Christians interpret the bible, or the hermeneutical process, is one that has caused debates, church splits and heated disagreements since the first century. In the coming weeks, I will narrow my focus to one group of Christians, Churches of Christ, and examine their historical and contemporary hermeneutic as I continue to engage the topic of women in leadership in the church. See the recent Christian Chronicle articles as an example of the dialogue most Churches of Christ are engaging in right now.

First, you should know, I grew up Church of Christ. (I left the Church of Christ about a year ago because of their prohibition on women in leadership. You can read part of my story here, I currently serve as a Pastor in the Vineyard Church but I am still Church of Christ. For those of us born into it, we are always Church of Christ’ers.

What do I mean by this?

I currently serve as a Pastor in the Vineyard Church but I am still Church of Christ. For those of us born into it, we are always Church of Christ’ers.
What do I mean by this?

My great, great grandparents were members of Churches of Christ in west Texas, where my great grandparents were born. My great grandparents went on to serve faithfully in their local Church of Christ. When my grandmother was born she grew up Church of Christ. When she met my granddad they went on to serve their local Church of Christ for their entire married life, with my grandfather serving as an elder for many of those years. My mother, aunt and uncle all grew up in Churches of Christ, and went on to raise their families in Churches of Christ. My parents met at a Church of Christ school, Abilene Christian University. They were leaders at Highland Church of Christ where my mother attended for forty years. I went to Abilene Christian University, along with most of my cousins, for my undergraduate degree in Social Work. Years later, I went back to seminary at ACU to do my Masters in Divinity. I also served as a minister in a Church of Christ for a decade.

Because of this Church of Christ legacy, I grew up loving the bible and cherishing it as the Word of God. As a pre-schooler and even before I could read, I grew up memorizing bible verses every week and getting stickers for it at church as a child. I grew up participating in Church of Christ bible competitions. Yes, we really have these. Instead of summer camp, we met up in a metropolitan area with other Churches of Christ and competed in scripture memory and scripture trivia competitions, complete with medals and everything! This led me, throughout my early teenage years and into my college years, to read through the entire bible, cover to cover, many times (yes, even every word of Leviticus!) I went on to memorize much of the gospel of Matthew and all of the book of Ephesians and Philippians as well as large chunks of other New Testament books. The word was truly hidden and buried in my heart. And it is to this day. Now, in my adult life, when I preach, I do so almost exclusively exegetically, beginning with the Hebrew or Greek and translating it myself to make sure that I can get at the heart of the text. But the bible is not just academic to me. I almost always include the bible in my daily spiritual practices. I teach my young children to read and memorize the bible in our morning family bible studies. For us “Church of Christ’ers”, the bible is a big deal. We value it. We love it. We believe it is instructive for church practice. And even though I no longer attend a Church of Christ, I still hold to a similar hermeneutic as I approach the bible.

Hermeneutics is a fancy word for the process by which we interpret the bible. The issue of women in leadership in Churches of Christ is primarily a hermeneutical issue.

What do I mean by “women in leadership” in Churches of Christ?

What do I mean by “women in leadership” in Churches of Christ? The vast majority of Churches of Christ today prohibit women from:

  • Preaching/teaching in the assembly.
  • Leading songs, prayers or reading scripture.
  • Teaching the bible in mixed-gender settings of people older than 10-12.
  • Serving as deacons or elders.
  • Serving communion in the assembly
  • Giving any sort of announcement, testimony or knowledge in the assembly.

Churches of Christ have arrived at these prohibitions because of their biblical hermeneutic. Let me explain by first beginning with a little Church of Christ history.

Churches of Christ (along with Disciples of Christ and Christian Churches) were born out of the “Restoration Movement” that began in the 19th century led primarily by Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. These men sought to unite the church by looking at the bible and the apostolic church as their guide for church practice.

One of the legacies of this movement was establishing a hermeneutic that Church of Christ historians call a “public, populist hermeneutic” (The Stone-Campbell Movement” Williams, Foster, Blowers. p. 82). What they mean by “public” is that we don’t need church creeds, clergy or advanced degrees to interpret the bible properly (even though most of the leaders themselves were highly educated). What they mean by “populist” is that we believe the bible should be studied in the congregation where the common people could come to a “plain meaning” of the text (Ibib, pg. 82). We believe that good common sense and rational thinking in community can lead to a right and plain biblical interpretation. (Campbell also went on to develop 7 principles of interpretation that all seek a historical/critical reading of the text. I will cover these principles in weeks to come.)

The problem was, from the very beginning this “public populist hermeneutic” never led to a “plain meaning of the text, especially in regards to women in leadership.

The problem was, from the very beginning this “public populist hermeneutic” never led to a “plain meaning of the text, especially in regards to women in leadership.

The irony of the current prohibition on women leaders is that it was precisely this “public, populist hermeneutic” that led to the rise of women leaders and preachers in the early days of the movement. The rationale was, because any common person could interpret the bible, then any common person, (even a woman!), could preach. It was also contrary to common sense that a woman gifted to preach should not preach the word of God to the community of faith. Therefore, women were ordained, preached, and led publicly in the early Restoration Movement churches. To name only a few: Ellen Grant Gustin and Emi B. Frank were ordained in 1873. Melissa Garrett Terrell, Laura D. Garst, Mary L. Adams and Josephine W. Smith were all ordained as ministers and served in public roles. Clara Hale Babcock is commonly credited with being the first woman ordained for preaching. In the early days, there were so many women in leadership that The International Women’s Preachers Association was created to support women (Ibid. 779). Women preachers and women serving in public roles was common, although not without controversy.

David Lipscomb was very influential in the eventual exclusion of women from leadership. He used the same “public populist hermeneutic” to say that a “plain meaning” of the text, specifically 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, prohibited women from preaching, even in a setting of only women. Lipscomb argued that to disobey Paul’s clear commands on silence would lead women to eternal death. By the end of the 20th century, women in Churches of Christ rarely led in public roles. Eternal death is a pretty scary threat!

Today, Churches of Christ have continued in the spirit of David Lipscomb to exclude women from leadership in the church, only it is a nuanced exclusion that does not honor the public, populist hermeneutic on which the movement was founded. They don’t believe what they say they believe. On the one hand, they have forsaken the belief of many of the founders: that anyone, even a woman, can interpret and preach the text. And on the other hand, they have forsaken the “plain meaning” of the text that the hermeneutical process should lead to. If Churches of Christ are to remain faithful to this “plain meaning” of the text then they should require women to be silent in the church, as the bible says. Instead, most Churches of Christ have opted for a “contextualized” and nuanced silence that is entirely divergent from the texts they are using to silence women (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15).

Consider this very common excerpt from a Church of Christ “Women’s Roles” policy statement:

The Church’s elders recognize that the label “complementarian” contains contextual variations. To outline female ministerial expression, a few common examples should be noted – encouragements first, followed by restrictions.

We believe the Bible permits women to serve as Ministers: We will encourage women to serve in paid ministering roles. We believe the Bible permits women to serve as Administrators: We will encourage women to serve in paid administrative roles on staff (they later clarify that if they are under the authority of a man). We will encourage women to serve in volunteer roles. We believe the Bible permits women to teach in a way that does not usurp the authority of our male leaders: We will encourage women to teach women’s Bible studies. We will encourage women to teach women’s Small Groups. We will encourage women to teach some mixed-gendered classes. (According to expertise.)

The problem with all of these “encouragements” is that none of them are in the bible. The bible does not permit a woman to teach or to serve as a Minister (1 Timothy 2:11-15). The role of a Minister, in any church, is to exercise spiritual authority over both men and women congregants. The bible does not permit a woman to be a “Women’s Small Group Leader.” Nor does the bible address any such thing as a “Women’s Bible Study.” There is no place in the bible where a woman is permitted to serve as an administrator (volunteer or paid). These encouragements are divergent from the “plain meaning” of the text.

If Churches of Christ insist on a “plain reading” 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, then their “Women’s Roles Policy” statement should read as follows.

  • We believe the bible prohibits women from speaking in the church (1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35).
    • We will not allow women to hold a microphone to sing as a part of the worship team. In this she could sing louder than a man and usurp his authority. (1 Timothy 2:12)
    • We will not allow a women to serve in a Children’s or Youth ministry classroom if it requires that she will be teaching or reading the bible out loud, lest she be disgraced. As Paul says, “it is disgraceful for a women to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14: 35).
    • We will not allow a woman to teach a woman’s bible class, just as David Lipscomb said. And effective immediately, all women’s small groups and classes are cancelled for fear of eternal death.
  • We believe the bible is clear that men were created to lead and women to follow.
    • We encourage all women to stay home and raise their children for we know that women will be saved through child-bearing (1 Timothy 2:15, Ephesians 5:22).
    • We do not allow a woman to obtain advanced degrees where they will be tempted by their professors to use their knowledge somewhere other than in their homes. If a women has a question she can ask her husband once they are at home (1 Corinthians 14:35).

I am calling Churches of Christ to return to the public, populist hermeneutic of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell and believe what they say they believe. Can the common person interpret the text and preach from it or not? Does it make good common, rational sense for women to be “allowed” to lead fortune 500 companies, run for president, hold Ph.D.’s in biblical languages, and lead in all other areas of life and yet not be “allowed” to preach in the church? Either the Bible permits women to speak and therefore preach and lead publicly, as they did at the beginning of the movement, or the bible doesn’t, as David Lipscomb insisted. It is time to stop all the adaptations from the command to remain silent and return to the plain meaning of the text.