By Michael C. Armour, Ph.D., Pulpit Minister, Skillman Church of Christ, Dallas
Presented to the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, Cincinnati Bible College, November 27-28, 2000
To describe the role of women in leadership, and to do so from the perspective of a cappella Churches of Christ in America, is a daunting, if not impossible task. Quite simply, there is no singular, universal agreement on this subject among our congregations. And while a certain consensus may have once prevailed, the past three decades have seen it grow increasingly tenuous.
Thus, the best I can afford in a paper of limited scope is an overview of the exegetical tension that governs the discussion of women’s roles in a cappella circles today. And having highlighted that tension, I can then survey the contrasts in practice that correspond to exegetical differences from congregation to congregation.
But let me begin with a personal observation. In the 1970s, while attending a number of interdenominational conferences, I began to recognize a striking distinction between Churches of Christ and other evangelical groups with regard to women. Churches of Christ generally placed greater limitations on women in worship than did other evangelicals. But when it came to a woman’s role in marriage, society, government, and business, we were far more progressive than most other evangelicals. Unlike some conservative groups, a cappella Churches of Christ were not dragged kicking and screaming into the acceptance of an egalitarian ethic in marriage or approval of Christian women having professional and executive careers.
This longstanding, progressive attitude toward woman’s role in society has exerted a subtle, but vital influence on us, I believe. It has served to elevate our respect for what women contribute in terms of leadership. Quite naturally, then, the question has constantly posed itself: within the warrants of Scripture, how can we utilize the gifts of women more fully?
True, this question is more common today than 100 years ago. But even then it was not unknown. Let me begin, therefore, by tracing the so-called “women’s issue” as it has played out in a cappella churches, beginning with the early 20th century.
As the 1900s opened, almost no one in Churches of Christ took issue with what we might think of as “the traditional view” of male and female roles in the church. Elders, deacons, and ministers came exclusively from the ranks of men. Men alone were responsible for leading and facilitating worship. And where men and women were both present in gatherings of the church, only men were free to teach.
As an extension of these convictions, many congregations placed added limitations on women. For one, most churches did not permit women to participate in business meetings of the congregation or to serve on ministry steering committees. And in mixed settings of males and females, women usually did not lead prayers.
Yet, this consensus was hardly unchallenged. Beginning in the 1890s, and continuing down to the very eve of the First World War, The Gospel Advocate carried a number of articles by Silena Holman, who argued articulately that women should have a larger place in congregational life, including a public teaching role. Even though David Lipscomb disagreed with her on this matter (and wrote several articles himself to rebut her position), his journal gave her words an open hearing.
A generation later one of The Gospel Advocate’s most esteemed writers, C. R. Nichol, likewise took aim at the prevailing consensus. In 1938, in an oft-republished book called God’s Woman, he held that women served as deaconesses in the early church and that they should be accorded that same opportunity today.
The echoes of Silena Holman, C. R. Nichol, and others like them never died out in a cappella churches. And in the 1960s and 1970s, more and more churches began to question their own practices toward women. Much of this rethinking grew indirectly from burgeoning college ministries in the 1960s and the concurrent emergence of youth ministry as a major emphasis in congregational life. In both of these ministries females played more visible roles than was true elsewhere in the church.
As young people shaped by this more open environment moved into early and middle adulthood, they pressed congregational leaders to re-examine how the church used women. At the same time, many older adults, influenced by the spreading movement to give women equal rights, developed their own reservations about the consensus.
Thus, beginning in the 1970s and continuing ever since, a re-examination of women’s roles has gone forward apace, both in local churches and at several of the universities associated with a cappella churches. Lectureships at both Pepperdine University and Abilene Christian University have frequently addressed all sides of this subject, providing a forum for speakers from both traditional and progressive perspectives.
In 1990 the Yosemite Family Encampment, at the time drawing upwards of 5000 people per year, show-cased the diversity of thinking in a cappella churches regarding women’s roles. Five speakers with highly divergent views on the subject (including this author) offered an exegetical exploration of the critical passages at the heart of the question. These presentations later circulated widely on tape and in printed form and sparked additional dialogue in churches across the country.
So where are we today? Exegetically a cappella churches are still wrestling with the language of New Testament texts regarding the role of women. It is noteworthy that these churches are addressing this issue exegetically first and foremost. This indicates the high regard for Biblical authority that continues to prevail in a cappella churches. Few of these churches, if any, seriously entertain the argument that Paul restricts the role of women because of a personal bias against them. Nor do a cappella churches find themselves comfortable with dismissing New Testament limitations on women as merely a matter of deference to first-century culture.
Instead, the debate in a cappella churches turns on careful textual and contextual analysis. At the risk of oversimplification, let me touch on what seem to be the central issues on which this debate pivots.
The first has to do with the meaning of aner and gune in a number of passages critical to the discussion.
Is Paul saying in 1 Corinthians 11:3 that men are the head of women (as the wording of most translations suggests)? Or is he merely restating the principle in Ephesians 5 that the husband is head of his wife?
Is 1 Corinthians 14:34 calling for the silence of every woman in every context in the assembly? Or only the silence of certain wives in a specific context?
Is it Paul’s intent in 1 Timothy 2 to preclude women from ever teaching men in public settings? Or is he arguing that a wife should not be teaching in an authoritative public capacity with her husband at her feet?
To put this in other terms, the key question is this: does the New Testament teach that women in general are to be submissive to men in general? Or does it merely teach that wives are to be submissive to their husbands? Since churches have commonly used the submission principle to restrict the role of women, this issue is of no small import.
Second, does the New Testament deny a woman any authority whatsoever in congregational affairs? Or only a certain type of authority? Those who desire greater empowerment for women often point to 1 Timothy 2:12 as the only instance in which the New Testament explicitly precludes a woman’s exercise of authority. And they emphasize that authenteo, the kind of authority Paul describes in this passage, is more nearly authoritarianism than authority per se.
Third, and closely related to the second issue, is the question of delegated authority. Even if one concludes that the New Testament limits overall authority in the congregation to men, can elders nonetheless delegate authority to women and thus empower them? Many who answer, “Yes” are middle-of-the-roaders who hold to a traditional view of male spiritual leadership in the church, but want to use the gifts of women more fully. They frequently take the position that authenteo in 1 Timothy 2:2 precludes only usurped authority, not delegated authority.
Fourth, is the exercise of leadership the same as the exercise of authority? In other words, is a woman exercising authority if she reads Scripture, makes announcements, shares an experience from her spiritual journey, or leads a song or prayer in public worship? Again, this question is important in a cappella congregations, where the historic justification for male-only leadership in public worship has derived from an understanding that women are not to exercise authority in the church.
Fifth, if 1 Timothy 2:12 is taken broadly, so that we exclude women from all teaching roles in the assembly, does that exclude them from teaching in other settings where men and women are together, such as small groups or Bible classes? And similarly, if 1 Corinthians 14:34 is taken broadly, are women excluded from any speaking role in the assembly, such as sharing a personal witness or reporting their experiences on a mission trip? If a woman can publicly profess her faith in order to become a Christian, is it logical to deny her the privilege of publicly describing her faith journey once she has become a Christian?
While other questions figure into the current discussion of women’s roles in a cappella circles, these five issues tend to dominate the landscape. But looking at how churches go about their week-to-week affairs, it would appear that little has changed as a result of this dialogue. In the vast majority of congregations public worship is still led and facilitated entirely by men. Only a handful of churches have formally recognized deaconesses, and virtually none have considered women as elders. And while women now regularly serve on ministerial staffs, in many congregations they are given special titles to avoid calling them ministers.
But this reticence to alter practices is easily misread. An outside observer might conclude that a cappella churches uniformly retain a very traditional view of leadership roles for women. And in many instances that assessment is accurate. But not always. Scores of congregations accept, both theologically and theoretically, a greater role for women than they presently evidence in practice.
Why this mismatch between conviction and conduct? A major factor is the deep wounding that non-instrumental Churches of Christ suffered in the middle and late twentieth century as factions pressed non-essentials to the point of rancorous division. By the 1980s there was growing determination to avoid further polarization if at all possible. In part this has led to decisions to move incrementally whenever sweeping change is being made. Traditional views on the role of women still have an ardent and vocal following. Rapid change could therefore polarize congregations needlessly, even where leaders are persuaded that larger roles for women would violate no Biblical mandates.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the most outspoken opponents of expanding the role of women are quite often women themselves. This comes as a perplexing surprise to men who, as church leaders, are ready to grant women a more visible place in congregational life and who assume that women would readily and universally support such a move.
In terms of practice, then, what do we find in a cappella churches today? First, there are thousands of congregations where the view of women in the church differs little from fifty years ago. This is especially true across the South and in rural churches nationwide. But even in these locales there are striking exceptions to this generalization.
Then, there are churches in which women serve on steering committees for major congregational ministries, and may even chair those committees. In these congregations women are also likely to be on ministerial search committees, long-range planning committees, and facility expansion committees. Where this pattern prevails, members commonly acknowledge that their congregation has women who are deaconesses in everything but name.
As mentioned above, churches increasingly place women in ministerial roles. Most frequently they serve in specialties such as youth, education, women’s ministry, children’s ministry, counseling, or campus outreach. You will also find them leading ministries to senior adults, heading visitation programs, and coordinating benevolence services. Churches such as my own do not hesitate to refer to women who serve in these capacities as ministers and to have deacons report to them. Other congregations are hesitant to do so.
A smaller, but growing number of churches draw on the talents of women for conducting and facilitating worship. Women are especially prominent on what a cappella churches refer to as “worship leadership teams.” These are groups of four to sixteen people, each with microphones, who serve in effect as group song leaders, providing leadership for all four musical parts rather than the melody line alone.
Worship leadership teams became popular as churches incorporated more and more contemporary music into their worship. Many songs in this genre build on complex rhythms, harmonies, or musical structures that are challenging to master without the instrumentation that contemporary songwriters presume.
Worship leadership teams have proven the most workable way of helping churches blend this music seamlessly into the a cappella heritage. The team itself is typically seated on the first two or three pews. And because all members of the team have microphones, it has been a natural transition to assign them other functions in worship over and above leading the music. Quite often team members word prayers or offer Scripture readings, dramatic readings, or communion meditations from where they are seated. In many churches, these speaking roles within the worship leadership team are shared by men and women alike.
Another common trend is for congregations to have two Sunday morning worship services, one quite traditional in tone, the other very contemporary. Frequently women play a highly visible role in these contemporary services, reading Scripture, serving communion, leading prayers, and so forth. Even there, however, a woman rarely fills the pulpit. While a number of women have studied homiletics at our Christian colleges and in evangelical seminaries, no a cappella congregation to my knowledge has made a woman its pulpit minister.
Nor is there a notable movement to consider women as elders, although that subject is broached from time to time. As early as 1976 I was asked to facilitate a decision-making process with a congregation that was considering a redefinition of their eldership to include women. But that question is generally entertained more for its academic interest than because churches are seriously considering it as an option. Overall, Churches of Christ seem persuaded to retain an all-male eldership, held closely to the qualifications in Titus and 1 Timothy, even where individual congregations are comfortable with enlarging the roles of women elsewhere in the church’s worship and ministry.
In para-church structures, women are not yet serving as presidents or executive directors of major organizations devoted to benevolence or the support of missions. To date, with but one exception to my knowledge, no Christian college affiliated with the a cappella churches has had a woman as president, chancellor, provost, or executive vice president, although several schools now have women in prominent posts as academic or student life deans. Nor have any Christian colleges used women as keynote speakers on their annual lectureship programs.
All of this suggests that if women are to have a wider role of leadership and organizational visibility in the vast majority of a cappella churches, that day is still somewhat removed. On the other hand, most leaders in a cappella churches have struggled long enough with this issue to realize its complexity. With that realization, fewer and fewer of them are willing to be dogmatic in their views on the subject or to draw lines of fellowship over it. While they may not agree with another congregation’s decision to use women in specific ways, they do not automatically dismiss the Biblical commitment of that congregation just because of its actions.
This serves a cappella churches well in reaching out to other fellowships in the interest of wider dialogue. In terms of actual practice with regard to female leadership, the Churches of Christ are among the most conservative groups in the United States. But there is a growing atmosphere of non-judgmental acceptance of others who differ with us either in conviction or polity when it comes to this issue.