By Susan G. Higgins, Professor of Sociology and Missions, Milligan College, Tenn.
Presented to the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, Cincinnati Bible College, November 27-28, 2000
Response to Michael Armour’s “Women and Leadership in the Churches of Christ”
In this paper, which focuses on what I will call here “the current women’s issue,” I shall attempt to 1) outline the background currents within the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ since the middle of the 19th century pertaining to women’s ministries, 2) sketch the current situation in the congregations of the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, while addressing specifically one or two points, and 3) offer a few observations from my own context.
The phrase “the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ” is commonly understood to refer to those congregations which trace their beliefs and practices to the Restoration Movement, but which, unlike the Disciples of Christ, did not officially and ecclesiastically become a denomination. Furthermore, in contrast to the a cappella Churches of Christ, which also remained non-denominational, the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have always valued the use of instruments in the worship service. In order to make more manageable the nomenclature of the term “the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ” in what follows, I shall use the abbreviated term “the 4C’s congregations.”
We begin, of course, in the 1800s. Although Leroy Garrett states that during the pioneer years of the Restoration Movement,
The Stone people had few meetinghouses the churches met out-of-doors when the weather permitted or in homes, where the women prayed and exhorted almost as much as the men. *1
Few contemporary members of the 4C’s congregations are aware of those early patterns. When the “women’s issue” is discussed in our assemblies today, the conversations include little knowledge of the practices of the past 150 years.
Nevertheless, a good example of our own history re-examined is Mary Ellen Lantzer’s 1990 Emmanuel School of Religion Master’s thesis containing a well-documented list of the names of several women whose 19th and early 201h century lives were characterized by a sense of vocation as they undertook various ministry responsibilities in obedience to the Gospel’s compelling call to faithful discipleship; among them were women like Mrs. Nancy Gove Cram of New Hampshire, who preached briefly in New York state to the Oneida Indians—-one of the Restoration Movement’s first female missionaries!-before accepting an invitation to Charleston, New York, to preach. The result of her preaching was a “great revival”, in spite of her lack of ordination. In 1816 Nancy Cram was joined in the pulpit by Abigail Roberts, one of whose biographers noted about her that, “. . . she was unreservedly engaged in the work of the ministry … Her work called her into large cities, as well as into small villages and country places. *2
As Lantzer notes, 1853 marks the date that a woman was first “ordained to the ministry by a recognized denomination” in America, while it was another three and a half decades —1888 —before Mrs. Clara Celestia Hale Babcock became, “… the first woman in the Restoration Movement to be ordained to the preaching ministry” *3 when the Eric, Illinois, congregation arranged for her ordination after having extended to her an invitation to preach. In an 1892 self-report published in the Christian Standard in which Babcock reflected on her ministry with the congregation in Erie and a second one in Thomson, she said about the Thomson setting:
The visible results of my year’s work are 96 additions—38 heads of families, 8 from the Methodist Episcopals, 6 from the Baptists, 9 reclaimed; preached 240 sermons, 16 funerals (two double-father and son, husband and wife), 12 weddings, 470 visits made, 1,500 miles traveled to and from my labor. Am now in perfect health. Have not missed an appointment in over four years. *4
She died in 1924 after a rich and fruitful ministry in several congregations and after having baptized 1,502 persons into Christ. *5
Two years before Babcock’s death, another Illinois woman, Sarah Catherine McCoy Crank, was ordained in Marceline, Illinois; she, also, had a significant ministry and by the time of her death in 1948 had “… organized or reorganized 50 Christian churches, led in the building of 18 houses of worship, baptized approximately 7,000 persons, and conducted 1,000 funerals . . .” *6 We will return to Sarah Catherine McCoy Crank toward the end of this paper.
The lives of these two women overlapped the years in which the women’s ordination issue was prominently debated in the Christian Standard. Lantzer’s thesis examines the Restoration Movement’s 1892-1893 discussion surrounding women’s ordination and ministry. To review briefly, in February of 1892, John B. Briney called for an “investigation of the Scriptures as to their teaching as regards the occupancy of the pulpit by women.” *7 His own position was grounded in the I Corinthians 14:34-35 passage (which our speaker noted is still of concern among our Churches of Christ sisters and brothers), and his conclusion was “. . . that women must not preach, and that those who did or even encouraged the practice were opposing God. *8 Over the next several months, more than thirty different people, both women and men wrote at least sixty articles dealing specifically” with Briney’s conclusions and with the women’s ordination issue as a whole. *9 Many of those writers endorsed women’s ministries, citing scripture passages with which we are all familiar; it is ironic that the president of the Illinois Christian Woman’s Board of Mission asked why women are condemned for preaching while they are commended as missionaries *10 , a question that can still fairly be raised more than a generation later.
Clara Babcock was one of the women who entered the debate; she defended her ministry by claiming that God’s Word must be understood in its totality-it must “harmonize”, and none of its teachings can be separated from the whole. That the Galatians 3:28 passage figured prominently in her own position is clear.” *11 While we are probably not surprised that Babcock wrote in defense of her ordination and her responsibilities, it is also important to state clearly that during the months of this controversy, there were several men who supported the ordination of women and whose arguments were balanced, thoughtful, cogent, and respectful toward those who disagreed.
The debate continued into 1893; Morgan Hayden focused on whether or not women could be pastors (elders) or evangelists, and concluded that they could not, since woman was “physically inferior to man, intellectually his equal, socially his superior, morally more susceptible, and religiously more devotional” *12 —a statement which captures all the 19th century’s male-fabricated romantic picture of the female, whose “proper sphere was domestic and social,” and whose work “must be consistent with her subordination to man.” *13 In Hayden’s view, it was obvious that no woman could take on “the work of evangelists and elders because women must not exercise authority-a role required when organizing and managing churches.” *14 And here in Hayden’s remarks, of course, we have the issue of authority tied to the women’s ordination issue-something our speaker has previously noted figures in the discussions among the Churches of Christ.
Although our purpose today is not to examine at length the discussions in the Christian Standard over a century ago, it may be helpful to observe Lantzer’s own conclusions about the positions as they were articulated, for they provide a transition into our own historical moment. She says that the most frequent issues raised by the 1892-93 debate were: ” . . . 1) the function of scriptural commands and precedents, 2) the role of custom, 3) the place of expediency, 4) the status of women, and 5), the nature of the ministry.” *15
So where are we now in the 4C’s congregations? We are, I think, not all that different in our congregational beliefs and practices from those of our Churches of Christ counterparts. We, too, cite the Scriptures incessantly when we talk about “the women’s issue”; we, too, agonize about what is the relationship between authority and mutual submission when we consider congregational order; we, too, are delighted for our women to serve as Sunday School teachers in both children’s and adult classrooms, as ministers of education, ministers of music, even youth ministers in some cases; we find women heading many congregational committees, some of them truly significant ones like personnel. We should also note that even as some women have moved into these positions of service, that shift has not been accompanied by a parallel movement of men into the children’s Sunday School classes, into the church kitchens where the communion service is prepared, into the host of volunteer activities (like folding the church bulletins or decorating the sanctuary or preparing food for the church suppers, wedding receptions, families of the bereaved or myriad other activities) which routinely characterize a healthy congregation.
Another generalization about our current situation is that the role of women in our congregations over the course of the 20th century has typically reflected the changes and adjustments which occurred in the culture at large. Just as the early 20th century’s suffragists gleaned much of their momentum from the Abolitionist movement of the previous century, the late 19th century women-like Babcock and Crank — whose years of ministry spilled over into the early years of the 20th century — drew their sources of courage not only from the Scripture and the needs of their immediate contexts, but also from the winds of cultural change which blew across the continent in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. American historians have observed that after U.S. women won the right to vote in 1920, there was a decided lull in the enthusiasm to push for women’s full participation in all walks of life; some historians tie that lull to the horrors of World War I and the escapism of the 1920s. Whether they are correct or not, we cannot determine here. We can, however, note that in the years which preceded the Depression, Restoration Movement women of the 4C’s churches did not pursue ordination but rather turned their considerable organizational attention and skills to the missionary societies, which were the richer for their labors until the struggles over control of finances and leadership (there’s the authority issue again!) erupted in the early decades of the 20th century.
World War 11 brought more “visible”, and certainly critical, contributions from women to the society when the able-bodied men were overseas, yet after the men returned the women were significantly displaced from the workforce until the sweeping changes of the 1960s produced the cultural upheavals with which the nation as a whole and our congregations in particular still struggle. One remarkable 4C’s exception to this sweeping generalization, among a handful of exceptions, is Dorothy Keister’ *16 ministry in the years after the Second World War. I can clearly remember having participated in one of her two-week after-school sessions for children during the early 1950s when she and Medgar Jones conducted a series of revival meetings in southern Illinois. On my office desk I have a copy of an undated brochure which must have been published about that time and which carries endorsements of her ministry from Hugh Sensibaugh, Leonard Wymore, William Thompson, and others: In capital letters running vertically down the right-hand side of the brochure is the phrase, “New Power’~—-terminology that would undoubtedly be controversial today in many 4 C’s congregations if it were used to describe a woman’s outreach in our congregations. The brochure describes “The Mission to Women: A program of concentrated effort to help: (1) the women of the church recognize and assume a Christian stewardship of their lives; (2) to capture the attention of the community women to the Christian Church’s timely concern for today’s juvenile problems.”*17
The brochure’s mention of juvenile issues highlights for us another aspect of the cultural complexity of our topic; that is, women’s ministries have always been welcomed in our congregations when they focus on education, children, the homeless, the needy, the outcast, and other more traditional “women’s” realms of interest and influence; it’s only when women begin to express an interest in and actually move toward the more public areas of higher visibility and higher social status that the controversies erupt. I find it fascinating that at the end of the 20th century we still struggle with the “women’s issue” along the same lines that we did a century ago.
Here now are two examples from the past nine months. 1) This past spring (2000) the North American Christian Convention announced sponsorship of recognition for “Outstanding Young Ministers” at the annual July gathering, and congregations were invited to submit the names of their nominees for the recognition. Therefore, of course, when the list of recognition recipients was published, not one name (to the best of my knowledge) was that of a woman *l8 — have we no outstanding young women ministers in our midst? Apparently there are none whose names we are willing to publicize. 2) In February, the Christian Standard published the program list of speakers for the North American *19. One of Emmanuel School of Religion’s professors, Robert F. Hull, Jr., wrote the editor a letter, subsequently published *20, in which Hull raised the question about the lack of women speakers on the program. After his letter to the editor appeared in print, Hull received comments from three women, all of whom were grateful for his statements; he also received a small number of letters from men whose comments were fairly evenly divided on the matter. *21 The evidence may indicate that there is even less interest now in debating this issue than there was a century ago.
Several of you have previously discussed your openness to more participatory, more visible, and more formally recognized roles for women in your congregations at the same time that you have encountered various degrees of resistance in your congregations to that expansion, often resistance from among women. Here is that same dilemma as I experience it: What do I say to the young women in my classes when they ask me about these matters? Most of them come from active congregations in which few, if any, women have positions of responsibility that are highly valued. What should I have said two years ago to Kathy *22 , who wondered why her gifted mother’s leadership contributions and ideas were not given a fair hearing during a congregational meeting? What should I have said five weeks ago to Hannah when she dropped by my office to tell me that she was leaving for the mission field after a two-year youth ministry in Indiana (in this case the mission field again benefits from a congregation’s reluctance fully to endorse the young woman’s ministry)? What should I say at the end of this semester, only a few days away, to Allison, who hears God’s call to the ministry but who doesn’t, in her own words, ” . . . want to go through all the hassle and fight all the battles that I’d have to if I actually take this seriously.” What should I say to these women? I conclude with some personal observations:
1. The congregations of the 4C’s fellowship represent every position on “the women’s issue,” though only a distinct minority ordain women. Some congregations have added women deacons in recent years; fewer have elders who are women. *23 Nevertheless, like the women among the Churches of Christ, the women of the 4C’s fellowship have moved into responsible careers in the society at large.
2. Especially because we have female representatives from the Disciples of Christ and the 4C’s congregations here, I deeply regret the absence of Churches of Christ women from these discussions, particularly for this topic. Furthermore, no one woman from among any of the Churches of Christ or Disciples congregations can fully explore in a brief presentation the experiences surrounding “the women’s issue” in her respective tradition any more than I can claim to have covered all the territory for the women among the 4C’s congregations. The lives of Christian women are as varied and multifaceted as are the lives of Christian men; I can only hope to have sketched a fair, even if incomplete, overview.
3. It is terribly important to remember that we are never really talking about the “women’s” issue. That is, women and men exist together in the culture and. society, and thus, of course, the church. To talk about women is always to talk simultaneously about men, whether we are aware of it or not. This entire controversy is a good example of that very fact. To talk about women’s roles and functions in the household of God and in the world without also talking about men’s roles and functions as well is to sabotage our discussion before it even begins. In all too many cases, our response is feeble and ineffectual because we have attempted to respond to an agenda set by those whose loyalties lie outside the Kingdom. Instead, we should study Scripture, pray, fast, and then follow God’s Spirit as that Spirit empowers us for service. If we disagree vehemently, we have not studied, prayed, or fasted enough together. If we disagree mildly and charitably, we do not compromise our witness to the Crucified One.
4. I note with interest that although scholars of the U.S. religious scene like Robert Wuthnow and Nancy Ammerman have documented well for us the networking capabilities of women in U.S. Protestant congregations and in the society as a whole. Most of our fellowships put a high value on face-to-face interaction and the development of interpersonal networks for ministry. (My home congregation, for example, now has “ministry teams” instead of “committees”.) We neither formally acknowledge nor endorse women’s networking gifts as flowing from the Spirit.
5. I strongly suspect that the reason some women are often adamantly opposed to women elders, ordained women, and other visible roles of leadership for women is that the high view of women which those roles entail is personally threatening for some. After having spent a lifetime, or having spent half a lifetime, or even after having been reared to adolescence among a people who assure one of one’s secondary status, it can be quite frightening to hear the suggestion that one is fully accountable to God and that one’s life, mind, opinions, perspectives and insights matter. For many women it’s far easier to incorporate secondary status into one’s self-identity and defer any decision-making to males. We do not have time here to explore the ranges of denial, guilt, anger, depression, grief, betrayal, and disillusionment which many women experience. Having said that, I should not leave the impression that every woman is deeply troubled. Most of us work through the challenges over a lifetime; nearly all of us wrestle at some point, however.
6. For the most part, when we do talk about the “women’s issue” now we do so with a prior concern for two factors: authority and leadership. Given the questions about authority and leadership, among others, which arise in post-modernism, the questions about the “women’s issue” and the relationship(s) of the “women’s issue” to authority and leadership will persist and probably intensify among people who remain committed to the Lord of the Scriptures. . Too often, when we discuss authority and leadership, we unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) adopt a top-down, authoritarian mindset. We should perhaps ask ourselves if there are other models by which we might approach the “women’s issue” —models which are rooted in mutual submission, self-emptying, and the fruits of the Spirit.
7. Among most 4C’s fellowships, the controversies over music have supplanted those over women and leadership, which may be one reason Bob Hull’s recent letter to the Christian Standard’s editor elicited minimal response; by contrast, the last three or four years have seen numerous articles and letters to the editor about church music and musical styles in worship.
8. I said earlier that we would return to Sarah Catherine McCoy Crank in due course. It’s time now to mention that it was James Rawser Crank, an evangelist who initially recommended her for Sunday School Evangelist and whom she later married, who fully endorsed her ministry, and who worked alongside her in mutual ministry until his death in 1940. *24 From this example and many comparable ones, we can learn that authentic males support for women’s ministries is imperative if women’s ministries are to flourish. In the Kingdom, the “women’s issue” really involves the interaction of men and women in mutual submission to one another in order to bear faithful witness to the glory of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Such Spirit-cultivated and Spirit-nurtured interaction produces significant, profound, long-lasting change which will rear the next generation of faithful disciples and which will, perhaps, surprise us as the Spirit of God carries us more deeply into the well of life.
9. In Nashville last June, we all signed the Confession of Sin and the Affirmation of Faith which we produced during our working sessions. I found myself returning to both, but especially to the Affirmation of Faith, as I mulled over what to say in this paper. Let me conclude with the last three paragraphs of that Affirmation: “Within the Body of Christ we receive the gifts of ministry and accept the authoritative witness of scripture” — there, precisely, is the tension inherent in this topic.
“In bonds of Christian faith we yield ourselves to God and one another that we may serve the One whose kingdom has no end’7—there, precisely, is our call. “Blessing, glory and honor be to God forever. Amen.”
*1 Leroy Garret, The Stone-Campbell Movement: An Anecdotal History of Three Churches (Jopling: College Press, 1981), p.294
*2 John Franklin Bumett, Early Women of the Christian Church: Heroines AM ([Dayton: Christian Publishing Association, 19213), p. 18-19.
*3 Mary Ellen Lantzer, [unpublished thesis] An Fxamination of the 1892-93 Christian Standard Controversy Concerning Women’s Preaching (Johnson City, TN: Emmanuel School of Religion), pp. B17.
*4 Quoted in Lantzer, p. 19.
*5 Lantzer, p. 21.
*6 Quoted in Lantzer, p. 26.
*7 Quoted in Lantzer, p. 30.
*8 Lantzer, p. 32.
*9 Lantzer, p. 29.
*10 Lantzer, pp. 41-43.
*11 Lantzer, p. 44.
*12 Quoted in Lantzer, p. 56.
*13 Lantzer, pp. 56-57.
*14 Lantzer, p. 57
*15 Lantzer, p. 7 1.
*16 She was Dorothy Keister Walker after her marriage to Dean Walker in 1962.
*17 Personal copy of Keister brochure.
*18 Christian Standard, Vol. CXXXV, No. 28, July 9,2000, pp. 14-17.
*19 Volume CXXXV, No. 7, February 13, 2000; several articles in this issue were devoted to publicizing the summer, 2000, North American Christian Convention.
*20 Volume CXXXV, No. 17, April 23, 2000, p. 13.
*21 Specifics in this sentence were elicited in recent personal conversation with Hull.
*22 Names of the young women in this paragraph have been changed in order to ensure confidentiality.
*23 I know of only three congregations who presently have women elders; two are in upper East Tennessee. The third congregation is in California.
*24 Lantzer, pp. 24-26