Attitudes to Women in Christadelphian Writings
Attitudes to Women
in Christadelphian Writings
Anyone attending Christadelphian meetings will for the most part
find them led entirely by men. In numbers, sisters will be slightly in the
majority, though less so than in many communities. But most of the public
activities are done by brothers, not sisters. Brothers are “on the door” to
greet you and give you a warm welcome. They take it in turn to preside, speak,
read the Bible publicly, and give the prayers. Brothers carry round the plate
with the bread and the cup with the wine. A brother reads the announcements,
and organises the collection bags. Afterwards, a brother counts the money and
banks it. Behind the scenes, the main picture is similar. A committee called
“The Arranging Brethren” (or sometimes “The Managing Brethren”), all male,
oversee the general running of the ecclesia. They are responsible, however, to
the ecclesia as a whole, and sisters have an equal vote with brothers in
selecting office-bearers including The Arranging Brethren, and in voting by
show of hands at business meetings. In many ecclesias, however, a sister may
not comment in discussion other than by passing a note to her husband to read
Sisters often play the organ to accompany singing and to provide a
voluntary to begin and end the meeting. Sisters generally set out the bread and
wine on the table and clear away afterwards. During the meeting they stay
silent, except that they sing hymns.
At Bible Classes or mid-week fellowship meetings, the picture is
similar, though sisters at informal classes may participate in “reading round”
(taking it in turns to read a few verses of the Bible) when a chapter is read
through by the whole group one by one. Sometimes sisters may ask questions or
In other activities the sisters play a fuller part. As do
brothers, they teach in Sunday School, act as secretaries on preaching
committees or as booking secretaries for conferences. They teach by writing
booklets and magazine articles. On preaching campaigns they distribute leaflets
and speak from door to door about our faith. Food preparation for fraternal
gatherings or ecclesial lunches, hall-cleaning, and putting flowers on display
are usually but not exclusively done by sisters.
This is the general picture, readily recognisable. The question
raised in this book, without demeaning the service offered by any brother or
sister, is whether this male/female pattern is a truly Biblical way of
arranging our activities. How much are we following Bible teaching,
ecclesiastical tradition, or secular attitudes of previous centuries?
A Varied Picture
Though the male-orientated description given here is fairly
typical, it is a long way from being the full picture. The position is not as
uniform as it might appear.
In some ecclesias sisters preside, pray and give papers at Bible
Classes; they read the Bible at the Sunday meeting, give preaching talks, and
participate in Bible seminar presentations. In some ecclesias the treasurer is
a sister. At conferences and gatherings sisters give talks and lead workshops.
These practices have become increasingly usual in recent decades, but can be
traced back to the 1800s. Those who participate in this wider manner defend it
as a correct application of Biblical principles. Since their contribution to
ecclesial activities is more than that usually envisaged in many ecclesias,
they do so with a conscious awareness of why their participation is Biblical.
Circumstances Alter Cases
Here is an account reporting what happened in the 1860s or 1870s
when Christadelphians were becoming established in the Mississippi area of
America. The number of believers was very few, and a sister wrote:
... I want
to tell you of these humble, simple worshippers that I met with that summer. To
begin with, I wonder if “circumstances alter cases” in matters of the truth as
in everything else. Be that as it may, I do not see how that little ecclesia
ever could have lived had the sisters not taken an active part in the worship.
eight, each and everyone, took a part in the meeting, and I have never since
seen such zeal, enthusiasm, and devotion. One brother read the lesson, a second
prayed, a third took charge of the table, and a fourth led in singing. One
sister read from the Christadelphian;
second, the thoughts she had noted down during the week, when reading her daily
lessons; third, selection of hymn; and fourth, she always did the same
thing—read a few verses from the Bible.
Sister’s Narrative for Sisters, On Attaining the Truth Under Difficulties”, The Christadelphian,
July 1, 1883, page 315)
The sister (a schoolteacher called Oriana Turney, identified here
only by her initials O. L. T.) felt that the enthusiasm of the eight members of
the ecclesia, and the value of their individual contributions, outweighed any
consideration that sisters should be silent in the meeting: “circumstances
alter cases”. This seems a reasonable deduction in itself, and more recently
similar advice was given by the Bible Mission to an ecclesia in Africa where
the sisters were more literate than the brothers. It was suggested that the
sisters should read the Bible in the meetings – but only until the brothers
became well enough educated to do so instead. Presumably in the case of the
ecclesia in Mississippi, once numbers had increased the brothers took over and
the sisters became silent. But if the sisters were able to contribute in an
orderly manner, does it not seem a pity and a neglect of a God-given natural
resource to restrict the sisters in this way – as well as depriving the sisters
of the enjoyment of participation?
In Private or Public?
In 1884, in a reply to a correspondent, Robert Roberts (founder
and editor of The Christadelphian) approved the
involvement of sisters provided it was not at a public meeting:
As regards the conduct of public assemblies, it is an imperative apostolic rule
in harmony with the natural fitness of things, that women should keep silence.
Paul’s words are plain, “It is not permitted to them to speak” (1 Cor. xiv.
34). But as regards a private company of believers, such as you describe,
especially where, as you say, the sisters are better qualified, and greater in
number, than the brethren, it would be pedantic to apply Paul’s rule to the
exclusion of their useful help. Let them take part in the reading and other
exercises you mention, and be thankful that you have sisters among you capable
of making up your deficiencies. All Paul’s precepts are prompted and governed
by what is reasonable and seemly. Rules for public meetings do not apply in
other circumstances. Paul mentions women who laboured with him in the Gospel
(Phil. iv. 3), though he forbids their appearance before an audience.
(The Christadelphian, March 1884, pages
But is this distinction between public and private valid in itself
or one taught by the New Testament?
The issue of sisters’ involvement kept being raised. Obviously
some felt the position was not satisfactory. Robert Roberts gave the following
WHY DO NOT
SISTERS SPEAK IN PUBLIC?
The reasons why sisters do not take part in prayer and exhortation in
Christadelphian assemblies, is because of the apostolic interdict, “Let your
women keep silence in the churches,” (1 Cor. xiv. 34); “I suffer not a woman to
teach” (1 Tim. ii. 12). These words are very precise and clear, and they are in
harmony with the natural fitness of things, which has some weight in the
decision, as illustrated in Paul’s question, “Doth not even nature
itself teach you?” Paul’s
reference to women “praying or prophesying” must be understood in agreement
with his other statements. They can be so understood. The gift of prophecy by
the pouring out of the Spirit was not confined to brethren: The promise was “On
my servants and on my handmaidens
will I pour out in those days of my spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts ii.
18). But this prophesying, in the case of women, appears to have been privately
performed, as in the case of Philip’s four daughters (Acts xxi. 8-9). There is
no case on record in the apostolic writings, of the public exercise of any
office by a woman. Women are very visible throughout the whole work, but it is
always in a private capacity. (The Christadelphian,
January 1886, page 5)
A Wise Woman’s Influence and a Wise
Robert Roberts was no male chauvinist. He advocated listening to
advice from sisters and wives, considering only that women were forbidden to
speak and teach in public.
… there is another lesson in the 16th chap. of Rom., which comes as a
counteraction to the ideas that some have drawn from Paul’s remarks elsewhere
on the position of woman in the ecclesia. Paul has said “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.” There is a
tendency with some to drive this doctrine to an extreme. I have heard some
speak contemptuously of the sisters as “mere women, only fit to nurse babies,
and look after the pudding.” Against such a doctrine, every true brother will
earnestly protest. It is not only degrading to her whom God has given us for
“an helpmeet,” but it is inconsistent with the spirit of the gospel which
teaches that there is neither male nor female in Christ: that we are all one in Christ Jesus. It is probably the natural
extreme of the theory which flourishes on the other side of the water, and is
equally to be reprobated in Christ. The one puts woman too high, and the other
most certainly too low—so low as only tyrannical and selfish men would put
them. Paul’s allusions in the chapter referred to, help us to put the right boundary
to Paul’s doctrine of feminine subjection in the other case. He commends to the
attention of the Roman ecclesia one Phoebe, a sister, whom he distinguishes as
“a servant of the church at Cenchrea.” This implies a prominent, active, if not
official position on the part of the sister in question. He further
distinguishes her by making her the bearer of the epistle to the Romans, of
which, for a time, she was the sole custodian. He entreats the whole Roman
ecclesia on her behalf, saying of her that “she hath been a succourer of many, and of me also.” In the next verse, he
mentions another sister Priscilla, as one who had with her husband, for Paul’s
life laid down her own neck. In verse 6, he sends love to “Mary, who bestowed
much labour on him.” Further down he salutes among others, Tryphena and
Tryphosa, Julia and the sister of Nereus, and the mother of Rufus. This is a
standing apostolic recognition of the high place which sisters may fill in the
Lord, if in the grace of God, they have wisdom sufficient. True, there are not
many such, but that is a misfortune of our times, and not a necessity of the
thing itself. It may account for the cynical views of some, but ought not to be
allowed to justify an unnatural, mischievous, and unscriptural theory. Sisters
are never likely to develop into noble servants of Christ if the door is shut
in their face, by a theory which would consign them to cradles, pots and pans.
I do not mean to suggest that pots and pans are incompatible with higher
duties, any more than the hammers, shoe lasts, or baking troughs of their
rougher brethren, but a doctrine which would tie them all the time to these, is
an offence and a mischief. It is the part of true nobility to shine in the
performance of the humblest duties, we will not say “stoop,” or “condescend,”
because there is no stooping in the case. These humble duties, which are most
important in the economy of life, become exalted in the hands of intelligence
and worth. But to insist on confining sisters to these, would be to ignore the
fact that they have brains as well as bodies; and that men have other needs of
help-meetship, besides those of knife and fork. Such a boorish doctrine would
destroy companionship, where brethren need it most, and unfit their wives to
fulfil the highest function of motherhood, which is to bring up their children
in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. In fact it is a doctrine to be
opposed and detested as much as any hurtful doctrine may be. The man who holds,
and much more the man who preaches it, deserves to be deprived of every social
advantage and be shut up in a cave. This in fact, is his destiny at last. …. If a sister is an intelligent, active,
useful, noble servant of Christ, her being a sister is no disqualification or
barrier; it only precludes her from the act of public speaking and involves
subjection to her husband. It does not shut her up to babies, pots and pans,
though these will dutifully receive the right share of attention at her hands.
She is a partner, a helper, a fellow-heir in all things pertaining to Christ,
and the man who would degrade her from this position, is not fit for a place in
the body of Christ. ….
Christadelphian, July 1874,
Shortly before he died he made a preaching tour of Australia and
New Zealand. He tried to settle disputes where they arose, and the role and
influence of sisters was an issue of contention in Dunedin.
... it was
what may be called old man-ism that was at the root of the trouble. The
question, who should be chief, is the most destructive of all discords: “When
pride cometh, then cometh contention.” It is the Lord’s express command to all
who aspire to be his disciples: “Be servants: take the lowest place.” “If any
among you desire to be chief, the same shall be last of all.” When the
reasonable spirit of modest self-assessment prevails, dis-union is impossible;
for each holds the other up instead of pulling him down. In this case, the
affair was mixed up with the question: “Should women rule?” “Does not Paul
forbid her to ‘usurp authority over the man’?” If this question is treated in
the spirit the Lord prescribes for all his brethren, there will be no danger or
even question of the woman usurping authority over the man. If the last thing
is for man to usurp authority over his brother—if, as Peter commands, “all are
clothed with humility and all are subject one to another”—there will be no room
for the usurpation of either man or woman to come in. But in point of fact,
there was no question of usurpation, though Paul’s interdict was quoted. It was
in reality a question of whether woman’s voice was to be heard in consultation
or suggestion. There was no question of public speaking. All were agreed that
the law of the Lord prohibited woman’s voice from being heard in public assembly.
The question really was whether in the non-public working or management of
things, woman’s voice might be allowed a place. The question seems an
extraordinary one. The Lord’s law is never directed to the prescription of
impossibilities. You can no more suppress a wise woman’s influence and a wise
woman’s voice, than you can suppress the law of gravitation. You may prevent
her delivering a public address: but you cannot prevent her giving good
counsel, and you ought not. Though woman, by divine law is in subjection, she
is not to be extinguished. If man is her head, it is not to domineer over her,
but to protect and cherish and serve her in honour “as the weaker vessel,”
content with the casting vote in matters of difference, which is the extent of
his superior privilege. If the Scriptures appoint man as her head, they do not
exclude her from partnership in all that concerns their mutual well-being. They
show us women “labouring with Paul in the gospel” (Phillip iv. 3): as official
servants of an ecclesia with business in hand, which the ecclesia was called
upon to promote (Rom. xvi.1-3): exercising the prophetic gift (Acts xxi. 9);
prominently ministering to Christ himself (Luke viii. 2-3): sometimes leaders
in Israel, like Deborah (Judg. iv. 4). The denial of public speech to women is
as far as we are justified in repressing them. I have seen tyrannical and
unsympathetic men wrongly using Paul’s authority to put down and quench godly
women more qualified than they themselves to exercise judgment and give counsel.
Let women certainly be modest, but let her not be reduced to a cypher, which
God never intended. She is intended as a comrade and a help which she greatly
is, when enlightened and treated rightly. We ought to be thankful when women
turn up who are able to help with wise suggestion. To object to such on the
score of “ruling the ecclesia,” is to evince either a shameful misconception of
duty or an itch for headship which disqualifies for the true service of the
ecclesia. No man who wants to be head is fit to be head. The headship that
comes from service is the only headship that is either useful or tolerable, or,
in the long run, possible. Where the spirit of exalting each other, instead of
exalting ourselves prevails (as Christ commands) there is little danger of
difficulty arising, and an easy settlement of them when they do arise.
Roberts, A Voyage to Australia, pages
Saturday February 29th, 1896,
first printed in The Christadelphian,
February 1897, pages 60-61)
It is evident that Robert Roberts held women in high esteem; in
this he was in accord with the progressive atmosphere of the times. In the 1860s (at the same
time as the Christadelphian community was increasing in numbers) there was a
growing movement in support of women’s suffrage. Voting by women, for instance,
was introduced in municipal elections in Britain in 1869, and universal
suffrage in New Zealand in 1893. When Robert Roberts drew up The Ecclesial
Guide in 1883, sisters held the same
position as brothers when voting for ecclesial offices and activities, but like
the 1869 Act of Parliament, although women could vote for offices, they
couldn’t stand for election themselves.
His emphasis on humility, on being subject to one another, on
listening to wise counsel whether spoken by sister or brother, contains the
seeds to encouraging full involvement of sisters in every aspect of ecclesial
life according to ability and spiritual maturity. In Wanganui he met a sister
who appears to have been one of the “Arranging Brethren”:
I was also
introduced to sister Dexter, whose characteristics are described in many a
Scripture specification of womanly excellence, and whose serving capacities are
so highly appreciated that she has been appointed “a managing brother!” Deborah, the wife of Lapidoth,
was an excellent managing brother, to whom Barak naturally took the second
Roberts, A Voyage to Australia, page
January 20th, 1896,
printed in The Christadelphian, November 1896, page 421)
Speaking in Public
The sticking point, however, seems to be speaking “in public”. It
is worth analysing, therefore, the explanation given in 1886.
DO NOT SISTERS SPEAK
The context of 1 Corinthians
14 suggests this should not
be understood as an apostolic interdict on all speaking
(see pages 52-62).
“Natural fitness” tends to be subjective, varying from
generation to generation.
Neither precise, nor clear.
This is also qualified by its context. Women
acceptably teach elsewhere in Scripture.
–S. J.– The reasons why sisters do not take part in prayer and
exhortation in Christadelphian assemblies, is because of the apostolic
interdict, “Let your women keep silence in the churches,” (1 Cor. xiv. 34); “I
suffer not a woman to teach” (1 Tim. ii. 12). These words are very precise and
clear, and they are in harmony with the natural fitness of things, which has
some weight in the decision, as illustrated in Paul’s question, “Doth not
even nature itself teach you?” Paul’s reference to women “praying or prophesying” must be
understood in agreement with his other statements. They can be so understood.
The gift of prophecy by the pouring out of the Spirit was not confined to
brethren: The promise was “On my servants and on my handmaidens will I pour out in those
days of my spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts ii. 18). But this prophesying,
in the case of women, appears to have been privately performed, as in the case
of Philip’s four daughters (Acts xxi. 8-9). There is no case on record in the
apostolic writings, of the public exercise of any office by a woman. Women are
very visible throughout the whole work, but it is always in a private capacity.
Euodia and Syntyche “these women ... have laboured side
by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my
“Always in a private capacity”?
deacon of the church at
and prophetesses in
11. Is this not “the public exercise of an office by a woman”?
Note the give-away word “appears”.
1 Corinthians repeatedly shows that
prophesying is a public activity – and by both sexes, 1 Cor. 11 & 14.
1 Corinthians 11, from where this is
quoted, approves of sisters speaking in the meeting.
Agreed, so reassessment is needed.
Is there any evidence or likelihood of prophesying
being done in private?
January 1886, page 5)
Euodia and Syntyche “these women ... have laboured side
by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my
“always in a private capacity”?
We suggest that there are so many holes in the argument presented
here by Robert Roberts that this passage alone gives strong reason why the
position should be re-examined.
When is “in public” not “in public”?
When Jane Roberts (wife of Robert Roberts the editor) produced an
address for a “Tea Meeting” of the “Young Women of the Birmingham Ecclesia” in
the Athenaeum Hall, 29th December 1881, it was read by her husband. So too in
In Victorian times, even in the academic community, it was thought
unseemly for a woman to address an audience:
Social Science Association (founded in 1857) admitted women to membership. Initially
papers submitted by women had to be read by male colleagues – such was the
contemporary abhorrence of women on the public platform... (Tom Begg, The Excellent Women – The
Origins and History of Queen Margaret College, page 8)
But in 1893 there is “An Address Read at the Opening of a Sisters’
Bible Class” by C. H. J. (Sister Jannaway, probably) and this she read herself.
However, the explanation is given:
Let us not
suppose that our meeting is the Church, or that it is in any way public. It is
simply a private gathering of sisters. We assemble in this hall as a matter of
convenience, but the hall does not in any way affect the private character of
(The Christadelphian, September 1893, page
The advice and teaching given by these sisters is practical,
sensible, spiritual, and well worth the attention of brothers too, which is no
doubt why the texts of these addresses were printed in The Christadelphian.
‘Getting Round’ Scriptural Injunctions
The above occasion may not have been attended by any members of
the public, and no brothers were present, but to speak to a large audience can
hardly be described as not in public!
And we should ask:
(1) Is a meeting exclusively of sisters not a meeting of the
(2) Should such a meeting from which brothers are excluded not be
considered contrary to the unity of the ecclesia, or even an example of sisters
usurping authority by not permitting brothers to be present?
(3) Does speaking to a meeting in a public hall, albeit a private
meeting, not constitute public speaking?
The reasons for holding sisters’ classes are excellent in
themselves: to enable sisters to speak and discuss aloud, and thus benefit from
study, preparation and mutual interchange of views in the same way as brothers
do at Bible Classes.
But on the other hand, if sisters should not teach because Eve was
deceived, if they should keep silent, if they should ask their husbands at home
if they wish to know anything, surely sisters classes are as much avoiding
these commands as if brothers were present?
The assertions about public/private teaching were a way of
justifying a course of action by arguing that there was no technical breach of
a Scriptural injunction. Much the same has often been done since. Sometimes
Bible Classes are opened in prayer, a talk is given by a brother, then the
class is closed in prayer – so that sisters can then take part in the
discussion. It is considered no longer a meeting of the ecclesia (the meeting
having been closed in prayer), so rules that sisters must remain silent no
longer apply. Likewise, those who consider sisters shouldn’t teach or give
addresses do not mind sisters doing so at sisters’ classes because (it is
asserted) they are not meetings of the ecclesia. Or sisters can take part in discussions
at ecclesial afternoon “fellowships”, where the Bible is read round and
discussed, but, again, this is not a meeting of the whole ecclesia, so the rule
is considered not to count.
Sisters teach brothers and sisters by writing articles in Christadelphian
magazines, but then, again, this is classified as not teaching in the ecclesia,
and since the magazines are usually edited by a brother it is claimed that it
is not really the sisters who do the teaching but the brother who publishes
their articles. All such arguments seek to “get round” the prohibitions while
claiming to uphold them. Would it not be better to say, as Robert Roberts said
about female head-dress, that the issue was viewed one way in ancient times
“considering the extreme seclusion of the female sex in the social customs of
those countries” (The Christadelphian, April 1895, page 140),
but should be seen in a different light today? Is it not better to argue that
“circumstances alter cases”, as sister Oriana Turney in Mississippi said (The Christadelphian,
July 1, 1883, page 315)? Restrictions listed in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy
2 are applicable not to the cases of sisters giving addresses (as did Sister
Jane Roberts and Sister Jannaway), but to cases of disruptive, uneducated women
who were causing the problems in Corinth and Ephesus.
The message restricting women (as given to and for some of the ancient ecclesias) was
appropriate in the situations to which it was applied. But in different
situations, a different application is right and necessary. If we read 1
Corinthians 14 in its context, being aware that it is addressed to all the brothers and sisters (1
Corinthians 1:2), it is clear that “circumstances alter cases” there too, for
in his description of how ecclesial meetings were organised in Corinth, Paul
expresses his approval of both brothers and sisters speaking in an orderly fashion. He objects only if too
many people speak at once.
what I mean, my brothers and sisters [adelphoi].
When you meet for worship, one person has a hymn, another a teaching, another a
revelation from God, another a message in strange tongues, and still another
the explanation of what is said. Everything must be of help to the church. ...
All of you may proclaim God’s message, one by one, so that everyone will learn
and be encouraged.
Corinthians 14:26, 31, GNB, 1994 edition)
The Good News Bible correctly translates adelphoi as “brothers and sisters”, just as “Christadelphians”
means “brothers and sisters in Christ”. And Paul quite specifically writes “All
of you...”. Is not the Mississippi description very close to that of Corinth at
Support for Christadelphian Sisters’ Involvement in Public
Speaking and Teaching
When we look at writings of others within the Christadelphian community,
we find that many have examined the issue and have supported fuller involvement
Thomas Nisbet of Glasgow for many years published a
Christadelphian magazine called The Investigator, to which leading brothers
in Britain and overseas contributed articles and comments. His Editorial for
January 1895 discussed “The Disabilities of Women as Teachers in the Church”.
hitherto been generally assumed that Paul at least did not suffer a woman to
teach in church ; but the matter seems to me one which calls for
reconsideration, and I propose to examine here in detail those passages of
scripture which are regarded as having a bearing upon the question. ...
but two such passages in the New Testament....
(The Investigator, Vol. X, No 37, January
1895, page 2)
He examined 1 Corinthians
14:34-35 and considered that this passage referred to wives who “talked or
chattered in church, which, of course, Paul forbade.” On the second passage, 1
Timothy 2:11-12, he wrote:
passage reads:– “Let a wife (gune) in
quietness be learning, in all submission ; and I am not permitting a wife (gune) to be teaching nor to be
domineering over a husband, but to be in quietness.” The “church” idea is not
present to the mind of Paul here ; he is not talking of any particular
gathering, but of apparel (see verse 9), and general deportment. As far as I
can understand Paul here, it appears to me that he says it is (or should be)
the man’s place to teach his wife, not the wife’s place to teach the man, nor
indeed to obtrude herself in any unbecoming manner where husbands are
concerned. As to what is unbecoming, custom will largely determine, and
husbands will doubtless differ as to where the line is to be drawn. (Ibid, pages 2-3)
We have indicated in earlier chapters that the range of
possibilities on these two passages is considerably greater than Thomas Nisbet
examines. He does not pick up on the positive New Testament passages which
encourage women to teach:
to the question “Are women permitted to teach in church?” is to be answered
according to the evidence thus:—She is not specially forbidden. The evidence
which is supposed to exclude her is found irrelevant. It speaks about something
else ; and not of women as such, but of wives.
He then advocates sisters’ active participation in Christadelphian
meetings and his conclusion deserves acceptance:
will learn from any and every source, losing sight of the instrument in the
message itself ; and if the women can teach us men in any direction, by all
means let them begin at once in the church. I think we might learn much from
women if they would express their views upon things more, in all our meetings.
It would be so much more pleasant to have the monotony varied by the softer
tones of a woman’s voice speaking to edification, than to be subjected always
and everywhere to the harsher tones and harsher thoughts of one of the sterner
sex. And a man, it must be confessed, does not always speak to the edification
of his hearers. From this point of view, our teaching must always be more or
less defective—so long as woman is excluded from the privilege of publicly
expressing her view of things, since we are thus without the advantage which
comes from “hearing the other side”; and woman—and it must be confessed not
without advantage to the man—does not always look at a matter as a man would
Thomas Nisbet considered that women’s “disabilities” were of a
duties and maternal cares preclude the wife from situations where the man is
fit, and the sentiment of the age, although it is changing with the advent of
the New Woman, is still strongly against being taught by women—married or
single. .... Whether woman may ever come to teach in the church or not, she
must always have her special work in the moulding, by means of home teaching of
much raw material in the young, and fill a place where man cannot for a moment
compete with her.
Interestingly and perceptively, Thomas Nisbet was aware of
prejudice in himself, despite his advocacy of women as teachers:
must, when all is said, confess to a share of that miserable feeling which
seems, generally speaking, to possess the sterner sex regarding woman’s sphere
and influence, for I have a measure of antipathy to women as public teachers,
but why, I don’t quite know—a mere prejudice, I presume.
quotes from The Investigator, January 1895, page 3)
The position taught by Thomas Nisbet is the logical continuation
of that held by the sister from Mississippi, as it is of the encouragement by
Robert Roberts in 1896 of “a wise woman’s influence and a wise woman’s voice”.
When we no longer live in the same situation as that to which the two
restrictive passages are addressed, the way is clear for the full involvement
The following account appeared in 1895 about the new meeting room
for Dudley, Queen’s Cross, Christadelphian Ecclesia:
builder engaged for the work requested us to select some one to lay the first
stone. This was a new idea to us as Christadelphians, but after some thought we
decided to invite our aged sister Clements to perform the office, she being the
first-fruits of Dudley some twenty-four or twenty-five years ago, and the
oldest Christadelphian in this district at the present time. Our sister having
consented, the stone was duly laid on Monday, October 28th, in the presence of
myself and others, our sister Clements offering up a short prayer to the effect
that God would grant all who should worship in the building to be erected on
that stone, might themselves be as lively stones growing up into a spiritual
house, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone. The site is at
Queen’s Cross. “Dudley Christadelphian Church” will be cut on stone at the
front, and we hope to be ready for our opening services on the first Sunday in
the new year, if the Lord permit.
Fraternal Visitor, Vol X, No 122, November 1895, page 346)
Christadelphian Mutual Improvement Societies
That sisters could speak and teach to both brothers and sisters as
early as the first decade of the 20th century is evidenced by printed reports
of the meetings of the Christadelphian Mutual Improvement Societies Union. For
BIRMINGHAM ... We had a very
pleasing change on May 2nd, listening with much gratification to an excellent
essay on “the Authenticity of the Four Greater Epistles of the Apostle Paul,”
from the pen of our fellow-member, Sis. May Hadley. At the conclusion of her
reading our sister was very warmly thanked for what was considered an extremely
concise and well-reasoned statement of the subject.
Visitor, Vol XX, No 236, May 1905,
Further on in this report from Birmingham these meetings are
described as “seasons of help and instruction”.
In December 1906 it was reported:
In connection with the
arrangements for the proposed Conference of the Mutual Improvement Societies’
Union at Birmingham next Whitsuntide, the question has been raised of whether
the participation of female members in the discussions of these societies is in
contravention of the teaching of the Apostle Paul, who commands: “Let your
women keep silence in the churches.”
The editors pointed out the
arguments used by both sides; in favour of the participation of sisters the
editors gave the following justification:
whole context shows that the apostle is writing about the orderly conduct of
meetings of “the churches” ; that his counsel is fully honoured by all the
modern Ecclesias, and that in an outside assembly, such as a mutual improvement
society, a female member may contribute her information to the common stock of
the company, so long as she does not do so in any dictatorial spirit tending to
violation of the Divine appointment respecting the relation of the sexes.
By calling the mutual improvement class “an outside assembly”, the
same argument was being used as that involved in closing a meeting in prayer so
that sisters may then speak. A better justification needs to be presented if
the practice is to carry conviction.
On 1 Timothy it was commented:
and ever have been, “teachers,” but apostolically it must be in a way which
does not involve unwomanliness, or usurpation of dominion over a man.
The editors invited comment and concluded:
are other Scriptures also bearing upon the matter ; and what we would have our
readers turn their attention to is whether in the light of all of them the
procedure of the mutual improvement societies is in violation of Divine rule.
Upon this we should be glad to hear from them. If it can be shown that it is,
or even that a grave doubt relates to it, we have every confidence that the
societies affected will be ready to amend their rules. But in all these
questions we have need of forbearance and patience one with another, and an
avoidance of sitting in judgment on our fellows.
(The Fraternal Visitor, December 1906, pages 359-360)
Replies from brothers L. G. Thirtle (Clapham), W. D. Jardine
(Birmingham), Kirkland (Derby), and W. H. Forty (Cheltenham) defended the
participation of sisters, though with varying explanations. (The Fraternal
Visitor, “Our Mutual Improvement
Societies – Participation of Lady Members” February 1907, page 43-46.)
Arguing against the participation of sisters, Bro F. Udale of
mixed number of persons meet together for edification in the things that belong
to God, there must first of all be order according to the law of God, and the
law in this case is (I Cor. xiv. 34 and 35; I Tim. ii. 11 and 12). Why try to
wrestle with the plain declaration? Let your women keep silence in the
churches. “Adam was first formed, then Eve,” and Paul’s advice to Timothy (I
Tim. iii.) excludes women altogether from taking a prominent part in preaching
the Word. ....
Man is for
strength, judgment, and achievement. Woman is for grace, sympathy, and
(Fraternal Visitor, “Our Mutual Improvement Societies –
Participation of Lady Members” March 1907,
These arguments (which ignore context so noticeably) are not
Christadelphian in origin but those of centuries of Christendom beforehand,
while the last of these statements could almost have come directly from pagan
authors. To assert that “grace, sympathy, and ministration” are intended to
apply to women and not to men can hardly be considered fair Biblical
C. C. Walker, by then editor of The Christadelphian magazine, no
doubt in response to the practice at Mutual Improvement Classes, gave the
following reply in “Answers to Correspondents”:
KEEP SILENCE IN THE CHURCHES”
asks: “Does Paul mean keep silence only in the assembly for breaking of bread?
or will it include other meetings: take, for instance, a Bible class?”
such restriction as named is contemplated in the apostolic injunction. It would
be manifestly improper for a woman to preach or pray in public at any other
meetings than those for the breaking of bread. The expression “under obedience”
indicates the spirit of the matter. No woman worth the name of a sister would
insist on breaking silence in face of the apostolic writing. In a Bible class,
a sister might put questions through a brother or in writing. Paul’s regulation
was not intended to discourage women, but to eliminate the disorders that were
current in the Corinthian ecclesia. It requires careful handling nowadays.
(The Christadelphian, November 1904, pages
It is interesting to observe how much the major content of 1
Corinthians is missed, and two words are chosen as “the spirit of the matter”.
Note the heavy pressure on women: “No woman worth the name of a sister...”.
Note how women praying and prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11 are ignored, and
there is no recognition of the participation of sisters in 1 Corinthians 14:26.
There is an awareness, however, that these restrictions on women are under
challenge: “It requires careful handling nowadays.”
A further negative note was introduced:
following resolution was passed on March 5th, at a meeting of managing brethren
in Birmingham:– “That in view of a feeling of offence given to some of our
brethren, the Managing Committee do hereby add to their previous declaration [i.e., affirming that women ought not to
take part as speakers in meetings of the church] an expression that we have no
desire to see women taking part in public assemblies ; and we recommend the
female members of Mutual Improvement Societies not to participate in
discussions under circumstances which may be open to misconstruction.”
(Fraternal Visitor, “Our Mutual Improvement Societies –
Participation of Lady Members” March 1907,
Participation by sisters did continue, however. And this was not
only in the Suffolk Street fellowship. The 1914 Programme for the Sheffield
Christadelphian Mutual Improvement Society (Temperance Hall Ecclesia meeting in
Devonshire Hall) lists three sisters as speakers. Likewise at Derby
(Temperance Hall) sisters prepared and delivered papers.
Approval of Wider Participation by Sisters
In 1929 Estella Blackmore of Bournville Ecclesia, Birmingham,
wrote an article on “The Position of Women in the Church” as part of a series
titled “Let us Reason Together”:
Our religious contemporaries overcome the difficulty of lack of
time by appointing a paid minister, who gives the whole of his training, time
and energy to the work of his Church. This may appear to be a satisfactory
solution of the problem, but it has its drawbacks, and we prefer not to adopt
it. What have we in its place? A system by which practically all ecclesial work
is done by a few selected from just two-fifths of the community—the male
section. We attempt so much and achieve so little, probably because we curtail
the number of our workers. Surely when we attempt so much, and are so
handicapped for time, it behoves us to use all the workers available. Our
assembly consists of two brethren to every three sisters, and of these, the one
brother does practically all the work of any moment, the other four-fifths are,
to a large extent, inactive. How can we expect to achieve the best which is
Amongst our sisters there ... is ... a small section who appear to
be quite content to leave all the work to others, and find their pleasure in
trivial things. ... A far larger section is filled with a keen desire to serve,
but find themselves hindered and prevented by the influence of a few mistaken
brethren who have tried their hardest to suppress the sisters in many
directions. To these sisters one would say: Do not be discouraged: the younger
generation are awakening to their responsibilities, they are learning to think
for themselves, and are moving to co-ordinate all that is good and logical and
true. We need the help of our sisters in the work of the truth. They are of
equal value to us as our brethren, and it is a duty of the brethren to see that
they do not drift from us for lack of opportunities for exercising their gifts.
The last and largest section of the sisterhood consists of those
who are quite willing to do what they can, but owing to the uninformed
criticism of some brethren in the past they have retired into their shells,
afraid of giving offence. They will require much persuasion before they can
enter into a fuller life in the Truth.
... It has been assumed by some brethren that the suppression of
women within the Church was the express teaching of the apostles. No doubt
these brethren have been quite sincere in their convictions, but it is possible
for them to have been mistaken.
Many have read letters which were written by Christ’s early
followers, to certain sections in their own day, as though they were written to
all types of present day people. The passage I. Cor. xiv. 34 is often quoted:
“Let the women keep silence in the churches...” .... This verse has nothing to
do with women taking a proper part in a church service, but refers only to a
disturbance. In the meeting places of the Jews, the women sat by themselves ;
and as their service was the same ritual over and over again, during the
service the women were often talking to one another. But the Christian assembly
was in spirit, and so Paul instructed them not to be chattering.
.... On the other hand we have the apostle making a definite
inference in I. Cor.xi. 13, where he says, “Judge in yourselves ; is it seemly
that a woman pray unto God unveiled?” This could only have reference to the
public assembly, and if Paul did not countenance the participation of women in
public services, the verse has no meaning. ....
In the light of the part played by women in Paul’s days, and in
view of his own teaching, one wonders how he would view things to-day if he
could visit some of our meetings and hear how his words have been wrested from
their context to support a contrary practice. Surely he would be very grieved.
Now the question naturally arises as to how much the sisters
should attempt. As they are on a spiritual equality with the brethren, should
they aim at doing all the duties which are now performed by brethren? This is
neither necessary nor desirable. There is a sufficiently large scope for
sisters to exercise their latent talent without necessarily undertaking every
manly duty. The guiding principle should be suitability.
In visiting various ecclesias I have learned of many duties
undertaken by sisters which are usually performed by brethren. In one ecclesia
the Managing Committee consists of both brethren and sisters. Two ecclesias
have a sister for secretary. One small ecclesia, for a fairly long period of
time, depended on two sisters for the reading of the chapters at the Sunday
morning services. Evidently these ecclesias considered that the work
was of more account than the worker. And so it should always be. The
work is the thing that matters. Where
a sister can do a particular piece of work better than a brother, it cannot be wrong for her to do it. Where an
ecclesia has three sisters to every two brethren, would it not be an advantage
to have the sisters’ help and their point of view represented on the committee
which manages that ecclesia?
.... The advantage to the brethren, if the sisters took a more
active part in ecclesial work, is obvious. The advantage to the truth itself
would naturally follow. It remains for the brethren to do their part by giving
all the encouragement possible. For it takes a brave heart indeed to make a
pioneer, particularly when the pioneer seeks no personal aggrandisement, but
looks rather to follow an ideal in all humility of spirit.
Position of Women in the Church”, E. L. Blackmore, Bournville,
The Fraternal Visitor, November 1929, pages 287-290.)
In December 1929, Estella Blackmore commented:
writing in the November issue of the Fraternal
Visitor on the position of women in
the Church, I have had expressions of opinion from various brethren, both by
letter and by word of mouth. The consensus of opinion expressed by them is to
the effect that the old prejudice on this subject has largely disappeared,
owing to a more enlightened reading of the Scriptures during recent years.
Visitor, December 1929, page 318)
On the same page, James Melville (Barrow-in-Furness Ecclesia),
described by the editor as “a brother of long standing” wrote:
read with pleasure the article by Sister Blackmore ... relative to “The
Position of Women in the Ecclesia,” as I have entertained such views for over
In March 1930 Sister Blackmore commented further:
have had many more letters on the above subject from brethren of long standing
in the Truth. Without exception, these all strongly adhere to the position
upheld in the November issue. I have not heard one word of adverse criticism.
What does this indicate? Do these brethren represent the trend of opinion
throughout the brotherhood? If so, is the matter going to stop there? Writing
and speaking are of little value if unaccompanied by deeds, for “by their
fruits ye shall know them.” If it is wrong to hide our light under a bushel, it
must be doubly wrong to force others to hide their light.
sisters, generally, seem greatly desirous of taking a more active part in the
work of the Ecclesias, but hesitate to cause offence to those brethren who hold
to the attitude of fifty years ago. But, after all, why be so concerned about
the displeasure of man? It is God’s displeasure we should fear to
incur, as it is God’s work in which
we seek to take part. Courage is needful ; but that is quite a small matter
when we consider that we have the Apostle Paul on our side, and when we
contemplate the wonderful attitude of Christ Himself to the women of His day.
(E. L. Blackmore, The Fraternal Visitor, March 1930, page 72)
Disapproval of Wider Participation by Sisters
If Estella Blackmore and her approving brothers of long standing
felt the attitude in 1930 had changed from 50 years previously, not all agreed.
John Carter, later editor of The Christadelphian, had once been in
Suffolk Street and had transferred to Temperance Hall in 1915. Forty years
later he commented:
felt when I was in the Suffolk Street fellowship that sisters giving papers to
mixed classes was a mark of laxity.
(John Carter, Letter to Ruth McHaffie, 1st May
Sister Blackmore, however, presented her view not on a basis of
laxity but on a basis of understanding the context of Paul’s comments in 1
Corinthians and 1 Timothy.
John Carter added in the above letter: “Please do not put me in
the class of women haters, or anything like that” and he printed articles from
sisters. However, sisters with the enthusiasm to write in The Christadelphian, and
thereby to teach, were tackled over the years by two brothers, Viner Hall and
Philip Hall. Their aim was to dissuade sisters from holding a position “on the
platform of magazines”. Philip wrote and complained to husbands of sisters who
wrote articles in The Christadelphian, while Viner wrote
directly to the sisters, in words such as the following:
woman’s nature and constitution is such that her character and disposition is
marred when she enters the lists in competition with men in the conduct of
public affairs; and especially so when she is allowed to occupy a position of
equality (as a speaker) on the spiritual platform of a magazine which exists
exclusively to teach in the churches. It
gives such sisters a prestige in the meeting (I have witnessed the evil myself)
which is inconsistent with their God appointed position of humility and
submission in which the Divine model of true femininity and beauty is manifested
and sustained (I Peter 3:1-6). [Italics his.]
It would be reasonable to comment on the above that sisters who
write and speak are not entering “the lists in competition with men” but
seeking to offer their service to God. One wonders at the male mind which seems
to feel threatened in that it talks of “competition”. And if a sister who
speaks well or writes well runs the risk of a little self-pride, do not
brothers who write do likewise? Are not humility and submission to one another
the virtues which brothers should also have?
from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than
yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the
proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)
‘Getting Round’ Inconvenient Verses
Viner Hall belonged to a small Christadelphian fellowship known as
the Family Journal fellowship. His view that writing in The Christadelphian is
the same as teaching is a valid one. The argument that it is not really
teaching is an attempt to ‘get round’ the obvious in an effort to uphold the
status quo (i.e. that sisters may write articles in magazines). At business
meetings, in ecclesias where 1 Corinthians 14 is considered an absolute ban on
sisters even asking a question, another commonly used method of ‘getting round’
the prohibition is for a sister either to ask her husband to say something or
to pass a written note to a brother.
W. G. Butterfield headed another Christadelphian subdivision
called “The Remnant of Christ’s Ecclesia”. He wrote:
the command that sisters must be silent in the Ecclesia is clear and definite,
and to nullify this command by using slips of paper or a brother to express
their views in the Ecclesia is a wicked attempt to make void the command.
(W. G. Butterfield, Are
Christadelphians Astray?, page 17)
In the Temperance Hall fellowship Brother Barnard wrote in
similarly dismissive terms:
have the “oracles of God” been entrusted to men rather than to women? Because
her Edenic sin has stamped the woman with its accompanying weakness, namely,
susceptibility to deception. In Divine
things especially, women are more easily deceived than men. There is, at
bottom, a credulous mysticity, a proneness to superstition deeply ingrained in
feminine nature... This predominant strain in woman’s nature, combined with her
strong material and affinitive tendencies towards emotion rather than reason,
unfits her for any kind of leadership in Divine or even political matters. (The Testimony, April 1956)
This seems to owe more to pagan Aristotle or the Early Church
Fathers or to the Scottish reformer John Knox than to the oracles of God. Eve
at least put up an argument against the Serpent, while Adam apparently made no
effort to follow the commandment he had been given. And insofar that women (if
we can generalise) may show more readiness to emotion and sympathy, for
example, should we not see this as part of God’s creation declared to be very
good (Genesis 1:31), part of God’s purpose in creating a suitable companion
because it was and is “not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18)?
To demean sisters in the manner quoted above is also (though doubtless
unintentionally) to criticise God’s wisdom in creation.
The comments by brothers Butterfield and Barnard verge on
misogyny. Observe the intimidating language: “wicked attempt”. Statements like
the above restrict and oppress women, and are merely dogmatic assertions. They
fail to represent adequately the letter of the New Testament, and certainly
fail to catch its spirit of freedom and service. We are back to the Pharisees
and their rules and their heavy condemnation of others, of whom Jesus said:
heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they
themselves will not move them with their finger.
When is Teaching not Teaching?
The inconsistency of allowing sisters to teach publicly in
writing, but objecting when they do so at meetings and conferences, was pointed
out again in 1989 in the correspondence section of The Christadelphian:
condemn the inclusion of a sister as one of the three main Study leaders on
Scriptural grounds, presumably on Paul’s words of “I suffer not a woman to
teach”. Yet a few pages earlier in the magazine you include the teachings of a
sister to be circulated to the entire brotherhood.... Maybe you can see a
difference between the teaching of a sister by writing rather than by speaking,
but to me this is the sort of argument which might well have been a teaching of
Dilley, Totnes, South Devon)
Ashton, editor, gave the following response:
no more an inconsistency in condemning the decision to allow a sister to take a
leading part in a study weekend while publishing an article written by a sister
than exists when 1 Timothy 2:12, “I suffer not a woman to teach”, is compared
with Titus 2:3, where the Apostle encourages “aged women” to be “teachers of good things”. The context of
the Apostle’s words explains the situation. In his first letter to the
Corinthians he states clearly: “Let your women keep silence in the churches ... it is a shame for
women to speak in the church:” (1
Corinthians 14:34,35). The question does not turn on the thousands who can read
a magazine article compared to the tens who may attend a study weekend, nor is
it a legalistic view based on the difference between writing and speaking. God
has ordained that in communal worship
the errors committed in Eden by both man and women [sic] should be recognised by the attitude of their sons and
daughters. Woman is not to usurp the man’s authority as Eve did, and man is to
proclaim God’s Word as Adam failed properly to do. By conforming to this
command, testimony is given to the fact that “Christ Jesus ... gave himself a
ransom for all” (see 1 Timothy 2:5,6).
(The Christadelphian, April 1989, page 149)
If we examine this answer, we find as with that given by Robert
Roberts, that different texts are run together and though context is confidently
mentioned, the overall contexts are not taken into account. Note, again, how
the word “clearly” is used (although the passage is obscure both in its context
and in its position in the original text). A matter of interpretation is
presented as fact: “God has ordained...”. Note how “in the churches” or “in the
church” has been changed into “in
communal worship”. Note how it is assumed that correct and Godly teaching
by a sister can be described as “usurping authority”, even if done with her
husband’s encouragement and approval. In Eden, the woman did not “usurp the
man’s authority”: both tried to usurp God’s authority. And the inconsistency is
still there: if “man is to proclaim God’s Word” (not woman) is it not
pharisaical to say that the woman may do so to thousands in writing in a
magazine despite Paul’s comment “I suffer not a woman to teach”? When
questioned on another occasion about this inconsistency, a different answer was
given: that since the editor is a man, the article though written by a sister
is really the editor’s.
Circumstances Do Change Cases
Such arguments rely too much on assumptions and fail to address
the issues adequately either from a Scriptural position or from a textual one.
Would it not be more logical to argue that women should not write articles?
Since, however, the practice is well established, and it is agreed that their
articles are profitable, would it not be better to agree with the sister who
wrote to The Christadelphian in 1888 that circumstances change cases; the context
of 1 Timothy is different from today; and sensible teaching by sisters (whether
written or spoken) in no way usurps authority or undermines testimony to the
saving work of Jesus. Nor does it undermine Paul’s reference to Genesis if Paul
is describing a parallel situation:
ill-informed women (like Eve) should not teach. When properly educated in
spiritual things (“let a woman learn”, 1 Timothy 2:11), the matter is
different. Hence such women can be “teachers of good things” (Titus 2:3), and
serve the community acceptably by writing in The Christadelphian and
edifying the ecclesia by their words.
In the reports of sisters’ talks in The Fraternal Visitor, it is obvious that their work
was appreciated, that they were not considered to be domineering over brothers,
and that the sisters engaged in a valuable spiritual activity. The reports
above are also valuable in that the magazine of a large section of the
Christadelphian brotherhood was prepared to allow fair discussion of both sides
of the argument, and itself give support in favour of the participation of
Sisters continued to give talks throughout the 20th century. With
reunion of the two fellowships (Suffolk Street and Temperance Hall) in 1957,
there was some drawing back in order to pursue unity by uniformity. Since
reunion, though sisters have participated widely, most magazines have not been
prepared to present the positive case for speaking by sisters but have
regularly argued the case against. Even so, a more positive attitude is now shown
to the character and abilities of sisters:
qualities of care and compassion which are inherent in women are highly
beneficial when directed towards spiritual ends. Often sisters have a
sensitivity which brethren lack, and which can be advantageous to the
edification of our community life.
Ashton, The Christadelphian, November 1993, page 425)
These same qualities would usefully enhance public worship and
communal prayer, and 1 Corinthians 11-14 suggests that is what happened in the
Different Interpretations of Biblical
Those who involve sisters in speaking and teaching have been
accused of “unbiblical practices”, but it would be more appropriately
respectful to the Christadelphian brotherhood to speak of different interpretations
of Biblical practices. Our review through the last 120 years shows considerable
differences in approach. Sisters have always played a smaller speaking part
than brothers, as was also the case in the earliest ecclesias, and the
vehemence with which their participation is attacked even today helps to uphold
this situation. Nevertheless, it remains true that the interpretation that
sisters should remain silent is not universal Christadelphian teaching or
It has been suggested
that she was an “arranging brother” because there were no other brothers there
at the time. According to details printed in The Christadelphian, by
the time Robert Roberts visited Wanganui those recorded there were Brother and
Sister Hayward, Brother Beaumont, Brother Henry Holmes, Brother and Sister
Dexter, Brother and Sister Taylor and Brother and Sister Mays (6 brothers and 4
sisters). (Thanks to Peter Lawton for extracting this information from the
electronic version of The Christadelphian.)
And it wasn’t only
on the public platform:
In 1885 the
Christadelphian movement split into two fellowships, known as Suffolk Street
and Temperance Hall. This division was healed in 1957.