Is Change Possible?
We believe that it is Scriptural for sisters to be much more
actively involved in ecclesial meetings. A change in this direction would not
only bring us closer to New Testament teaching and practice, but would be
valuable “for edification”. The benefits would be a more lively, more
enthusiastic, more understanding and more balanced ecclesial witness. But is change
The answer is “Yes”. Changes have taken place in a number of
ecclesias over the last 20 or more years, but a number of factors create
difficulty. We would identify, in particular, the following.
(1) The traditional belief
that it is not Biblical
(2) We like what we are
(3) Causing offence
(4) Women do not have the
(5) Women are considered
(6) Power and control
Traditional Belief that it is not Biblical
When Christadelphians began, the texts which are used to keep
sisters silent were traditionally regarded as the key texts. This was generally
taken for granted at the time Dr Thomas wrote, and his exposition in Elpis Israel followed traditional church teaching on the subjection of
women. When he wrote about love in the married state he wrote positively that
we should have the love Christ had when he died for us. But he inserted an
this is the kind of love which Paul (who by the bye was never tried by a
termagant wife) commends to the attention of the Ephesians.” (Elpis Israel, 1849, page 45)
This is a surprisingly blanket condemnation of married women.
“Termagant” means a harsh-tempered or overbearing woman. Where Paul comments
that, unlike Peter and the other apostles, he doesn’t go about with a wife, he
makes no adverse remark about wives (1 Corinthians 9:5). To remark “a termagant
wife” implies that many, if not all, wives are termagant, a view that would be
readily approved by the misogynist writers quoted earlier in this book, but
should not be part of Christ-like thinking.
Dr Thomas was also scathing about women preachers of other
It is the
old ambition of the sex to be equal to the gods; but in taking steps to attain
it, they involved themselves in subjection to men. Preaching, and lecturing,
women, are but species of actresses, who exhibit upon the boards for the
amusement of sinful and foolish men. They aim at an equality for which they are
not physically constituted; they degrade themselves by the exhibition, and in
proportion as they rise in assurance, they sink in all that really adorns a
(Elpis Israel, 1849, page 109)
Dr Thomas set out to encourage people to look at the Bible for
themselves and not to follow church tradition.
O that men
could be induced now to devote themselves to the study of the scriptures
without regard to articles, creeds, confessions, and traditions! These things
are mere rubbish....
(Elpis Israel, 1849, page 177)
many areas he developed new and radical thinking but to a large extent he
followed conventional attitudes towards women.
However, as can be seen from Chapter 28, our forebears did examine
the Bible for themselves. On the basis of Scriptural teaching many valued and
advocated the contribution sisters could play in the spiritual development of
the ecclesia. But traditional interpretations still predominate, and simply
quoting 1 Corinthians 14:35-35 or 1 Timothy 2:11-15, without context, seems to
many to be an adequate rebuttal of any further involvement of sisters. This is
disappointing in a community which set out to re-think Bible teaching across so
Since our community has a correct and enthusiastic desire to
follow Bible teaching, change can only come about if enough brothers and sisters
are fully aware of what the Bible actually says and can see the reasons why
earlier expositions about women, such as in Elpis
Israel, need to be reconsidered.
Over the last few decades, articles and comments have been printed
in Christadelphian magazines, not to encourage examination of Bible teaching
but to maintain the “let your women keep silence” approach. Those who hold to
this view do not usually allow any discussion in print of the other side of the
argument, and many brothers and sisters are therefore not at all aware that
much more can and should be said. In reading the articles and books which
supported the traditional approach, we concluded that the Bible was being
misused. Texts which are neutral, or written for a specific purpose in Bible times,
were being interpreted in an anti-women manner. After writing individual
replies for some time, we decided to write up our responses positively,
expressing how we consider all the relevant texts should be regarded in their
context. This is how we came to be writing this book. We ask, therefore, that
everyone should make their own examination of the Bible in context, not relying
on traditional interpretations, nor on ours, but carefully reading the Bible
and discussing it with others.
We like what we are accustomed to
Most ecclesias are still largely male run with male contributors,
so many people have no experience of any other way. It is sometimes argued that
since we have the Truth in Jesus this practice must be correct. But what
practice? Christadelphian practice has varied, and still does vary. The
male-only practice is the result of the continuation of church traditions of
the 19th century and earlier. Ironically, we rejected many church traditions,
but kept this one.
It is not only intellectual or Scriptural arguments which
influence our thinking or the way we behave. We can be influenced just as much,
or even more, by what we are comfortable with and what we are used to. Some of
us enjoy being challenged by new thinking, whereas others feel more comfortable
with what we have always been used to. It does not necessarily follow that we
hold the same attitudes to change in every aspect of our lives. We may be happy
to be challenged at work but feel unhappy at rethinking aspects of our study of
the Bible or the other way round. Things being the same as they always have
been in our church services is comforting to some brothers and sisters. They
would strongly argue against change of any kind, whether it be the timing of
the services, the seating arrangements or the hymns. However, there are others
who find doing the same week after week dulls the thinking and actions become a
habit. For them change can be helpful in stimulating spiritual thoughts and
Being actively involved can be of great benefit to some sisters as
those over the years who have been able to be involved have found. Sisters who
have had a focus for their study, whether for Sisters’ Classes or Bible Classes
have gained benefit for themselves and for their hearers. Those who have been
involved in open discussion have been able to enrich the discussion from their
wider experience of life. Sisters who have taken an active part in preaching
have helped to take the full burden from the brothers. Those who are interested
in our preaching can see that Christianity is relevant to both men and women in
all aspects of our lives.
There is a danger of responding on the basis of emotion and not on
well thought out arguments. On the other hand we have experienced that as
people become used to sisters being involved they do not find it so shocking
and after a while are quite happy with it. It becomes normal. This should,
however, be based on an informed Scriptural understanding.
“Don’t rock the boat”; “Brother ….. or Sister ….. is very upset by
all this.”; “What will other ecclesias think?”; “I am offended by your
actions”. All these are comments made by some who disagree when a more active
participation by sisters is suggested. We all aim to be loving and show
understanding. We do not want to hurt people but for the most part those who
make these comments are not thinking what damage is being done to others by
holding that their way, and only their way, is right.
It is difficult when people report how others feel. It is better
for those who are upset to express their views directly rather than some one
else doing it for them. Sometimes the report that “Brother ….. or Sister ….. is
upset” has been found to be an exaggeration of the facts. We do need to be
aware of what others feel.
It may be reported that an ecclesia disapproves, when it may be
only a few members or only the more vocal ones. Each Christadelphian ecclesia
is meant to be autonomous and therefore although we may not agree with what others
think or do, we should be tolerant and not interfere.
“Don’t rock the boat”
Having had numerous splits and divisions since Christadelphians
began in the mid-1800s, brothers and sisters are naturally anxious not to ‘rock
the boat’ in case this should occur again. But with Christ-like attitudes of
understanding, love and tolerance, this should not be a problem.
“I am offended.” When people hear these words our mind naturally
goes to the words of Jesus:
whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is
better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast
into the sea. (Mark 9:42,KJV)
we need to look carefully to find out what Jesus meant. “Offence” in the Biblical
sense means “driving someone away from Christ”. It does not mean “being upset
because someone has a slightly different understanding of Bible teaching or
practice”. We are anxious to take Jesus seriously and are wary of causing
offence. For many people, saying “You offend me” has the result the speaker
desires, so ecclesias are reluctant to make any change. There is a danger here
of spiritual blackmail: “You are offending me by advocating that women do
things, therefore you should give way”. It is wrong to take offence, or to
claim to be offended, as a means of silencing people with whom one disagrees.
Christian love asks for respect for one another, so matters of disagreement
should be discussed with a proper attempt to understand the other brother or
Unfortunately, offence in the Biblical sense of driving people
away, does exist. Young people have either not joined an ecclesia, or having
joined have left it, because of the ecclesia’s attitude to women. Others have
moved to find an ecclesia where they can take a more active part but this is
not always possible. Some who feel frustrated and depressed by the situation
have put their energies into other areas where they feel more fulfilled, but
there is then the danger of their commitment to other activities moving them
away from their faith. It obvious that people feel strongly on one side or the
other of the arguments and that the only way forward is for each to have
tolerance and deal sensitively with each other.
Sisters do not feel inclined to take
It is quite true that some sisters do not feel inclined to have a
vocal part. It is especially so if they have been “silent” in church services,
apart from singing, for many years. Sisters normally work very hard and very
supportively in all types of ecclesial activity and service to Christ, and (as
for brothers) this is the main task for us all in following our Lord. But if
sisters feel they would like to be involved in Bible Class talks and
discussion, they should be encouraged. Today, many pupils in school (whether
boys or girls) are encouraged to give talks and presentations. In adult life
both men and women give talks and chair committees in connection with their
work. Given some encouragement many sisters will be capable of doing a good job
to the benefit of the ecclesia.
Women are considered unsuitable
We are still influenced by attitudes from the past, including the
idea that women by nature are either incapable or unsuited for position of
responsibility in the ecclesia. But a similar list of objections can be made as
to why men by nature are not suitable for ecclesial activities: men are
aggressive, prone to fighting, easily distracted by sexual thoughts. It is said
that after meetings, the sisters tend to discuss people and how they are
faring; the brothers are inclined to discuss mechanical things: cars, or
computers, or building-work!
Good qualities of character are enjoined on all believers. Some
have talents for leadership, some are physically stronger, or spiritually stronger,
than others, but the Christian response is to use all good qualities to build
up the body of Christ. Contrariwise, all inferior or bad qualities should be
avoided. Good and bad qualities are within each person, not a characteristic of
one sex in particular over against the other.
Power and Control
There is a saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts
absolutely. The principle is illustrated many times in the Bible, in the
despotic rule of kings (1 Samuel 8:18), for example, or in the plotting of the
chief priests and the scribes to kill Jesus (Mark 14:1). Elders are warned
against the misuse of power by the apostle Peter (1 Peter 5:3), and it is a
danger of which each of us needs to be aware in whatever power we possess,
whether at work, at home, in the family or in the ecclesia. Because of men’s
superior physical strength and because women have usually been restricted by
giving birth and caring for children, men have acquired power in most areas of
public life. This position has understandably been one they have sought to
maintain, not often by reasoned argument, but often by pressure.
At one Bible Class, the presiding brother asked if anyone would like to add a comment. His
wife (with his prior knowledge and approval) read out a carefully composed
comment. The consequence was that many brothers and sisters refused to speak to
her for about six weeks.
A sister asked a question at a different ecclesia’s Bible Class,
and another sister therefore got up and walked out. The abuse of power is not only
male against female!
A sister was invited to speak at a Christadelphian gathering. She
spoke about humility, and her words were well received. But an ecclesia she
visited on holiday heard about her talk and took exception. They told her she
was no longer welcome and they refused to allow her to break bread. We should
be ashamed that such behaviour does not receive strong disapproval from those
in control of ecclesias and our publications.
We are obliged by our commitment to Christ to behave in a Christ-like
fashion where there are different understandings on this issue. Discussion
should, as far as lies with each believer, be in a calm, Christ-like spirit –
not the worldly type of protest such as walking out of meetings or refusing to
speak to a brother or sister who has an opposite understanding.
The use of power is a worldly thing and being creatures of this
world, we all have some area of power. In Christ, however, we should seek not
power but service, and those abilities and talents we possess, from God, should
be seen not as means to express control over others but as means of serving
Let us remember Jesus’ words:
of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them
are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you
become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the
greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits
at table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)
We need today to rediscover this teaching of Jesus and apply it to
all our relationships. Hopefully, we generally do, for it is fundamental
Christian doctrine: submit to one another. Yet for too long it has not been
applied universally or consistently in our ecclesial organisations and
ecclesial life. Most ecclesias in Britain have more sisters than brothers on
the roll, but comparatively few sisters are on ecclesial decision-making
committees nor are they encouraged to be. We therefore invite every brother and
sister to reconsider the position, to reject the fallen attitudes of the past,
and to aspire to the levels of service to which we are pointed by the New
Testament and the Bible as a whole.
Brothers who have power should take action to change things
Is Change Possible?
So is change possible? Our answer is “Yes”. In our experience,
looking back over the last 30 years, there has been an increased involvement of
sisters in many areas of ecclesial life. In some places it has been slower than
in others. Even when ecclesias strongly hold to the texts on silence they have
found other ways to use the talents of their sisters. It may have meant
formally closing a meeting so that sisters can take part in discussion. It may
have meant thinking that a meeting held in homes is not ‘a formal meeting’.
Although many would think of this as avoiding the basic principle, it is a step
on the road to valuing the spirituality and experience of sisters, and it
indicates a willingness to seek for peace and to avoid giving offence.
In other places sisters are encouraged to be involved in
discussion at the Bible Class and give talks and preside. More ecclesias now do
have sisters taking part in ecclesial committees. There are many sisters who
are involved in some way in preaching both here and abroad. When we started
writing this book in the early 1990s we knew of no ecclesias where sisters read
the Bible at the Breaking of Bread service. Now we know of a number where this
regularly takes place. We also know of ecclesias whose managing committees have
both male and female members.
Is Change Desirable?
Is change desirable? Again our answer is “Yes”. In our experience,
and that of many others, sisters who speak and preside and pray, do so with
sensitivity and spiritual perceptiveness. They helpfully promote the work of
God. When a brother in 2001 first saw sisters fully and actively involved in
Christadelphian meetings, he observed: “I had not realised before how much
talent is lost by the practice of sisters not contributing.” We know of several
prominent brothers who once opposed the participation of sisters and now
approve. So why not take the positive approach to the abilities that sisters
possess, and advocate, on the basis of the Bible, that they should contribute,
as Paul says, “according to the grace given to us” (Romans 12:6)?
There may well be those who after reading what we have written and
then studying the Bible for themselves come to a different conclusion. We
accept this, but would ask that they treat our study as genuine concern for the
issues and not dismiss it with a label such as ‘liberal’ or ‘feminist’. We
maintain that our presentation in this book is an accurate explanation of what
the Bible teaches. We genuinely believe that it is God’s will and Jesus’
teaching that we all should use the gifts we have been given to the benefit of
the ecclesia rather than having to hide them because of the attitudes of
others. We ask for understanding and forbearance. Mutual respect and restraint
are required from all of us.
Change is possible but it may be very slow and it has to be done
with love and respect on both sides, which is not always easy. We need to pray
about it and ask for God’s guidance in our study and in putting it in to
Possible Positive Moves
We are all in different positions along the road towards change.
For some there is a large amount of work to be done to convince others of the
need for it. It may be helpful to initiate a discussion on the subject so that
wider points of view can be aired. This could be raised as a subject on the
Bible Class programme or in a less formal setting. Wherever it is, it may be
useful to discuss the frustration and depression that sisters feel when
excluded by dominant brothers or unconvincing Biblical expositions.
Progress is likely to be made slowly. Some ecclesias already have
sisters taking part in discussion at the Bible Class. For them the next step
forward could be having sisters give talks. Those ecclesias where sisters
already give talks could move towards having sisters reading on a Sunday
morning, or including sisters on various committees or the arranging committee.
For some, the only way forward may be some form of compromise. It
may be necessary to have a separate occasion where, with the blessing of the
ecclesia, sisters can take an active part. Those who are not happy to be at a
meeting led by sisters do not need to be involved. We know of an ecclesia where
this has worked well. In another there are Sunday afternoon events where things
are done differently. Here sisters can be active participants, along with the
brothers, choosing hymns, offering prayers, suggesting themes, contributing
from their knowledge and spiritual understanding. This may be thought of as
divisive but it is a lot less so than forcing capable sisters to sit silent
whilst thoroughly disagreeing with the restrictions put on them. We suggest
that compromise to suit a range of expectations is a way of putting into
practice loving your neighbour as yourself.