Is Change Possible?

Is Change



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 possible?

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 accustomed to

(3)   Causing offence

(4)   Women do not have the inclination

(5)   Women are considered unsuitable

(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 unwarranted aside:

“... and 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 churches:

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 woman.                           

(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)

In 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 many areas.

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 attitudes.

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.




Causing Offence

“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.


“What will other ecclesias think?”

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.


Offence What does it mean?

“I am offended.” When people hear these words our mind naturally goes to the words of Jesus:


And 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)


However, 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 sister’s feelings.

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 part

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 others.

Let us remember Jesus’ words:

“The kings 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 concerning sisters.


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 practice.


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.


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