Do the Scriptures Forbid Women to Preach?
Henry Ward Beecher
1. That this utterance is official and conclusive. Women are not to speak, however gifted they are.
2. That the authority of the apostle cannot settle the question. Paul forbad women to speak, but he had no business to.
3. That while the Scriptures are of binding authority in matters of faith and morals, this and other injunctions are local, national, and therefore transient.
This latter is the position now to be proved.
I. IT WAS NOT THE DESIGN OF CHRISTIANITY TO DETERMINE MANNERS, CUSTOMS, FORMS OF GOVERNMENT AND ECCLESIASTICAL INSTITUTIONS.
Its aim was to build a new man in Christ Jesus, and to this inspired manhood was left the utmost liberty in respect to externals. This view is corroborated by the whole testimony of history. The modern Church is totally different from the assemblies of the first Christians. The civil state has been revolutionised since the time of Christ. The family has changed, and no one organisation resembles the organisations of two thousand years ago. The presumption is that when Christ was leaving everything else to the wisdom and experience of after times it did not step in with this single exception and fix the position of women. Such a course would have been contrary to its genius in every other direction.
II. SUCH A UNIVERSAL, LIMITATION COULD NOT HAVE TAKEN PLACE WITHOUT VIOLENCE TO JEWISH IDEAS.
Woman was far more nearly equal to man among the Hebrews than among other Oriental nations. She was a public instructor. Note the cases of Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Huldah, Anna, and the prediction of Joel, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,” with Peter’s comment in Acts 2. So when the Spirit of God rests upon them, and they have a message to give, if you undertake to set up the letter of Paul round about them, I will set up the message which says, “On My handmaidens will I pour out My Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” True, in the synagogue it was forbidden women to teach, but the service was not extemporary, but liturgical and expository; and women had not the technical education for it. But outside the synagogue it was eminently in accordance with the Hebrew sentiment that women should speak out — and speak in meeting too.
III. ONLY TO GREEK CHURCHES WERE THERE SUCH LIMITATIONS TO WOMAN’S RIGHTS AND PRIVILEGES.
The text and 1 Tim 2:11,12were addressed not to Jewish, but to Greek assemblies. Why this distinction? Look at the condition of Greek women. The highest thought of womanhood that the Greeks had was that a woman should remain at home, that she should serve her husband and his household, and that she should not be known beyond her own family. She was not permitted to go into the street unless veiled, otherwise her reputation for virtue was destroyed. For a woman to do what is done by women in modern civilised nations — to develop that which the poorest man toils to give his daughters — to learn music, poetry, art, and philosophy, was to stamp her as a courtesan. Such being the popular feeling and custom, what would have been the effect if a Greek had looked in on a Christian meeting and seen a woman rise uncovered and pour out her heart? He would have said, “That is Christianity, is it? Why, then the Church is but a house of orgies. I understand your new religion. It teaches our wives that they must forsake their virtue, and go out into public exposure and do as courtesans do.” Therefore it was that Paul said, “You shall not violate the customs of your country. You shall not bring into discredit the religion of Christ by doing that which can be interpreted but in one direction by every man who sees it. I forbid your women to teach in Greek communities.”
IV. WHAT, THEN, MAY BE CONSIDERED A FAIR INTERPRETATION OF THIS?
1. Is it right to say that this is the last word which the genius of Christianity had for women? Are you to take a command which had a peculiar interpretation in one province of the globe and in no other, and make it the criterion for judging of woman’s position and instruction everywhere? Shall this be done where Christianity has raised and inspired woman, and shall a manacle, which belonged to the degradation of the Greek period, be put upon the limbs of enfranchised womanhood? You might as well say that the command of the physician to the leper is the prescription that you should take care of your children by.
2. Scripture commands are binding only where they apply: e.g., we are commanded to “honour the king,” but what about countries where there is no king? And you cannot give a rigid interpretation to the text without running against the whole fruit of civilisation for the last 1,800 years. Are you going to put back the shadow on the dial? Christianity has made woman a prophetess, and no false interpretation of the text can ever close her mouth.
3. It is fair to apply to this subject the argument of Peter in Acts 11:17. If in the providence of God women are called to preach, if their discourse is accompanied with power from on high, and blessed to the salvation of souls, then the Spirit itself bears witness to the right of woman to speak, and who are we that we should resist God?
4. Paul’s doctrine in Gal 3:27-28 is the Christian doctrine for the future. “In Christ there is neither male nor female.” Faith, hope, love, learning, eloquence, etc., have no sex. Whoever can bring the kingdom of God nearer to men has the right to do so. We have trumpets enough; let us have some flutes. Women can sing and speak in the secular sphere often to mightier effect than men; why not, then, in the Divine?