The church of Christ is a kingdom that is not of this world.
If we would know the truth, we must look above and beyond earthly standards and be willing to be taught by Him in whom is hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
To the first disciples, who were already familiar with earthly forms of government, Christ said, “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister” (Matt. 20:25, 26). In this statement Christ introduced a method of rule to be applied to his kingdom that is not according to the standard prevailing in the kingdoms of this world.
In every part of the New Testament where we seek an expression of basic principles, we find statements that are contrary to many of the standards and ideals prevailing among men. When the apostle Paul was confronted with extreme national prejudice, such as existed between the Jews and the Gentiles; when on every hand there existed social distinctions and inequalities varying from the proudest aristocracy to the most abject slavery; when one half of the human race was almost completely ignored as vastly inferior to the other half, he boldly declared a different standard for the kingdom of God: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
Principle of Equality
Certain high standards of the gospel could not be quickly established in the world hence the first ministers of Christ sought to accommodate themselves temporarily to existing conditions—conditions that the gospel was ultimately designed to change. For example, those passages of the Scripture that speak of the relation of master and slave have in times past been quoted by many as proof of divine authority for the unnatural institution of human slavery. The Christian world now knows that with respect to the slavery question we must look beyond those passages of Scripture which give temporary instructions on the subject to those other Scriptures which set forth fundamental and eternal principles. It is evident to all that so far as that question is concerned God did not intend that the worldly standard of human relationships should always restrict the practical application of a fundamental truth, but that, on the other hand, the basic standard of the gospel should in due time change the standards of society.
The same principle holds good with respect to the social position of women and of their privileges in the gospel. In the days of primitive Christianity women in the Orient were regarded as inferior to men, hence we should naturally expect to find in the Bible passages of Scripture showing accommodation to the existing conditions. The bald literalist who is unwilling to consider all the facts in the case can easily entrench himself in one or two texts and insist that women shall be practically excluded from the service of the church; but he who is willing to consider the whole truth can see that even in those cases where some limitation was placed upon the sphere of woman’s activity in the church there existed a temporary and local reason for the restriction: that in certain texts the wife’s relation to her husband in domestic life, rather than woman’s position in the church, is the subject under consideration; while many other passages set forth clearly and unmistakably fundamental principles—principles designed ultimately to modify or change age-long ideas concerning the social status of women. It required many centuries of Christian teaching and Christian influence to secure the abolition of slavery; it has required still longer to effect a practical realization of women’s rightful place in the church, as well as in the world, but we must regard the result as the triumph of grand Christian principles. “There is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Women as Pastors
For years our sisters in the church have enjoyed their liberty in the gospel. Many of them have developed as ministers of the word, and their work has been successful, resulting in the salvation of many souls. Some of them have had experience as pastors of settled churches, and there is no doubt that some of these at least have been very successful in that line of work.
A short time ago a well-known sister who has been pastor of a large church for a number of years wrote a lengthy letter to the editor, describing a special trial through which she was passing, and setting forth what she was almost constrained to believe was the Bible’s standard—that it is not according to God’s plan for a woman to have the oversight of an established church. This letter was so occupied with certain local conditions that we do not feel at liberty to publish it, but it exhibited a labored effort to prove that although women might teach and preach, under certain conditions, they should never be permitted to have charge of a settled church. We have been informed that a few other ministers have also taken that position and have been agitating the subject more or less. In view of this fact we feel that it will be profitable to publish the principal part of the letter written in reply to the sister’s argument.
Anderson, Ind., Aug. 13, 1920.
Dear Sister in Christ:
I am afraid, Sister—, that your “light” on this subject has come while you were under trial, hence I rather doubt its quality. . . . It seems to me that your treatment of this subject makes a distinction between pastors of settled churches and other preachers that is not warranted by the Scriptures. In my opinion this distinction is due, in part at least, to the survival among us of something that belongs to the apostasy rather than to the clear light of the primitive church. I refer to that idea of a single pastor ruling a church by positional authority. I do not believe that such a concept existed in the early church until the apostasy set in. The first and only example of it that I can find in the Scripture is the case of Diotrephes. The primitive church was set in order and governed by the Holy Spirit and that Spirit did not confine himself in his operations to one person in the church. Any good-sized congregation that develops in the gifts of the Spirit as set forth in the New Testament will soon find itself in possession of a number of persons who are called of God to preach, to teach, and to oversee the flock.
In Acts 20 we see that there was a plurality of elders in the church at Ephesus and that the Holy Ghost had made them overseers. We willingly admit that among those elders there was probably some one whose gifts fitted him more particularly for natural leadership, but that this one man was singled out and given the sole control of the congregation is certainly not recorded in the New Testament and is not in harmony with its principles. Of course, I do not believe in a woman’s holding such a position; neither do I believe that a man should occupy it. I am anxious for the rule of the Holy Spirit in the church. . . .
A distinction in the church based upon sex is, it seems to me, fundamentally incorrect. If all women are disqualified from filling a particular place simply because they are women, then why is it that men are not qualified to hold the same position simply because they are men? Is the qualification or the disqualification one of sex, or is it something else?
Again, I call your attention to the organization of the church by the Holy Spirit. A man is an evangelist because he has the gift of evangelizing. It is not because he is a man, but because he has that particular gift. The gift itself is the proof of his calling. If a woman has divine gifts fitting her for a particular work in the church, that is the proof, and the only proof needed, that that is her place. Any other basis of qualification than divine gifts is superficial and arbitrary and ignores the divine plan of organization and government in the church.
The fact that comparatively few women are fitted for certain kinds of work makes no difference. It is also a fact that comparatively few men are capable of filling certain responsible positions. Social conditions may at times make it inexpedient for women to undertake certain kinds of work in the church, and for this reason it may be necessary for them to limit their sphere of operations temporarily. But such reasons are not positive; they are simply negative and psychological. If according to the Scriptures women are really barred from certain positions, the basis for such prohibition must be positive. But that positive basis can not be located in mere sex, unless we reject the divine plan of organization. God’s government is based upon divine gifts, hence the only way to prove that a woman can not hold a particular position is not by citing the mere fact that she is a woman, but you must prove that God does not give such gifts to women. If you can prove that, the subject is settled. But where will you go to prove it? The gifts are bestowed upon men by the Holy Ghost, and the Bible declares that God will pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, so that both sons and daughters shall prophesy. If the gift of prophecy is bestowed upon women, then how are you going to prove that other gifts of the Spirit will not be manifest in them? And if any woman happens to get that combination of gifts that fit her for a responsible overseer, an overseer she is.
Yours in Christ,
F. G. Smith.
A later report from the sister minister informs us that the clouds of doubt and obscurity have passed away and that she is rejoicing once more in the liberty of the Spirit. But we feel like taking advantage of this opportunity to impress upon the brethren a better recognition of God’s plan of governing his own work; a plan that does not conform to men’s methods, such as a line of self-perpetuating officials ruling by positional authority, but one that operates by the Holy Ghost through those moral and spiritual influences exerted by the members of the body of Christ, irrespective of sex, according to the measure of the gifts of God bestowed upon them.
—F. G. S.
Smith, F. G. (October 1920). Editorial. Gospel Trumpet, 14, 1-2.