Woman’s Place: Silence or Service?

Author’s note: This is the original unedited manuscript of this frequently cited article, as written by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and submitted to Eternity magazine in June, 1965. Published in Eternity, February, 1966.

Even though, if I were writing this article today, I might state some of its points in somewhat different terms, I am posting it here because of its role in Christian feminist history.  It is considered one of the very earliest expressions of what has come to be known as “evangelical feminism” or “biblical feminism” —  a part of the 1960s women’s movement (now often referred to as “second wave feminism”).  In a separate posting, I tell how I came to write this article, which was considered quite radical and controversial at the time.  (A companion article on equal-partner marriage, published in 1968, is posted here.)

Woman’s Place: Silence or Service?

by Letha Scanzoni

“Saint Augustine epitomized the Christian conflicts in a single terrible sentence: ‘Through a woman we were sent to destruction; through a woman salvation was sent to us,’” observed Morton M. Hunt.  Nowhere are these conflicts more evident than in a discussion on woman’s place in the church. This debate goes on and on:

“Women should not be permitted to speak in the local church. They’re commanded to keep silent, not to teach (with the possible exception of women’s and children’s classes), not to snatch male authority. The Bible is quite clear-cut on the matter.”

“Oh, is it?  There are ‘proof-texts’ for the opposite view, too!  Woman’s equality in spiritual position carries with it the privilege of spiritual ministry. ‘There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’”

And so it goes. Neither side seems to convince the other. But as the men sit in their theological castles debating women’s proper place, Christian women faithfully toil in the vineyards, uneasy about “breaking a commandment of God,” yet even more fearful lest the work remain undone.

I first encountered this matter one summer during college days when I was invited to teach the combined Sunday school classes in several churches where the gospel was seldom heard.  Filled with the zeal of recent commitment to Christ, I studied the Bible diligently and thanked God for such opportunities to proclaim His Word. Response was gratifying , and one young man subsequently trusted Christ as Lord and Savior. Surely, I thought, fellow evangelicals will rejoice with me. Instead, I met with icy rebuke and I Timothy 2:11,12.  “You were wrong to teach classes with men present, “ one Baptist elder said.  Yet, a few weeks later, his men’s group asked me to join them in holding services at a state penitentiary. And would I be spokesman (spokeswoman!) for the brass trio and introduce the songs with appropriate Scripture?  The inmates were all male!

This was the first of many such contradictions I’ve observed.  Inconsistency coupled with inflexibility produces many problems — one of which is that women feel forced to serve the Lord with guilt instead of gladness. A single woman serving Christ in a remote section of Japan described worship services she and her co-worker held for the little band of believers. “I don’t really believe in woman preachers,” she said apologetically.  Then, with a sigh, added, “But what else can we do?”  Such Christian servants find little help in trite statements such as, “If men were doing their part, you wouldn’t face this dilemma.” The Holy Spirit has distributed His spiritual gifts to these women, and He is using them. Is it God’s intention that they must feel they are sinning by serving?

In addition to the familiar interpretations of I Corinthians 11 and 14 and I Timothy 2, all sorts of other arguments are used by those who feel spiritual service is exclusively male property. Some say it’s even wrong for women to pray publicly at the church’s prayer meeting (despite Acts 1:14 and 12:5-17). Others contend that Galatians 3:28 has nothing to do with the believer’s position in the local church. “One may be in Christ Jesus and not be in the local assembly,” said one man of this persuasion. He failed to tell where the Christian woman is supposed to be!

Other arguments merely skirt the issue.  Does the fact that Paul omits women from his list of resurrection witnesses negate the truth that the risen Savior called Mary Magdalene by name, telling her to broadcast the good news?  Does the fact that the incarnation occurred in a male body prove anything about woman’s place? (One could just as easily argue that “God sent forth his Son, made of a woman.”) Then there’s the old argument about female cult founders, proving (said one Bible scholar) that “women are easily swayed and unsafe repositories repositories of doctrine.”  However, false religious groups have also had male founders and leaders; and seminaries which have veered from loyalty to God’s Word are for the most part staffed by men. Some evangelicals feel the matter is settled once for all by asserting that it is the liberal wing of Protestantism that rejects biblical authority and therefore ordains women pastors and elders. Such a statement ignores the phenomenon that Pentecostal and Holiness groups — groups which can hardly be accused of denying the Bible’s inspiration — for years have given women places of leadership.

However, this article is not intended as an impassioned clamor for women’s rights or female pastors! I only ask that we face realistically some of the inconsistencies, unanswered questions, and practical problems raised by the stance of those who feel women should ever “keep silent.”

We’re living in an age of education and enlightenment.  Women are aware of other cultures, the current world scene, and lessons from history. Questions are bound to arise about matters long taken for granted.  A college-educated woman may show some skepticism when she’s told: “You women don’t know how well off you are. Judaism gave women a dignity unknown to pagan cultures. Christianity elevated womanhood to a position that could never have been known otherwise.”  The thinking woman knows from history that Jewish men and boys prayed daily, “I thank thee, Lord, that Thou hast not created me a woman.” She is aware that upper-class women in Roman society had gradually come to hold a position of near equality to men. They could inherit wealth, be active outside the home, and pursue such “male pursuits” as studying philosophy and participating in politics.  (In the Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, E.M. Blaiklock points out that Luke’s exaltation of womanhood in his Gospel and in Acts may possibly be accounted for by his Greek nationality.)

It is certainly true that the attitudes, actions, and teachings of Jesus Christ highly elevated woman’s status. She was honored as a person in her own right, a human being made in the image of God.  Christ’s high regard for womanhood clearly shines out from the pages of the New Testament. Nevertheless, later Christian leaders overlooked these teachings and twisted the teachings of Paul. One extreme was Tertullian’s statement to women:

You are the devil’s gateway: You are the unsealer of that forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your dessert – that is, death – even the Son of God has to die.

Also, the modern woman is not blind to the obstacles which, in the name of Christianity, blocked the road to “woman’s emancipation” in our Western culture. Women were regarded as inferior beings, limited in mind and body as punishment for Eve’s sin. Such beliefs reinforced English common law (imported to our own colonies) which claimed marriage made a woman “civilly dead” with no right to property — not even her own inheritance or wages. She belonged to her husband and had no legal entity apart from him.

In Europe, a woman was burned at the stake for allegedly seeking relief from the pain of childbirth. American preachers joined in the denunciation of chloroform, crying, “It is God’s will and the curse of Eve that women should suffer and die in childbirth.”

Education for women was decried on the grounds that it was contrary to Scripture. When reading and writing were first taught in America, fears were expressed that women would forge their husbands’ names. “If women studied geography,” some said, “they will want to leave their husbands and children, the sphere God has given them.” When women studied mathematics, clergymen gloomily predicted “the dissolution of all family bonds.” This was many years after Judith Murray had written (in 1790):

. . .Is it reasonable that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend eternity in contemplating the works of Deity, should at present be so degraded, as to be allowed no other ideas, than those which are suggested by the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing of the seams of a garment?

“Let the women keep silent” was extended beyond the church to public affairs. (Women have voted for less than fifty years in our country.) Bible-waving clergymen interrupted Women’s Rights conventions well-armed with ammunition from the epistles of Paul and Peter.

Those, then, are some of the facts that whirl around the minds of informed women when they’re told to be soothed by what organized Christianity has done for them. Likewise, readings in psychology and sociology raise doubts about the contention that women think differently from men and are ill equipped for subjective Bible study and teaching. (Some clergymen have conceded that women in the Bible could “prophesy” – speak a direct message from God – but maintain they were forbidden to study Scripture for themselves with a view to teaching, unless they taught other women and children. Those holding this view acknowledge that Priscilla taught Apollos but say it occurred in private. The fact remains, however, that she did teach a man!)

Many practical problems cluster around the question of woman’s place. Women who sincerely want to obey God often wonder about these matters; yet they are seldom discussed by men who feel the issue is settled. For example, is the Sunday school technically a part of the local church, therefore meaning a woman shouldn’t be permitted to teach a mixed college-age or adult class?  If it’s permissible to teach children, how does one determine at what point a teen-age boy ceases to be a child?  May a woman lead youth groups?  Serve as Christian education director?  Sing a solo in worship services?  Direct a choir?  And what about writing? Is it all right for a woman to write Bible study materials, yet not permissible to teach them in the local church? Many of our finest hymns and gospel songs have women authors. Should we cease singing them, since Colossians 3:16 calls this a form of teaching?

In this rapidly changing era, women have demonstrated abilities in the arts, professions, business, and government. Where do such women fit into our churches? We won’t be able to reach them with a dogmatic recitation of “Let women be silent in church; they are not to be allowed to speak. . . If they have questions to ask they must ask their husbands at home, for there is something indecorous about a woman’s speaking in church (I Cor. 14:34,35, Phillips). Many of them don’t even have husbands!

Suppose a church has men with no special financial training, but a woman is a certified public account. Is it unscriptural to elect her as church treasurer?  Should a devoted woman college professor be told that the only “proper” place for her in the local church is tying quilts with the ladies’ missionary society? In all of this, aren’t we overlooking the sovereign distribution of gifts by the Holy Spirit?  Were Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and I Peter4:10, 11 intended for men only?  Are women excluded from passages which speak of teaching (e.g. Matt. 28:19,20; II Tim. 2:2, 24)?

“But women can’t understand and teach the Bible as men can,” said one young man recently. He led a Bible study attended by one other man and several women. Attempting to be scriptural, the women were required to keep silent. “Trouble is, we two men sometimes run out of things to say,” he continued. “We’re beginning to wonder if it would be OK for the ladies to contribute something, too.”

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’. . .” (I Cor. 12:21). Can the man say to the woman, “I have no need of you?”  No! God has given a variety of gifts to women, just as He has to men. The late Henrietta Mears, Rosalind Rinker, Eugenia Price, and Elisabeth Elliot are but a few who have fulfilled or are fulfilling God-given ministries in speaking and/or writing. Women missionaries of past and present have faithfully answered Christ’s call to take the gospel to home and foreign fields.

Are women able to understand, obey, and teach God’s Word? Listen for a few moments as a small, frail-looking woman shares her thoughts from the pulpit of a country church:

As I read on through the lives of those men and women in the Old tstament, it came over me that the Gosoel is a gospel of movement – of movement out and in. Out of bondage into freedom, out of Egypt into Canaan, out of oneself into God, out of doubt into trust, out of darkness into light. They stood, each one, on a sort of threshold’; and they heard and saw – not always with their eyes, but with the eyes of their soul – something of God’s Holy Spirit. And they were so sure that they went and did what God asked.  Dear friends, this is faith! You see, we’ve kind of forgotten somehow in our moden world exactly what faith means. Faith is entirely the opposite of common sense. Now, God doesn’t say, “Bury your common sense.” He says, “Make it work hand in hand with faith.” But don’t put the common sense first. Put the faith first! Faith that will laugh at common sense which says, “Well, we can’t do this, we can only do this . . . .

The speaker was missionary Gladys Aylward (the “Small Woman”) on a speaking tour of the United States. Turned down years ago by a British mission board, lacking in theological training, she had nonetheless determined to obey God’s clear call to China. She immersed herself in personal Bible study to become equipped as an evangelist. Mounting a literal soapbox, she ignored jeers and preached in London’s Hyde Park. She worked as a household maid to finance the  long, dangerous overland train trip to China. Nothing could stop her, and she continues her work today elsewhere in the Far East.

The church is all the richer for women like her. Let us thank God they have not kept silent.  Would He want them to?


Copyright Letha Dawson Scanzoni. Originally published in Eternity magazine, February 1966.  The story behind the writing of this article is posted as a separate post.