The great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has been mentioned a number of times on this site. It is a very telling indication of our times that such a visionary man is so little known, and usually slandered when mentioned at all. You can find the entire collection of his written works at the Dabney Archive, all of which are well worth reading. However, such a massive undertaking can be a bit overwhelming, and so on Sundays I will post bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works, with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This will be done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts at the bottom of this post.
The following excerpt is taken from Dabney’s article which appeared in The Southern Presbyterian Review (October 1879), entitled ”The Public Preaching of Women.”
A few years ago the public preaching of women was universally condemned among all conservative denominations of Christians, and, indeed, within their bounds, was totally unknown. Now the innovation is brought face to face even with the Southern churches, and female preachers are knocking at our doors. We are told that already public opinion is so truckling before the boldness and plausibility of their claims that ministers of our own communion begin to hesitate, and men hardly know whether they have the moral courage to adhere to the right. These remarks show that a discussion of woman’s proper place in Christian society is again timely.
The arguments advanced by those who profess reverence for the Bible, in favor of this unscriptural usage, must be of course chiefly rationalistic. They do indeed profess to appeal to the sacred history of the prophetesses, Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Anna, as proving that sex was no sufficient barrier to public work in the church. But the fatal answer is, that these holy women were inspired. Their call was exceptional and supernatural. There can be no fair reasoning from the exception to the ordinary rule. Elijah, in his civic relation to the kingdom of the ten tribes, would have been but a private citizen without his prophetic afflatus. By virtue of this we find him exercising the highest of the regal functions (1 Kings xviii.), administering the capital penalty ordained by the law against seducers into idolatry, when he sentenced the priests of Baal and ordered their execution. But it would be a most dangerous inference to argue hence, that any other private citizen, if moved by pious zeal, might usurp the punitive functions of the public magistrate. It is equally bad logic to infer that because Deborah prophesied when the supernatural impulse of the Spirit moved her, therefore any other pious woman who feels only the impulses of ordinary grace may usurp the function of the public preacher. It must be remembered, besides, that all who claim a supernatural inspiration must stand prepared to prove it by supernatural works. If any of our preaching women will work a genuine miracle, then, and not until then, will she be entitled to stand on the ground of Deborah or Anna.
A feeble attempt is made to find an implied recognition of the right of women to preach in 1 Cor. xi. 5: “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered, dishonored her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.” They would fain find here the implication that the woman who feels the call may prophesy in public, if she does so with a bonnet on her head; and that the apostle provides for admitting so much. But when we turn to the fourteenth chapter, verses 34, 35, we find the same apostle strictly forbidding public preaching in the churches to women, and enjoining silence. No honest reader of Scripture can infer that he meant by inference to allow the very thing which, in the same epistle and in the same part of it, he expressly prohibits. It is a criminal violence to represent him as thus contradicting himself. He did not mean, in chapter xi. 5, to imply that any woman might ever preach in public, either with bonnet on or off. The learned Dr. Gill, followed by many more recent expositors, supposes that in this place the word “prophesy” only means “praise,” as it unquestionably does in some places (as in 1 Chron. xxv. 2, the sons of Asaph and Jeduthun “prophesied with the harp”), and as the Targums render it in many places in the Old Testament. Thus, the ordinance of worship which the apostle is regulating just here is not public preaching at all, but the sacred singing of psalms. And all that is here settled is, that Christian females, whose privilege it is to join in this praise, must not do so with unveiled heads, in imitation of some pagan priestesses when conducting their unclean or lascivious worship, but must sing God’s public praises with heads modestly veiled.
We have no need to resort to this explanation, reasonable though it be. The apostle is about to prepare the way for his categorical exclusion of women from public discourse. He does so by alluding to the intrusion which had probably begun, along with many other disorders in the Corinthian churches, and by pointing to its obvious unnaturalness. Thus he who stands up in public as the herald and representative of heaven’s King must stand with uncovered head; the honor of the Sovereign for whom he speaks demands this. But no woman can present herself in public with uncovered head without sinning against nature and her sex. Hence no woman can be a public herald of Christ. Thus this passage, instead of implying the admission, really argues the necessary exclusion of women from the pulpit.