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.” Keep in mind that he just covered the biblical arguments last week.
But the rationalistic arguments are more numerous and are urged with more confidence. First in natural order is the plea that some Christian women are admitted to possess every gift claimed by males, zeal, learning, piety, power of utterance, and it is asked why these are not qualifications for the ministry in the case of the woman as well as of the man. . . . Again, some profess that they have felt the spiritual and conscientious impulse to proclaim the gospel which crowns God’s call to the ministry. They “must obey God rather than men,” and they warn us against opposing their impulse, lest haply we be “found even to fight against God.” They argue that the apostle himself has told us, in the new creation of grace “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free.” In Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female ” (Col. iii. 11; Gal. iii. 28). But if the spiritual kingdom thus levels all social and temporal distinctions, its official rights should equally be distributed in disregard of them all. And last, it is claimed that God has decided the question by setting the seal of his favor on the preaching of some blessed women, such as the “Friend,” Miss Sarah Smiley. If the results of her ministry are not gracious, then all the fruits of the gospel may as reasonably be discredited. And they ask triumphantly, Would God employ and honor an agency which he himself makes unlawful?
We reply, Yes. . . . Two very simple truths, which no believer disputes, explode the whole force of this appeal to results. One is that a truly good person may go wrong in one particular, and our heavenly Father, who is exceedingly forbearing, may withhold his displeasure from the misguided efforts of his child, through Christ’s intercession, because, though misguided, he is his child. The other is, that it is one of God’s clearest and most blessed prerogatives to bring good out of evil. Thus who can doubt but it is wrong for a man dead in sins to intrude into the sacred ministry? Yet God has often employed such sinners to convert souls; not sanctioning their profane intrusion, but glorifying his own grace by overruling it. . . .
Pursuing the arguments of the opposite party in the reverse order, we remark next, that when the apostle teaches the equality of all in the privilege of redemption, it is obvious he is speaking in general, not of official positions in the visible church, but of access to Christ and participation in his blessings. The expository ground of this construction is, that thus alone can we save him from self-contradiction. . . . The apostle expressly excludes “neophytes” from office. Yet no one dreams that he would have made the recency of their engrafting a ground of discrimination against their equal privileges in Christ. Doubtless the apostle would have been as ready to assert that in Christ there is neither young nor old, as that in him there is neither male nor female. So every sane man would exclude children from office in the church, yet no one would disparage their equal interest in Christ. So the apostle inhibited Christians who were implicated in polygamy from office, however sincere their repentance. So the canons of the early church forbade slaves to be ordained until they had legally procured emancipation; and doubtless they were right in this rule. But in Christ there is “neither bond nor free.” If, then, the equality of these classes in Christ did not imply their fitness for public office in the church, neither does the equality of females with males in Christ imply it. Last, the scope of the apostle in these places proves that he meant no more, for his object in referring to this blessed Christian equality is there seen to be to infer that all classes have a right to church membership, if believers, and that Christian love and communion ought to embrace all.
When the claim is made that the church must concede the ministerial function to the Christian woman who sincerely supposes she feels the call to it, we have a perilous perversion of the true doctrine of vocation. True, this vocation is spiritual, but it is also scriptural. The same Spirit who really calls the true minister also dictated the Holy Scriptures. . . . No human being is entitled to advance a specific call of the Spirit for him individually to do or teach something contrary to or beside the Scriptures previously given to the church, unless he can sustain his claim by miracle. Again, the true doctrine of vocation is that the man whom God has designed and qualified to preach learns his call through the word. The word is the instrument by which the Spirit teaches him, with prayer, that he is to preach. Hence, when a person professes to have felt this call whom the word distinctly precludes from the work, as the neophyte, the child, the penitent polygamist, the female, although we may ascribe her mistake to an amiable zeal, yet we absolutely know she is mistaken; she has confounded a human impulse with the Spirit’s vocation. . . .
The argument from the seeming fitness of some women, by their gifts and graces, to edify the churches by preaching, is then merely utilitarian and unbelieving. When God endows a woman as he did Mrs. Elizabeth Fry, it may be safely assumed that he has some wise end in view; he has some sphere in earth or heaven in which her gifts will come into proper play. But surely it is far from reverent for the creature to decide, against God’s word, that this sphere is the pulpit. His wisdom is better than man’s. The sin involves the presumption of Uzzah. He was right in thinking that it would be a bad thing to have the sacred ark tumbled into the dust, and in thinking that he had as much physical power to steady it and as much accidental proximity as any Levite of them all; but he was wrong in presuming to serve God in a way he had said he did not choose to be served. So when men lament the “unemployed spiritual power,” which they suppose exists in many gifted females, as a dead loss to the church, they are reasoning with Uzzah; they are presumptuously setting the human wisdom above God’s wisdom.
Dabney’s argumentation is impeccable here, though one small aspect of it deserves elaboration. Some readers might sense some sort of disanalogy between Uzzah’s sin in steadying the ark and females’ sin in usurping the pulpit. (If they do not, hopefully this distinction will nonetheless offer illumination.) The reason these are different is because one is a matter of moral law, and another a matter of positive law. The prohibition for men to touch the holy ark was not concerning some intrinsically wrong act; it would not have been morally forbidden unless God had so commanded. However, the prohibition of women from the pulpit is not solely grounded in the positive injunction of the Almighty, but is itself a moral principle, grounded in the very constitution with which God has endowed and designed mankind. God has designed females not to take positions of authority, but to leave such spheres to men. This is why, for instance, female rule over a nation is considered a curse (Isaiah 3:12); women, by their God-ordained nature, are not designed to rule, and since female rule contradicts the moral order which the Lord has ordained, it is intrinsically immoral – part of the moral law, not a mere positive injunction.
This offers a meaningful distinction between Uzzah’s sin and female usurpation, but it does not, of course, defeat Dabney’s argument. The fact that females would be prohibited from positions of ecclesiastical authority even without a divine positive command only bolsters his case. An additional positive ground to bar women from the pulpit simply incriminates the usurpers further.
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
Cruelty of Humanitarian Philanthropy
Preaching, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Doctrinal Confessions, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Divine Justice, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
The African Slave Trade
Women Preachers, Part 1