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.”
The argument, then, whether any woman may be a public preacher of the word should be prevalently one of Scripture. Does the Bible really prohibit it? We assert that it does. And first, the Old Testament, which contained, in germ, all the principles of the New, allowed no regular church office to any woman. When a few of that sex were employed as mouth-pieces of God, it was in an office purely extraordinary, and in which they could adduce a supernatural attestation of their commission. No woman ever ministered at the altar, as either priest or Levite. No female elder was ever seen in a Hebrew congregation. . . .
Secondly, If human language can make anything plain, it is that the New Testament institutions do not suffer the woman to rule or “to usurp authority over the man.” (See 1 Tim. ii. 12; 1 Cor. xi. 3, 7-10; Eph. v. 22, 23; 1 Peter iii. 1, 5, 6.) In ecclesiastical affairs, at least, the woman’s position in the church is subordinate to the man’s. But, according to New Testament precedent and doctrine, the call to public teaching and ruling in the church must go together. Every elder is not a public teacher, but every regular public teacher must be a ruling elder. . . . Hence, if it is right for the woman to preach, she must also be a ruling elder. But God has expressly prohibited the latter, and assigned to woman a domestic and social place, in which her ecclesiastical rule would be anarchy.
This argument may be put in a most practical and ad hominem (or ad faeminam) shape. Let it be granted, for argument’s sake, that here is a woman whose gifts and graces, spiritual wisdom and experience, are so superior her friends feel with her that it is a blamable loss of power in the church to confine her to silence in the public assembly. She accordingly exercises her public gift rightfully and successfully. She becomes the spiritual parent of new-born souls. Is it not right that her spiritual progeny should look up to her for guidance? How can she, from her position, justify herself in refusing this second service? She felt herself properly impelled, by the deficiency in the quantity or quality of the male preaching at this place, to break over the restraints of sex and contribute her superior gifts to the winning of souls. Now, if it appear that a similar deficiency of male supervision, either in quantity or quality, exists at the same place, the same impulse must, by the stronger reason, prompt her to assume the less public and obtrusive work of supervision. There is no sense in her straining out the gnat after she has swallowed the camel; she ought to act the ruling elder, and thus conserve the fruits she has planted. She ought to admonish, command, censure, and excommunicate her male converts, including, possibly, the husband she is to obey at home, if the real welfare of the souls she has won requires. . . .
Let us now look at these laws themselves; we shall find them peculiarly, even surprisingly, explicit. First, we have 1 Cor. xi. 3-16, where the apostle discusses the relation and deportment of the sexes in the public Christian assemblages; and he assures the Corinthians, verses 2 and 16, that the rules he here announces were universally accepted by all the churches. . . . Two principles, then, are laid down: first, verse 4, that the man should preach (or pray) in public with head uncovered, because he then stands forth as God’s herald and representative; and to assume at that time the emblem of subordination, a covered head, is a dishonor to the office and the God it represents; secondly, verses 5, 13, that, on the contrary, for a woman to appear or to perform any public religious function in the Christian assembly, unveiled, is a glaring impropriety, because it is contrary to the subordination of the position assigned her by her Maker, and to the modesty and reserve suitable to her sex; and even nature settles the point by giving her her long hair as her natural veil. . . . The woman, then, has a right to the privileges of public worship and the sacraments; she may join audibly in the praises and prayers of the public assembly, where the usages of the body encourage responsive prayer; but she must always do this veiled or covered. . . .
The next passage is 1 Tim. ii. 11-15. In the eighth verse the apostle, having taught what should be the tenor of the public prayers and why, says: “I ordain therefore that the males pray in every place” (in which the two sexes prayed publicly together). He then, according to the tenor of the passage in 1 Cor. xi., commands Christian women to frequent the Christian assemblies in raiment at once removed from untidiness and luxury, and so fashioned as to express the retiring modesty of their sex. He then adds: “Let the woman learn in quiet in all subordination. But I do not permit woman to teach” (in public) “nor to play the ruler over man, but to be in quietude. For Adam was first fashioned; then Eve. Again, Adam was not deceived” (by Satan), “but the woman, having been deceived, came to be in transgression” (first). “However, she shall be saved by the child-bearing, if they abide, with modest discretion, in faith and love and sanctity.” In 1 Tim. v. 9-15, a sphere of church labor is evidently defined for aged single women, and for them only, who are widows or celibates without near kindred. So specific is the apostle that he categorically fixes the limit below which the church may not go in accepting even such laborers at sixty years. What was this sphere of labor? It was evidently some form of diaconal work, and not preaching, because the age, qualifications and connections all point to these private charitable tasks, and the uninspired history confirms it. To all younger women the apostle then assigns their express sphere in these words (verse 14), “I ordain accordingly that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give no start to the adversary to revile” (Christians and Christianity). Here is at least strong negative evidence that Paul assigned no public preaching function to women. In Titus ii. 4, 5, women who have not reached old age are to be “affectionate to their husbands, fond of their children, prudent, pure, keepers at home, benevolent, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.” And the only teaching function hinted even for the aged women is, verse 4, that they should teach these private domestic virtues to their younger sisters. Does not the apostle here assign the home as the proper sphere of the Christian woman? That is her kingdom, and neither the secular nor the ecclesiastical commonwealth. Her duties in her home are to detain her away from the public functions. She is not to be a ruler of men, but a loving subject to her husband.
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