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 inspired legislation is explicit to every candid reader as human language can well make it. Yet modern ingenuity has essayed to explain it away. One is not surprised to find these expositions, even when advanced by those who profess to accept the Scriptures, tinctured with no small savor of infidelity. For a true and honest reverence for the inspiration of Scripture would scarcely try so hopeless a task as the sophisticating of so plain a law. Thus, sometimes we hear these remarks uttered almost as a sneer, “Oh, this is the opinion of Paul, a crusty old bachelor, an oriental, with his head stuffed with those ideas of woman which were current when society made her an ignoramus, a plaything, and a slave.” Or, we are referred to the fable of the paintings of the man dominating the lion, in which the man was always the painter, and it is said, “Paul was a man; he is jealous for the usurped dominion of his sex. The law would be different if it were uttered through woman.” What is all this except open unbelief and resistance, when the apostle says expressly that this legislation was the enactment of that Christ who condescended to be born of woman? . . .
Another evasion is to say that the law is indeed explicit, but it was temporary. When woman was what paganism and the oriental harem had made her, she was indeed unfit for ruling and public teaching; she was but a grown-up child, ignorant, capricious and rash, like other children; and while she remained so the apostle’s exclusion was wise and just. But the law was not meant to apply to the modern Christian woman, lifted by better institutions into an intellectual, moral and literary equality with the man. Doubtless were the apostle here, he would himself avow it.
This is at least more decent. But as an exegesis it is as unfair and untenable as the other. For, first, it is false that the conception of female character christianized, which was before the apostle’s mind when enacting this exclusion from the pulpit, was the conception of an ignorant grown-up child from the harem. . . . To the competent archaeologist it is known that it has ever been the trait of Judaism to assign an honorable place to woman; and the Jewish race has ever been as rare an exception as Tacitus says the German race was to the pagan depression of the sex common in ancient days. Accordingly, we never find the apostle drawing a depreciated picture of woman; every allusion of his to the believing woman is full of reverent respect and honor. Among the Christian women who come into Paul’s history there is not one who is portrayed after this imagined pattern of childish ignorance and weakness. The Lydia, the Lois, the Eunice, the Phoebe, the Priscilla, the Damaris, the Roman Mary, the Junia, the Tryphena, the Tryphosa, the “beloved Persis” of the Pauline history, and the “elect lady” who was honored with the friendship of the aged John, all appear in the narrative as bright examples of Christian intelligence, activity, dignity, and nobleness. It was not left for the pretentious Christianity of the nineteenth century to begin the emancipation of woman. . . . When this invasion is inspected it unmasks itself simply into an instance of quiet egotism. Says the Christian “woman of the period” virtually, “I am so elevated and enlightened that I am above the law, which was well enough for those old fogies, Priscilla, Persis, Eunice, and the elect lady.” Indeed! This is modesty with a vengeance! Was Paul only legislating temporarily when he termed modesty one of the brightest jewels in the Christian woman’s crown?
A second answer is seen to this plea in the nature of the apostle’s grounds for the law. Not one of them is personal, local, or temporary. Nor does he say that woman must not preach in public because he regards her as less pious, less zealous, less eloquent, less learned, less brave, or less intellectual, than man. In the advocates of woman’s right to this function there is a continual tendency to a confusion of thought, as though the apostle, when he says that woman must not do what man does, meant to disparage her sex. This is a sheer mistake. His reasoning will be searched in vain for any disparagement of the qualities and virtues of that sex; and we may at this place properly disclaim all such intention also. Woman is excluded from this masculine task of public preaching by Paul, not because she is inferior to man, but simply because her Maker has ordained for her another work which is incompatible with this. So he might have pronounced, as nature does, that she shall not sing bass, not because he thought the bass chords the more beautiful—perhaps he thought the pure alto of the feminine throat far the sweeter—but because her very constitution fits her for the latter part in the concert of human existence, and therefore unfits her for the other, the coarser and less melodious part.
But that the scriptural law was not meant to be temporary, and had no exclusive reference to the ignorant and childish woman of the Eastern harem, is plain from this, that every ground assigned for the exclusion is of universal and perpetual application. They apply to the modern, educated woman exactly as they applied to Phoebe, Priscilla, Damaris and Eunice. They lose not a grain of force by any change of social usages or feminine culture, being found in the facts of woman’s origin and nature and the designed end of her existence. Thus this second evasion is totally closed. And the argument finds its final completion in such passages as 2 Tim. ii. 9 and v. 14. A few aged women of peculiar circumstances are admitted as assistants in the diaconal labors. The rest of the body of Christian women the apostle then assigns to the domestic sphere, intimating clearly that their attempts to go beyond it would minister to adversaries a pretext to revile. Here, then, we have the clearest proof, in a negative form, that he did not design women in future to break over; for it is for woman as elevated and enlightened by the gospel he preached that he laid down the limit.
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