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.”
Every true believer should regard the scriptural argument as first, as sufficient, and as conclusive by itself. But as the apostle said in one place, that his task was “to commend himself to every man’s conscience in God’s sight,” so it is proper to gather the teachings of sound human prudence and experience which support God’s wise law. The justification is not found in any disparagement of woman as man’s natural inferior, but in the primeval fact: “Male and female made he them.” In order to ground human society God saw it necessary to fashion for man’s mate, not his exact image, but his counterpart. Identity would have utterly marred their companionship, and would have been an equal curse to both. But out of this unlikeness in resemblance it must obviously follow that each is fitted for works and duties unsuitable for the other. And it is no more a degradation to the woman that the man can best do some things which she cannot do so well, than to the man that woman has her natural superiority in other things. . . . On this order all other social order depends. It was not the design of Christianity to subvert it, but only to perfect and refine it. Doubtless that spirit of wilfulness, which is a feature of our native carnality in both man and woman, tempts us to feel that any subordination is a hardship, so that it is felt while God has been a Father to the man, he has been but a stepfather to the woman. Self-will resents this natural subordination as a natural injustice. But self-will forgets that “order is heaven’s first law;” that subordination is the inexorable condition of peace and happiness, and this as much in heaven as on earth; that this subjection was not imposed on woman only as a penalty, but as for her and her offspring’s good; and that to be governed under the wise conditions of nature is often a more privileged state than to govern. God has conformed his works of creation and providence to these principles. In creating man he has endued him with the natural attributes which qualify him to labor abroad, to subdue dangers, to protect, to govern. He has given these qualities in less degree to woman, and in their place has adorned her with the less hardy, but equally admirable, attributes of body, mind and heart which qualify her to yield, to be protected, and to “guide the home.” This order is founded, then, in the unchangeable laws of nature. Hence all attempts to reverse it must fail, and must result only in confusion.
Now, a wise God designs no clashing between his domestic and political and his ecclesiastical arrangements. He has ordained that the man shall be head in the family and the commonwealth; it would be a confusion full of mischief to make the woman head in the ecclesiastical sphere. But we have seen that the right of public teaching must involve the right of spiritual rule. The woman who has a right to preach, if there be any such, ought also claim to be a ruling elder. How would it work to have husband and wife, ruler and subject, change places as often as they passed from the dwelling or the court-room and senate chamber to the church? When we remember how universally the religious principles, which it is the prerogative of the presbyter to enforce, interpenetrate and regulate man’s secular duties, we see that this amount of overturning would result in little short of absolute anarchy. . . .
Some minds doubtless imagine a degree of force in this statement, that God has bestowed on some women gifts and graces eminently qualifying them to edify his churches, and as he commits no waste he thereby shows that he designs such women at least to preach. Enough has been already said to show how utterly unsafe such pretended reasonings are. “God giveth no account of his matters to any man.” Does he not often give most splendid endowments for usefulness to young men whom he then removes by what we call a premature death from the threshold of the pastoral career? Yet “God commits no waste.” It is not for us to surmise how he will utilize those seemingly abortive endowments. He knows how and where to do it. We must bow to his dispensation, whether explicable or not. The case is the same in this respect with his ordinance restraining the most gifted woman from publicity. But there is a more obvious answer. God has assigned to her a private sphere sufficiently important and honorable to justify the whole expenditure of angelic endowments—the formation of the character of children. This is the noblest and most momentous work done on earth. Add to it the efforts of friendship, the duties of the daughter, sister, wife and charitable almoner, and the labors of authorship suitable for woman, and we see a field wide enough for the highest talents and the most sanctified ambition. Does self-will feel that somehow the sphere of the pulpit orator is more splendid still? Wherein? Only in that it has features which gratify carnal ambition and the lust for carnal applause of men. But let it be noted that Christians are forbidden to have these desires! Let, then, the Christian comply with God’s law requiring him to crucify ambition, and the only features which made any difference between the private and the public spheres of soul-culture are gone. The Christian who, in the performance of the public work of rearing souls for heaven, fosters the ambitious motive, has deformed his worthiness in the task with a defilement which sinks it far below that of the humblest peasant mother who is training her child for God. Does the objector return to the charge with the cavil that, while the faithful mother rears six, or possibly twice six, children for God, the gifted evangelist may convert thousands? But that man would not have been the gifted evangelist had he not enjoyed the blessing of the modest Christian mother’s training. Had he been reared in the disorderly home of the clerical Mrs. Jellyby, instead of being the spiritual father of thousands, he would have been an ignorant rowdy or a disgusting pharisee. So that the worthiness of his public success belongs fully as much to the modest mother as to himself. Again, the instrumentality of the mother’s training in the salvation of her children is mighty and decisive; the influence of the minister over his hundreds is slight and nonessential. If he contributes a few grains, in numerous cases, to turn the scales for heaven, the mother contributes tons to the right scales in her few cases. The one works more widely on the surface, the other more deeply; so that the real amount of soil moved by the two workmen is not usually in favor of the preacher. The woman of sanctified ambition has nothing to regret as to the dignity of her sphere. She does the noblest work that is done on earth. Its public recognition is usually more through the children and beneficiaries she ennobles than through her own person. True; and that is precisely the feature of her work which makes it most Christ-like. It is precisely the feature at which a sinful and selfish ambition takes offence.
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