A Woman’s Right to Preach

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Catherine Booth

Woman covering mouth

Woman covering mouth
How is it that women would venture to preach when female ministry is forbidden in the Word of God?

This is a serious objection
to consider and, if capable of substantiation, would receive my
immediate and cheerful acquiescence; but I think I can show, by a fair
and consistent interpretation, that the very opposite view is the
truth—that the public ministry of women is absolutely enjoined by both
precept and example in the Word of God.

First, I will refer to the
most prominent and explicit passages of the New Testament referring to
the subject, beginning with 1 Corinthians 11:4-5: “Every man praying or
prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every
woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth
her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven” (KJV).

A talented writer says: “The
character of the prophesying here referred to by the Apostle is defined
in 1 Corinthians 14:3-4 and 31. The reader will see that it was directed
to the edification, exhortation and comfort of believers, and the
result anticipated was the conviction of unbelievers and unlearned

“Such were the public
services of women which the Apostle allowed, and such was the ministry
of females predicted by the prophet Joel and described as a leading
feature of the gospel dispensation. Women who speak in assemblies for
worship under the influence of the Holy Spirit assumed thereby no
personal authority over others; they simply deliver the messages of the
gospel, which imply obedience, subjection and responsibility, rather
than authority and power.”

Dr. A. Clarke says on this
verse: “Whatever may be the meaning of praying and prophesying in
respect to the man, they have precisely the same meaning in respect to
the woman. So that some women at least, as well as some men, might speak
to others to edification, exhortation and comfort.

“And this kind of prophesying
or teaching was predicted by Joel (2:28) and referred to by Peter (Acts
2:17). And had there not been such gifts bestowed on woman, the
prophecy could not have had its fulfillment. The only difference marked
by the Apostle was that the man had his head uncovered, because he was
the representative of Christ; the woman had hers covered, because she
was placed by the order of God in subject to the man and because it was
the custom among both Greeks and Romans, and an express law among the
Jews, that no woman should be seen abroad without a veil.”

I think this view is the only
fair and commonsense interpretation of the 1 Corinthians 11 passage. If
Paul is not here acknowledging the fact that women did actually pray
and prophesy in the primitive church, his language has no meaning at
all; and if he is not acknowledging their right to do so by dictating
the proprieties of their appearance while so engaged, we leave to
objectors the task of making any sense whatever from his language.

If, according to the logic of
some protestors, the apostle here, in arguing against an improper and
indecorous mode of performance, forbids the performance itself, the
prohibition extends to the men as well as to the women; for Paul as
expressly reprehends a man’s praying with his head covered as he does a
woman’s praying with hers uncovered. With just as much force these
protestors might assert that, in reproving the same church for their
improper celebration of the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Cor. 11:20-21), Paul
prohibits all Christians, in every age, from celebrating it at all.

The question with the
Corinthians was not whether or not the woman should pray or prophesy at
all (that question had been settled on the day of Pentecost), but
whether, as a matter of convenience, they could do so without their
veils. The Apostle kindly and clearly explains that by the law of nature
and society it would be improper for a woman to uncover her head while
engaged in acts of public worship.

A lawyer writing on the above
passage says, “Paul here takes for granted that women were in the habit
of praying and prophesying; he expresses no surprise nor utters a
syllable of censure; he was only anxious that they should not provoke
unnecessary obloquy by laying aside their customary head-dress or
departing from the dress which was indicative of modesty in the country
in which they lived.

“This passage seems to prove
beyond the possibility of dispute that in the early times women were
permitted to speak to the ‘edification and comfort’ of Christians, and
that the Lord graciously endowed them with grace and gifts for this
service. What He did then, may He not be doing now?

“It seems truly astonishing
that Bible students, with the second chapter of Acts before them, should
not see that an imperative decree has gone forth from God, the
execution of which women cannot escape; whether they like or not, they
‘shall’ prophesy throughout the whole course of this dispensation; and
they have been doing so, though they and their blessed labours are not
much noticed.”

Let the Women Keep Silent
Our objecting friends would point us to what Paul says in another place:
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted
unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as
also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their
husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church”
(1 Cor. 14:34-35).

Now let it be borne in mind
that this is the same apostle, writing to the same church, as in the
above instance. Will anyone maintain that Paul here refers to the same
kind of speaking as before? If so, we insist on his supplying us with
some rule of interpretation which will harmonize this unparalleled
contradiction and absurdity. Taking the simple and commonsense view of
the two passages—that one refers to the devotional and religious
exercises in the church and the other to the inconvenient asking of
questions and imprudent or ignorant talking—there is no contradiction or

If on the other hand we
assume that the apostle refers in both instances to the same thing, we
make him in one page give the most explicit directions how a thing shall
be performed and in a page or two further on, and writing to the same
church, expressly forbid its being performed at all. We admit “it is a
shame for women to speak in the church” in the sense here intended by
the apostle; but before the argument based on these words can be deemed
of any worth, objectors must prove that the “speaking” here is
synonymous with that to which the apostle refers in 1 Corinthians 11.

Dr. Clarke says on this
passage: “According to the prediction of Joel, the Spirit of God was to
be poured out on the women as well as the men, that they might prophesy,
that is, teach. And that they did prophesy or teach is evident from
what the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 11) where he lays down rules to
regulate this part of their conduct while ministering in the church.

“All that the Apostle opposes
here is their questioning, finding fault, disputing, etc., in the
Christian church, as the Jewish men were permitted to do in their
synagogues (see Luke 2:46); together with attempts to usurp authority
over men by setting up their judgment in opposition to them; for the
Apostle has reference to acts of disobedience and arrogance of which no
woman would be guilty who was under the influence of the Spirit of God.”

If anyone still insists on a
literal application of this text, I ask how he disposes of the preceding
part of the chapter where it occurs. Surely, if one verse is so
authoritative and binding, the whole chapter (1 Cor. 14) is equally so.
Therefore those who insist on a literal application of the words of
Paul, under all circumstances and through all time, will be careful to
observe the Apostle’s order of worship in their own congregation.

But where is the minister who
lets his whole church prophesy one by one while he sits still and
listens, so that all things may be done decently and in order (see 1
Cor. 14:31,40)? Paul as expressly lays down this order as he does the
rule for women, and he adds, “The things that I write unto you are the
commandments of the Lord” (v. 37).

Why then don’t ministers
abide by these directives? We anticipate their reply: “Because these
directives were given to the Corinthians as temporary arrangements, and
though they were the commandments of the Lord to them at that time they
do not apply to all Christians in all times.”

If ministers believe that,
then their argument for the prohibition of women’s speaking is null and
void, since it is among the same directives as the one on allowing the
whole church to prophesy and was also given to the Corinthians only. So
until learned divines make a personal application of the rest of the
chapter they must excuse us for declining to do so of the 24th verse.

I Suffer Not a Woman to Teach
Another passage frequently cited as prohibitory of female labor in the
church is 1 Timothy 2:12-13: “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to
usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. Though we have never
met with the slightest proof that this text has any reference to the
public exercises of women, nevertheless, as it is often quoted, I will
give it fair examination.

“It is primarily an
injunction respecting her personal behavior at home,” the Rev. J. H.
Robinson says. “It stands in connection with precepts respecting her
apparel and her domestic position; especially her relation to her
husband. No one will suppose that the Apostle forbids a women to ‘teach’
absolutely and universally. Even objectors would allow her to teach her
servants and children and, perhaps, her husband too.

“If he were ignorant of the
Saviour, might she not teach him the way of Christ? If she were
acquainted with languages, arts or sciences, which he did not know,
might she not teach him these things? Certainly she might!

“The ‘teaching,’ therefore,
which is forbidden by the Apostle is not every kind of teaching any more
than, in the previous instance, his prohibition of speaking applied to
every kind of speaking in the church; but it is such teaching as is
domineering, and as involves the usurpation of authority over the man.
This is the only teaching forbidden by St. Paul in the passage under

A lawyer writing on the same
subject says: “This prohibition refers exclusively to the private life
and domestic character of woman and simply means that an ignorant or
unruly woman is not to force her opinions on the man whether he will or
no. It has no reference whatever to good women living in obedience to
God and their husbands, or to women sent out to preach the gospel by the
call of the Holy Spirit.”

If the context is allowed to
fix the meaning of this text, as it would be in any other, there can be
no doubt that the above is the only consistent interpretation; and if it
is, then this prohibition has no bearing whatever on the religious
exercises of women led and taught by the Spirit of God.

Whether the church will allow
women to speak in her assemblies can be only a question of time. Then,
when the true light shines and God’s works take the place of man’s
traditions, the doctor of divinity who teaches that Paul commands woman
to be silent when God’s Spirit urges her to speak will be regarded much
the same as we would regard an astronomer who taught that the sun is the
earth’s satellite. And his false claims would be overridden by the
truth: the undeniable scriptural evidence for a woman’s right to preach.

Catherine Booth (1829-1890) was co-founder with her husband, William, of the Salvation Army, as well as the mother of nine children and a much-sought-after, powerful preacher.

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