Catherine Booth: A Woman’s Right to Preach

by | Oct 20, 2009 | Church & Ministry

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 persons.

“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.”

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