Holcomb- Warnock Debate On The Covering, Women Teachers, and Fellowship (1)

By Ron Halbrook

The churches of Christ at Knollwood in Xenia, Ohio, and at Dorothy Avenue in Fairborn have differed for several years on the covering question and women teachers. Brethren at both places have generally respected each other’s convictions with quietness and encouraged one another in gospel labors. Recent strains in our relations led to the J.W. Holcomb – Weldon Warnock debate on 3-4 and 6-7 December 1979. Among brethren generally, there have been strained relations at times over several recurring questions: the covering, woman teachers, exchanging gifts as a private family affair in December, belonging to unions, women wearing slacks, Sunday evening communion, funerals and weddings in the meetinghouse, kneeling for prayer, the “located” preacher, the right of private foundations and colleges which provide Bible teaching to exist (those kept separate from the church), and similar issues. An important feature of the Holcomb- Warnock debate was the emphasis on opposite approaches to unity in connection with many such issues.

Background To This Debate

Glen Begley, who preaches regularly for the Dorothy Avenue church, worked and stood with Holcomb during his debate with Art Ogden in nearby Cincinnati (26-27, 29-30 March 1979). Brother Holcomb charged there that Knollwood has used “woman preachers.” His “evidence” was Knollwood’s meeting on “The Home” in the fall of 1978 when Irven Lee spoke each evening and his wife taught a ladies class each morning. Churches using such “preachers” would eventually put these women in the pulpits, Holcomb asserted. In spite of protests from Knollwood brethren,, brother Begley gave his assent and approval to such misrepresentations rather than correcting them. Believing that such conduct breeds misunderstanding and strained relations among brethren, Knollwood’s elders had correspondence with Dorothy Avenue initiated within one week of the Cincinnati debate, proposing a debate between representative men to be selected by each church. The motive was to encourage serious Bible study and a better understanding on both sides in regard to differences between us. The debate has implications beyond our local situation since Holcomb regularly debates these issues and some churches have been divided by them.

When Fairborn submitted their propositions, J.W. Holcomb of Catlettsburg, Kentucky offered to affirm that a Christian woman is commanded “to wear a covering in an assembly of the church where praying and teaching is being done.” He also offered to deny that the church in using the class arrangement “may appoint women to be teachers of classes of other women and classes of children.” One positive and one negative proposition on each subject was submitted (rather than the correct procedure of each person simply affirming his own practice). Knollwood had Weldon E. Warnock of Akron, Ohio to sign the propositions and they were returned as quickly as possible. Warnock had debated Holcomb in 1956 at Carter City, Kentucky.

Censorship Stipulation

But brother Holcomb had included the stipulation, “No one is to write any review of the debate, nor any other article concerning the debate, to be printed in any bulletin or other religious journal, without the written consent of both disputants.” Shocked at this call for censorship, brother Warnock appended a note saying he had “no disposition to try to control what others write.” When letters from Begley and Holcomb made it plain that there would be no debate unless the condition were signed, Warnock decided to sign and to explain his feeling about it during the debate. Besides, letters from Knollwood were taking 6-9 weeks for Fairborn toe answer and the agreed dates for debate were drawing near. Knollwood agreed that the censorship stipulation would be read at each session of the debate and it was.

Four Fundamental Points

The first two propositions dealt with the covering and were discussed at Knollwood on 3-4 December with 218 and 243 attending. Ron Halbrook moderated and Mike Willis kept time for brother Warnock; Emery M. McCallister moderated and Joe Hill kept time for brother Holcomb. In Warnock’s opening speech on the negative proposition, he said that the disputants actually had no control over written reviews. But since he had agreed at Holcomb’s insistence to give reviews his written consent, he wrote his name on the blackboard and told reviewers to “go at it.”

Four major points were made by Warnock. (1) Brethren who require women to wear coverings in assemblies of the church today assume without positive evidence that the assembly of the church is under consideration in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. (2) The subjects addressed in reference to the need of a covering in the passage are assumed to be all women in general, but the passage says the woman who speaks in prayer or prophecy. (3) Prophecy is assumed to be uninspired teaching, or worse yet; listening to someone else speak. Holcomb worded the proposition “praying and teaching” whereas the passage said “praying or prophesying. ” Prophesying in the New Testament refers to delivering inspired revelation. Rather than merely being in the presence of teaching done by others, the prophetess herself spoke under divine inspiration. (4) It is assumed that almost anything can be worn for a covering. The garb worn by women today as coverings do not cover or veil as the passage teaches because they do not hang down to cover fully the head.

“Scarlet Sin” and Fellowship

During his speech, Warnock quoted Holcomb’s cohort Gary W. Halcomb in the August 1979 Opening the Scriptures (bulletin of Pisgah Church of Christ at West Chester, Ohio), “Not wearing the coverings of long hair (vs. 15) and the artificial covering (vv. 5, 6, 10) while praying or prophesying is scarlet sin, just as scarlet as hypocrisy (see Isa. 1:18). There are no little sins.” “All women who refuse to wear both of the coverings are guilty of unrighteousness.” Warnock asked whether J.W. Holcomb endorsed such strictures and specifically whether this means the covering is a test of fellowship, adding his own fervent plea that such not be done. This plea was ardently repeated throughout the debate.

Holcomb endorsed the “scarlet sin” statement and addressed the question, “Is this a cause of disfellowship?” His answer was plain enough as he spoke of what God has commanded of a woman and how that those who do not comply have sinned and transgressed against God. Attempting to shift the pressure, Holcomb challenged, “Let’s put the shoe on the other foot,” and asked, “Do you fellowship us?” As the point was pursued each night, Warnock repeated his willingness to recognize his brethren in Christ without making a test of the covering and woman teacher issues, while Holcomb repeated with increasing vehemence his unwillingness. The Knollwood church called on those who differ from us to lead prayer at the debate but this manifestation of desire for unity was not reciprocated at Fairborn. The original incident which precipitated the debate was Holcomb’s attack on sister Lee’s classes at Knollwood, in which we labored in the gospel harmoniously with the Lees though differing from them on the covering. Holcomb made it clear that he does not want to see such joint efforts where we differ on personal conscience. His insistence on division is why a debate instead of a gospel meeting was held with him, whereas a gospel meeting rather than a debate was held with the Lees because they insist on unity in these matters!

Holcomb was angered by Warnock’s solution to the censorship stipulation, as could be seen when Holcomb thundered,

Now I’m going to tell you, brethren, I say that if you write anything – any article about this – without my written consent, you sin against God! You’ve offended a brother. And it’s wrong and sinful to offend a brother. I don’t want you doing it. I ask you not to do it until I see it. You know why? I don’t trust what these men write about what I said (all quotations taken directly from tapes, RH).

The irony of an experienced preacher misusing the Bible word “offend” in such a manner never occurred to Holcomb, even when it was pointed out. Because censorship could not be imposed, Holcomb charged in his closing speech 7 December that both Warnock and Knollwood’s elders are “dishonorable” and “liars.”

Holcomb sought to negate Warnock’s four fundamental arguments. (1) Warnock needs to read what the scholars say on whether the assembly is in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. Adam Clarke is quoted with the additional explanation that “every scholar that I’ve ever checked says that 1 Corinthians 11 was dealing with a public assembly of the church.” Holcomb agreed that some teaching was done outside the assembly but repeatedly stressed that “every scholar I’ve ever checked on says this was dealing with the public assembly.” Next, he turned to the subjects addressed and the prophesying, points (2) and (3) in Warnock’s outline. Paul was concerned with all women, it was asserted. 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 corrects women praying and prophesying uncovered, but 14:34-36 forbids their praying and prophesying at all in assemblies, said Holcomb. Barnes’ Notes was quoted to show that the women were speaking but that Paul waited to deal with that until chapter 14. Young’s Analytical Concordance was quoted in an attempt to show that prophesying was not inspired revelation in I Corinthians 11 but might be ordinary preaching or singing in such passages. Furthermore, he argued,

The trouble in people studying 1 Corinthians 11 is that they think that Paul is saying, “You women cover your heads when you pray and prophesy.” That’s not what the passage says.

Some women were doing this, Holcomb conceded, but Paul was not justifying such practices. Paul did not intend to teach, “Cover your head and go ahead and do this praying and prophesying.” Holcomb explained that “we teach by singing but I want to insist that that was not the prophesying that Paul particularly was talking about in 1 Corinthians 11. If so, they would all have to sing one by one and they would have to sing solos.” So “singing is a form of prophecy” but not the form discussed in 1 Corinthians 11. The speaking in I Corinthians 11 was not inspired, but, “All the scholars I read after said that on a pretense of inspiration they were speaking in the church.” As to whether these women were inspired, Holcomb proclaimed, “Ten thousand times, No!” (4) The covering Paul specified covered the head but not the face, Holcomb asserted.

To Kiss or Not to Kiss

During the second round of speeches on 3 December, each disputant pressed the points already introduced. Warnock said that Holcomb’s explanations of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 put Paul in the ludicrous position of saying, “Ladies, when you sin put on your veil.” When Warnock referred to the holy kiss and foot washing as commands limited to first century circumstances, Holcomb answered that both practices are still literally binding today and had a brother to testify that Holcomb had kissed him that very night. Warnock pointed out the next night in view of “greet one another with a holy kiss” that it was insufficient for Holcomb to kiss this man without being kissed back. When Warnock asked the man if he kissed Holcomb back, the answer was an eloquent silence!

On 4 December, Holcomb was in the affirmative arguing that because of man’s headship the woman in every age is obligated to worship with her head covered in some fashion. Most of the material presented by each speaker this night reiterated and emphasized the points made the first night. To preclude inspired speech in 1 Corinthians 11, Holcomb said that the phrase in 12:1, “Now concerning spiritual gifts,” means Paul “hadn’t been talking about spiritual gifts prior to that.” If that be the case, Warnock answered, then the phrase in 11:17, “Now in this . . . that ye come together,” means that Paul had not discussed the assembly prior to that. Also, Holcomb’s claim that I Corinthians 11 and 14 are Siamese twins inseparably connected in teaching must mean spiritual gifts are in both passages because Holcomb admits they are in chapter 14.

“A Born Natural Instinct” to Sin?

A startling argument was made, illustrating how far a man can go in his determination to make a point regardless of the extreme consequences. Holcomb argued that the glory of the hair covering is taught and buttressed by “nature” (1 Cor. 11:14), a word which he said uniformly means in Scripture “the natural nature that was born in them – that natural instinct . . . . that nature in us when we’re born . . . . that natural instinct in them.” Nature never means custom or second nature but in all cases is “talking about the way we were born into this world,” he said. W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words was quoted in bold letters on a large chart to show that nature always means “the natural powers of constitution of a person or thing” in 1 Corinthians 11 and every other passage, including Ephesians 2:3. The latter speaks of men being “by nature the children of wrath,” meaning by inborn, innate, or natural instinct according to Holcomb. Warnock protested that this is Calvinist teaching! He quoted Thayer to show that nature can mean a native sense of propriety accomplished by training or learned by instruction (Thayer lists 1 Cor. 11:14 under this definition, p. 660); this is the meaning in passages such as Ephesians 2:3. Trying to salvage his argument on nature (6 December), Holcomb said that he rejected the Calvinist idea that we are born in sin but asserted that nature means “a born natural instinct” to sin in Ephesians 2:3. Said he,

Now what does that passage teach? Well, we have an instinct in us that when we reach the years of accountability, that we immediately commit sin. Why is it that everybody has to obey the gospel? Why is it that all are included under sin?

. . . There is by nature, born in a person – Paul said there’s a warfare in my body. That, that I would, I do not. And that, that I would not, that I do. Why certainly when a person reaches the years of accountability, the natural thing is they do wrong.

The chart on “Holcomb’s Calvinism,” quoted the Second Helvetic Confession and Calvin’s Institutes, both standards of Calvinism for hundreds of years, to show that Calvinism not only teaches that we are born in sin but also that we are born with the innate corruption or natural instinct to commit sin.

Holcomb’s Calvinism

Vine: “Phusis. . . (a) the nature . . . the natural powers or constitution of a person or thing, Eph. 2:3 . . .” (Vol. III, p. 103).
Holcomb: Baby is born with a natural instinct to sin.
Synonyms: instinctive, innate, inborn, hereditary, inherited, natural, intrinsic
Second Helvetic Confession Sin . . . that innate corruption of man which has been derived or propagated in us all from our first parents, by which we, immersed in perverse desires and averse to all good, are inclined to all evil.
Calvin: Original sin . . . corruption of our nature . . . which brings forth in us . . . works of flesh (Institutes, Bk. II, Ch. 1, No. 8).

Is This Man A Safe Teacher?

On the one hand, Holcomb argued that man learned and obeyed truth by natural instinct: the Gentiles of Romans 2 learn to do right by nature; men learn by nature that a woman’s long hair is a glory and therefore her trimming it a shame. On the other hand, he fought to the end for the Calvinistic idea that man sins by natural instinct. But pointing out the Calvinist quotations and his own contradictions did not deter him from the theory necessary to prop his argument on the covering. He continued to assert that his arguments are so simple and convincing that local churches must discipline those who disagree and that division must come.

Since Holcomb stressed for two nights that “every scholar I’ve ever checked” said that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 involved the affairs of the church assembled: Warnock presented a chart giving references from several imminent commentators who did not take such an approach (Lenski, Meyer, Beet, Grosheide, Vine, Bengel, Schaff). As to Holcomb’s denial that inspiration is in the chapter and his appeal to scholarship, a chart giving fifteen authorities in addition to the oft-quoted Thayer was presented (Hodge, Michaelis, Meyer, Bengel, Bloomfield, Roberts, Weiss, Alford, Vine, Findlay, Barrett, Wilson, Friedrich, Adam Clarke, and E.P. Gould). Referring to the Judgment Day to come, Holcomb claimed to be a prophet: “I’m quoting divine inspiration. Therefore that’s a form of prophecy.” On that basis, Warnock said that he would be the President if he quoted one. Holcomb’s complaint that he is often misrepresented was dealt with by means of the Merry-Go-Round chart; at different times he made prophecy in 1 Corinthians 11 singing, pretense, listening, and the uninspired teaching that faithful men can do today.



Holcomb’s claim that the chapter does not say to “cover your heads when you pray and prophesy” was countered by quoting the New American Standard, Machen, and Meyer, who translate “while” or “when” in the passage. After appealing to a couple of commentaries and being answered on the ground of reliable scholarship, Holcomb decided there needs to be a debate in which dictionaries, commentaries, and other reference works could not be used!

Unity Plea Rejected

Warnock continued to insist that whereas there must be unity in the faith (Jade 3), there also must be liberty in matters of personal conscience, devotion, or opinion. He pled for brethren united in the faith not to divide over personal convictions about wearing or not wearing the covering. But Holcomb continued to insist, on the covering issue.

Now I want to tell you something, friends. When you fail to practice what the Bible says for you women to do to show your subjection to the man, then you are destroying the principle of headship and you can’t go to heaven and do it.

In view of what Holcomb considered the damning nature of this “sin” (not wearing the artificial covering), he rejected Warnock’s unity plea.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 10,pp. 169-171
March 6, 1980