The 1990 Freed-Hardeman Preacher’s Forum: Women’s Role in the Church

By Wayne Goforth

Each year, Freed-Hardeman hosts a forum for the discussion of “a topic on which there is tension in the brotherhood” (from 1990 flyer). This year, due in part to the impetus of the “new hermeneutics,” the hottest topic among the institutionals is that of the woman’s work in the church. The question under consideration at this year’s forum was: “Are the biblical prohibitions (for the public use of women in the church, AWG) only cultural ones?” Two men were on either side of the question, each giving his apologies. The two affirming the prohibitions to have been cultural were Bob Randolph and Lynn Mitchell, both of whom are at the more liberal end of the institutional spectrum. The two denying the cultural question were from the more conservative end of the same spectrum, being Ralph Gilmore and Don McWhorter. Randolph preaches in Brookline, Massachusetts as well as working with the Institute of Technology there. Mitchell serves as an elder with the Bering Drive church in Houston, Texas (where Ed Fudge has also served as an elder in a rotation system) and works as Scholar of Religion at the University of Houston. McWhorter preaches in Fayette, Alabama, while Gilmore is a teacher at Freed-Hardeman and preaches for the Campbell Street church in Jackson, Tennessee. Ira Rice, Garland Elkins and Paul Kidwell were among those in the audience, which seemed to have an overall more conservative view of this question.

Randolph’s position was that Scripture can mean practically anything that culture determines, saying that the “church has always listened to culture.” He cited as examples the eating of meats and the practice of wearing an artificial covering. His view was that women in every age have been allowed to do in the church as much as culture would permit them to do everywhere else. His unprovable example was that the Corinthian women were allowed to preach before a public assembly of men and women as long as they recognized their submission and showed it by the wearing of the veil, and that 1 Corinthians 14:34 only prevented women from learning and teaching in a “shameful way.” Randolph, in the question and answer period, even went as far as to say there were female apostles in the New Testament, giving Romans 16:7 as his “proof-text” along with, of course, Phebe as a deaconess in Romans 16:1. He likewise stated he had no problems with female elders, since it was obvious he believed that elders were simply older Christians we look to for guidance. He rather met himself coming and going on various occasions during his speeches. On the one hand he stated that Jesus was radical in his day and went against the culture of his society by eating with publicans and talking to a Samaritan woman, and therefore the church should also break out of the prejudiced image of women we have learned from the world by allowing them to preach and serve publicly. On the other hand, he stated that Paul was very concerned with not offending social customs and culture at Corinth, adapting his message to it. Which is it to be? Adapt culture or defy it? He thus had Paul and Jesus preaching different gospels. He said there are many questions we have never considered, such as: If women can read in Bible classes, why not from the pulpit? And, if women are to serve, why not let them serve the Lord’s supper?

Mitchell, on the other hand, was not willing to go as far as Randolph. His position was that of hermeneutical agnosticism, saying we cannot know for certain either way, and we must trust the grace of God more. As Gilmore pointed out, “No wonder Mitchell agreed to come since he presupposes such.” Mitchell stated that the Bible does not supply us with enough information on this, and no one is infallible enough to supply it for us, thus we cannot know for sure. Both Mitchell and Randolph continually appealed to the new hermeneutics claim that “we can know what it meant then, but it is different to ask what it means now,” and argued that Bible questions are not just a matter of “splitting Greek participles.” They denied knowing what was meant by the “new hermeneutics,” but used new hermeneutic arguments and quoted new hermeneutic writers. Hence, if one walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and hangs around with ducks, excuse me for saying he must be a duck! Likewise did they equate the veil of 1 Corinthians 11 with the “silence” of 1 Corinthians 14, observing that if one gives up the symbol of submission, they may in the same way give up submission itself. Neither was willing to make this a test of fellowship saying that “God has specified what is a matter of salvation” and that unless you are “willing to posthumously disfellowship everyone who has believed differently on this, you better not bring a rift with those who are alive on it.” Mitchell concluded with an ominous prophecy that “this will split churches of Christ wide open,” and that perhaps “no family will be spared from the pain.” With men like this forcing it in, it may well be true. But, who will be causing the split? Those who oppose it or those who bring it in? He who drives the wedge splits the log!

To hear brethren Gilmore and McWhorter, one would almost have thought they were hearing men who would surely be opposed to the church support of human institutions and church sponsored recreation, for the arguments they used on Randolph and Mitchell would certainly apply to these unscriptural practices as well. But, as is always the case, the “legs of the lame are not equal.” McWhorter stated correctly that Paul uses the word “pattern,” and that if we recognized there was a pattern for these things, “we would settle this in about five minutes.” He observed that the passages of 1 Corinthians 14, and of 1 Timothy 2 were both against the culture of his day, for the Romans and those in Asia Minor made no distinction between the sexes, according to Ramsey. It was also against the culture of the day, for Paul said “women are to learn in silence” (1 Tim. 2:11), yet, women were not permitted by the rabbis to study Scripture. The Talmud stated “better that the Torah should be burned than given to a woman.” The fact is, the passages are not cultural, but instead are tied to God’s “normative law of -creation.” Each time Paul mentions submission, it is the order of creation he states as the reason (1 Cor. 11:3 and 1 Tim. 2:12-14).

Agreeing with McWhorter, Gilmore pointed out that the reason for submission was creation and there was little or no culture yet developed when Adam and Eve first lived in the Garden. He used a transparency chart labeled with the words “Tied to Creation” in each speech and in answering each question until either Randolph or Mitchell would acknowledge it. This seemed to have made a big impact on the audience. Gilmore also pointed out that submission is not tied to worth or quality, and therefore we are not trying to make women “Secondclass-Christians” as Randolph charged. A good example of this point is the submission of Jesus to the Father. Even though the Father and the Son have different roles, this does not mean Jesus is in any way inferior (Jn. 14:6-9). In the same say, when Christians are to be submissive to their elders, it does not indicate worth or value, but only different roles and responsibilities.

Gilmore agreed that Jesus was indeed radical, but he also selected twelve men as apostles, and seventy men as disciples. McWhorter drew upon this illustration further, stating that if Jesus had wanted to make it clear that both men and women could serve in leadership roles, he could have selected six men and six women apostles, or thirtyfive men and thirty-five women disciples. Gilmore was not willing to say this was a matter of salvation, only that it was a serious matter and God would judge. McWhorter, however, stated that sin is the transgression of the law, and this is the law of God pertaining to the place of woman. Any sin unrepented can cause one to be lost.


It was through the Bering Drive church (where Mitchell serves as an elder) that I first became aware of the 4~greater use of women” in the church. In 1984, the Bering Drive church sent a notice to Abilene Christian College which read, “Wanted: Youth Minister. May be male, female or couple. Please send your resume to chairperson, Mrs. ______.” Then, to this writer’s surprise, a female co-student from Freed-Hardeman became a “campus minister” for a church in east Tennessee. The justification for this was that these women do not preach publicly, and there is nothing wrong with women teaching non-Christians. But, where is the authority for such “ministry specialization” as this? Thus, the institutionals have set themselves up for this problem over the years. Now that some have gone a step farther in saying that we do not have to have authority for anything Oust another logical progressive step of the institutionals saying we have to have authority for some things but not for others) they are bemoaning what even they would call ” liberalism. ” But, it is impossible to use one hand to open the floodgates of liberalism, and then try to hold back the tide with the other. They thus love the kittens but hate the cats!

Given the fact that many Freed-Hardeman graduates have now left institutionalism, including several of us who were students of brother Gilmore, it would seem that one of the forums would be directed toward a discussion of Bible authority as it applies to joint church cooperation and church sponsored recreation. Why is it “anti-ism” to demand a pattern and authority for these practices, but not “anti-ism” for Gilmore and McWhorter to demand the same for other practices? “If we respected Bible authority, this could be settled in about five minutes,” brother Gilmore! Where is the pattern for the Campbell Street church of Christ softball team? Did Jesus die to establish a softball team? Where is the pattern for the Campbell Street church to have a softball field built on the church property (which is now under construction)? Is this the purpose of the church of our Lord, brother Gilmore?

Why should all of this concern conservative brethren? After all, we demand a pattern for all things, and we do not practice “ministry specialization” nor do we advocate the new hermeneutics. This should concern us for two reasons. Number one, this shows that there is no stopping place once we advocate the idea that we do not have to have authority for all things, and should therefore serve as a warning to us lest we forget. Too often today we hear conservative preachers not using book, chapter and verse, and quote only from the book of second opinions. Number two, there will no doubt be some trickle effect felt in some conservative congregations. Several among us are already advocating and some congregations are already practicing, allowing women in the business meeting of the church. I know of numerous congregations in different parts of the country who have had problems with women seeking to “run the congregation” behind the scenes or by telling their husbands how to vote in such meetings. McWhorter correctly pointed out that Paul uses the Greek word oude in 1 Timothy 2:12 which indicates she is not to usurp authority over a man by public teaching or in any other way either!

Will Freed-Hardeman open a forum for the topics of joint cooperation, church sponsored recreation, and the church support of human institutions such as Freed-Hardeman itself? Or, are they too afraid that some church might cease to contribute to the school, since Freed-Hardeman depends on such? This will remain to be seen.

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 1, pp. 10-11
January 3, 1991