26 Aug 2019

Women, the Bible, and the Right to Vote: Anniversary of the 19th Amendment

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Church, Galatians, Hermeneutics, Politics, Silena Moore Holman, Women

You have probably heard the old saw “study to show thyself approved.” Over the years I have discovered this does not appear to mean what it suggests for many. What this admonition meant according to the hidden power players in “non-denomination denominations” is “read approved literature and agree with our unwritten creed.

Study is actually dangerous stuff.

To engage in research, more than likely, means we will learn something “new.” The discovery is not really “new” just “new to me.”

Pluto has been there since the beginning of time but human beings never knew it existed until 1930. It was discovered through research, a quest for learning.

Radioactivity has been there since the beginning of time, but it never occurred to anyone that something was “there” unseen until 1896. Many other examples can be given.

Thus it is with God’s Word, any “new” light we perceive has been there since God gave it. We often simply do not have “eyes to see” as Jesus bemoaned. It seems to me that the more we take, with utmost seriousness, the inter-connected and integral nature of Scripture the more we learn and question certain things … like the so called traditional role of women.

Today, marks the anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment by U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby on August 26, 1920, recognizing women as full citizens in the political process.

This was the end product of a very long battle that began in the days of the abolition movement (most will point to the “beginning” in 1848 but some quibble). In fact a large number made the link between abolition of slavery and the extension of the right to vote to women (Frederick Douglass did so and was present in 1848 in NY at the call for women to organize) and so abolition was opposed because of the “slippery slope” by many.

Opponents to abolition had many names for abolitionists. A favorite caricature was that they were enemies of God’s design and denied the authority of the Bible. It surprises many today to learn that biblical interpretation was central to the debate over women voting in the United States. “Conservatives” opposed suffrage on the basis of Scripture.

Many in the Stone-Campbell Movement were vocal opponents to granting women the right to vote, they said the same thing about proponents of suffrage as they had abolitionists earlier – they had an “agenda.” They did not believe the Bible. The ministry of Selina Holman among the Churches of Christ is a classic example, see my Selina Moore Holman: New Woman & the Exegetical Conscience of the Churches of Christ.

The Southern States, the old “Bible Belt,” had rejected the 19th Amendment already: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. In fact Mississippi never actually ratified the 19th Amendment until March 22, 1984. I was in high school!

Thankfully, a young 23 year old Republican named Harry T. Burn, from McMinn County, believed a new day had arrived. And on August 18, 1920, Burn cast the deciding vote in Tennessee that gave women in the USA the right to vote. I can say I am happy and think this was the right and just decision to be made.

One wonders how opponents of women serving communion, praying or reading Scripture in and with God’s people differ from the opponents of women’s suffrage? and opponents of abolition? I am often shocked by some who are unwilling to say that slavery is a “sin.”

They themselves are deniers of biblical authority, according to the the old argument. You see the texts that were used to combat granting women the right to vote were 1 Timothy 2.12 and 1 Cor 14.34-35. These very passages used today today to say a woman can neither read, pass a communion try while standing, or pray in public where the very ones used to say a woman could not vote. What changed? How has their reading of these passages changed so they no longer hold to what ministers said was the “plain meaning” of these passages before 1920?

Today, if I affirm that women can pray (as they actually did in Corinth) or share the word (as they actually did in Corinth). It is claimed that I am part of a “feminist agenda” or do not believe the Bible in the Churches of Christ. That was the charge made against abolitionists before the Civil War and supporters of suffrage for women before 1920 too.

But the abolitionists were right and the right to vote was just. The opponents of abolition and suffrage had misread the Bible.

What about those texts? Well, first I do not believe those texts affirm what the naysayers claim. Some of the naysayers never deal with texts in their historical context or literary context. However, I affirm that women can participate in the corporate life of God’s People on the basis of the story of the Bible itself … and those “ignored” texts.

Let me illustrate it this way. Have you ever noticed that the Bible never once condemns having multiple wives. Mormons, and other groups, affirm polygamy and they have plenty of Bible that reflects that view. But every one of the opponents of women praying in the assembly would say that polygamy was a “sin” even while there is not one verse in the NT that says that even as some would refuse to say slavery is a “sin.” Irony if there ever was irony!

But polygamy is wrong. Not because of a book, chapter and verse but because it is counter to the intent of creation and the goal of new creation. The equality of women in Christ is true for the same reason polygamy is wrong. They are equals and co-heirs (not sub-heirs) of the kingdom of God.

Creation – New Creation is the hermeneutic Jesus used on the Pharisees in a debate over biblical interpretation (Deut 24). Creation and New Creation are not feminist agendas, rather they are justice and righteousness and reading from intent and goal. As much as some want to disregard Galatians 3.28 it is in fact very relevant to how we view humans within God’s creation. See Galatians 3.28, Baptism & the Gathering.

Creation and New Creation are God’s own “agenda” that conflicted with the notion that women were property to be bartered over (the essence of the ancient divorce debate) … it also conflicts with those who think women are better “seen” than “heard” in prayer and worship.

Ladies, I am delighted that justice was served in the abolition movement that birthed the suffrage movement for you. In both cases redemption was at work in the fallen structures of our world. Something the church should have instinctively known but sadly the church often – like Jonah – has to be dragged by God to see what he is doing in the world.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton defended her work on behalf of women’s right to vote by appealing to the biblical story in the face of ministerial critics. In particular Huldah. In her mind Huldah was one of the greatest of all God‘s servants:

The greatest character among the women thus far mentioned (in the OT) is Huldah the prophetess, residing in the college in Jerusalem . . . Her wisdom and insight were well known to Josiah the king; and when the wise men came to him with the ‘Book of the Law,’ to learn what was written therein, Josiah ordered them to take it to Huldah, as neither the wise men nor Josiah himself could interpret its contents . . . We should not have had such a struggle in our day to open the college doors (to women) had the clergy read of the dignity accorded to Huldah. People who talk the most of what the Bible teaches often know the least about its contents.” (quoted in Phipps, p. 15).

One Response to “Women, the Bible, and the Right to Vote: Anniversary of the 19th Amendment”

  1. Ray Hawk Says:

    Some points I had not thought of. I’ve written a couple articles on the role of women. One in the assembly and the other outside the assembly. Both on Academia.edu blog. Some of the “roles” restricted to men, would evaporate IF we went back to house to house assemblies of 15 to 30 folks in each.

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