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Marchelle Barnes reads Scripture during worship at the Culver Palms Church of Christ in Los Angeles.
Photo by Trevor Shepard

Women’s roles: a divisive issue but not a new one

'There’s a fear that’s been around a long time. What is that fear really coming from?'

When high-profile congregations among Churches of Christ announce a transition to public participation by women in worship — or that women will be welcome in elder and preacher roles — the Christian blogosphere lights up, both in celebration and consternation.

The role of women “probably surpasses the use of instrumental music as a hot topic in Churches of Christ,” said Ralph Gilmore, distinguished professor of philosophy and Bible at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., which is associated with the fellowship. 

Full coverage: Women in the church

It’s not a new issue, said Loretta Hunnicutt, associate professor of history at another school associated with the fellowship, Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

Loretta Hunnicutt

Loretta Hunnicutt

Debates over women’s roles have existed for 200 years, since the earliest days of the Stone-Campbell or Restoration Movement. Churches of Christ, Christian Churches and the Disciples of Christ are fellowships with roots in the movement.

“In the early years of the Restoration Movement — primarily in the (Barton) Stone side of the movement — there were quite a number of women preachers,” Hunnicut said. 

That branch of the movement evolved into what is today known as the United Churches of Christ, Hunnicut said. Another branch, the Disciples of Christ, also involves women in a variety of roles, including serving as elders.

The predominantly a cappella Churches of Christ, meanwhile, have about 11,900 autonomous congregations in the U.S. and about 1.4 million adherents (baptized believers and their children). In the vast majority of these congregations, women do not serve as elders, preach, lead singing or prayer or serve the Lord’s Supper in mixed-gender assemblies.

Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson

In the years following the Civil War, women in predominantly African American Churches of Christ often sang as part of gospel meetings and read Scripture in the assembly, said Edward Robinson, a historian and author of “Hard-Fighting Soldiers: A History of African American Churches of Christ.” 

That sometimes occurred because women were the only ones present who had learned to read, Robinson said.

Today, he said, that is no longer the case.  

“There are some that are gradually moving toward that position,” he said of women taking on new roles in worship, “but the majority of African American Churches of Christ believe that women should have submissive roles, even though they are regarded as important roles.”

How big a trend?

“Is it a trend? I don’t know,” Gilmore said of Churches of Christ expanding the role of women in their assemblies, “but I hear pretty regularly of a church that’s gone through a process of broadening roles.” 

Ralph Gilmore

Ralph Gilmore

He described the overall number as “miniscule,” but a limited number of research projects over the past decade reflect an increase in the number of churches that meet varied criteria for being considered inclusive. And the change is not regional, nor is it restricted to only small or large congregations or to metropolitan areas. At least one study by Matt Dabbs of Wineskins.org estimates the number at more than 100.

Wiley Clarkson, director of the website wherethespiritleads.org, maintains a directory of “Gender Inclusive and Egalitarian Churches in the Church of Christ Heritage.”  He lists 88 congregations in 25 states in all regions of the country, plus three in Canada. Some are quite small, but others have more than 1,000 members.

Related: Should women preach in a mixed-gender assembly?

Clarkson’s list includes only congregations where women are “welcome to serve in leadership positions such as pulpit minister, worship leader, deacon, and elder. . .  where they are welcome to use their gifts in leading public worship (leading prayer, giving communion talks, leading singing, and/or reading scripture) . . . or to teach in adult Bible classes or from the pulpit.” 

Ken Cukrowski

Ken Cukrowski

Ken Cukrowski speaks at many congregations fitting this description. 

Cukrowski, dean of the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University in Texas, accepts 10 to 15 invitations a year to speak about women’s roles in public worship and the leadership of the church. He has spoken on the topic in 18 states and in Croatia. Next summer he’ll speak at another international gathering.

Sometimes he presents to elders and ministers or some other configuration of male leaders.  With increasing frequency, the group includes spouses of leadership, he said.  And sometimes, he’s invited back to speak to the whole congregation.

In four to nine hours’ time Cukrowski conveys his belief that congregations moving toward allowing women to serve in roles traditionally reserved for men “are doing so because of their study of the Bible, not in spite of what Scripture says.” He tells them there are places in Scripture where women are leading and teaching.

“After I’ve been there, some churches do everything, including having women preachers and elders,” Cukrowski said. “Some do nothing and everything in between.”

Related: The journey that led a Church of Christ to appoint female elders

Views on roles

Cukrowski is a member of the Minter Lane Church of Christ in Abilene, where women have served in all roles. Two women were among four new elders added in January. 

“There are no boy gifts or girl gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 or Galatians 5,” he said. “That’s who we are in Christ. As much as I’m Christlike, I’m doing a good job as a man or as a woman.”

Gilmore described himself as “a very compassionate person who still accepts spiritual male leadership.” 

The FHU professor believes women can have limited roles in a main assembly, such as singing on a praise team that’s led by a man, or participating in a children’s worship (if the assembly is separate from the main assembly) or directing children’s singing on special occasions.  

At the Mona Church of Christ in Kingston, Jamaica, women teach Bible classes for children.

At the Mona Church of Christ in Kingston, Jamaica, women teach Bible classes for children.

He distinguishes between intrinsic leadership roles such as elders and perceived leadership roles.

“If you asked if passing the Lord’s Supper is an intrinsic leadership role? Of course not. Nothing in the Bible is said about passing the Lord’s Supper,” Gilmore said. However, “most people have been acclimatized to viewing men standing in the front that makes it appear authoritative. And it would be difficult, even divisive, for most congregations to say today, ‘Let’s put women on that.’  

“Is it intrinsically wrong? No,” he added. “But must we honor perception? Of course. We function that way.” 

Hunnicutt worships with the Conejo Valley Church of Christ in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where women are involved in all roles except preaching on a regular basis and serving as elders, which has been the subject of study and discussion.

However, Hunnicutt said that as a historian of women in the Churches of Christ, “I tend to not be an advocate for one way or the other because I like to preserve my role as a context giver for past precedents. I like to be the one helping people come to agreement by helping them understand that there’s a fear that’s been around a long time. What is that fear really coming from?”


After this story was published, Wherethespiritleads.org objected to how its list was characterized. The website has made minor changes since the article was completed. The new language clarifies that some of the churches listed are not fully egalitarian. However, they do welcome women in a variety of roles in teaching and worship, if not necessarily leadership.

Filed under: Church of Christ National News Top Stories women in leadership women's role women's roles

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