“Finally, in every body of Christians decisions must be made about precisely how to conduct its work and worship. Scripture does not dictate such details. The best way of doing things in the local context should be adopted. These procedures, however, should always be understood as expedients or conveniences for that time and place. Others who do things differently should never be denigrated or condemned for such things, and when decisions are made to do things differently in the future, such changes should never be an issue of fighting or division.”
Thomas Campbell, The Declaration and Address (1809)
I am struck by both the wisdom and the relevance of Campbell’s “Proposition 13.” For Campbell, every local congregation must make decisions regarding how it will conduct its life as an expression of Christ’s church. These decisions involve the church’s ministry and its worship. Campbell clearly understands the authority and importance of scripture for the church’s life, but argues that scripture does not dictate details. Further, he allows for the expediency of context (time and place) to inform the judgment of each local congregation. In other words, Campbell lays out a paradigm for decision making that accounts for the authority of scripture and the situatedness of the church’s life. Each local congregation must discern it’s own life and worship in it’s own time and place.
Campbell not only argues for this kind of decision making paradigm, but assumes it.
“Others who do things differently should never be denigrated or condemned for such things, and when decisions are made to do things differently in the future, such changes should never be an issue of fighting or division.”
The language is not if decisions are made to do things differently, but when. He assumes that over time congregations will make decisions about their work and worship that are different and that such decisions are not only appropriate but not worth fighting and dividing over.
I appreciate the spirit of Proposition 13 and its relevance to the discussion on this site. Some may wish to argue that Campbell’s words in Proposition 13 have no relevance to the practice of gender inclusivity in congregational work and worship because, they assume, scripture does dictate details related to gender and congregational practice and clearly prohibits such. In response to this argument, I would suggest that we have not read the witness of scripture and the writing of the New Testament theologically or holistically. And that, if we are genuinely interested in knowing what the Bible says on these things and how it says them, if we are genuinely reading the Bible in its entirety, we will find scriptures that seem to prohibit or limit a person’s participation in congregational life and practice and we will find clear examples, if not commands, to the contrary – commands and examples that mandate the inclusion of women in public acts of leadership in congregational work and worship.
The statement that scripture “clearly prohibits” women from participating in the public life of the congregation reveals either (a) an unawareness of scriptural examples and commands that include women in congregational life and leadership, or (b) knowing that these passages exist, a deliberate and intentional unwillingness to acknowledge those passages. In the first case, it is simply a matter of returning to an honest and open exploration of the biblical text, a willingness to revist the New Testament together, to listen to one another openly, to pray and learn together. In the second case, it would be true that this debate over the inclusion of women in congregational life and leadership is not really about what the Bible says at all and would press us to consider why, in the face of biblical commands and examples, one would continue to practice gender exclusion.
Perhaps the decision for gender exclusivity in congregations is not made merely on the basis of scripture.