John Mark Hicks. Women Serving God: My Journey in Understanding Their Story in the Bible. Self-Published, 2020.
1. What kinds of questions—scholarly or otherwise—inspired you to write this book? Were there any new questions or issues that intrigued you in the course of your research and writing?
This book arises out of my long journey toward full participation of women in the assemblies of Churches of Christ. I first published on this topic in 1978 where I defended the full exclusion of women from participation in the assembly except for singing and baptismal confessions (“Yes” or “I do”). Over the years, my understanding shifted to a limited participation, and now this book advocates for full inclusion. I was motivated to write because (1) to correct my earlier writing (may I compare it to Augustine’s Retractationes?) and (2) I receive constant inquiries about resources and my own position.
While I had previously written about the history of this discussion among Churches of Christ, I was intrigued by a growing awareness that from 1888-1938 (roughly) the Churches of Christ hotly debated whether women were totally excluded from participation in the assembly or whether they had the privilege of limited participation? What held the congregations together was their exclusion of women from preaching (which was emerging among the Disciples of Christ at the time), but they were attempting to discern what that meant for other forms of participation in the assembly. Ultimately, the southern congregations held the most influence and the full exclusion of women from participation became the general norm in the 1940s and 1950s.
2. In what way do current trends in Churches of Christ influence or surface in your commentary?
It seems to me that Churches of Christ are experiencing a moment similar to what enveloped the Stone-Campbell Movement in the 1880s-1930s. Many congregations are considering a move toward limited participation and a few are embracing full inclusion. The texts, questions, and issues are, of course, similar, but the key difference is the hermeneutical shift that shapes the discussion today. Whereas Churches of Christ in the late 19th century engaged this discussion through the lens of a blueprint hermeneutic, Churches of Christ are now typically thinking or learning to think more theologically about the question. At the same time, the vast majority of Churches of Christ are still quite committed to reaching a conclusion based upon close attention to the biblical texts and understanding them well. I think my book reflects both concerns, that is, detailed attention to the texts while also embracing a theological hermeneutic in contrast to a blueprint hermeneutic. That is why I wrote Searching for the Pattern before Women Serving God.
3. Is there anything you would have liked to have said or included, but could not due to the constraints of time, format, or etiquette?
Most readers will be disappointed that I did not directly address the inclusion of women in the polity or eldership of Churches of Christ. I understand the need to engage that discussion, and I am committed to doing so in my next book. I made the decision to concentrate on the assembly because this question drives most of the discussions and inquiries I receive, and I think it is important step toward the discussion of polity, elders, and leadership. In other words, I cover ground in this book that is essential to that discussion. I did not think I could do it all in one book with the sort of detail, history, and personal story I wanted to include. Moreover, any decision about the inclusion of women among the elders of a congregation involves more detailed discussions of Trinity, kephalē, the nature of leadership, other significant biblical texts (e.g., 1 Timothy 3), and other questions that I did not address in any sufficient way in this book. Those discussions are better left to their own full-length book. I think it is quite possible that one could fully include women in the assembly but restrict the eldership to men. In other words, even if one believes only men should be elders, this does not preclude the full participation of women in the assembly. Whether that is the most appropriate approach is a question I will address in the third book in the series. At the same time, there is nothing said in this book that would preclude women elders, though there is no sustained argument for such and the question is left open.
4. What common myths or misconceptions about gender and liturgical roles do you wish would die off?
While the full articulation of this point awaits the next book, I think Churches of Christ need a full accounting and embrace of our radical notion of the priesthood of all believers (female and male). This priesthood gives persons unmediated access to God through Jesus in the Spirit, and humans are not delimited by other humans in their access to God whether as persons or in community. While we have affirmed this (and practiced it in so many ways, including our anti-clericalism with regard to the sacraments), a kind of patriarchy has assumed (though not often articulated) women must seek God through men. For example, James A. Allen, an editor of the Gospel Advocate (1907), opposed women’s suffrage because “the influence of woman must be exercised through man.” This principle shaped our assemblies as well and was, in effect, a denial of the priesthood of all believers.
Connected to that is the sense of clerical authority (though we would not call it that) that is attached to activities in the assembly. Women, for example, cannot “serve” the table because it is perceived as an exercise of authority or leadership that belongs only to men. The emphasis on authority in contrast to service not only harms women but also reflects how we are defining and understanding leadership itself. The characterization of leadership as functions of authority arising from positions of authority needs to die and be replaced by a sense of pneumatic giftedness that serves the community through leadership in various ways.
5. What are the advantages of the memoir-esque genre this book? Any disadvantages?
There are several significant advantages. I can advocate the position I held at the time with grace, kindness, and fairness. I am gracious with my old self as I experienced my own progress in sanctification, and this means I am gracious with others who are in the same process. It also gives a narrative frame which is about development and growth rather than debate and contention. I am debating—to the extent that there is one—with myself. The reader overhears this debate. I think that is more overt in Parts 1-4 than in Parts 5-6. The story-formed character makes it easier to read for most people. This is especially true for those I want to read it, which is primarily church leaders and members. The major disadvantage is that it takes time to tell a story, and that space could have been used to elaborate the argument, detail the research, and consider more objections. The narrative form—to the extent it is present—limited the space for such elaborations.
6. Do you think this book advances the conversation at a scholarly level, or is it focused on the Church? What topics of conversation do you think your book elicits that it does not directly address?
I am focused on the church. I don’t think there is anything in the book that is new in terms of scholarship except perhaps two particulars. First, framing the historical discussion in terms of the argument among Churches of Christ from 1888-1938 is a scholarly contribution. Second, I think my reading of 1 Timothy 2, though not unique, advances the discussion in scholarship. This is particularly true in unpacking the rationale in 1 Timothy 2:13-15. This was important in my own development. Given my own theological development, the trans-cultural argument based on creation was deeply rooted in my psyche. It was my own stumbling block. My engagement with 1 Timothy 2:13—is this the theological principle of primogeniture or a telescoped midrashic narrative?—was critical for my own movement toward the full participation of women in the assembly. I think I make a healthy contribution for those struggling with the same roadblock.
As I noted above, I do not directly address questions of leadership, polity, and elders. Many wanted me to do that, but I felt it would derail the first conversation I wanted to have, that is, the full participation of women in the assembly. I wanted to draw some conclusions about that before addressing the larger question of polity. This is, in part, my own journey. I came to conclusions about the former before drawing conclusions about the latter.
7. What impact would you like your work to have on the Church generally and Churches of Christ specifically?
This is a book for Churches of Christ. That is part of my own personal calling and vocation. Its focus is so narrow—my story within Churches of Christ—it might not have much appeal to those outside of Churches of Christ (except, perhaps, my reading of 1 Timothy 2:13). I do hope it has some impact on Churches of Christ. Given the constant inquiries I receive, this book address those questions directly in the context of the history of Churches of Christ. I would hope this would become a book elderships, Bible classes, small groups, and individuals would read as they restudy or rethink this question. That was my purpose for Searching for the Pattern, and I think it has been so used. I hope the same for this book.
8. What kind of research or focus is on your horizon now that this project is finished?
My immediate focus is reading, researching, and writing the next book to finish out this trilogy. The agenda of the next book will address whether the eldership is gender inclusive. It will reflect on Trinity, the priesthood of all believers, a theology of leadership style, ecclesial polity, giftedness, and communal life formed by mutuality rather than authority.
John Mark Hicks is Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University. He has taught in institutions of higher education among Churches of Christ for over 38 years. He has authored, co-authored, or edited eighteen books. He has lectured in 22 countries and 40 states. He is married to Jennifer, and they share five living children and six grandchildren.