Christadelphian commitment to Bible teaching frequently causes us to be at odds with the churches and with the wider community. While we strive to “live peaceably with all men” and do not deliberately set out to create tension with others, it is inevitable we will find ourselves out of step with the views of others who do not hold the Bible in such high regard. Full immersion baptism is one example of faithfulness to Bible teaching which has led to us being out of step with most of the churches; the upholding of Biblical values in relation to marriage and inter-personal relationships is an example of where we find ourselves out of step with the wider community.

Since our foundation in the nineteenth century, Bible teaching on the role of men and women within the body of Christ is an area in which we have usually been at odds with the views of the wider community. Although those who helped mould the practices of our community in its early days were men and women firmly rooted in Victorian times (some like Brother Thomas in Georgian times!) they did not allow the prevailing views and values of the world around them to deter them from applying Biblical principles in relation to gender roles and status.

The New Testament highlights the valuable work of sisters. They laboured with Paul in the gospel (Phil 4:3) and likewise ministered to the needs of our Lord (Luke 8:2–3); they served the ecclesia in a range of ways (Rom 16:1–3), and even exercised prophetic gifts (Acts 21:9). Sisters were highly regarded in the first century ecclesia which recognised that male and female were “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

From the inception of the Christadelphian community, in accordance with the principle of Galatians 3:28, sisters have been regarded as full and equal members of the ecclesia. Our early brothers and sisters recognised that (oneness of the sexes in terms of salvation in Christ notwithstanding) the New Testament clearly restricted formal instruction in the ecclesia to brothers. Apart from this provision, they could see no Scriptural reason for suppressing sisters. For instance, although it was recognised as a less than perfect model, the early brethren adopted democratic processes for the election of those who would serve the ecclesia; sisters enjoyed full voting rights even though in the wider community they were not entitled to the franchise.

In Diary of a Voyage (page 142) Brother Roberts comments on questions that had arisen in the Dunedin Ecclesia about the extent to which the views of sisters ought to be taken into account when making decisions. Having made the point that no one was suggesting that sisters should engage in public speaking, Brother Roberts went on to advise: “You can no more suppress a wise woman’s influence and a wise woman’s voice, than you can suppress the law of gravitation. You may prevent her delivering a public address: but you cannot prevent her giving good counsel, and you ought not.” Such views were not reflective of those of the wider community, where the majority at that time did not regard the views of women so highly or worthy of such consideration.

Times change, however, and the values of western society change with them. Practices and principles that a few generations ago were regarded as beyond the pale are now routinely tolerated. Among those values that have changed have been those connected with the role of men and women in society. A generation ago wage differentials between men and women were enforced by legal instruments, women did not enjoy the ease of access to credit from banks that was extended to men, and females were excluded from conscription. These and many other gender-based distinctions have been swept away in the wake of government-endorsed programs to establish equality between the sexes.

These changes in the world have been reflected in many of the churches, which have made provision for women to exercise roles formerly restricted to men. Some voices within the brotherhood have called for the Christadelphian community to follow this trend and likewise eliminate gender distinctions for leadership and instruction roles we have always restricted to brothers. But while it is obvious that the wider community has changed in this area, there has been no change in the Bible’s teaching on the subject and therefore there is no need to revisit Bible teaching on the subject.

In 1989 and 1990 Brother Michael Lewis responded to the challenge of feminist theology and its influence on the brotherhood in a series of articles published in The Testimony. They were later collated, revised and published in book form under the title MAN & WOMAN – A Study of Biblical Roles.

Commencing in the Old Testament to establish the foundations, Bro Lewis adopts a systematic and Biblical approach to the subject. He then addresses key New Testament passages—1 Corinthians 11 and 14, 1 Timothy 2 and Titus 2—many of which appeal directly to the Old Testament, and demonstrates the importance of interpreting these passages in the light of the Old Testament passages on which they are founded. He comments on the nexus between domestic relationships between men and women in the family and the ecclesia. Particular attention also is paid to the subject of head coverings and their relevance in the ecclesia.

Brother Michael highlights that the Biblical prohibition on sisters exercising leadership in the ecclesia does not mean their contribution to the spiritual health and growth of the ecclesia is diminished. He notes many avenues of service in which sisters may exercise their talents, in many of which they excel. These are not restricted to traditional female roles of nurturing and caring, such as care of the elderly and other welfare work, important though these tasks are.

Teaching is one area in which sisters play an active role. Titus 2 exhorts the older sisters to teach the younger sisters. This advice has been applied since pioneer times in the establishment of sisters’ classes. But teaching by sisters is not limited to sisters’ classes. In most ecclesias sisters are stalwarts of the Sunday School work—surely our most successful preaching exercise. In the mission fields their work is invaluable, not just in supporting their fellow-sisters but also in witnessing to women with a hunger for the gospel. There are many cultures where it is inappropriate for a woman to engage in conversation with a man she does not know well. Our sisters can step into this breach.

A feature of Brother Michael’s book is discussion of the practical considerations of the subject. While the exposition of the relevant passages is not without some challenges, the broad apostolic intent is relatively clear. Application of those principles in daily life, however, is not always so clear. Headcoverings is one such issue which receives attention in this regard. Having presented the scriptural teaching, Brother Michael encourages the reader to consider how this should be applied in the ecclesia. He acknowledges there will be differences of opinion, for instance about the suitability of certain kinds of headcoverings and the need for them at certain meetings. Clearly, when seeking to uphold the Bible’s teaching, each needs to be persuaded in their own mind and then prayerfully seek to exercise their conscience while having regard to the conscience of others.

Many brothers and sisters feel challenged by calls for changes in ecclesial practice that reflect the changes in western society in relation to men and women. There is potential for tension within and between ecclesias if opposing interpretations are promoted and applied. It behoves each brother and sister to carefully consider the Biblical role of men and women and Brother Michael Lewis’ book is heartily recommended as a useful tool in such a consideration. Those who would strive to be constituents of the bride of Christ can ill afford to misunderstand the role of men and women in ecclesial life.

Brother Michael Lewis’ book is available from the Christadelphian Scripture Study Service and from The Testimony.