Was Calvin OK with Women Preaching?

Well, to be honest, probably not in practice.  But remarkably, he seems to be in principle.  As I was researching Calvin’s doctrine of Christian liberty, I came across a curious couple of little passages.

In Book IV, chapter 10, having finished his attack on human traditions in the Church, he turns in sections 27 and 28 to argue that this is not to do away with any human constitutions in the Church–only those which try to bind the conscience before God.  Of course rules of ceremonies and of good order must be established, and should be respected.  Such rules are by nature changeable according to circumstances–as over against things in the realm of conscience, which concern the unchangeable fundamentals of the faith.  Here, in other words, we find Calvin occupying similar ground as Hooker.  

He proceeds in section 29 to delineate two types of such lawful constitutions–those that conduce to reverence in ceremonies, and those that conduce to order in discipline.  Of the former kind are things like women’s head-coverings and postures in prayer.  Of the latter kind, he says, “are the hours set for public prayers, sermons and sacraments.  At sermons there are quiet and silence, appointed places, the singing together of hymns, fixed days for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the fact that Paul forbids women to teach in the Church [1 Cor. 14:34], and the like.”  Hm, now that’s curious.  Most of the items on this list are clearly matters of flexibility and discretion, matters in which the Church has to make some rules, but in which it doesn’t matter so much what the particular rules are.  

He confirms that these are matters of some flexibility in section 31: “Similarly, the days themselves, the hours, the structure of the places of worship, what psalms are to be sung on what days, are matters of no importance.  But it is convenient to have definite days and stated hours, and a place suitable to receive all, if there is any concern for the preservation of peace.”  

Therefore, even when such rules are present, individual believers are free to dispense with them where circumstances dictate and good order is not thereby destroyed: “Does religion consist in a woman’s shawl, so that it is unlawful for her to go out with a bare head?  Is that decree of Paul’s concerning silence [of women in the churches] so holy that it cannot be broken without great offense?  Is there in bending the knee…any holy rite that cannot be neglected without offense?  Not at all.  For if a woman needs such haste to help a neighbor that she cannot stop to cover her head, she does not offend if she runs to her with head uncovered.  And there is a place where it is no less proper for her to speak [in the church] than elsewhere to remain silent.  Also, nothing prohibits a man who cannot bend his knees because of disease from standing to pray.”

In short, a restriction on women preaching seems for Calvin not to have been a rule of essential faith and worship, but a rule of good order introduced by Paul for his context (and no doubt one that Calvin would’ve wanted to retain for his own context as well).


(Needless to say, I’m not making any argument of my own here…I merely found Calvin’s position striking.  And if I have misunderstood it, please correct me.)


**Edit** When I found this in Calvin, I thought I remembered seeing it somewhere else, but couldn’t remember where.  Now I just found it again–the same assumption is made by the pastors of Hamburg, Germany, in a letter they wrote (“De Rebus Adiaphoris”) to Melanchthon at the height of the Adiaphora Controversy (more on this controversy in a forthcoming post).  Under the heading of “real Adiaphora, that is to say, those observances, which God has neither commanded nor forbidden, but left free to the Church for its own edification, according to the condition and convenience of places, times and persons” they include such things as ” that men should pray with their heads uncovered, the women with theirs veiled; that men should teach in the Church, not women; that prayers, teaching, chaunting should be on stated days and at fixed hours; that the people should assemble for divine service at the sound of the bell…”

That is even more explicit than Calvin about the relativity and changeability of such an ordinance.  If this is what the Reformers thought, then when did it change?  Was it all part of the legalism of the regulative principle that the Puritans smuggled in?  Curious indeed. **End edit**

3 thoughts on “Was Calvin OK with Women Preaching?

  1. Albert

    Nice finds. In the circles that care, "women not teaching" does not have quite the same biblical basis as "women being silent" since the former contains an implicit authoritative dimension relating to the "God – Christ – Man – Woman" hierarchical structure appealing to the Creation order–oddly, this seems to be a great example of the impossibility of divorcing "creational" rule and "redemptive" rule, except I guess because the appeal to Creation is explicitly in Scripture. In the NT, Paul gives instructions for women audibly praying in the church but there's not an instance of a woman preaching to the assembly to my knowledge, and the only instruction is prohibition. How that relates to Calvin is your task šŸ™‚


  2. Albert…regarding your question / statement about women not preaching to the assembly – where do you imagine women were prophesying? Is not prophesying today equated with that of the sermon?


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    True enough, Al. It seems to me, actually, that McNeill erred with his bracketed Scripture reference there, as the prohibition on women *teaching* is in 1 Tim. 2:12; 1 Cor 14:34 is the passage about them keeping silent (which is what Calvin alludes to two pages later). Calvin is perhaps not distinguishing the passages carefully, which is understandable, as this is hardly his main concern at this point. If this were, however, it would be important to distinguish the two. For while the 1 Cor. 14 passage could easily be read contextually as an adiaphoron, 1 Tim. 2 certainly does seem to be arguing from Creation order.Thankfully, though, as my focus is on adiaphoric theory in general, rather than this particular, relating this to Calvin is not my task…not for now at any rate. šŸ˜‰


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