Drawing on decades of experience, including as a professor at Abilene Christian University and minister, Jack Reese, in At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge (Eerdmans 2021), considers the rapid decline of the Churches of Christ and what might be done.

An unusually large number of people endorse the book in its opening pages — 25, mostly other luminaries in the Churches of Christ.

But not one woman.  Zero.

One, not from the Churches of Christ, endorses on the back of the paperback edition along with three more men. Two more men endorse in internet marketing.

And in this Corner …

Women appear in the first chapter, two from a congregation today, the two expressing conflicting views.

Then two from a congregation in the Bible, with At the Blue Hole lamenting the “church in Philippi was slowly being torn apart because two strong and influential women were having a knock-down-drag-out.”

The Bible doesn’t say, however, that the two, Euodia and Syntyche, were having a knock-down-drag-out.  It doesn’t say the church was being torn apart because of them.

Maybe they disagreed with each other.  Maybe not.  Maybe they were being encouraged to think like Paul or to stand firm.  Or to be of one mind with everyone, as Paul encouraged all. Maybe Paul wanted to encourage them by name to continue thinking alike and for others to assist them with their work. The scripture is ambiguous.

At the Blue Hole repeats a common characterization of the two Phillipi women arguing and pejoratively embellishes further.

One does not have to go past the endorsements and first chapter for a theory to leap out regarding a major reason the Churches of Christ is unlikely to recover from rapid decline absent immediate change.

We’re #1!

Reese recoils at Malcom Gladwell, the popular author, referring to the Churches of Christ as “the most strict of Southern fundamentalist denominations” and “just about the most fundamentalist of fundamentalist Christians.”

To Reese, Gladwell is referring to us not recognizing “other Christian groups as authentically Christian.”  The Churches of Christ once had such a reputation.  Some places, still does.

He may be right, but the rest of Christianity is not some ecumenical party, as many Baptists, Roman Catholics, and others don’t recognize other Christian groups as authentically Christian. So in this respect we aren’t so different.

How are we “the most strict” and “the most fundamentalist”?

The Most

We are nearly alone among Christian groups in completely — completely — prohibiting girls and women from speaking, leading, and actively serving in the worship service, as the vast majority of Churches of Christ congregations do. I estimate around 1-2% of Christianity has such a broad prohibition, most of which is Churches of Christ congregations.

Islam generally does the same in its worship service.

Some Christian denominations have females speaking and leading in the worship service in multiple ways, but bar them from preaching or ordination as pastor or priest.

Some denominations do not bar females from any role or function. 

In the vast majority of Churches of Christ congregations, though, girls and women are generally completely barred from reading scripture out loud, taking up offering, leading singing, praying out loud, preaching, and more in the worship service. Barred from serving communion there. From giving communion remarks. From teaching baptized middle school boys, high school boys, and adult men in Sunday School. Barred from serving as elder. As deacon. Barred from praying out loud in Sunday School when men are there. Barred from teaching adult men in Bible classes on Wednesday night. Barred from…. You get the picture.

Mostly Ignored

Despite this extreme, the subject is largely ignored in At the Blue Hole.

The few times the issue is referenced, it’s terse, downplayed (called “women in leadership”), and in context of things like lauding one man for allowing a woman to discuss it, praising another for his silence on it, and categorizing it as a matter that shouldn’t cause church members who think it’s wrong to prohibit women from leading to stop worshiping alongside those who oppose allowing women to lead and vice versa.

The Incredible Shrinking Churches of Christ

The Churches of Christ stands out in additional ways the book largely doesn’t address: Pre-pandemic, Christianity Today reported that membership as a whole in U.S. Evangelical Christianity, of which the Churches of Christ is a part, is “holding steady.” But the Churches of Christ shrank rapidly in those times, including times and places other parts of Evangelical Christianity, such as the Assemblies of God, grew. Christianity Today also reported a recent “surprising uptick for mainline Protestants” as a whole at the same time the Churches of Christ’s decline accelerated even more. Mainline (such as United Methodist) has declined tremendously over decades, which researchers attribute to members being substantially older, on average, and having fewer kids.

Critically, At the Blue Hole recognizes studies indicate, absent major and immediate changes, about 10,000 of today’s 12,000 Churches of Christ congregations will shut down and membership will fall from about 1.1 million to 250,000 over the next 30 years.

Enjoy the Silence

As part of its central theme on what might be done now, At the Blue Hole praises the silence of a preacher from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, T.B. Larimore. 

Larimore is a “champion of peace” for staying silent and not taking a position on issues like “women in leadership” and instrumental music, and he reflects “gentleness and humility,” Reese says.

Of course, silence favors the status quo.

Who pays the price for the kind of peace delivered by silence? Who paid through the 1900s, into the 1950s and 60s, and beyond?

Gentle & Open to Who?

David Lipscomb, the most influential person in the Churches of Christ for over 50 years in a formative time for the group, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, advocated widespread sex-discrimination against girls and women, demanding their silence, not just in church assemblies, but everywhere public.

“[A]ll public teaching and speaking on any subject at any place puts woman out of place, out of her God-given work,” Lipscomb taught those in the Churches of Christ. 

“A marked gentleness of tone” and “a certain level of openness to differences of opinion” is how At the Blue Hole describes him.

The book lauds Lipscomb’s action, as the Gospel Advocate‘s editor, of publishing articles by Silena Holman that expressed a difference of opinion regarding women and says Lipscomb “responded to her respectfully.”

At the Blue Hole leaves out, though, that Lipscomb responded that he views his publishing her as publishing proof of women’s unfitness, untrustworthiness, and blameworthiness, saying,

if we will read … the article from sister Holman …, we can find a pretty good reason why the Lord did not suffer a woman to teach and lead in his church. When she wants a thing so, her strong emotional nature … will … have it that way ….

She cannot see that the Holy Spirit is telling, I suffered you to take the lead once, your strong emotional nature led you to violate God’s word and to shipwreck a world. I cannot again trust you to lead. …

Her unfitness to lead and teach arises from her strong emotional nature causing her to be easily deceived and to be ready to run after anything or body that might strike her fancy against reason and facts. This is still strongly woman’s characteristic, as the article of our sister plainly shows.

Lipscomb continues to influence the Churches of Christ.

If I Leave Here Tomorrow

“Women in church leadership” is listed in At the Blue Hole with other issues — like praise teams and instrumental music  — that it advocates should not get in the way of a congregation’s unity. 

If a congregation engages in race discrimination by prohibiting black people from speaking or from leadership or from marrying white people in the church, should such action get in the way of unity?

Would you stand up and sit down, smiling, singing, Sunday after Sunday, as you and those around you discriminate against black people? Or would you speak up and then leave if it doesn’t stop?

What about little girls and women? Would you stand up and sit down, smiling, singing, Sunday after Sunday, as you and those around you discriminate against girls and women? Or would you speak up and then leave if it doesn’t stop?

Deja Vu All Over Again

Remember that many Christians sincerely thought scripture requires them to engage in discrimination against black persons — segregated schools and churches, slavery, banning mixed-race marriages, more — through the centuries, into the 1950s and 60s and beyond. They called it “clear.” 

Some today think scripture requires discrimination against girls and women, like some Christians thought then that scripture requires discrimination against black persons.

Who pays the price for such discrimination, silence, such “unity”? Inherent harm to girls, women, and black persons — long-term and permanent harm — by discrimination against them is well-documented.

Reaction to Action

At the Blue Hole has multiple helpful observations, highlighted by many endorsers and other reviewers. There’s praise aplenty on multiple aspects of the book in those endorsements and other reviews (links in the notes section below), so I will keep my review focused.

I don’t disagree with Reese’s urging towards love and unity and towards worshiping beside people with which you disagree regarding various beliefs.

Discriminating against females or black people in the church, though, is not simply believing differently.

Actions make for a different scenario. If the congregation is engaged in actions that discriminate against black people, for example — such as prohibiting them from speaking, leadership, marrying white people — then your presence, participation in the worship service, time, and money amounts to your complicity and participation in those discriminatory actions yourself, to your engaging in those actions yourself, along with your congregation.

Such discrimination inherently harms black people, adults and children. Harms others. Not love. Sin.

Saying Uncle

Such a church scenario is like having a racist uncle. You’re family. Love him, go out to dinner with him every week, hang out on Christmas, call him. Be with him. His beliefs shouldn’t stop you.

If dinner with the family itself involves racist actions, though, it’s different. Love and Christian unity don’t mean you join in racist actions yourself.

If he insists that black people in your family are prohibited from speaking at the table, including from leading the prayer, …

… and you continue to go to dinner with him every week …

… while you do things like avoid asking black people at the table to speak, you only ask white people to lead prayer, you lead part of the dinner conversation knowing black family members are prohibited from doing the same, you help plan the dinner, you help pay for the dinner, you smile and nod at the little black boys and girls at the table …

… then, it is you yourself who is joining in, engaging in, and supporting racist action.

That you do it to keep your uncle happy and to keep peace doesn’t make it not racist. That your uncle believes the Bible tells him to do this doesn’t make it not racist.

At the table and in the resulting harm discrimination causes, there’s no perceptible difference between you and your uncle.

Fool Me Once

Reese acknowledges, “What White Churches of Christ did over the years to marginalize and disempower Black people and Black churches was wrong. White church leaders were wrong. I was wrong. No excuses. No evasion.”

The better path, I think, both at the dinner table with your uncle and for those church members over the years, is to speak up against discrimination and to stop participating if it doesn’t end. Eat and worship with your uncle and those church members in other settings, without such discrimination. Don’t snub. But don’t join in the racist action.

Fool Me Twice

Same for at the communion table, the pulpit, and the church with those prohibiting females from speaking and leading.

You still love them. Still fellowship where you can. Just not going to participate in such action. Not going to participate in a worship assembly in which girls and women are prohibited from speaking in the worship assembly in any way, whether it is from reading scripture, from leading prayer, from preaching, or anything else.

Also, it’s like your and your uncle’s family members are leaving the table rapidly and new family members aren’t joining dinner. Pretty soon, if you don’t do something, it’ll be just you and your uncle.

Don’t Get Fooled Again

An increasing many in the Churches of Christ are speaking up and changing. They are studying scripture closely and concluding it does not require such sex discrimination, that we’ve been following a tradition of man, and that it’s a sin to prohibit females from functions and roles in the church. (see links in Sources section below). We can learn and change. 

Indeed, while venerating the silence of the preacher T.B. Larimore as a central part of the book’s theme of unity, At the Blue Hole skips a critical part of Larimore’s story.

The Gospel Guardian reported in 1955 that Larimore “repented of his long years of indecision and ‘neutrality’ and wrote … he deeply regretted his unwillingness to declare himself during [a dispute over instrumental music].  He had made a grievous mistake, and he wished it were possible to repair the damage his silence had done.”

Like silence on racism, silence on discrimination against girls and women does great damage and is a grievous mistake.  At the Blue Hole makes it.  I made it for years. The vast majority of leaders in Churches of Christ today make it. But we can speak up and change.

Conclusion: For Tomorrow May Be Too Late

While I have focused my review on what I see as a major problem with At the Blue Hole, my criticism is meant to further God’s kingdom and all of our work in that regard. I appreciate Reese writing this book. It’s an important one. I encourage you to read it. 

When reading it, I encourage you to consider its theme of silence and its failures on sex discrimination. I see them as holes of a different type, ones like we’ve seen before, ones of damage to people and the church.

At the Blue Hole recognizes the mistake of silence and inaction on discrimination against black persons. I wish it recognized the mistake of such silence and inaction relative to girls and women. I think that continuing to make such a mistake will render it impossible to repair the current damage.

Speaking up against discrimination against girls and women and stopping participating in it if it doesn’t end seems like the only way. Hard, yes. But for the little girls in the pews, the Churches of Christ as a whole, the body of Christ, and us all, it seems the only way.

When is the point of no return for damage done to the little girls in your pews by sex discrimination? Time passes quickly.   

“He had made a grievous mistake, and he wished it were possible to repair the damage his silence had done.”









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Sources & Notes

Jack R. Reese, At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (2021).

Some general sources:

Regarding the impact of sex discrimination on the Churches of Christ shrinking, see, e.g., Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Closing Monthly, Doubling Rate, Treatment of Girls and Women Factor,” Authentic Theology (December 11, 2019); Steve Gardner, “Church of Christ Decline Worsens, 2400 a Month Depart, Treatment of Women & Girls Factor,” Authentic Theology (Nov. 13, 2019); Steve Gardner, “The Code Blue Church of Christ: 2018 Report Shows Accelerated Membership Decline,” Authentic Theology (Nov. 14, 2018).

Regarding increasing many in the Churches of Christ studying scripture and coming to the conclusion such prohibitions are wrong: See, e.g., these articles and sources cited therein: Steve Gardner, “Female Elders in a Church of Christ: Interviews, One Year Later,” Authentic Theology (December 8, 2020); Steve Gardner, ““Women Serving God” by John Mark Hicks (Book Review),” Authentic Theology (October 1, 2020); Steve Gardner, “4 More Churches of Christ Open Speaking Roles to Women,” Authentic Theology (Nov. 26, 2019); Steve Gardner, “One of Largest Churches of Christ Opens Preaching Role to Women — And Some Questions,” Authentic Theology (Sept. 17, 2019); Steve Gardner, “Another 10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Their Reasons & a Quiz,” Authentic Theology (April 24, 2019); Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: List and Links (Part 1),” Authentic Theology (March 26, 2019); Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Female Elders (Part 2),” Authentic Theology (April 3, 2019); Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: 1 Timothy 2:12, “Teach or Usurp Authority” (Part 3),” Authentic Theology (April 9, 2019); Steve Gardner, “Most Church-of-Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: Violates 1 Timothy 2:12 “do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man”? (Part 4, Conclusion),” Authentic Theology (May 30, 2018); Steve Gardner, “(Part 3) Most Church-of-Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services:  Does It Contradict 1 Cor 14:34-35, “Women Should Remain Silent …”?,” Authentic Theology (May 22, 2018); Steve Gardner, “20 Scripture Passages Telling Women to Speak, Teach, Lead, and Have Authority Over Men, in the Assembly and Elsewhere,” Authentic Theology (September 3, 2018); Wiley Clarkson, “A Directory of Gender Inclusive  and Egalitarian Churches in the Church of Christ Heritage,” Where The Spirit Leads (last updated March 2021), last accessed January 21, 2022.

UPDATED: 2/2/22, 2:42 PM (eastern) (fixed grammar and syntax in first paragraph and added last phrase for clarity in the second of The Most section); 2/21/22 (Added “Not going to participate in a worship assembly in which …” sentence for clarity.)