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3 Responses to John Dickson's Invitation for Women to Preach — An Excerpt from "Hearing Her Voice"

Categories Book Excerpts

9780310519270On Tuesday I engaged a new book by John Dickson that considers the "gender roles in ministry" discussion from a new angle. Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons is a unique book because of what it doesn’t argue as much as for what it argues.

Dickson zeros in on the Greek word used in 1 Tim. 2:12, didaskō, arguing that the modern sermon is different from what Paul envisions for “teaching." Dickson argues “teaching” and “sermoning” are not the same. Therefore, "trained and godly women should be allowed to give sermons." (13)

To further the discussion we thought we would provide an excerpt of Dickson's closing thoughts. In it he provides a summary of his argument as well as three broad envisioned responses.

Though Dickson’s contribution doesn’t close the ongoing discussion of gender role in ministry, it certainly provides another valuable perspective.

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)


Let me offer a brief seven-point summary of my argument and then offer some imagined responses.

1. Paul mentions many different types of public speaking: prophesying, teaching, admonishing, reading, exhorting, evangelising, and preaching. They are all different words, depicting different activities.

2. In Romans 12 and elsewhere Paul makes clear that, whatever similarities there may be between these activities, they are “different” forms/functions of speaking (at least teaching, prophesying, and exhorting are different).

3. In 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul clearly states that he does not permit women to “teach” men. No other speaking activity is mentioned here. And the “authority” mentioned here is teaching- authority or (less plausibly) a reference to the broader authority of being an elder.

4. Paul nowhere forbids women to engage in preaching, admonishing, exhorting, evangelising, reading, or prophesying. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 11 it is clear he expects women to be prophesying in church. “Teaching” is the only restricted activity.

5. “Teaching” in Paul’s usage, especially in the Pastoral Epistles, consistently refers to the task of passing on the “deposit” of apostolic words in a period when those words were mostly not written down. In all of this, Paul’s Jewish background is clear, since Pharisees were well- known for preserving and passing on a vast body of non- written material known as “the traditions of the fathers.”

6. No text of the New Testament, including Paul’s writings, says that “teaching” (didaskō , 1 Tim 2:12) is an exposition and application of a scriptural passage (i.e., what we call a sermon).

7. What we call “giving a sermon” has more in common with what Paul called “exhorting” and “prophesying”’ than with what he labeled “teaching.” The “word of exhortation” seems to have been a standard expression for a speech following an authoritative text.

Therefore, woman ought to be allowed to give sermons in our churches, without fearing that 1 Timothy 2:12 is being violated…

I anticipate three broad responses to this short book (apart from outright rejection). Some may only accept the main point made in chapter 1, that there are numerous different speaking activities listed in the New Testament and only one of them is restricted to men. As a result, some may decide (afresh) to find ways to give women more of a voice in the church service, inviting them to give “talks,” or whatever we call them, designed to strengthen the faith of those present…

Others may embrace my entire argument and conclude that no one “teaches” any more in the sense mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:12 and that explaining and applying a biblical text is never called “teaching” in the New Testament. Rather, that activity is closer to “exhorting” (or “prophesying”). As a result, all sermons are open to suitable men and women. I think this is a plausible application of the biblical data. The only awkwardness that would remain is the one confronting those who think “prophesying” no longer exists: What do we do with the passages that read as though “teaching” will be an ongoing ministry of the church? There are several ways to respond, but it is a question to be faced.

A third response (closer to my own current thinking) may conclude that, although the modern sermon cannot always be equated with what Paul calls “teaching” in 1 Timothy 2:12, some sermons today may be close analogies to the careful transmission of the apostolic deposit. On this view, sermons are seen on a spectrum: some are more like prophesying and exhorting and aim to urge obedience to Scripture or encourage confidence in God’s truth; others function more as a focused mandating of apostolic doctrine.

According to this view “exhorting” sermons would be open to suitable men and women alike. But what about “teaching” sermons? This is an open question. It depends on the degree to which one sees teaching authority residing in the preacher today or in the text of the Bible. J. I. Packer, quoted above, holds that teaching authority has shifted from the teacher to the text. I assume this means that even sermons at the “mandating-of-apostolic-doctrine” end of the spectrum would be open to women, because although the activity itself broadly corresponds to ancient “teaching,” the authority contained in the activity is not the same. As Packer remarks, “When you teach from the Bible, in any situation at all, what you are saying to people is, ‘Look, I am trying to tell you what it says. I speak as to wise men and women. You have your Bibles. You follow along. You judge what I say.’ No claim to personal authority with regard to the substance of the message is being made at all.” This is a reasonable line of argument.

With that said, I continue to think that Paul expected preaching itself to reflect the complementarity of the sexes. Adam was charged with being the protector of the first divine deposit; male elder-teachers are charged with preserving the last divine deposit. Packer preserves this complementarity by restricting the priesthood to men (in his Anglican context). However, Paul seemed to want congregational preaching, not just congregational structures, to embody God’s complementary design for male-female relationships (otherwise, his simultaneous acceptance of women prophesying and restriction of their teaching makes little sense). Hence, it is my opinion that sermons at the “mandating-of-apostolic-doctrine” end of the spectrum—which I believe is not the typical Sunday sermon—ought to be preached by the male Senior Minister.

It will perhaps be frustrating to some that I don’t intend to offer any examples of what such sermons involve. This is partly because my own thoughts are not fully formed and partly because I don’t want to be overly prescriptive. I would prefer readers made up their own minds about how to apply the biblical data in our modern context. It is plain that the activity and authority Paul did not allow women in 1 Timothy 2:12 is not the same as exhorting and prophesying, activities he did not restrict to men. It is further clear that modern sermons are typically more like exhortation than laying down the apostolic deposit (“teaching”). Beyond this, we are in the realm of practical wisdom rather than theological obligation.


Old Testament Today, 2nd Edition

Hearing Her Voice (Revised Edition)

By John Dicksoon

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