Teaching vs. Sermoning: The Case for Women Giving Sermons
“The question of women delivering sermons in church is a touchy one for many evangelical Christians,” writes John Dickson. “For some it is even a test case of whether someone is an evangelical.” (11)
Yet Dickson plunges into the deep end with his book Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons, a book that stands apart from other such books engaging gender roles in ministry because of what it doesn’t argue as much as for what it does argue.
Instead of arguing for women ordination, Dickson zeros in on the single issue of whether Scripture permits or denies women the opportunity to give sermons.
And he does so by homing in on the single word upon which this debate rises or falls: the Greek word used in 1 Tim. 2:12, didaskō.
Dickson argues that the modern sermon is different from what Paul envisions for “teaching."
That difference makes all the difference when interpreting 1 Tim. 2:12. It also makes all the difference when permitting women to or restricting women from giving sermons.
As Dickson argues, “teaching” and “sermoning” are not the same.
Paul Distinguishes “Teaching” from “Sermoning”
At the outset Dickson distinguishes three types of speaking based on Romans 12:4-8: Prophesying, teaching, and exhorting.
He maintains "these three activities are not the same." (23) Particularly, “exhorting” is not the same as “teaching”; giving a sermon is not the same as teaching in Paul’s book.
“There are excellent reasons for thinking that Paul did not regard didaskō as a ‘catch-all’ term. In fact, he seems to have thought of it as a specific activity.” (19)
There is a distinction in 1 Cor. 12:28a between prophets and teachers; these two activities cannot be the same.
Twice in 1 Cor. 14, Paul distinguishes “teaching” from other kinds of congregational speaking activity. As Dickson explains, “Paul sees ‘teaching’ as a particular activity, distinguishable in some way from other types of public speaking one would expect to hear regularly in the church service.” (20)
Dickson is particularly interested in how much attention “prophesying” gets in 1 Cor. 12-14 as compared to “teaching.” Paul defines prophesying as “comprehensible speech that builds, encourages, and/or consoles members of the church.” Dickson notes “This is not far off what preachers might want to say about the purpose of their own sermons.” (22)
While Dickson does say a sermon isn’t prophesying per se, he does suggest “sermons are at least as different from what Paul called ‘teaching’ as they are from what he called ‘prophesying.’” (22)
The Sermon Is Not “Teaching”
Dickson suggests the reason why the meaning of 1 Tim. 2:12 is muddled is because we conflate the modern sermon with “teaching.”
“We have tended to equate the modern sermon with ancient ‘teaching.’ But on what grounds?” Dickson asks. “Why aren’t sermons just as appropriately thought of as ‘exhortation,’ mentioned in Romans 12:8?”
Good question. Especially considering “logos paraklēseōs” is the dominate expression used throughout Acts to refer to sermoning, as well as Romans 12:4-8 and Hebrews 13:22.
While Dickson does note not all expressions of “paraklēsis” refer to giving sermons, when used in certain contexts the word does delineate specific ministry activity:
[W]hen the word appears in expressions such as "a word of exhortation" or "the one who exhorts" or "the exhortation," it appears to mark out a distinct activity: a speech designed to persuade or inspire the congregation on the basis of an authoritative tradition or text. (27)
More importantly, Romans 12 shows this activity is distinct from “teaching” activity: “We cannot collapse ‘prophesying’ and ‘exhorting’ into ‘teaching’ any more than we can collapse ‘leading’ and ‘contributing’ into ‘acts of mercy.’” (23)
And this is why Dickson suggests women can give sermons. The act of sermoning is distinct from the act of teaching, of which only one Paul restricts to men.
Women Can Give Sermons, Not Teach
“Paul restricts’ teaching’ (didaskō) to certain qualified men, but he says nothing about ‘prophesying’ or ‘exhorting.’” (23)
Teaching was not a catch-all term for the transmission of any Christian truth. Instead it had a narrow, specific meaning. Dickson explicates this meaning in greater detail than space and time permits, but here’s the difference:
For Paul, “teaching” (in the technical sense) involved carefully preserving and laying down for the congregation the traditions handed on by the apostles. (29)
In other words, teaching refers to the specific activity of preserving orthodoxy. Paul wasn’t preventing women from giving sermons, but restricting the preservation and transmission of apostolic teaching to men.
In the end, Dickson asks “If sermons...are closer to ‘exhortation’ than they are to ‘teaching,’ then what biblical grounds remain for excluding women entirely from this ministry?” (27)
While he still has questions about the ministry of women in the New Testament and today, he concludes “trained and godly women should be allowed to give sermons in our churches.” (85)
Dickson's resource is a worthy contribution to the ongoing discussion of women in ministry, one you should engage yourself alongside Michael Bird's (egalitarian) and Kathy Keller's (complementarian) treatments of the issue.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at www.jeremybouma.com.
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