Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons. By John Dickson. Zondervan, 2012. $4.22 (On Kindle here).
The main theme of John Dickson’s latest ebook is the way that modern notions are projected onto first century biblical concepts. In 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul states, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;she must be quiet.’ Dickson argues that the modern semantic range of the word ‘teach’ (didasko) covers far more than how Paul used the word in the first century. When the word teach is understood as an apostolic role, the modern semantic range of the words preach, teach and the like, are brought into question, thus opening the door for women to engage in preaching.
The target audience for this ebook is mixed. While he states that it is not an academic book, he seeks to engage not only ministers, church leaders, and laypeople, but also his colleagues, which ones assumes are academics. Dickson’s stated intention is to help the reader (re)assess the biblical grounds for allowing or prohibiting women in the pulpit. The book is persuasive, but there is room for further dialogue on the raised issues, which can be aided by the provided discussion questions at the end of the book. This section is a great resource for exploring Dickson’s thoughts in a group setting.
To begin with, Dickson outlines that there are many speaking/teaching type roles in the Bible, but only one that women are prohibited from engaging in, and that is the role of teaching (1 Tim. 2:12). He explains that there are differences between the roles of exhorting, prophesying, evangelizing, reading and teaching. Dickson grants that there is overlap between these roles, but he is keen to show that any overlap should not negate any apparent distinction. A helpful clarification is that these speaking roles have a similar content but different function. In this first chapter, Dickson demonstrates that at the very least women should be able to engage in a number of speaking (‘teaching’) roles that involve biblical content in mixed gender settings because these roles, especially the role of exhortation, most closely resembles the modern day sermon.
In chapter two Dickson seeks to answer the question ‘what is teaching?’ It is argued that in 1 Timothy 2, Paul is not referring to a general conception of teaching but teaching that is authoritative, which he further clarifies using ‘historical realities and biblical text’. ‘Teaching for Paul means preserving and laying down the fixed traditions of and about Jesus as handed on by the apostles.’ By drawing on the historical reality of the early church’s need for an oral tradition to preserve the core truths, Dickson mounts the case that teaching, in the narrow 1 Timothy 2 sense, is comprised of, and is the communication of, the new covenant truth prior to the advent of the Bible. The biblical defense is made up of two phrase structures. The first is similar to that which we read in 2 Timothy 1:13: ‘Follow the sound words you have heard from me.’ (2 Tim. 1:13). The second phrase is found throughout the Pastoral Epistles: ‘trustworthy word’ (pistos logos) (1 Tim. 1:15, 3:1, 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11 Titus 3:8). It is thus argued that the notion of teaching is thus a specific role with specific content.
Dickson concludes that the role of preserving the truth is different to the other speaking/teaching roles, which in essence expound the content of the oral tradition. The concept of teaching in 1 Timothy 2 is referring to the preeminent role of safeguarding, preserving and delivering the content of Jesus’ person and work both orally and later in text. This, according to Dickson’s argument, is what women are prohibited from engaging in.
In the last two chapters, Dickson’s main thesis comes together as he differentiates between exposition and teaching. Exposition is explaining what the teachers have preserved. That is, exposition is the explanation and application of the content (teaching) that has been safeguarded by teachers through oral tradition (and later through text) to the life of the church by men and women. Dickson explodes the assumption that expounding is equivalent to teaching, though not without a measure of nuanced discussion regarding certain content and function overlap. An interesting supporting text that Dickson draws on is 2 Timothy 3:16, which states that Scripture is useful (ophelimos) for teaching (didaskalia). In other words, Scripture (the Old Testament) supports, but is not equivalent to, the apostolic task of laying down the apostolic tradition.
Dickson addresses the obvious critique that someone who is expounding the preserved teaching is in fact preserving and passing on the very content that Dickson has solely ascribed to the apostolic teaching role. He counters this by explaining that this notion of preserving the teaching is secondary. The person expounding the preserved truths is not preserving the teaching in the primary apostolic sense. Such expositors are wholly accountable to the apostolic tradition, whereas the apostolic teachers and the tradition that they preserve is not accountable to anyone in any such way. In other words, the preservation has been completed and is final. What is left is the communication of these truths and the application of them to the body of Christ. For this Paul uses the terms exposition, prophesy, evangelism, etc., all of which women are not prohibited from engaging in.
The argument put forward by Dickson is simple – if teaching is understood in the narrow sense to be the preservation of the apostolic truth, then the command that women cannot teach in 1 Timothy 2 prohibits women from the narrow sense of teaching only, that is, preserving the apostolic tradition. This allows women to engage with other forms of communicating biblical content to mixed groups.
Dickson’s argument is a compelling reminder to check the glasses that we use when we read the biblical text. His argument is well rehearsed and buttressed with thorough biblical grounding, historical context and sound logic. One aspect of the book that needs extra attention and debate, however, is the notion that one who today teaches the apostolic truth is not a teacher (in the narrow sense) but only secondarily so. It might be argued that while the modern expositor is not the original preserver of the new covenant truth, there is still the requirement to faithfully pass on the truth as it was handed down to them. Does the famous 2 Timothy 2:2 passage challenge the primary versus secondary distinction that Dickson draws with regard to those that preserve apostolic truth? What is the difference between the role of Paul, Timothy and the early church fathers, and the preacher in the pulpit today in maintaining the apostolic truth? Are the roles today of teacher in the narrow sense (even if secondary) and expositor necessarily conflated? If so, what impact would this have on the discussion of women teaching from the pulpit?