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An evangelical egalitarian response to John Dickson’s ‘Hearing Her Voice’

The editor of Eternity has invited me as a conservative evangelical, a graduate of Moore College, and a convinced egalitarian to make a brief response to John Dickson’s new e-book, Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons. John’s book is very focused. He asks only one question, “Should women be excluded from ordinary preaching in church?” On a strictly exegetical basis he concludes that women should be allowed, indeed, encouraged to preach.

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He argues that if the exceptional prohibition on women teaching with authority in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is interpreted to universally exclude women from preaching in church then this one text contradicts much in the Bible. In the New Testament there are numerous speaking ministries, prophesying, evangelism, exhorting, reading the Bible etc, and from none of these are women excluded. In fact, women seem to be very active in these vocal ministries. I would add that they were also involved in teaching, but not the kind envisaged by 1 Timothy 2:11-I2, whatever this is.  I take it for granted that all leaders in the apostolic church, men and women, would have taught at times. Prophets certainly taught as the case of the false prophet Jezebel proves (Rev. 2:20). Apostles also taught and Paul speaks of a woman apostle (Rom. 16:7). What then, John asks, is Paul excluding women from in 1 Timothy 2:11-12? His answer is that he is excluding women solely from teaching authoritatively the apostolic tradition; what the apostles laid down as foundational to the faith ‘once delivered to the saints’. Ordinary preaching, even expository preaching, he argues, does not involve this. Most preaching, he says, is in fact exhortation. If this is the case then interpreting 1 Timothy 2:11-12 to universally exclude women from preaching in church is mistaken. It is to demand something not demanded by scripture.

I think John’s case that women were active in speaking ministries in the little house churches of the first century, often led by women, is conclusive. I am, however, not convinced that in this text Paul is forbidding women from teaching the apostolic tradition. Egalitarian evangelicals hold that the unique and stark verb that describes the teaching forbidden to women who have been ‘deceived,’ authentein, defines what is prohibited. It is teaching that claims the same authority of that of the apostles themselves. I also think John’ case is weakened because in focusing solely on v. 11 he has failed to note that everything said in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, the textual context in which v 11 is found, is exceptional. Paul’s prohibition on women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11 is not the only comment that stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. Nowhere else in scripture do we find the word authentein (an exceptional and negative word definitely implies some exceptional and problematic kind of teaching); nowhere else in scripture is it taught that women are subordinated to men because Adam was created first; nowhere else is it said that it was Eve who was deceived by the devil in the garden, not Adam, and nowhere else do we find Paul saying that women ‘are saved through childbearing,’ whatever that means.

Once it is recognised that 1 Timothy 2:11-15 says something exceptional in every verse we must conclude that Paul is addressing an exceptional situation. We must agree with John Dickson that the teaching forbidden to women is not ordinary preaching faithfully reflecting what the scriptures teach. What needs to be added to what John says is that it also follows that this particular passage cannot be the starting point for any discussion of what the scriptures teach on the man-woman relationship, let alone the lens for reading all of scripture on this issue. Problematic passages can never be the basis for building theology.

John is free to write on the specific question of can women preach in church but for an evangelical egalitarian excluding the monumental question that profoundly and painfully divides evangelicals on the world scene limits the value of this book.  I presume that because John cannot allow women to teach the doctrinal tradition he believes that God has made women the subordinated sex.  This is exactly what evangelical egalitarians argue is contrary to the teaching of scripture.

Because many of my Sydney Anglican readers will be ill informed of the evangelical egalitarian position I spell it out in brief for their interest. We egalitarians reject nothing in scripture. For us scripture has final authority and is normative. The monumental cultural change in regard to women in the last forty or so years has certainly opened our eyes to what scripture actually says on the sexes but culture is not the basis of anything egalitarians teach. For this reason I have yet to meet an evangelical egalitarian that endorses homosexual intercourse or the ordination of practising homosexuals.  And we definitely endorse sexual differentiation; God has made us men and women and for this reason we think the two sexes complement each other. What we do not believe is that differentiation implies the subordination of the female sex. Our argument for the substantial equality of the two sexes is entirely biblical, predicated on a disclosed and consistent hermeneutic. We believe that starting the discussion on   the status and ministry of women with 1Timothy 2:11-12 and then interpreting all else in scripture in terms of this one exceptional text is hermeneutically indefensible.  It presupposes the answer. We egalitarians argue that we should begin where the Bible begins, Genesis chapters 1 to 3. In Genesis 1:27-28 the substantial equality of the two differentiated sexes is mandated by God. Genesis 2 says nothing on the subordination of women. Rather it makes the point that that man (the male) is helpless, inadequate, alone. He is only fully man in distinction to woman when he stands alongside woman who is his counterpart. For the author of Genesis, the subordination of woman is entirely a consequence and outworking of sin (Gen 3:17). In the New Testament the place to begin is the Gospels where Jesus’ noble vision of women is spelt out. With Paul the place to begin is with his gift- based theology of ministry which is blind to gender. Only then should the three regulative comments addressing women who are causing offence in a specific historical context, 1 Cor. 11-3-16, 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-14, be discussed. On the basis of this reading of scripture, egalitarian evangelicals conclude that the substantial equality of the two differentiated sexes is the God-given ideal and the subordination of women is a reflection of the fall; something not pleasing to God.

I warmly commend John Dickson for his courage in daring to question the prevailing view in Sydney that women should not preach in church and for bringing to our attention the exceptional nature of what Paul says in 1 Timothy chapter 2.  I can only hope that this is the beginning of a journey for him that will lead him to question the claimed biblical basis for the thesis that women are the subordinate sex who are to be ‘submissive’ to the men set over them.

The Rev. Dr Kevin Giles (Th.D., Australian College of Theology) is an ordained Anglican minister who was in parish ministry for forty years. He lives in Melbourne.

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