Dickson is best known for books including If I Were God, I’d Make Myself Clearer that concentrate on the relevance of Jesus in the contemporary world, and his work as a co-founder of the Centre for Public Christianity. In Hearing Her Voice, Dickson argues that women should preach sermons even in the most conservative evangelical churches. Hearing Her Voice is available from Koorong.
The book has stirred up debate online, especially among conservative Christians. But Dickson’s aim is not to re-ignite the culture war but provide a conservative case for women preaching– a middle ground.
“There are many public speaking ministries mentioned in the New Testament—teaching, exhorting, evangelising, prophesying, reading and so on and Paul restricts just one of them to qualified males,” Dickson writes.
“‘Teaching’ is the only type of speech he does not permit to women. Given that he repeatedly describes these various functions as ‘different,’ it is essential to know what the apostle means by ‘teaching’ and whether the modern sermon is its true counterpart. If today’s sermons more closely resemble what Paul called ‘exhortation,’ for instance, that would most surely change the relevance of 1 Timothy 2:12 for the discussion, since that passage has nothing to say about exhortation.”
Prophecy is “comprehensible speech that builds, encourages and/or consoles”, and is “not far off what preachers might want to say about the purpose of their own sermons”. Dickson favours exhorting as the New Testament activity closest to the modern sermon but “there may not be an exact equivalent”.
In 1 Timothy 4:13 Paul urges his apprentice Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of scripture, to exhortation, to teaching”. In Hearing Her Voice, we are being asked to make careful distinctions between these forms of speech.
Dickson argues that the modern sermon– explaining and applying a Bible passage– may not equate to the “teaching” function. Because of this he argues that women should give sermons.
“Teaching” in the New Testament is NOT biblical exposition but the laying down of the apostolic traditions, in Dickson’s view. When Paul wrote to Timothy the Gospels had not been written down. He is told “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14).
This deposit Timothy was to preserve was not written Scripture but a fixed set of words, an oral tradition, that had been handed on to him. The teaching is the handing on of approved apostolic doctrine. Paul’s letters and the yet-to-be written Gospels also contain that tradition: for example “Command and teach these things” (1 Timothy 4:11).
“Some may respond that transmitting the traditions of the Apostles is precisely what a contemporary Bible exposition does. That may be true in a secondary sense, since whenever the New Testament is read and quoted (as in a sermon), an act of transmission is taking place. But the fact that a 300-word Bible passage usually inspires a 3000-word sermon is proof enough that far more is going on in an exposition (and far less) than preserving and laying down the apostolic deposit,” writes Dickson.
The New Testament today carries out the role of preserving the apostolic deposit. “No human being preserves and lays down the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles anymore. Maximum authority resides in scripture more than any preacher and in the public Bible readings more than the sermon.”
In the book Dickson leaves it up to the reader to work out whether women can preach any sermon, or only some sermons. This depends on whether the sermon is considered exhortation or teaching or a combination.
Responding to one critic on Facebook, Dickson revealed his personal position: “I am still open to the reality that some sermons – not all but some – are very close analogies to laying down the apostolic deposit. To the degree that we find ourselves convinced by this we will ensure that male elders are the ones entrusted to deliver such sermons.”
His position, Dickson suspects, will not please either the “tribe” that support women’s ministry in all roles at church, or the “tribe” that believes women should not preach to mixed congregations.
Eternity asked spokespeople from groups that support women being in charge of churches, and from those who believe that men should head churches to comment on Hearing Her Voice:
“John has helpfully reminded us about the need to promote the practice of women speaking encouraging words in church in a biblically appropriate way,” said Lionel Windsor of Neutral Bay Anglican Church in Sydney representing Christians who believe that Churches should be headed by men.
“We should respond to his book by asking ourselves whether we are properly affirming the speech of women in church, and by changing our practices if necessary.
“Nevertheless, Dickson’s primary argument–that the term ‘teach’ in 1 Timothy 2:12 should be restricted to the process of ‘carefully preserving and laying down for the congregation the traditions handed on by the apostles’–is not compelling. The word ‘teach’ generally means a transmission of truth in the context of a clear relationship of authority. Although this truth is of course centred on the apostolic tradition in 1 Timothy, it is not obvious that the verb “teach” should be restricted to the process of passing on traditional apostolic words verbatim.
“Furthermore, Dickson’s description of modern preaching as ‘commentary’ and ‘application’ is too formal and restrictive. Sermons, as we practice them, usually involve the authoritative transmission of truth from preacher to hearer–a process that has significant overlap with the activity of ‘teaching’ referred to in 1 Timothy 2. The relational dynamics described in this passage are relevant to our modern sermons, and need to be taken seriously,” said Windsor.
Read Lionel Windsors full response here (with responses from John Dickson)
High profile campaigner for women’s ministry Rev Dr Kevin Giles says that while he thinks Dickson’s case that women were active in speaking ministries in the little house churches of the first century is conclusive, he’s not convinced that 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.”
Read Kevin Giles full response to John Dickson’s book here.
Dickson’s book is one of a three part series from Zondervan. The others are Michael Bird (Ridley Melbourne Theological College) intriguingly titled “Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry and Kathy Keller’s (wife of the hitherto more famous Tim Keller of Redeemer Church) Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry.
Aussie author Michael Bird comes to a similar conclusion to Dickson, favouring women’s preaching. He builds his case on Paul’s female co-workers Phoebe, Junias and Priscilla among others. Bird points out that these women had opportunities to lead in ways denied by some modern Churches. However he still takes the view that men should lead churches and families.
Like Dickson he attempts to hold a middle ground. “Personally I would rather listen to a sermon by a gifted woman than a sermon by an ungifted man.”
Kathy Keller, wife of US Presbyterian Tim Keller takes a traditional view in her Jesus , Justice and Gender roles: a case for gender roles in ministry. But if you want another Australian author, Claire Smith’s God’s Good Design gives a detailed treatment of the key scriptures behind the “complementarian” position.
*Responses to Dickson’s book have pointed to similar ideas expressed by author James Packer, and a former Archbishop of Sydney, Donald Robinson.
Featured image: Hillsong Colour Conference 2011More