What’s happening to our preaching? A response to John Dickson: Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons

John Dickson, Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons.

[Lionel has published this response on his own blog, and allowed us to re-post it here. You’ll find some interaction from other readers over there, and a longer, separate response from John Dickson in a week or so. -Ed.]

On Boxing Day 2012,* a series of electronic booklets called “Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry” was released by Zondervan. One of these booklets was written by John Dickson, a highly respected Australian evangelist, writer, researcher and Anglican minister. Although I have only met John briefly, I have personally appreciated and benefited from much of his written work—both academic and popular. He has been involved in Christian ministry for significantly longer than I have; nevertheless we do share a number of things in common. I write regularly for an organisation (Matthias Media) with whom John has had a long and fruitful association. I am a Sydney Anglican minister myself. I also share similar academic research interests to John, particularly regarding the application of New Testament historical research to contemporary ministry.

John’s booklet is, as the title states, “A Case for Women Giving Sermons.” The booklet raises issues which are of great interest—and importance—to many Christians, including (and perhaps especially) Christians in Sydney. It is inexpensive and easy to download, ensuring a wide dissemination. Furthermore, it has been released at a time over the Australian summer holiday period when many Christians are at summer camps and missions, reflecting and discussing theological issues with one another. The nature and timing of the release of this booklet necessitates a number of relatively fast, but also relatively substantial responses. There are already some responses out there (e.g. Luke CollingsPeter Bolt). I trust that this response of my own will be helpful for those seeking to engage with the issues John raises.

A measured response to “a modest proposal”

I write with some trepidation. Despite the need for relatively speedy responses, it is also important to write these responses with care and precision. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, of course, we need to ensure we are doing justice to our brother’s views. This is especially important when the brother in question is a minister of the gospel who is seeking to promote discussion about biblical Christian ministry and preaching—a claim he makes repeatedly in his book, and which is of course clearly evident from his personal ministry over many years. Secondly, John has raised some real, important concerns about the nature of women’s ministry in our context. We need to be careful not to mute or overlook these concerns, but rather to take the opportunity to listen, learn and respond appropriately. Thirdly, we need to take care that any criticism we offer does not miss the mark and thus fail to be constructive. I will have criticism, of course. In fact, as my title indicates, I think John’s booklet has raised fundamental questions that deserve probing responses and further discussion—not just regarding the particular ministry of women, but also regarding the nature of contemporary preaching in general. It would be a great shame, however, if such responses and discussions degenerated into simplistic slogans. Finally, while I’m sure he doesn’t intend to create division, a number of the points John makes are potentially very divisive. In light of these claims, we need to do whatever we can to promote gospel unity and avoid an unnecessary “taking of sides”.

Dickson’s proposal is highly focussed, relatively straightforward and concisely argued. It concerns the meaning and contemporary application of the term “teach” in 1 Timothy 2:12:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Timothy 2:11–12)

Dickson’s proposal is as follows:

I hope to show that the specific activity Paul disallows to women in 1 Timothy 2:12 does not refer to a general type of speaking based on Scripture. It refers to a specific activity found throughout the pages of the New Testament. It means preserving and laying down the traditions handed on by the apostles. This is not easily equated with the explanation and application of a Bible passage found in today’s expository sermon. If this is correct—if Paul’s “teaching” and our “sermon” are not identical—the biblical warrant for excluding women from the pulpit is not strong. (66-69)1

Dickson is also at pains to point out a number of things that he is not seeking to do. Two of these things are especially worth noting here:

  1. Dickson is not seeking to reject, undermine, remove himself from or in any way denigrate the biblical, reformed evangelical heritage of his Sydney Anglican context.
  2. Dickson is not seeking to promote “egalitarianism”. He believes there are key differences between men and women in the home and in the church.2 He is simply arguing that the ministry of the pulpit does not constitute one of these differences.

Of course, there may be consequences and implications arising from Dickson’s argument which he does not imagine or intend. Indeed, one of my aims in what follows will be to highlight some of these potential consequences and implications. However, I am not seeking to attribute any intentional malice or mischief to Dickson himself.

My response to Dickson’s booklet will follow, in order, three steps:

  • I will affirm a number of things I genuinely appreciate about the booklet.
  • I will scrutinise and question Dickson’s argument for a specialised, technical definition of the word “teach” (Greek didaskō) in 1 Tim 2:12.
  • I will question Dickson’s (and indeed our own) assumptions about what is actually happening in a contemporary sermon.

Things I appreciate about Hearing Her Voice

There are a number of things about Dickson’s booklet that I truly appreciate, and which are worth highlighting and affirming.

Firstly, the booklet urges us to think historically about the Bible. Although Dickson’s booklet is not an “academic” publication, nevertheless it does for us what good biblical scholarship should do. It forces us to use the lens of historical imagination to think about the Bible and to apply God’s word to our contemporary situation. I am using the term “imagination” positively here. It is too easy for us to read the Bible assuming that the situation into which it is written is in every respect the same as our own. Although we should not highlight the differences too strongly, there is great value in “imagining” (on the basis of biblical and other historical evidence) what it would have been like “back then,” so that we can better understand what the Bible is (and is not) saying to us “here and now”. The particular questions which Dickson forces us to think through are important: What would church have looked like at a time when nobody (not even the “preachers”) had the same easy access to the collected documents of the New Testament which we take for granted? How should this affect us, as we seek to appropriate texts about congregational life, written into such a situation (such as 1 Tim 2:12)? These are questions worth asking, even if we disagree about the answers.

Secondly, the booklet makes us think practically about a particular biblical word. Dickson writes as one who is convinced (as I am) that God speaks to us through the very words of the Bible. Thus his special focus on the word “teach” (didaskō), far from being a dry exercise in pedantry, is designed to help us consider what God is really saying to us, and what that should mean for our contemporary ministry practices. There are, indeed, some parallels between what Dickson is doing here and the work of an earlier generation of Sydney evangelicals—most notably Broughton Knox and Donald Robinson’s articulation of the biblical doctrine of church. They pointed out that the Greek word ekklēsia, which is usually translated as “church” in our Bibles, doesn’t necessarily map directly onto the English word “church”. They then sought to apply that linguistic insight to our modern church practices. This generated many fruitful discussions (along with many disagreements and misappropriations!). Dickson’s investigation is nowhere near as detailed as that of Knox and Robinson, of course. Nevertheless, the parallels between the two endeavours should help us to remember that sustained concentration on individual words is a worthwhile exercise, even if we disagree about the results of the investigation.

Thirdly, Dickson raises an issue that is worth discussing—even more so than the oft-cited issue of “women’s ordination”. Dickson deliberately says nothing about ordination (52). This is, to my mind, a good thing. The question of ordination has to do with church structures, offices and organisation. These issues, while important, are derivative. They are not the heartbeat of the evangelical faith. Rather, we are (or should be) even more interested in those fundamental questions about the word of God itself: particularly about how God’s word is to be spoken and experienced in the concrete relational context of regular Christian gatherings. Dickson’s booklet raises these important questions, albeit from the viewpoint of a particular question concerning the role of women.

Fourthly, Dickson is seeking to promote the regular practice of women speaking encouraging words in church in a biblically appropriate way. Dickson calls on his potential critics to explain why our church gatherings so rarely allow opportunities for women to offer encouraging words (742). He says that he would be delighted with even a minimal response to his book, in which some of his readers decide afresh to “give women more of a voice in the church service” (747, cf. 290), even if they do not invite women to share the pulpit. I write as somebody who would fit roughly into this category of respondent. I recall just a few weeks ago at church how I was greatly encouraged by an elderly widow, a Christian woman who spoke at some length about her efforts at evangelism. Through her example she gently but firmly exhorted and rebuked us all! This sort of thing should happen more often. During my own time leading a congregation and preaching, I have made some efforts to do as Dickson suggests, but I have to admit that it’s been a bit feeble; I could do more. So I appreciate Dickson’s call here (on this topic, see also Luke Collings).

“Teaching” ain’t teaching?

Let’s now get into the details of Dickson’s argument.

Dickson’s technical sense of “teach”

As I have already said, much of Dickson’s argument is focussed on a single Greek word which appears in 1 Timothy 2:12: didaskō. This word is translated “teach” in most of our modern English versions. Dickson, however, is claiming that this word often has a “specific”, “particular” and “technical” sense, especially in Paul’s letters (including 1 Tim 2:12). It refers, he argues, to an activity which was directly relevant to the first century church, but which has no real modern equivalent. It refers to the process of

carefully preserving and laying down for the congregation the traditions handed on by the apostles. (294)

This was a vital role in the early church because of their historical situation:

In the period before the texts of the New Testament were available (before about AD 100), a church’s only access to the range of things the apostles had said about Jesus and his demands was through a teacher, the one entrusted with the “apostolic deposit.”(295)

Dickson thus links the term didaskō directly with the process of “oral tradition” by which early Christian teaching was transmitted (see esp. 407-433). Indeed, by quoting 1 Corinthians 11:23-24 (374), Dickson implies that the word “teach” belongs in pretty much the same field as other words which are usually accepted by scholars as referring to oral tradition, such as “deliver” (paradidōmi) and “receive” (paralambanō). Dickson is quite specific about what “teaching” would have looked like. It would have consisted of relatively short, concise repetitions of traditional phrases (see e.g. 695-696). The job of the teacher was simply to “rehearse for you [i.e. the hearer] the specific sayings he had committed to memory (just as the Pharisees could repeat what Rabbi Hillel had said about divorce laws)” (658). The teacher’s role was thus quite specific, but it was also invested with “maximal” authority because the sayings he repeated came directly from Jesus and the apostles and thus required unquestioning acceptance (685-693).

Of course, since we now have access to the authoritative New Testament Scriptures in the fixed canon, the role of “teaching” in this technical sense is defunct. “No human being preserves and lays down the teachings of Jesus and the apostles anymore” (664). Since there are no “teachers” in this technical sense, Dickson argues that the command of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 does not apply to anyone alive today. This kind of maximally authoritative “teaching” no longer exists—our authority, instead, lies in the Bible. In fact, while he doesn’t say it, we could reasonably imply from Dickson’s argument and his use of various analogies (70, 236) that it would be better not to use the word “teach” at all to translate the Greek term: “teaching” ain’t really teaching!

Dickson’s Rejected alternative: an extremely generalised sense of “teach”

In a number of places throughout his booklet, Dickson makes a contrast between his own very specific understanding of the word “teach” as a technical term for transmitting oral tradition, and an alternative understanding which he rejects as inadequate in most instances. The alternative understanding of didaskō which Dickson rejects is an extremely generalised sense of the term “teach.” In this understanding, the term “teach” refers to any sustained activity in which one person informs another person about (or on the basis of) biblical or gospel truth. Dickson refers to this sense variously as “pretty much any sort of biblical talk” (165), “the broadest possible meaning” (240), “any extended speech in church” (240), “all forms of public speaking in church” (677).

Dickson consistently contrasts his own very particular understanding of “teach” with this alternative, extremely generalised sense. Indeed, he often seems to argue as if these are the only two viable options for understanding the word.

The argument

Dickson’s argument has three key elements.

Firstly, Dickson points to the many instances where Paul uses the word “teach” or its cognates (such as “teacher”) alongside and in parallel with other words that refer to speech such as “prophesy” and “exhort” (e.g. Rom 12:6-8, Eph 4:11). This shows that the word “teach” cannot be used in the extremely generalised sense—otherwise, what are the other words doing there? Therefore, in Paul’s normal usage it must have a more specialised, technical sense (163-273).3

Secondly, Dickson points out that Paul sometimes uses the word “teach” in a context where he is clearly referring to the passing on and laying down of oral tradition (e.g. 2 Tim 2:2). Therefore, the word “teach” likely refers to this process (400).

Thirdly, Dickson shows that his specific, technical definition of the term “teach” is consistent with most of the other instances of the term or its cognates in Paul’s letters, especially in the pastoral epistles (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus).

Another (obvious) alternative?

Dickson claims that for his argument to be shown to be wrong, a critic must provide “an alternative understanding of authoritative teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12 that fits with the historical and biblical data” (736).

I will, then, propose an alternative understanding of the term “teach.” This understanding is, as far as I can tell from consulting dictionaries and looking up the term in Greek usage, a very common usage of the word in the ancient world. It also maps reasonably well (albeit not perfectly) onto the English term “teach”.4

To “teach” normally refers to an activity of transmitting intellectual and moral truth from one individual to another (or to a group of others), in a manner which is usually predicated upon some relationship of order or authority between teacher and learner (e.g. parent-child, teacher-disciple, leader-community).

This understanding of the term “teach” is, of course, more general than Dickson’s “special”, “technical” and “particular” sense which restricts its usage to the passing on of oral tradition. Nevertheless, it is also more specific than Dickson’s alternative, extremely generalised sense as “all forms of public speaking in church”. This is because “teaching”, when contrasted with other kinds of biblical or gospel speech, implies or assumes a clearer sense of an ordered relationship of authority between teacher and disciple.5

In this understanding, then, 1 Timothy 2:12 would be referring to a kind of communication of Christian truth in which there is a clear relationship of order or authority between speaker and hearer. Paul is prohibiting this kind of communication being exercised by women to men in a congregational context.

Returning to the arguments of the booklet

In light of the existence of this alternative, Dickson’s argument is not as strong as it might at first appear. Let us re-examine the various elements of his argument.

Firstly, I am quite prepared to accept Dickson’s argument that “teaching” isn’t used as a catch-all term to describe any communication of biblical truth to anybody else. However, ruling out this extremely generalised sense doesn’t necessarily imply that we must accept Dickson’s very specialised, technical sense. Another, standard, sense is available to us and should be considered first: teaching means the authoritative transmission of truth from one individual to another, in whatever way is most appropriate to the context in which the word is being used. This understanding of teaching, by itself, would account for the fact that “teaching” is distinguished from “prophesying”, “exhorting”, etc. Teaching is different to prophecy, exhortation, etc. because the relational dynamics involved in teaching are different to the relational dynamics involved in prophecy, exhortation, etc. We do not have to jump to the specialised, technical sense to explain the parallel use of “teaching” alongside “prophesy”, “exhortation”, etc.

Secondly, an understanding of the word “teach” which allows it to refer to any kind of authoritative transmission of the truth allows it to be used, on occasion, in places where the passing on of solemn tradition is in view (such as 2 Tim 2:2), since the passing on of solemn tradition is indeed one kind of authoritative transmission of truth. This does not mean, however, that every instance of the term (such as 1 Tim 2:12) must be referring to the passing on of oral tradition.

Thirdly, the idea that the word “teach” can refer to any kind of authoritative transmission of truth (depending on the context) is also consistent with the other instances of Paul’s usage. It makes sense, for example, of the command for older women to be people who “teach what is good” (using the cognate term kalodidaskalos) and so train younger women (Tit 2:3-4)—the relationship of authority here is predicated on age.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that outside the pastoral epistles, the word “teach” (didaskō) does not sit at all comfortably within the vocabulary of oral tradition. On the one hand, many of the key places in Paul’s letters which Dickson cites to support the concept of oral tradition (367, 378) do not in fact mention the term “teach” (e.g. 1 Cor 1:14-17, 2:2, 3:10, 6:9-11, 9:3-6, 11:2, 11:23-26, 15:1-11; Gal 1:6-9; 1 Thess 4:1-2). Rather, the more common technical terms for the passing on of oral tradition are words such as “deliver” (paradidōmi) and “receive” (paralambanō) along with their cognates. On the other hand, in the Old Testament and in contemporary Jewish circles, the term “teach” often involves a specific written text (e.g. Deut 4:10-13, Neh 8:8 LXX, 2 Chr 17:9 LXX, Ezr 7:10, Rom 2:20-21), and so must be broader than Dickson’s specialised, technical understanding of the term as a reference to the laying down and passing on of oral tradition.

Teaching is still teaching!

I still believe, therefore, that Dickson has the burden of proof before him. He has shown that his definition of teaching as the laying down or passing on of oral tradition is sometimes consistent with its usage in the pastorals. But this is far from proving that it must be what Paul means in 1 Tim 2:12. To my mind, a more obvious understanding of the word “teach” is the authoritative transmission of truth from one individual to another, in whatever way is most appropriate to the context in which the word is being used. Dickson’s insistence that we are dealing with a specific, technical understanding of the term is an interesting hypothesis, but it has yet to be developed into a compelling argument.

What’s actually happening in a contemporary sermon?

As we have seen, the first plank of Dickson’s argument is that the “teaching” activity which is forbidden to be exercised by women to men in 1 Tim 2 is a specific activity involving “carefully preserving and laying down for the congregation the traditions handed on by the apostles.” I have argued above that Dickson does not present a convincing case for this understanding of the term “teach”. The second plank of Dickson’s argument is that contemporary preaching is something quite different; it is more like the biblical activity of “exhortation” (e.g. Rom 12:8), an activity which is never explicitly forbidden to women.

Dickson’s argument does not ultimately stand or fall on the basis of whether contemporary preaching is identified with the activity referred to by the biblical term “exhortation”. Hence I will not pursue the issue here.6 I believe, however, that there are even more significant questions which arise from this second plank of Dickson’s argument. These questions concern Dickson’s stated understanding of what contemporary preaching actually is.

For Dickson, a sermon is essentially a verbal commentary on a Bible passage along with some application. Dickson articulates this understanding consistently throughout his booklet: preaching is “explanation and application of a Bible passage” (68, 266, 324, 458); it is “commenting on the apostolic teaching (and various other parts of Scripture) and urging believers to apply God’s Word to modern life” (634); “[t]he words of the modern preacher are more like a commentary on Scripture and an application of Scripture” (694, cf. 247).

Dickson does not argue for his view of preaching; rather he simply assumes that the bulk of his readers will share his understanding of the nature of the contemporary sermon. Of course, I completely understand why Dickson would assume this definition of preaching. “Commentary” and “application” is indeed what a lot of preaching looks like. In fact, in purely formal terms, Dickson’s description of preaching is pretty accurate. If you analysed the formal structure of most sermons, you would probably find that commentary and application do take up quite a large chunk of what’s going on (at least in Sydney).

But let’s take a step back for a moment. “Commentary” and “application” might be what preaching often looks like. But is this really what preaching actually is, at its core? Or at the very least, is this what preaching really should be?

Dickson’s booklet has caused me to reflect on my own personal experience of sermons by others, and sermons I’ve preached, and on what I know about the best preaching in church history. And I am not satisfied with an understanding of preaching which views it simply as “commentary plus application.” Now let me ask you, if you have experienced or participated in preaching—are you satisfied with this definition? I think there is far more going on.

Sermons at their best are, I propose, communicative acts in which a preacher, empowered by the Spirit of God, delivers God’s truth to his hearers in a way which transfixes and transforms their whole heart—mind, will, conscience, affections. Of course, because God’s truth comes to us in and through the inspired words of the Scriptures, it is right to ensure that our sermons clearly and demonstrably rely upon the very words of the Scriptures. This is why, as Dickson affirms, the “default form” of the sermon is “exposition and application” (461). But identifying the default form of the sermon is not the same as identifying the essence of the sermon. A good sermon is more than this. It is a delivery of God’s truth from speaker to hearer.

“ A good sermon… is a delivery of God’s truth from speaker to hearer.”

Furthermore, there are real relational dynamics of authority going on when preaching occurs in a concrete gathering of believers. These relational dynamics are different from the relational dynamics that are in play, for example, when an individual is sitting at home reading a written commentary or devotional literature. This is why the preacher has, and should feel, a weighty responsibility towards his hearers. He is communicating God’s truth to them; they are learning God’s truth and need to act accordingly. Granted, the authority inherent in the preacher is always derivative. Preachers rely on the Bible. They can get it wrong. They can and should be questioned. The listeners should check it out for themselves. The authority of the preacher is, of course, not “maximal” (692). But the authority of a preacher is still more tangible and weighty than that of a commentator, say, or of a person giving an encouraging word in church.

In other words, preaching is—according to the common biblical understanding which I outlined above—”teaching”!7

This is not the place to mount a strong biblical defence of this understanding of preaching as “teaching” in the sense of authoritative transmission of biblical truth. At this point, I must simply appeal to to the way in which preaching has been understood historically—at least in the Protestant, Reformed, Anglican tradition—and to my readers’ sense of what a sermon is.

In fact, in making this point, I’m not seeking simply to criticise Dickson’s booklet. This is a question and a criticism I have for myself, and for all of us. Dickson has given us a definition of preaching—commentary plus application—which he thinks, probably quite correctly, will be generally accepted by his readers. Why is this so? I wonder if it is because we have, as a whole, thrown out the baby with the bathwater. We have rightly recognised that the authority of the sermon is entirely derived from the authority of the Bible. We have rightly insisted that most sermons should follow the form of a Bible passage: sermons should bring out what the Bible says, speaking about it, explaining it, and applying it. But in doing so, have we reduced preaching to a set of activities? In concentrating on the form of preaching, have we forgotten its essence?

Indeed, one of the things I found most dissatisfying about Dickson’s book was his lack of attention to these kind of relational dynamics. As he discussed the various forms of Christian communicative acts in the Bible, he consistently relegated issues of authority in interpersonal relationships to the background. Whatever we make of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, for example, we must agree that the main thrust of Paul’s argument is that the general nature of the man-women relationship must be visibly apparent in the act of prophesying. But Dickson’s discussions of these passages tended to concentrate mostly on observations of sameness: Paul doesn’t “forbid” prophesying (113); the woman’s prophecy is to be assessed in the same way as that of men (688). These are interesting observations, of course, and correct as far as they go. But they do not go very far.

I guess Dickson would object that he was making a very specific point, and so couldn’t go into all the details concerning relationships, authority, etc. This would be fine if Dickson’s booklet was simply a proposal concerning the meaning of the word “teach” in 1 Timothy 2. But he has offered to do far more than that. He is seeking to defend women preaching. The relevant passages of the Bible, as well as the relevant contemporary issues, all have relational dynamics and issues of authority at their core. These issues cannot be ignored.8

When Christians speak to one another (indeed, when anyone speaks to anyone else), we are at the very same time participating in and affecting relationships with each other. These relationships will, at times, involve different kinds of “authority”, sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit. In many parts of the New Testament (including 1 Tim 2:12), the relational dynamics of Christian speech-acts are clearly in the foreground. We can insist all we like that our communities only have the Bible as our authority, and there is no other kind of authority that is relevant. But that would simply be naïve. Leadership carries authority, and preaching carries authority—along with responsibility. If I claim there is no particularly relevant authority in my preaching, I am shirking my responsibility. I will not feel the weight and solemnity of what I am undertaking. And I will probably be quite dangerous too, like a man casually swinging a sharp sword around his head without realising its ability to cut and pierce.


There are many things to appreciate about John Dickson’s book. In particular, I believe that he is right in his desire to promote the regular practice of women speaking encouraging words in church in a biblically appropriate way. We should be asking ourselves whether we are properly affirming the speech of women in church. We should also be asking ourselves whether we are so fixated on “the sermon” in church that we denigrate other ways of speaking.

Nevertheless, Dickson’s argument—that the term “teach” in 1 Tim 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. A more straightforward understanding of the word “teach” is the authoritative transmission of truth from one individual to another.

Furthermore, Dickson’s understanding of the nature of modern preaching is too restrictive. While “commentary” and “application” are the default form of sermons today, there is far more to preaching than this. Sermons involve the authoritative transmission of truth from preacher to hearer. The authority involved in preaching is a derived authority, which is always subject to that of the Scriptures. Nevertheless it is a real authority which cannot be understood simply by reference to the idea of “commentary” and “application”. Therefore the modern sermon has significant overlap with the activity of “teaching” referred to in 1 Tim 2. In our efforts to promote the speaking ministry of every believer—including and especially women—let’s not forget the weighty responsibility of the public preaching ministry.

If we should (and I agree with Dickson that we should) be hearing more of the voices of the women among us, at the very same time we will need to be discerning about the relational dynamics involved. We will need to do things that take seriously and clearly demonstrate those relational dynamics. After all, this is the thrust of 1 Corinthians 11 & 14—and the issue at hand in 1 Timothy 2. Dickson considers doing something like this in light of his own framework—he suggests that we could allow women to preach some kinds of sermons but not others. He claims, however, that it wouldn’t work, because any time he thinks of an example, it “smacks of a legalism that does not reflect the gospel” (755). I would suggest that the problem of legalism in fact stems from Dickson’s own approach, which seeks to divide Christian speech-acts into different formal types and then to ask which formal types are forbidden to women and which are not. A more rounded approach to relational dynamics and Christian speech-acts, such as that advocated by Claire Smith,9 would, I pray, be less susceptible to such legalistic applications.

* (Minor edit: omitted a confusing reference to Christmas Day in Australia)
  1. Throughout this article, numbers in brackets refer to location numbers in the Kindle e-Book.
  2. While Dickson prefers to avoid the term “complementarian” (89), if pushed he calls himself a “soft complementarian” (820).
  3. Col 3:16 is probably a rare instance of the word being used by Paul in an extremely generalised sense (301).
  4. It is, for example, the sense of the word “teach” found in the Anglican ordinal, which is still used for the ordination of Anglican ministers in Australia: “And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye have in remembrance, into how high a Dignity, and to how weighty an Office and Charge ye are called: that is to say, to be Messengers, Watchmen, and Stewards of the Lord; to teach, and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.”
  5. It seems that in Col 3:16 the term is being used in a derivative sense: the authoritative “teaching” of Paul (1:28) and Epaphras (2:7, cf. 1:7), as the “word of Christ”, is now being appropriated by the entire community through communal speech and song.
  6. For those who are interested in this point, Luke Collings has recently demonstrated that the identification of modern preaching with “exhortation” has a number of flaws.
  7. Moo, cited by Dickson, states that “teaching” is both “the careful transmission of the (apostolic) tradition concerning Jesus Christ” and “the authoritative proclamation of God’s will to believers in light of that tradition” (618-619). Dickson, in discussing Moo’s statement, omits the word “authoritative”: he only deals with the question of the “proclamation of God’s will to believers in light of that tradition” (625). However, the concept of “authority” is directly germane to Moo’s statement—it is, indeed, the issue at hand! The issue of authority is simply absent from Dickson’s discussion. For Dickson to omit both the word “authority” and the concept of authority from his discussion shows he is not engaging with the issue Moo is raising about the nature of “teaching”.
  8. Dickson does briefly raise the idea that modern sermons carry some kind of “authority” (683) but immediately dismisses its relevance because it is quite different to the kind of authority that the first-generation “teachers” (i.e. transmitters of oral tradition) had. More engagement with this issue is needed.
  9. God’s Good Design, chs. 2-4.

18 thoughts on “What’s happening to our preaching? A response to John Dickson: Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons

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  2. Pingback: What’s happening to our preaching? A response to John Dickson: Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons

  3. Thanks for the food for thought, Lionel.

    Just thinking thru the definition of teaching you’ve suggested, are you able to give a brief comment on what it would mean for elders to be “apt at teaching” (1Tim. 3:2)?

  4. Come on brothers and sisters – give some space to John D to reply on your site as many who read this thoughtful response have not read our brother and comrade John’s booklet.
    Would hate us to behave with the fairness of “The Australian” about a decade ago when they printed two of P Adams speeches against God’s existence and refused to print any nicely edited speeches by WL Craig despite a number of offers. I am pretty sure brother John would willingly write a response.
    You may well have that in hand, if not i fear you under-rate your readers and the power of the truth – especially since most of us have had a very strong diet of “no woman can’t sermonise etc in church”, which makes it hard for us to behave like the Bereans and even hear what John is saying.
    Again, i imagine you are already seeking to do this, in which case ignore me.

  5. Oops, need my 2nd coffee. The Adams Craig thing was after they were in a debate at Syd Uni organised by the EU.
    And “can’t sermonise” should have been “can sermonise” – I can’t write.

  6. Ian, as regular readers we understand that Mathias Media would be quite right to only post articles that seek to meet their stated mission.

    John D has the freedom to respond to articles on this site and sometimes he has in the past.


    • Dianne and Mark,
      Thought i better head off and read MM mission statement you mentioned. JD booklet falls exactly in that domain. Pure scriptural study, sort of running a position that has been argued by one of MTC greatest NT scholars.

  7. Dear Mark and Dianne,
    You are absolutely right that its their site and they can do as they want, and no doubt will – that almost goes without saying. As i think your second point also sort of goes without saying, that John is able to comment. I may have missed something, and i don’t mean to be, or to seem to be a smarty pants.
    There is quite a difference between making a comment and having a peice posted.
    I am an old fashioned evangelical who glories in our long tradition of majoring on the majors, and avoiding accidentally making minors majors – Our majors have always been such as the sufficiency and love of Scripture, the Nicene view of God and Christ etc, the centrality of the Cross, the new life of the Spirit, preaching form Scripture and a few others perhaps.
    We are famous for working arm in arm with people who differ on things such as baptism and even on substantial details of the 2nd Coming as we do with some of our most honoured overseas guests, etc.
    My appeal was on the assumption that MM and i shared that foundation.
    I take it we are all “followers” of the Bereans as i was taught in my two wonderful periods at MTC.
    I was simply nudging MM to do what seemed fairly obvious and fair-minded and as i recall they have done with various issues in the past.
    I hope that was not offensive, if that has been – then i apologise …”in all things charity”

    • And my reply to John’s reply is here – along with a little explanation of why I haven’t been able to reply to all the correspondents and commenters over the last little while.

  8. I cannot agree with Windsor’s analysis of the issue discussed above. These are the problems that must be solved by anyone who really demonstrates that the orthodox Protestant dogma about women’s responsibilities is communicated to the reader by the biblical writings:

    (i) Is this dogma stated in an assertoric sentence or sentences which is itself or are themselves in the Bible?
    (ii) If it is not stated explicitly, can the dogma be the result of a properly formed deduction?
    (iii) If neither of these is so, can the dogma be inferred using a concrete, well-formulated, clearly described and trustworthy method for evaluating linguistic probabilities?
    (iv) If this last is possible, nevertheless can that probabilistic inference be made with enough clarity and strength to justify saying any more than, ‘I think it is likely there is a universal obligation placed upon women not to do certain things in church’?

    (It is easy to test the truth of this idea about the foundations of interpretation, by examining carefully the operations we perform in thought when we are truly reading factually, and also by trying to identify any other operations we might be performing while engaged in this activity.)

    Windsor does not seem to realise these are questions essential to the analysis of the biblical texts on the issue of women’s responsibilities. For he does not answer any of them, even indirectly—there is no mention of them. On the contrary, he allows his largely personal, intuitive and unscholarly analysis of διδάσκω, and other peripheral considerations like the concept of the ‘magical sermon’, to dominate his arguments. Yet if he answered these questions successfully in favour of his own view, it would not matter what διδάσκω meant, unless its sense turned out to be, say, ‘not to teach in the churches in the same authoritative fashion as men’. Other less important concerns would not matter, either. Through answering these questions successfully in favour of his belief, he would not merely show that there might be problems with Dickson’s ideas, he would show Dickson was wrong and the traditionalist dogma was justified.

    Instead Windsor relies on, for example, an interpretation of διδάσκω that is apparently not to be found in any lexicon, and which as a personal suggestion can only be used to raise the remote possibility that his ultimate interpretation about women is correct. He allows great sway in his evaluation to his proposed definition, in which politico-theological authority of some form, rather than merely authoritativeness which is equivalent to knowing what the pupil does not know, is combined with teaching. So this private definition is repeated several times, and is said to involve a better understanding of the word ‘teach’ than Dickson provides.

    Seemingly if Windsor had anything more worthwhile to offer by way of refutation and proof than things like this, he would give it—ie., he would give the answers to the hermeneutic questions that are decisive with respect to the issue of women’s responsibilities in church, and he would do so in a form that suited the discussion in which he is engaged. Why resort to analysis that is weak, should you have available to you analysis which is conclusive? Why scratch the surface when you can display the essence? (In truth, given the vague, subjective and superficial manner in which Windsor argues, and the certainty with which he holds the traditional dogma about women in church, it is quite evident, I think, that he does not know whether the traditional dogma is correct, he merely believes in it fervently, and judges his belief to be cognition.)

    Ultimately, traditionalist Protestant readers need not be heeded—unless they recognise with a clear, unprejudiced mind the import of the vital general interpretive problems mentioned above; or unless they are dealing with simple linguistic aporias. Authority in teaching is in direct proportion to our knowledge of the subjects upon which the quality of the instruction depends. A person whose knowledge of the process of interpretation is poor has virtually no authority as the teacher of the meaning of any complicated book. Is this not so?

  9. The additional problem is that 1 tim. 2:12 does not contain any reference to authority, or authoritative or anything like that. I find it fascinating that truthfulness is not an issue here. I suffered violence for thirty years, much of that time under the ministry of men from Sydney who preached that a wife should submit. Apparently there is not even one person in the diocese of Sydney to whom one can address the problem of violence. They are all too busy demonstrating that a woman cannot have authority.

    Of course, my comments are deleted with the instruction that I follow appropriate paths. Let me communicate that there is NOBODY in the diocese of Sydney to whom one can express what it is like to live a life of submission and violence. There are no appropriate paths. There is nobody designated to listen to and advocate for violated women.

    There is nobody to whom one can recount the absolute filth that follows making a vow to submit to one’s husband. Complete filth and degradation.

    But why care about those whose lives are destroyed, when you can occupy yourselves with preventing women from being heard at all.

    • Hi Sue

      I would like to encourage you that in Sydney there are many Christians who would be happy to listen to you and understand your situation. We are usually advised to not write email addresses on blogs, but if you google CBE Australia you will find the contacts for the Sydney group of Christians for Biblical Equality.

      • Hi Liz,
        Sue has obviously raised a painful and important issues. Her pain and disappointment is paramount. Our pain is in hearing and facing how poorly we meet many people’s cries for help. I also want to believe we have people to hear and care. But when someone says, I cried out and no-one came, we need to not be at all defensive. Our leadership undoubtably means well, and they have also disappointed and hurt many, far too many and far too often.
        Quite a few could have sued the church (as institution) for terrible processes they got caught up in (not me) but go off quietly into the night, because they despair, or do not want to take the family to court.
        If we are going to speak tough words on women’s roles, because we feel we must, we really must lift our game in caring for the bruised, for the “little ones” Jesus speaks about. We do tend to brush aside those we crush in our desire to do other stuff apparently “more important” than caring for individuals.

  10. Hi Liz,

    I do have someone to me. However, there is nobody in the diocesan government, among those who recommend the vow to submit, who are interested in learning how terrible that can be. The vow to submit can facilitate a life of sin and crime. There is nobody within the diocese who will listen to what it is like to live a life of terror and violence.

    It would be wrong of me not to present this in public. The vow to submit can be a weapon of violence, crime, abuse and a life of misery. The diocese needs to listen.

    Formerly, on this site, i was assured that the diocese did have someone dedicated to listen to stories of spousal abuse. However, it turns out, this is not the case. I am simply responding and communicating this information.

  11. So, am I right in saying that both John and Lionel think ‘didasko’ in the Pastorals is about authority?
    John thinks (in the Pastorals) it is about the authority of being the one who preserves the apostolic witness
    Lionel thinks it is about any authority relationship where a truth is conveyed.

    Or does he? it seems to be a bit more specific than that, but I’m not sure why? (linguistically speaking)

    It seems Lionel has to make a case then why this shouldn’t apply to all and every authority relationship. Even if we restrict ourselves the congregational setting. The female childrens minister gets up and authoritatively tells me where the kids are going to go for their program.
    Why is this not restricted under his broader definition? (Or is it? Yikes!)

    Now, the obvious answer is “No ,no , it is only when you are doing some kind of bibley/gospelly talking”

    But this seems to be begging the question.

    Lionel needs to define what kinds of authority relationships Paul might have in view, but his general approach to ‘didasko’ can’t do it for him. So we are left with all sorts of vague. blurred lines about what is acceptable

    At least John has tried to look at one of the historically viable authority structures

  12. I’m currently reading G K Beale’s book “A New Testament Biblical Theology”, and going through his explanation of Eve’s part in the fall on page 34, it occurred to me that if Eve got the quote wrong when she told the serpent what God had said, and if Dickson is correct in saying that διδαχη means orally transmitting verbatim the words of the apostles, then perhaps what Paul was warning against was (anyone) who would mess up the reciting verbatim of the apostolic deposit, leading to satan being able to twist the words “is that REALLY what God said?” if eve was at all uncertain (and a misquote implies there may have been some niggling uncertainty) then it allows for malicious questioning of the accuracy of the transmission “did God really say…” to lead to deception and sin.

    It is possible (though a stretch which I am not qualified to strongly defend) that Paul used the term women rhetorically – the way a drill sergent might berrate male soldiers by calling them a “bunch of little girls” not meaning they literally are young females but they are exhibiting features typical of young females that are inappropriate to infantry soldiers. This is not how a post-modern PC person might say it but the point is not necessarily that the people (that Paul forbids from teaching) are women but that they are unreliable in their transmission of the verbatim record. Perhaps this would explain why he usesthis explanation of why he wont allow them to teach – but to shut-up and listen (perhaps until they grt it right/verbatim). ie. dont let people who are going to make mistakes in their reciting of the apostolic deposit pass what they HAVE learned onto anyone else but be quiet and listen because they are otherwise going to open up opportunities for deception to creep into the church. Timothy is instructed to teach reliable men, as distinct from unreliable ones, the verbatim apostolic deposit.

    Or it could be that Paul see’s it as inappropriate that women should be the repositories of the apostolic deposit. The uncertainty I have is that Paul does seem to be justifying his prohibition on the tendency for error and deception rather than specifically Eve’s gender. He seems to imply that women shouldn’t be the authoritative walking repositories of the apostolic deposit because they’re likely to be deceived. Is Paul really teaching that women are more pronr to being deceived or making memory errors or is he using the term “women” rhetorically like the proverbial drill sergent uses the phrase “little girls” to describe insufficiently aggressive male soldiers, and alluding to the genesis story as an example of such an error occurring?

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