Review of John Dickson, Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons, Zondervan: Kindle edition, 2012.
Recently a number of works have appeared from the professedly complementarian camp which manage to open the door yet wider to an egalitarian approach to gender roles. The articulate and affable John Dickson has added his voice and pen to that number, in a work that reads very easily but fails to convince. For the hitherto uninitiated, those like myself who think the Luddites did not get it all wrong, the Kindle edition does not have page numbers, but there are references to percentages which indicate how far through the book the references occur.
1. Dickson begins mildly with apparently minimalist claims.
Dickson’s opening claim is that he is not dealing with the ordination of women to be presbyters. Indeed, ‘All I am saying is that women should be allowed to give sermons’ (7%, see 65%). Demurely, he maintains that this is only ‘a thoughtful conversation starter’ (8%). Indeed, ‘I hope I will receive corrections and criticisms cheerfully’ (63%). All of this should be received in the spirit in which it is given, but Dickson’s views, if accepted, have far-reaching implications for the evangelical Church – not that it has not already largely lost its way on this issue.
2. In effect, Dickson radically distinguishes teaching from all other word-ministries.
Dickson maintains that there are numerous public speaking ministries in the New Testament – notably teaching, exhorting, evangelising, reading, and prophesying (see Rom.12:4-8) – but, based on 1 Timothy 2:12, teaching is the only one which is to be restricted to qualified males (4%, 11%). Women are allowed to pray and prophesy (Acts 2:17; 21:9; 1 Cor.11:4), and carry out all word-ministries, but not teach. It harms his thesis, perhaps irreparably, but Dickson is forced to acknowledge that there is significant overlap in prophesying, teaching and exhorting (20%). Despite this concession, he asserts that teaching is not explaining a Bible text but making known the apostolic words and rulings (29%). For all the conceded overlap, it is the distinction which is vital to Dickson’s thesis.
3. Dickson separates teaching from the modern sermon.
According to Dickson, ‘The notion of a carefully prepared exposition of Scripture, which we have equated with “teaching”, is virtually absent from Acts’ (17%). Furthermore, modern-day sermons have more in common with exhortation than with teaching (23-24%). At times he says he is ‘not creating a hard distinction between teaching and exhorting’ (51%). Yet this distinction, he admits, is ‘close to the heart of my argument’ (23%). The fact that the Bible uses words in different contexts is accepted by Dickson, but there is still a problem, for example, in that all Christians are meant to teach in song in Colossians 3:16 but this has to be understood in a very different way from the teaching forbidden in 1 Timothy 2:12.
Dickson places a lot of emphasis on oral tradition in the first century Roman Empire, a society where only about 15% of the population could read. This oral tradition was, by definition, taught by teachers, for quite some time, in Dickson’s view. He cites James Dunn’s description of a teacher as ‘a walking reference library’ (35%). In Timothy’s day, says Dickson, almost all of the apostolic traditions were oral (45%; see 2 Tim.1:13-14; 2 Thess.2:15). Hence Dickson claims: ‘In Paul’s day, if you wanted to find out what Jesus had said about divorce, to take just one example, you had to ask a teacher, and he would rehearse for you the specific sayings he had committed to memory’ (56%).
Here is the rub: ‘no preacher today is an authorised repository of the apostolic deposit in the way that Timothy, Titus, and those they appointed were’ (55%). The role of teachers would now be preserved in the New Testament itself. By definition, this virtually marginalises 1 Timothy 2:12 in terms of its having any present-day application to the modern Church. But Paul surely expects the Church down through the ages to have pastors and teachers (Eph.4:11). Contrary to Calvin’s view, these are usually understood to be referring to the same men.
4. Dickson says that women cannot exercise the authority of teaching.
Paul is usually considered in 1 Timothy 2:12 to be forbidding to women two functions: teaching and exercising authority. Dickson, however, tries to limit it to one: ‘to exercise the authority of teaching’ (26%). However, in 1 Timothy 2:12, the infinitive didaskein is separated from the infinitive authentein by the conjunction oude. In the New Testament there are only three places where there is a construction along the lines of an infinitive, then a conjunction, then another infinitive. Apart from 1 Timothy 2:12, there is Acts 16:21, ‘they advocate customs that are not lawful for us, as Romans, to receive or practise’. Finally, there is Revelation 5:3, ‘And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it’. In each case there are two ideas that are related but not identical. To assert that there is anything different in 1 Timothy 2:12 is a rather desperate ploy, without Scriptural warrant. Paul is forbidding two activities, not one activity done in a certain way.
It is not obvious that Dickson reads 1 Timothy 2:12 in context. Paul is leading up to setting out the qualifications for overseers (1 Tim.3:1-7) and deacons (1 Tim.3:8-13) as the two ordinary and continuing offices in the Church. Apart from anything else, Paul is excluding women from the office of presbyter/overseer. The overseer has to be able to teach (1 Tim.3:2) and to govern his household well (1 Tim.3:4-5). These are the two functions forbidden to women. Something similar, surely, is being said in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Old Testament elders and priests were all male (Ex.18:21,25; 29:1-37; Num.11:16-30). Finally, Jesus’ twelve apostles are all male. Jesus did not choose six men and six women.
This fits in with other texts. In the home, for example, headship is entrusted to the husband, not the wife (Eph.5:22-24; Col.3:18; Tit.2:5; 1 Pet.3:1). In general terms: ‘the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man’ (1 Cor.11:3). Authority and honour are not the same. The football coach has more authority than the players, but the players have more honour. There is within the being of God both equality and authority, and there is in the relationship between men and women something similar – equality of worth and authority in function (1 Cor.11:3). Headship in the household is loving but it is still headship.
5. Dickson dates the Gospels relatively late.
It is quite crucial to Dickson’s argument that ‘Even the most conservative scholar today would baulk at dating any written gospel before the mid-60s, that is, before Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles’ (30%). This is oft-asserted but hardly impregnable, nor even likely in my view. For his thesis to work, Dickson requires a not inconsiderable period of time when teachers armed with oral traditions were more accessible than a written Gospel. This hardly seems likely.
The book of Acts finishes with Paul under some kind of house arrest in Rome about the year A.D. 62. It is a strange, rather anti-climactic, way to end the first history of the Church. There is no mention of the deaths of the two great apostles, Peter and Paul. The book seems to almost fizzle out in some ways. The only explanation for this omission, surely, is that their deaths had not yet taken place. If Acts was written, then, about A.D. 62, as even the great liberal Adolf von Harnack came to believe, then volume one of Luke’s work, the Gospel of Luke, must have been written earlier. Nor was Luke the first attempt to provide a written account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (see Luke 1:1-4). The New Testament writers dealt in terms of ‘orderly accounts’ and ‘proofs’ (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:3), and were rather keen on writing these down.
Paul writes the epistle to the Galatians about the year A.D.49 or even 48. He writes with a God-given sense of his own apostolic authority, that his gospel is the only true gospel message (Gal.1:6-9). He also assumes that the Galatians know the Gospel account well. They had known the gospel as Christ crucified had been placarded before their very eyes, as it were (Gal.3:1). The first Epistle of John exhorts its readers to walk in the same way in which Jesus walked (1 John 2:6). This only makes sense if the gospel accounts are already well-known. The reason why the epistles of Paul, Peter, John, and James only rarely mention the history or teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is not because they did not know it but that their readers already did. The epistles assume the existence of at least one Gospel account, and make no sense without it.
6. The effect would be as many women preachers as the church wants to let loose.
As mentioned earlier, Dickson virtually marginalises the present-day application of 1 Timothy 2:12. He narrows down the meaning of ‘to teach’, and over-reads the evidence. He says, for example, that Euodia and Syntyche were ‘probably key evangelists in the founding of the church at Philippi’ (11%). The book of Acts does not appear to be swarming with women evangelists, so one hesitates to endorse Dickson’s speculations regarding the situation at Philippi. Another example is the claim that Huldah in 2 Kings 22 played a part in canon formation (12%). It is more plausible to see her as the prophetess whom God used to recall Judah to recognise a book, Deuteronomy, which had been long neglected.
If teachers were mainly protecting apostolic oral traditions until the time when the New Testament was written down, then there would seem to be little warrant for their existence today. On Dickson’s view, the door is not simply left slightly ajar for some women to preach, but is wide open. Still calling himself some kind of complementarian, he in theory advocates a somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent position which in practice would turn out to be rank egalitarianism.
– Peter Barnes