Book Review–Hearing Her Voice (John Dickson)

This short book seems to be doing the rounds within TNOCFKANF (the network of churches formerly known as newfrontiers). Newfrontiers churches typically hold to a “complementarian” position, believing that Scripture teaches that only men are appointed as elders, whilst all other ministries remain open to women. By contrast “egalitarians” (and there are many I know of within newfrontiers churches) disagree that any role should be restricted to men. But leaving aside the question of “office”, should a “complementarian” church, one that holds to male eldership, allow women to preach? The traditional answer has been no, based largely on 1 Tim 2:12, but an increasing number of complementarians are questioning that interpretation.

And this is the position that John Dickson argues for in this book. His thesis is that whatever roles women may or may not be excluded from (he remains complementarian with regards to church government), preaching is not one of them. The basic premise is that we have falsely equated the Greek word translating “teach” (διδάσκω) with our own concept of a Sunday morning sermon. We assume that anyone “preaching” must necessarily also be doing what the NT calls “teaching”. However, Dickson understands διδάσκω to mean a very specific type of activity unique to the first century context. Therefore, 1 Tim 2:16 is not relevant to the question of women preaching at all.

Essentially we could say this is a cessationist argument (making it ironic that it has been so well received in newfrontiers circles). “Teaching” has ceased, in much the same way that many non-charismatic evangelicals are happy to say that “prophecy” has ceased, or that the ministry of an apostle is no longer for today.

So if “teaching” is not preaching, what is it? According to Dickson, “teaching” was the passing on of the oral traditions including the stories of Jesus and apostolic doctrines, which was critical during the time before the New Testament books had been written. This did not involve applying or expounding these traditions, instead the “teacher” was an authority on what did and did not form a part of this essential deposit of faith. Once the New Testament was available in written form, this role was no longer necessary, and the church’s role was simply to expound the contents of Scripture.

To a certain extent I am able to agree with this idea. Of course, passing on these oral traditions must have been an important part of the early church. And διδάσκω would be a perfectly good word to use to describe this activity.

But I am not convinced that the word “teaching” can be so narrowly defined. If you take the trouble to do a word study of all instances of this word in the New Testament (which I did), you will see that it is used in a very broad variety of contexts. Even if you grant that Paul has his own special meaning for διδάσκω that others (e.g. Matthew, Luke, James) do not share, I find it hard to interpret every instance of διδάσκω found in Paul in such a technical sense.

Another problem is that by excluding what we call preaching from the semantic range of the word διδάσκω, Dickson needs to find another word that does mean preaching. He picks παράκλησις, sometimes translated “exhorting” (e.g. Rom 12:8), although this word is more often translated as “comfort/encouragement”. Again, I would agree that this word does seem to be used for sermons, but I’m not persuaded that these words can be so neatly divided into categories.

The trouble with making παράκλησις into the word for preaching is that, assuming Paul considers preaching a vital element of church life, he doesn’t seem to mention παράκλησις nearly enough. For example, Paul forgets to mention “exhorters” in the classic list of Eph 4:11 ministries. Nor do they get a look-in in 1 Cor 12:28-29. Dickson’s solution at this point seems to be by equating prophesying with preaching (once again opting for a common non-charismatic argument).

Another thing you notice looking through uses of the word “teach” is that it often appears in a pair. The apostles were commanded by the Sanhedrin not to “speak” and “teach”, (Acts 4:18), but they carried on “teaching” and “preaching” both publicly and privately (Acts 5:42). Timothy is to “command and teach” (1 Tim 4:11), and to “teach and urge” (1 Tim 6:12). I suppose Dickson could claim that this supports his thesis – making “teaching” a distinct activity from the “preaching/urging/speaking” which would happen subsequently. But I see these verses as using two words that describe different elements of the same speech act. In other words, when someone preaches they are also speaking, teaching, encouraging, exhorting, commanding and urging.

In summary, whilst Dickson’s argument is an interesting one (and one that perhaps bears a second reading), I think it creates more problems than it solves, and is exegetically unconvincing. But I will finish with one thing that impressed me about Dickson’s approach. From start to finish, this is an argument based in Scripture. He does not attempt to bolster his arguments with examples of great women preachers, or make accusations against the motives of those who disagree with him. Instead he attempts to prove his point solely from Scripture, and for that, I applaud him. Egalitarians will doubtless be pleased with his conclusions, but I suspect they too may have their reservations about how he got there.

Postscript: In case you are wondering where I stand on this issue, I would describe myself as a complementarian open to persuasion. Most complementarians agree that it is sometimes acceptable and appropriate for a non-elder to preach. And so the ever-contentious 1 Tim 2:12 remains the main obstacle to me accepting Dickson’s conclusions. Anyway, let me know in the comments what you think. Do you accept Dickson’s argument? Egalitarians, what do you consider the best treatment of 1 Tim 2:12?

One thought on “Book Review–Hearing Her Voice (John Dickson)

  1. Was pleased to see this book reviewed by you, after having come across it via thinktheology blog.

    I, like you, am a complementarian open to persuasion ( i like the phrase) – I am clear that eldership is male, but I think a lot of what we have elders do these days are not necessarily only for an elder to do, and preaching on a Sunday morning is one of them. I am not convinced that there was much of this done in the church in Acts, that the exhortation from the scriptures was just one of a multitude of spiritual gifts brought by all for the good of all instead of the opportunity for the priest – oops, lead elder – to tell everybody how to live their lives in the light of his own understanding of scripture.

    I therefore have enjoyed looking into the issues raised by the book, and look forward to reading the actual book soon!

    At this point, I’d like to see a re-think as to how elders can govern and rule without monopolising the preaching – I am convinced that they can guard the doctrine of the church by selecting preachers carefully and training them well and then by actually exercising spiritual authority when/if something false is taught – as they would with a false prophecy or a tongue not interpreted (wouldn’t they?). I think this way we will begin to more fully enjoy and benefit from the multi-coloured wisdom that God is displaying to the authorities through the church instead of the middle-aged white men who are Top Gear and West Wing fans who currently are our sole representatives.

    Really appreciate your review here, too – it is of critical importance that this book be held up as a brilliant example of how to enter into the comp/egal debate (or any debate, for that matter) – with a Bible in your hand and a humble heart and nothing else. Your own sensitive questioning of comp/egal, and especially Phil Whittall’s, have been an encouragement to this not-quite-middle-aged-white-man-who-likes-top-gear-and-west-wing.

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