Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons
Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry
By John Dickson
Published by Zondervan, 2012-12-25 Kindle Edition
John Dickson is an author, historian and Sydney Anglican minister. He is director of the Centre for Public Christianity and a senior research fellow at Macquarie University. I’m thankful that John asserts in his new book, and elsewhere, that it’s fine (in theory) for capable Christian women to engage in any speaking ministry in the church, and that (in practice) he regularly has women speak at his church.
John’s main point in “Hearing Her Voice” is that women can speak and give sermons (including sermons that exposit Scripture), but that women in the primitive (very early) church could not be involved in preserving and laying down the oral apostolic traditions. Preserving the apostolic tradition, as John puts it, was for “certain hand-picked men” only. (Kindle Locations 628-629) John believes that this is the ministry Paul is referring to in 1 Timothy 2:12 where Paul says, “I am not allowing a woman to teach . . . a man.”
For Paul, “teaching” (in the technical sense) involved carefully preserving and laying down for the congregation the traditions handed on by the apostles. 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.” (Kindle Locations 294-296).
I think Lydia, a woman, must have been one of the people who preserved Paul’s apostolic teaching in the critical, early days of the Philippian church once Paul and Silas had moved on. Lydia is the only Philippian Christian named in Acts 16, and she seems especially involved in the birthing of the church there. A couple of chapters later, in Acts 18, Priscilla was passing on, and so helping to preserve, oral apostolic teaching when she and her husband Aquila explained, more accurately, the doctrine of Christian baptism to Apollos. Phoebe, mentioned in Romans 16:1-2, is believed to have carried Paul’s letter to the Romans. Letter carriers in New Testament times were typically expected to explain the contents of the letter, so it is likely that Phoebe was the first person to explain some of Paul’s teachings to the Roman church.
John mentions Huldah, an Old Testament prophetess, in his book:
… Huldah 2 Kings 22: 14– 20 and 2 Chronicles 34: 22– 28 [is] a particularly curious example of spiritual leadership. Not only did she deliver an authoritative message to King Josiah concerning all Judah, but she also validated the authority of the newly rediscovered “Book of the Law of the LORD”. One contemporary scholar has remarked that Huldah’s endorsement of the document “stands as the first recognizable act in the long process of canon formation.” (Kindle Locations 145-149)
From John’s own estimation of her ministry, it seems that Huldah was doing the Old Testament equivalent of authorising apostolic teaching. It seems that a few Bible women were involved in authoritative “teaching” ministries.
While I disagree with John’s main point: that only men could preserve apostolic tradition through “teaching”, I also disagree with his interpretation of two verses that he uses to support his thesis.
(1) John relies heavily on his interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 to make his point. He equates the word “authentēs“, used in this verse, with legitimate authority in the church. Authentēs is not used elsewhere in the NT. In other Greek literature, however, it is often used in a negative context, and not for wholesome, legitimate authority, and certainly not for the kind of leadership that Jesus taught about. (I have elaborated on the use of authentēs in my review of Kathy Keller’s book here. Kathy also relies on 1 Timothy 2:12, with 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, to make her main point, and arrives at a somewhat different conclusion to John.)
(2) John uses an English translation of 2 Timothy 2:2 that contains the word “men” to support his thesis further. In the Greek however, 2 Timothy 2:2 does not specify “men” as in “male people”. (It has the dative plural of anthrōpos.) The NIV 2011, and other translations, translate this verse more correctly as:
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others (2 Timothy 2:2 NIV, my underline.)
This verse does not rule out the possibility that women, like Lydia, Priscilla, Phoebe and others, were entrusted with oral apostolic teaching and were involved with passing on (i.e. teaching) this oral tradition. 2 Timothy 2:2 is not gender-specific in the Greek.
John goes to some lengths in his book to explain the distinction between the ministry of exhortation (which he says is what takes place in most modern sermons) with the ministry of “teaching” (which he defines as preserving apostolic tradition). This distinction is important if we are to understand his main point. However, John concedes that the distinction is not hard and fast:
I am not creating a hard distinction between teaching and exhorting, but I am observing that, whereas teaching is principally about laying something down in fixed form, exhorting is more about urging people to obey and apply God’s truth. (Kindle Locations 603-605)
John believes that, because the apostolic teaching has been preserved in the canon of New Testament scripture, the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 no longer applies and cannot be used to silence women. To be clear: John believes that the first generation, or so, of Christian women were prohibited from laying down foundational, apostolic teaching which would become doctrine, tradition, and, finally, scripture. Once this doctrine had been preserved in Scripture (by men), John argues that women may teach it.
I personally didn’t get a lot out of the book, but then John himself admits that his book only makes a very modest argument: that women can have a speaking ministry in the church. He does not discuss church leadership.
I’ll close this brief critique with a verse that John quotes in his book, a verse where Paul does not specify gender, a verse that shows that the opportunity to minister in the Corinthian church was open to whoever was gifted.
“When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson [or teaching: didachē], a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Corinthians 14:26) (Kindle Locations 181-183).
 “Paul’s coworkers who delivered his letters did not drop them in the mailbox and then go on their way but, rather, would likely have read them aloud to the recipients and been available to explain the significance of the references they contained.” Patrick Gray, Opening Paul’s Letters: A Reader’s Guide to Genre and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012) p136. Peter Head, a scholar with a particular interest in Paul’s letter carriers, states however that “There is no evidence for [letter carriers reading the letters aloud] in antiquity and there is a load of evidence against it.” However Head does believe that Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to Rome which “shows an exceptional level of trust on Paul’s part (both practically and pastorally)”; and he agrees that she would have had a role in explaining the contents of Romans. (Source)
More about letter carriers in the Pauline tradition here.
A Critique of Kathy Keller’s “Jesus, Justice and Gender Roles”
Book Review: “God’s Good Design”
1 Timothy 2:12 in Context (Part 4)
King Lemuel’s Mother: The Other Proverbs 31 Woman
Gender Roles and Speaking Ministries in the Church