Sunday, December 30, 2012

Gender and Ministry: Why John Dickson is Wrong about Women and Preaching (part 1)

In my first post I stated that I believed that John Dickson’s exegetical approach in Hearing Her Voice was one that should be applauded by all sides of the debate on women in ministry.  The Scriptures use a wide lexical range to describe the ministry of Gospel proclamation and it is important to note that where differences between the sexes are encouraged they are restricted rather than general in scope.  To this extent, I believe that Dickson’s contribution has been a progressive rather than regressive step in the ongoing discussion.

Despite this, Dickson’s specific exegetical arguments must withstand close scrutiny if his position can prove acceptable to those who have previously held to a complementarian position.  Dickson is open about the limitations of this particular work – he does not set out to answer every question regarding prophecy, gender submission, and so forth.  He seeks to answer a very simple question: does the New Testament explicitly teach that it is improper for a woman to preach an expository sermon during a regular church service where men and women are present?  In his view it does not teach this and so women should be allowed to preach regularly in church meetings.  Before a fair critique of Dickson’s work can take place, it is necessary to briefly outline here the main points of his case (although I encourage all who are interested in this topic to obtain a copy of the pamphlet and read Dickson’s exegetical arguments in more detail).

Dickson argues that complementarian evangelicals have been too quick to equate “preaching sermons” with the verb “to teach” (Gk. didasko), particularly as they have tried to interpret Paul’s meaning in 1 Timothy 2:12 (pp.13–14).  He argues that nowhere in the New Testament is this verb used to apply to expository preaching from an authorised text.  Instead, it is the verb for “to exhort” (Gk. parakaleo) that is used to describe this activity.  Dickson relies on three key verses for his thesis – the invitation for Paul to address the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:15, the mission of Judas and Silas to the Gentile churches in Acts 15:31–32, and Paul’s instructions to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13 which Dickson argues shows a logical connection between “reading” and “exhorting”.  “Exhorting” is taken to mean heeding and applying God’s Word (p.15), a definition that would open the way for women to give sermons to a mixed congregation. 

“Teaching”, it is claimed, had a specific definition in the context of 1st Century Christianity that means it cannot be applied to sermons in the present age.  Dickson claims that Paul meant for the activity of teaching to refer to “preserving and laying down the fixed traditions of and about Jesus as handed on by the apostles.” (p.18)  The office of “teacher” in the early Church was necessary as no New Testament canon was yet formed to preserve the authoritative teaching.  While a particular church might have had some of the documents, it was necessary for particular people to be responsible for safeguarding the “true message” of Jesus for the benefit of the Church through oral tradition. (p.19)  As Paul and the other apostles had verbally delivered the message of Jesus to the world, so the “teachers” of the churches were responsible for holding on to this oral message and preserving it from corruption.  As such, the restrictions on women “teaching with authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12 was never intended to be applied to the giving of expository sermons, but only to “the specific task of preserving and laying down for churches what the apostles had said about Jesus and the new covenant.” (p.21)  Since this “apostolic deposit” has now been fixed in the documents of the New Testament, there is no longer any person in the modern Church who fulfils the same task that a 1st Century “teacher” was required to do. (p.22)  In fact, as Dickson surveys the New Testament, he concludes that all references to “teaching” refer more to safeguarding this oral tradition that exegetical preaching (pp.23–27).  Where written apostolic material comes into play it is always considered that it is itself doing the “teaching” and that any exposition involves commenting on such teaching and exhortation on the basis of its contents. (p.28)

Where does this leave the Church today?  In Dickson’s view, the Church no longer has a need for “teachers” as the New Testament contains the authorised apostolic deposit.  In other words, the Bible is the only “teacher” that Christians now need and the role of the modern preacher to expound the text and exhort the believers, activities that are not restricted to men only in the New Testament. (p.31)

Let’s be clear about what this proposal entails.  If Dickson is correct and the task of preaching the Word is equivalent to the biblical task of “exhorting” rather than “teaching”, then (as our American friends would say) that’s the ballgame!  The key proof-text of the complementarian position (1 Timothy 2:12) is eliminated as a barrier to women entering the pulpit.  But there is far more to it than this.  A large portion of the Protestant understanding of the Doctrine Of Church would be considered incompatible with Scripture given that for centuries theologians had interpreted the language badly wrong.  Much of the pastoral training, which has assumed those in charge of leading the flock exercise a “teaching” role, would have to be reconsidered.  Parish and denomination structures would need to reflect this.  Ordination vows would need to be rewritten to eliminate any reference to “teaching”.  This is not a small change to our understanding of Scripture which is being proposed.

Therefore, the pertinent question remains: is John Dickson’s analysis of the biblical language correct?

In my mind it is not.  Dickson makes a number of exegetical and doctrinal errors through his argument.  In particular, his specific reading of parakaleo is ambitious in his key texts and ignores how the lexeme is used quite differently in other key New Testament passages.  This leads him to be overly restrictive with his reading of didasko and thereby failing to account how its application might easily shift in a post-apostolic age. 

I will be presenting a more detailed critique over the next two posts.  Stay tuned...

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Gender and Ministry: Why John Dickson is Right about Women and Ministry

For those happy few that have not succumbed to the lure of the Smart Phone, Instagram is a photo filter app that "retros" ordinary photographs taken with a mobile phone so that they look like they could have been taken circa 1979.  There are a variety of light finishes and picture borders to choose from, the end result being a photo gallery that looks like the picture album at Grandma's house that bizarrely reveals everyone's parents had been hipsters.  The (dramatic) irony is, of course, that as mobile phone companies have been stretching themselves to provide their customers with better portable cameras the customers have started using an app to rob their photos of clarity and natural light and colour.

Complementarianism in practice can be a lot like using Instagram.  We start with a perfectly clear picture (Scripture) that has a lot to say about men and women working together for the glory of God and the message of Jesus.  However, we find that there are certain aspects of the picture that we recognise as important (the headship of the husband in Ephesians 5, restrictions on women "teaching" in 1 Timothy 2:12, and so forth), and so we consciously or otherwise apply a "filter" on the whole picture to highlight these aspects.  The result is that other parts of the picture get a bit fuzzy.  These filters rarely get applied at the theoretical level, such as in academic discourses on gender and ministry, but a few steps down the line when it comes to shaping particular church services and ministry structures.  Because headship and "authority to teach" is perceived to reside exclusively with the Male, any ministry structure where men and women are working together and the Word might be involved is deemed to require a Male Head.  As a result the leadership of a variety of ministries that have no connection to 1 Timothy 2:12 - music, prayer, evangelism, leadership training, community care, and so forth - are frequently passed automatically to a Male when a godly and more qualified Female could be the best person for the job.  When pressed about this, complementarians fall back on texts that do not speak to the particular situation or state that "we don't want to cause confusion on this issue."

John Dickson doesn't want to Instagram the New Testament.  He wants to see the texts that apply to the ministry of the Gospel brought into High Definition, and his exegetical method in Hearing Her Voice is nothing if not consistent.

Dickson points out that even hardened complementarians do not advocate women never speaking God's to men (p.8).  For a start, there are references to women prophesying in Acts 21:9 and 1 Corinthians 11:5.  Women such as Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche are described as "fellow workers", a label which in the context of the New Testament implies Gospel proclamation that was probably not limited in scope to Women Only.  He contends that a major problem of the complementarian position is that it has collapsed a variety of Word ministries into the category of "teaching" with the result that many women are denied opportunities to use their God-given abilities for the good of the Church.  He points, for example, to the image of the body that Paul uses in Romans 12:4-8 and the variety of spiritual gifts (teaching, exhorting, serving, etc) that follow (p.13).  While these gifts may share some similar attributes, the metaphor that Paul uses cannot stand if "prophesying" or "exhorting" are seen as synonymous with "teaching" or any other gift.  Paul is satisfied in his own mind that these gifts, whatever they may look like in practice, are different and the exercise of this difference is a Good Thing for the benefit of the Church as a whole.  Since, Dickson argues, the gift of prophecy is used  in a way which is distinct from that of "teaching" and women are allowed as prophets according to 1 Corinthians 11:5, to restrict ALL women from ALL ministries of the Word is contrary to the teaching of the New Testament.

While the precise definition of many of the "spiritual gifts" mentioned in the Pauline Epistles is still contentious (more on that to follow in the next post), it is hard to fault Dickson's argument on this point.  Despite the fact that many of the words used for various ministries carry both a general and specific use in the New Testament, those which apply to the proclamation of the Gospel in the are too easily confused in practice by complementarians seeking to uphold an important Scriptural truth.  The examples of women being involved in the work of the Gospel in the New Testament and the language used to describe such work are too varied to ignore.  The reality is that in a variety of places in our communal life the voice of our Sisters in Christ has been silenced to protect a misapplied principle.

Much of the evidence that Dickson discusses in the first section of his pamphlet are familiar to complementarians and few would deny ignoring their examples.  It might be possible, on the other hand, that our perception of these examples have been Instagrammed to the point where we might be blinded to the radical nature of the extent of female participation and leadership which is in the text in front of us.  For myself, I am convinced that I need to work harder and understanding the shape of the Gospel partnership of men and women as it is presented in the Bible.  I need to wrestle with particular words, not just be satisfied with abstract concepts.  I need to look at the shape of our communal time, to investigate whether space is being given for both men and women to use their various gifts for the benefit of the Church.  And I need for women not just to "get involved" but to lead ministries that build up the knowledge and faith of their brothers and sisters.  It's time to take the filters off.

Next time: Why John Dickson is Wrong about Women and Preaching (part 1)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Gender and Ministry: The Debate Returns

The four weeks or so post-Christmas are usually fairly uneventful in the life of a full-time minister.  There might be some tinkering with the preaching program, editing the music or service rosters, tidying up the office, and other such Non-Essential Essentials.  In other words, plenty of time to digest the Christmas calories, read a few improving books, and watch a few overs of the cricket.  Not really the time you expect contentious theological issues to be raised in the public square.  Except this year...

Before the Christmas bak'd meats could coldly furnish forth the Boxing Day tables, two new works on the preaching role of women in the Church by respected authors John Dickson and Michael F. Bird came out in e-book form.  To call them "books" is an overstatement as neither runs longer than 70 pages (including footnotes).  "Pamphlet" or "tract" in the more traditional sense would be more appropriate.  Both are in a style that will engage non-scholarly audiences and are available for less than $5.  These are works that are meant to be distributed widely and easily.  They will appeal to those who prefer their reading material on electronic devices rather than paper.  It's not hard to imagine them becoming the topic of Hot Discussion amongst young Christians at conferences and summer missions over the next several weeks, conveniently while their pastors are in Holiday Mode.

Both claim to have found an evangelical "middle ground" between the entrenched Egalitarian (there should be no distinctions between men and women in the use of spiritual gifts) and Complementarian (men and women have equal but different spiritual roles in Church life) positions.  Both claim that the language of the apostle Paul in particular has been misapplied in our modern context.  Both make some very important and appropriate observations about the role of women in the early life of the Church, something which complementarians often tacitly acknowledge but seldom allow to shape their ministry practices.  However, Dickson and Bird each employ radically different exegetical methods to reach their shared conclusions that, while it may be appropriate for male headship to remain with respect to ordained Church offices and the Christian household, it is nonetheless perfectly appropriate for a woman to preach expositional sermons to regular mixed gathering of the household of God.

After carefully considering both arguments, I find each of them are unconvincing and so cannot in good conscience accept them or recommend them to others.

Of the two works, John Dickson's Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons is the more challenging argument as it was not one that I had personally encountered before.  Dickson aims to sharpen our perceptions of the various Word ministries mentioned in the New Testament to see which is the most equivalent to modern sermonising and whether any gender restrictions can be found to apply.  His ideas are likely to be very appealing to a young evangelical readership and therefore warrant serious engagement to see whether they can be sustained.  In contrast, Bird's Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives & Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry is not as engaging as its title suggests.  Bird uses standard egalitarian hermeneutics to flatten the distinctions between Word ministries and his historical interpretations of contentious passages such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 are nothing new to anyone who has done previous reading on the topic (though presumably these people are not Bird's target audience).  I found that I had read some of his material on Romans 16 previously, but the extended discussion in the recent publication did not overcome the obvious exegetical problems with his analysis.

So why am I "wasting my time" writing an extended account of my thoughts on these works?  Why not just post a snarky Status Update or Tweet and have done with it?  A couple of reasons, really.

First, I believe that both these works have some important things to teach those who, like myself, hold to a complementarian position on the ministry roles of men and women.  Some of the accusations of biblical unfaithfulness directed at complementarians in both these works are entirely justified in my own experience.  Too often, women in the Church have been sidelined or excluded from leadership of certain ministries that involve partnership with men because of fears that it would undercut the Headship Principle.  Practice is frequently driven more by fear and theological "acceptability" than Scripture.  Complementarians have been slow to question whether Standard Church Practices do in fact give space for our sisters in Christ to use their gifts for the benefit of the congregation ways which are biblical.  This needs to change, and I believe that both these works may spur us on towards greater communal godliness.

Second, this is a conversation that we really need to have seriously again.  The last time this was on the evangelical agenda was when when Women's Lib looked like this.  Seriously, the young men and women who are leading our Youth Groups and Bible Studies were either not born or in preschool the last time this topic was a Big Deal.  If the space isn't created for the next generation to explore this topic in an open and informed way then there will be a rather predictable reaction.  We have nothing to fear from opening up the Bible and seeing what it says.

So what next?

Over the following week I intend to post here some serious theological reflection on the works of Dickson and Bird in turn.  I will start by talking about what are the right and good things that we can and should learn from these Christian brothers.  From there, I shall outline where I think their arguments run into difficulties and why therefore I think their conclusions regarding the preaching role of women in the church cannot be sustained.  At the end I'll try to draw things together in as helpful a way as possible.

Read on...

Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Prevented by the Holy Spirit"

It's been a while, but anyway...

The role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian is often portrayed as overwhelmingly "positive".  That is, the Spirit enables the Christian to live in a manner of which they were incapable while they were still under sin.  They can be obedient by the Spirit (Rom 8:4).  They can understand the things of God (1 Cor2:12).  They can overcome the desires of the body (Gal 5:16).  I could go on and on.

The contemporary word to describe the Spirit's effect on the Christian's life is "empowerment".  Not a bad word, I suppose, given its use in Scripture.  However, I have been considering the extent to which it accurately describes the Spirit's role.  The trouble is that it is possible to interpret "empowered" language as having purely energetic connotations and not directive.  So we decide which way we want to serve God and which gifts we would like to have and then we pray and wait for the Spirit to show up to give us the Get-Up-And-Go that we need.  The Individual is in the driver's seat, rather than God.  Of course, not all uses of this language intend to have these implications (indeed, probably few do).  Maybe it reflects the limitations of our lexicon.

I was pondering the role of the Holy Spirit in ministry and mission recently as I read the account in Acts of Paul's second missionary journey.  Paul starts with a limited but reasonable and godly objective - to visit the churches that he and Barnabas had already planted to see how their faith was progressing (15:36).  At first, things seemed to go according to plan as he visited his old haunts of Derbe and Lystra (16:1-5).  However, his mission then took an unexpected detour across the province of Asia and then by sea to Macedonia (16:6-12).  In two places in this passage the Holy Spirit is described as actively preventing, rather than empowering, Paul's opportunities for evangelism.  Paul was kept from preaching in Asia by the Holy Spirit (v.6) and the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul from entering the town of Bithynia.  The implication is that at both these points there was a desire by Paul and his companions to preach Christ as they had done in other places, but the Spirit directed them to another task that God had prepared for them.

I wonder how Paul felt.  Up to this point Paul was probably feeling very Empowered.  Everywhere he went people were heeding his call for repentance and putting their trust in Jesus.  But then when he got to Asia things started to "go wrong".  Bear in mind, the province of Asia covers a large part of modern Turkey.  That's a lot of country to cover without being given a chance to preach the Gospel.  Then to get to the end of the road and not being able to enter Bithynia either?  Did Paul wonder if the Spirit had left him, I wonder...

What we see instead is that the Holy Spirit is more than just Ministry Rocket Fuel.  The Spirit is the one who opens and closes doors for the Gospel to spread.  The Spirit doesn't just Empower, but Directs and Enables mission.  Those engaged in the preaching of Jesus learn from Acts 16 that they are not the Captain and Navigator of their own course.  Those jobs are firmly in God's hands.

Almost two years ago I started full-time parish ministry with all sorts of ideas about what I'd be doing.  There were the initiatives I'd been dreaming up for few years at Theological College, as well as the opportunities that I was encouraged to pursue by the people in the parish.  These days things look a lot different to what I'd imagined - the things that I thought I'd be doing have been put On Hold while other ministries take priority.  Some days this can be tough as I turn to tasks that I would consider Not My Strong Point.  The temptation to shake my fist at the sky like some ecclesiastical Basil Fawlty is present occasionally, I'll admit.  However, I think I'm slowly learning that (for my own good and that of the Kingdom) I've been Prevented by the Holy Spirit.  Maybe it's because God knows better than me what the people in my parish need from me.  Maybe I've been Prevented in order to avoid catastrophe due to overconfidence and inexperience.  Whatever the truth, I press on knowing that God is in control.  Furthermore, as I reflect on how my Lord has put me to use, there are blessings that I have received which I might have missed out on had I simply been given my own way in everything.

Sola Deo Gloria!