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...