Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

A Critique of John Dickson’s “Hearing Her Voice”

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 has impressive credentials. He is a scholar, historian, author, and an Anglican minister. In his new book, John asserts that it’s fine, in theory, for capable Christian women to engage in any speaking ministry in the church. 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.”

John writes:

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.[1]

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. 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 “authentēs,” with legitimate authority in the church. The verb authenteō occurs once in the NT, in 1 Timothy 2:12. In other Greek literature, however, authent– words are often used in a negative context, and not for wholesome, legitimate authority, and certainly not for the kind of leadership that Jesus taught about. More on authent– words here.

(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 translates this verse more accurately 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, italics added.

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 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).


Footnote

[1] “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), 136.  

More about letter carriers in the Pauline tradition here.


Related Articles 

The meaning of authentein, with a brief history of authent– words 
Qualified for Every Good Work (2 Timothy 2:2 & 3:16-17)
A Critique of Kathy Keller’s “Jesus, Justice and Gender Roles
Book Review: “God’s Good Design
King Lemuel’s Mother: The Other Proverbs 31 Woman
Gender Roles and Speaking Ministries in the Church
Various articles on 1 Timothy 2:12, here.

9 thoughts on “A Critique of John Dickson’s “Hearing Her Voice”

  1. Thanks for the informed review. I especially like your reference to 2 Tim 2:2 not being gender specific. On the subject of teaching and exhortation, it seems to me that teaching includes more than preserving apostolic tradition. Moreover, if this is what is meant by teaching then why would this not be clear in 2 Tim 4:2 which reads – “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”

  2. Why does every translation of 1 Tim. 2:12 include the word “over”?

  3. Jeanette, Yes, I don’t understand the “man” bit in 1 Tim 2:12 either, as per John’s definition of “to teach”. I can’t see that it makes sense for the apostle Paul to say, “I am not allowing a woman to lay down or preserve apostolic teaching [to?] a man.”

    I still believe that Paul was prohibiting false, unwholesome teaching from a woman (or women) in this verse. I have suggestions about how 1 Tim 2:12 may be interpreted and applied here.

    Kathryn, My pet peeve too!!!

  4. Here are some interesting thoughts from Kevin Giles taken from his response to John’s book:

    “Nowhere else in scripture do we find the word authentein (an exceptional and negative word definitely implies some exceptional and problematic kind of teaching); nowhere else in scripture is it taught that women are subordinated to men because Adam was created first; nowhere else is it said that it was Eve who was deceived by the devil in the garden, not Adam, and nowhere else do we find Paul saying that women ‘are saved through childbearing,’ whatever that means.”

    I didn’t mention this in my critique above, but John briefly mentions Eve’s “weakness” in a footnote of his book, but doesn’t mention Adam’s “weakness”. They both ate the forbidden fruit, but Eve is singled out as the weak one. I don’t see the logic of saying that one person has a weakness when two people do the same thing.

    John also mentions the “created order” in his book. Here is my take on the complementarian concept of the created order.

    1. Hi, Marg –

      Not sure if you’ll be alerted to this comment, but here goes 🙂

      I read your blog responding to Mary Kassian’s “Women, Creation, and the Fall.” You raise some valid objections to Kassian’s arguments, though while you imply speculation from complementarians, you also supply speculation regarding the Creation account (e.g. maybe God iterated his command to Eve… or maybe he didn’t?). Thus, while I understand the blog is aimed at critiquing Kassian’s first two chapters, focusing on the creation/fall account cannot adequately lead to a proper determination on the “subordination” of women to men.

      All that to say, I’m wondering if you have considered the inter-Trinitarian relations as a template/example of male/female relations? Women and men are equal–yes, absolutely! Jesus and the Father are equal–yes, it’s creedal! And the Father sends the Son, and the Son submits to the Father. Does this mean they are not equal? Certainly not. Two persons inhabiting the same divine being/status, yet carrying out different roles. And mankind–male and female–is made in this God’s image. From this we might conclude that it is well within the realm of possibility that God intends men to have a certain leadership role and for women to not have this role, as doing so reflects the economy of the Trinity.

      What do you think?

      1. Hi Lanc4,

        My “counter-speculation” was meant to show that the speculation that Adam was charged with telling Eve God’s command is completely baseless. I didn’t mean to imply much more that this. I’ll check my article in the morning to see if I can make that clearer. (It’s past midnight here.)

        Many hierarchical complementarians do base their views, at least in part, on the Genesis creation accounts.

        I’ve written about the Trinity as a “template” for marriage here: https://margmowczko.com/equality-and-gender-issues/the-trinity-and-marriage/ and here: https://margmowczko.com/equality-and-gender-issues/separate-spheres-roles-in-trinity-and-marriage-john-5_18-30/

  5. One more comment I would like to add is to thank John for his courage in writing that women can speak and preach in churches, even if his reasoning is different to the one I hold. This is an encouraging step in recognizing that God does indeed use women through this gift of the Spirit.

  6. Hey, this is lovely, Margaret. Thanks for the interaction. It’s a nice feeling getting critiqued from the egalitarian side and you were very gentle with me. Thanks.
    Every blessing,
    John

  7. Hi John, I hope I’m gentle with everyone. 🙂

    Have you seen Kevin Giles’ review of your book?
    http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/kevin-giles-response-to-john-dickson

    Blessings
    Marg

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