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4 Aug 2013

A Response to John Dickson's Hearing Her Voice (1 of 7)

A word of appreciation

At the end of 2012, John Dickson released an eBook called Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons.  It was one of three books released at the same time, which all deal with broadly the same set of issues.  The other two were Mike Bird’s Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts, and Kathy Keller’s Jesus, Justice and Gender.
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Hearing Her Voice is the only one of these I’ve read.  The main reason for this is the circles of connection.  John is a fellow-worker in the Sydney Anglican Diocese.  I’ve appreciated some of the stuff he has written especially in defending the historicity of the gospels.  He comes from the same theological ‘stable’ as me, and therefore my assumption is that we share the same sort of commitments in our reading of Scripture. 
Although in the end, I disagree with John’s reading of 1 Tim 2:12, I appreciated the stated modesty of his argument: he’s not calling for a revolution of all things to do with women in ministry; he’s not arguing for women’s ordination to the priesthood, or as senior pastors.  He says that in some ways it might seem to some people that he should simply go the whole way and become a ‘card-carrying “egalitarian”’ (a term that John admits to not liking very much).  But he doesn't think God's Word allows him to do this.  And I agree with him!  
The net result, though, is that for me, he is someone I want to consider.  He is someone I want to engage with.  He is someone who makes me think.  
Another way of saying all this is that in the end, John’s argument is based on the text of Scripture.  It’s an argument based on his considered reading of a specific text.  I don't think his reading is right, but at least, broadly speaking, we're trying to 'play the same game'.  Of course, there are all sorts of trends ‘out there’ today with regard to roles for women in public Christian ministry.  And at one level, it's never a bad thing to try and 'locate' arguments, whether they are our own or the arguments of others, into broader patterns of thinking.  But I don't think that's really what John's argument is about.  And therefore it's not what my disagreement is about.  It has to be based on Scripture.

What is John’s argument?

In the weeks immediately after Hearing Her Voice was published, numerous responses were given in the blogosphere and on social media.  I'm sure that most of these were well-intended, and simply wanted to publicly contend for a right understanding of Scripture.  It seemed to me, though, that some of them clearly failed 'the listening test'.  That is, they hadn’t really understood John’s argument.  Therefore they either rebutted things that John didn’t say, or they didn’t rebut the things he did say! 
This seemed to be as frustrating for John as it was counter-productive to the early ‘conversation’ about what John had written, especially in and around Sydney.  (I realise, of course, that John’s book will reach well beyond the Sydney Anglican diocese.  But since this is the main (only?) sphere in which I move personally, it’s the main one in which I’ve seen people try to come to grips with what John has written.)
My first step, then, is simply to try and express John’s argument in my own words.  If I can’t do this in a way that he would nod along to, then I guess I haven’t understood it yet.  And if I haven’t understood it yet, anything else I say won’t be a very effective response to his book!  
If I had to summarise John’s argument in point form, it would go something like this:
·       there are numerous public speaking ministries mentioned in the New Testament
·       only one of these – teaching – is forbidden to women; this happens in 1 Tim 2:12
·       since Paul emphasises elsewhere that the various public speaking ministries differ from each other, we need to know what was meant by the ministry of teaching in 1 Tim 2:12, so that we know what Paul is forbidding to women
o   if teaching in 1 Tim 2:12 is what happens in a contemporary sermon, clearly women should not be permitted to preach sermons
o   if teaching in 1 Tim 2:12 is different from what happens in a contemporary sermon, godly and mature women should be permitted to preach sermons
·       the specific activity that Paul forbids to women in 1 Tim 2:12 – teaching – is not a general type of speaking based on Scripture, but rather a specific activity found through the New Testament, and necessitated by an as-yet unwritten and unformed New Testament canon: preserving and laying down the traditions handed on by the apostles
·       contemporary sermons cannot easily be equated to this specific task of preserving and laying down the traditions handed on by the apostles
·       therefore godly and mature women should be permitted to preach sermons
In the following posts I will try to show where I think John’s argument doesn’t work.  But for now I’m going to finish this post with three things I’ve appreciated from reading Hearing Her Voice.

1. It’s been good to have my assumptions challenged. 

It’s so easy on issues like this to ‘rest on your laurels’, and to not keep testing either your understanding of Scripture or your actual behaviour.  John’s book has made me think hard again about an issue of considerable importance, especially in our modern setting.  
Perhaps not everyone thinks this way, but I don't thing disagreements between us are necessarily a bad thing.  They are certainly inevitable.  But they can also be good, as long as they drive us back to the Scriptures to contend with each other through reasonable argument, and to learn obedience together. 
John’s book should be part of this process.  It has made me re-think again how it is that we read the New Testament, and how we understand passages in it: how we work out what words mean, and what sentences mean, and what paragraphs mean …  Whether on this issue or any other issue, these are always good things for us to re-examine.

2. It’s been good to think through the importance of preaching again.

The importance of sermons is not quite what John’s book is about.  But it’s probably what his book assumes.  And sermons are important.  Preaching is important.  They’re important because of the nature of the gospel.  The gospel is an announced thing more than an analysed thing.  It’s a proclaimed thing more than a discussed thing.  Sermons reinforce these truths, even by their very form.  They place us under the authoritative sound of God's Word, and therefore they will always be vitally important as a means by which God’s people are built up into maturity.
To have so people wrestling with the meaning of a passage like 1 Tim 2:12 has reinforced these convictions.  After all, we would only get into the debate in the first place if it's something we actually care about!

3. It’s been good to remember how unimportant preaching is.

OK, ‘unimportant’ is probably not quite the right word.  But it’s good to remember that a sermon is just one instance of the ministry-of-the-Word that should happen among God’s people every week.  As an ordained minister, it’s a constant danger to place more importance on the sermon than I should.  Or maybe to place importance on the sermon for the wrong reasons.  After all, the sermon is my time to shine: to strut my stuff and to flex my exegetical and pastoral muscles.  Perhaps others don't struggle against such delusions of grandeur.  But for me, preacher's pride is a constant danger.  I don't mean to accuse John, or anyone else, of thinking this way.  But it's certainly something I've struggled with.
But if I stop and think about it for a moment, at our church, in each congregation, the sermon is just one weekly block of 25 minutes.  There is so much more ministry-of-the-Word that should be happening each week – from both men and women!  What we need to be committed to, then, and what we need to encourage in each other, is a steadfast dedication to Word-centred ministry, not sermon-centred ministry. 
This needs to be said clearly from the outset, so that when I say I don't think women should preach sermons in mixed congregations, I am not misheard to say women not be engaged in ministry-of-the Word.  But as well it reminds me that when I say I don't think women should preach sermons in mixed congregations, I've then got to have have some genuine answers in store for my Christian sisters, about what it can look like to use their God-given gifts to serve the glorious gospel of God's grace.

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