Book Review: Hearing her voice

Hearing her voiceJohn Dickson is a minister in Australia and a senior research fellow in ancient history at Macquarie University in Sydney. He describes himself as a ‘soft complementarian’ and in this short e-book, Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons he makes the case for opening the pulpit to both men & women.

His argument is very simple and very concise but it’s also limited. Dickson doesn’t discuss leadership and as a result has ample opportunity to offend complementarians by going too far and egalitarians by not going far enough. Such is life when you stick your neck out into this debate.

In a nutshell Dickson argues that in the New Testament there are four different forms of public speaking evangelising, prophesying, exhorting and teaching and only one of those roles, teaching, is excluded to women. He then defines what he means by teaching and argues that what we call sermons are best described not as teaching but as exhortation or possibly even prophesying.

The point of contention is what does Dickson think teaching means? Dickson concludes that teaching (and yes we’re thinking about 1 Tim 2:12) refers to ‘preserving and laying down the body or oral traditions first handed over by the apostles.’ As churches were being started, apostles would come and teach the words and sayings of Jesus and explain what they meant. This was the handing on of apostolic doctrine through the oral tradition. This task was given to reliable men and in a similar way the task of conveying a written message from the apostle faithfully to the churches would be a similar teaching task.

Dickson then argues that this role of laying down the fundamental layer of truth into a church has ‘gone up a key’ and is done through scripture – we no longer need teachers because scripture is our teacher. He argues that ‘a sermon doesn’t really preserve and lay down the apostolic traditions; it expounds and applies the Bible text where those traditions are already preserved and laid down.” (kindle location 442)

Teaching is about preserving and laying down. Today, of course, believers can go straight to the Gospels and read Jesus’ words…for themselves. No human being preserves and lays down the teachings of Jesus and the apostles any more. (loc 658)

So Dickson argues that while teaching should be done by men, most (if not all) sermons aren’t teaching in the way Paul uses it and therefore sermons shouldn’t be restricted simply to men.

He argues that we shouldn’t be too troubled by the disappearance of the role of teacher because well we don’t have a widows roll (1 Tim 5:9-11) and we might not be too fussed about that and the same goes for apostles. We’re not worried that they’re not around any more so why make a fuss about the role of teaching disappearing with the creation of the canon.

There’s much to commend and I think many of his arguments are persuasive. Not all public speaking is restricted and those that aren’t should be more open to women than they currently are, especially in complementarian churches. You don’t have to listen to too many sermons to realise that in many churches what you are getting is exhortation rather than teaching. Sometimes that’s with good biblical content and sometimes not.

However, my critique rests around his contention that teaching no longer exists today. I think Dickson focuses too much on scripture as a preserve of apostolic doctrine, a repository of divine wisdom and not enough on what it means to ‘lay apostolic doctrine down’ into the life of a church. You can, and some do, make the case for the ongoing role of the apostle today in laying down apostolic doctrine afresh in each generation and in each new church as churches continue to engage in mission.

However, if the language of apostles puts you off consider the role of a church planter – their job is to ensure to the best of their ability that the church is built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets. To ensure that foundation is properly laid down. That in the ongoing regeneration and renewal of the church, what is being built holds true to the apostolic mandate.

Or lets take another example, a new minister takes charge of a historic church that for many years has drifted in liberalism. The ministers job is to lay down again or perhaps (if it’s a confessional church) lead the church to the rediscovery of the right foundations. However that task of leading a church through that change of foundation is precisely the role of teaching. The battles have (sometimes) changed but the task remains the same, ‘this church believes this and not this.’

There are several times in my own experience as a church elder where doctrine gets questioned as a result of a wider controversy. This is not the ‘should we do the Alpha course?’ or ‘let’s call ourselves missional,’ sort of questions. There are fundamental faith issues at stake. In just over ten years of being a church elder the doctrines of atonement and hell have been fundamentally challenged, Christian understanding of sexuality is being questioned & tested and behind that is the big question of how we read, use, understand and interpret scripture so we can know what scripture teaches and what it doesn’t teach. Local church leaders are forced to answer the question, ‘what does this church believe?’ Answering those kind of questions, I think, is a teaching role.

Perhaps the main tool in the workshop that leaders use is preaching, but it seems from Paul’s missionary adventures Paul uses far more than a sermon to lay foundations. It goes much wider including the training of key leaders like Apollos by drafting in key helpers like Aquila & Priscilla, or talking through the long hours of the night in extended conversation and in the doing so he would use all his team (men and women) to assist him. Paul laid down the foundations but he didn’t do it alone and neither should we.

I’ve regularly invited women from my church to preach and I intend to continue to do so, so in one sense I’m already in agreement with Dickson and I’m grateful for the clearly laid out argument he makes. However, I’d argue that the role of teaching continues today in a way that Dickson does not, but calls for methods not confined to preaching and worked out in the context of a team. Basically, trying to do what Paul did. Simple.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Hearing her voice”

  1. Tim Simmonds says:

    Great post. I am downloading that right now.

  2. John Dickson says:

    Hey, I like this a lot. Thanks. You and I are not far away at all. I do think some sermonising (whatever we call it) is a close analogy to ancient teaching, and some of your examples would fall into that category for me.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.


    John Dickson

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      You’re welcome John, thanks for writing it, found it very helpful. Blessings to you in your work


  3. Johncp says:

    I stumbled upon your blog, and would appreciate if you could respond to a question. I am also a complementarian (this seems to be your view from browsing some articles here) and am thinking through this whole issue. I am a pastor in a denomination that is strongly egalitarian with many ordained women pastors. When you say I’ve regularly invited women from my church to preach and I intend to continue to do so”” are these ordained preachers? Do they lead congregations? If you can shed a bit of light on how this works and how you think about it, it could help clarify some things for me.

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Hi John,
      Thanks for the comment. In the church I have led and churches I’ve been involved in ordination is not necessary to preach or for many other things. I’ve found that actually our ecclesiology and view on leadership allows us to open up far more pastoral leadership roles to men & women while at the same time having to battle over our complementarian views.

      Most of the time, the women I’ve invited to speak have been members of our church and don’t lead congregations. I have invited one or two ordained women from other local churches to speak because to me – difference in this area is no more important than differences on say baptism, and I’m happy to build across those bridges.

      For me the issue resolves around leadership (in our context eldership) and not public speaking so in both cases our context and practices on leadership aren’t called into question by the invitation to speak. Hope that helps clarify a bit how it works for us.

  4. markheath says:

    hey Phil, somehow I missed that you’d reviewed this one (I’ve just posted my own review). Good review, and I agree with your analysis of it. I think one complicating factor in all this is that our modern concept of a “sermon” itself may be something of an anachronism. Doubtless there were many things very much like our “sermons”, but whether they existed as a clearly defined category is not clear to me.

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Hi Mark, yes I read your review this morning, very helpful. I think the cessationist part is the weakest conclusion (as of course I would) but I still think his main point stands that our equation of sermon=teaching in the way Paul uses teaches is probably not quite right. Dickson does have a spectrum on that but thinks many sermons are exhortation/encouragement. I think his overall argument is valid and fits better with the understanding of what is unique to an elder role.

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