John Dickson

Australian writer, speaker, and academic. Public advocate for the Christian Faith

Should Women Preach in our Churches? A response to Kevin DeYoung in The Gospel Coalition

Introduction

I appreciate Kevin DeYoung’s polite entry into the fraught debate over women’s ministry. I am also flattered that he thinks my case for women preaching in Hearing Her Voice is the “strongest argument” he has found. (By the end, he says my views are “overly narrow”, “surprisingly thin”, and even “impoverished”, but I’ll take my compliments wherever I can find them!). 

Kevin works hard to describe my argument fairly, but at key points he makes his task easier than it should be by exaggerating things I say or by elevating the edges of the argument, instead of adequately confronting the main challenge. So I would like to push back a bit, in the hope of shedding more light—without the usual heat—on this important question. 

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1. My argument in my words

My argument is straightforward. In 1 Tim 2:12 Paul restricts “teaching authority” in the church to certain trusted maleelders. To my mind, this is unavoidable (despite decent arguments to the contrary given by my egalitarian friends). But the conversation doesn’t stop there; we can’t simply assume that 1 Tim 2:12 is referring to what we call ‘sermons’. Two other pieces of evidence need to be considered. First, Paul explicitly distinguishes “teaching” from other kinds of speech in church. In Romans 12:4-8, for example, Paul lists “teaching”, “prophesying”, and “exhorting”, and says that each of them is “different” (diaphoros). Secondly, it is clear Paul expected women to “prophesy (and pray)” in church (1 Cor 11:5). The upshot of this is that there are at least three different kinds of speaking ministries in church, and the restriction in 1 Tim 2:12 refers to only one of them. 

The obvious double-barrelled question is: What is “teaching”, and how do we know all of today’s sermons fall into that category, instead of the categories of “prophesying” or “exhorting”? In Hearing Her Voice I lay out the evidence that “teaching” (in Paul’s letters) refers to a specific task that cannot easily be equated with expounding the Scriptures. “Teaching” istransmitting and protecting—I like to use the expression “laying down”—the core body of apostolic doctrines. “Exhorting”, on the other hand (and perhaps “prophesying”) refers to something closer to (many of) our sermons, that is, urging God’s people to trust and obey the teachings of Scripture. If this is right, it would be inappropriate to restrict allSunday sermons to men. “Teaching authority” in the local church may lay with an authorised elder, but that doesn’t mean trusted women shouldn’t also be giving sermons exhorting us in the power of the Spirit to heed the message of Scripture.

But Kevin critiques my view in a series of considered moves. 

2. Teaching in the early church

First, Kevin says “we have to wonder why this highly nuanced reading has been lost on almost every commentator for two millennia.” I’m not sure what to make of this, because virtually every (technical) commentator notes that “teaching” in Paul’s letters, especially the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus), refers to the specialised activity of making sure the church learns the core body of apostolic doctrines. If there is anything fresh in my argument, it isn’t the historical-critical account of Pauline “teaching”; it is perhaps the way I ask whether every modern sermon is “teaching” in the same sense. 

Kevin bolsters his point by asking why the early church, after the New Testament, did not continue to use “teaching” in this highly specialised sense. He offers the example of the Didache, written at the end of the first century. He says the word “teaching” in this document is used in a more generalised way. A couple of things are relevant. First, my argument isn’t that “teaching” always and only means the same thing across all Greek literature (or even everywhere in the Bible, let alone later Christian literature). My argument is that Paul uses the word in a specific way, and it is Paul’s usage that we have to probe in order to understand what he meant when he asked women not to “teach”. 

Secondly, I’m not confident Kevin is actually right about the Didache. The very word ‘didache’ is the Greek term for “teaching”, and the Didache document claims to be—it isn’t, but it claims to be—an accurate account of the core doctrines of the apostles. The full title is “The Teaching (Didache) of the Lord for the Nations through the Twelve Apostles”. That’s why Didache 11:1 speaks of welcoming those who “come and teach you all these things that have just been mentioned.” The word “teaching” here has nothing to do with expounding the Bible, or expounding the Didache document itself. “Teaching” in this instance obviously just means repeating and laying down the apostolic doctrines this document claims to preserve. 

It is true, as Kevin notes, that a few paragraphs later (Didache 11:10-11), the text speaks of a “prophet” engaging in “teaching”, but does this help Kevin’s case? It is well known that the word “prophet” came very quickly to refer to what we would call “an itinerant Christian speaker”. But is that how the New Testament, and Paul in particular, uses the term? I don’t think so. We have already seen that Paul carefully distinguishes between “prophesying” and “teaching” (as well as between “prophets” and “teachers”). But the Didache—written a few decades after Paul—implies that prophets do the “teaching”. How would that square with Paul’s view that women may “prophesy” but not “teach” (or with the fact that the evangelist Philip had four “prophesying” daughters: Acts 21:9)? It is surely more reasonable to say that the Didache provides evidence of a loosening, or conflating, of New Testament terms. 

We should also note that the church missed, conflated, and invented loads of things throughout its history. Most of our complementarian churches today are happy to invite women to read the Bible in church, to sing songs, and to lead the prayers. That seems biblical to us today, but these activities were usually forbidden to women throughout church history. Indeed, some fine contemporary evangelicals, like Tim Challies of Grace Fellowship Church, continue to believe that women should not read the Bible in public.

3. Teaching in ancient Judaism

Kevin also disputes my account of Jewish practice at the time of Paul. In Hearing Her Voice I make the point that the Mishnah(the second sacred text of Orthodox Judaism) is a fixed collection of oral traditions from the rabbis. As such, it is a close parallel to what Paul called “teaching”. Kevin, however, insists that the Mishnah“explains and applies the Torah”. Thus, if the Mishnah is a good parallel to teaching (as I claim), teaching must be about explaining and applying the Bible. 

I am not sure Kevin is correct, either about what the Mishnah claims for itself, or about how Jews—ancient or modern—understand the Mishnah. There is a whole genre of Bible exposition in ancient Judaism. It isn’t the Mishnah. It’s called Pesher (“interpretation”), and the Dead Sea Scrolls contain some excellent examples. The Mishnahis something very different. There are, of course, citations of Scripture in the Mishnah(just as there are in Pauline “teaching”), but the Mishnah purports to be a separate body of tradition sitting in parallelto the Jewish Scriptures. That is why Jews call it the “second Torah” and the “oral Torah”, as opposed to the first, written Torah. I urge readers to flick through a modern copy of the Mishnah. I am confident they will discover that there is hardly anything in its 1000 pages that looks like an “exposition” of an Old Testament passage. 

Kevin also points to the synagogue service, where he says something approaching exposition of the Bible did take place. Actually, I say the same thing in my book. The difference between us is that Kevin reckons this synagogue practice provides the background for Paul’s concept of “teaching”, whereas I argue that this practice provides the background for Paul’s concept of “exhortation”. Preaching on the basis of a passage is typically called “exhortation” in the New Testament not “teaching” (see Acts 13:15; 15:31-32; Hebrews 13:22). And as I also argue in the book, this is why Paul urges Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading, to the exhortation, and to the teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). These are three separate activities, and notice it is “the exhortation” (not “the teaching”) that follows the Scripture reading. To repeat what I said earlier, “exhortation” is “different” (diaphoros) from “teaching” (as Romans 12:4-8 makes clear), and “exhortation” has a lot in common with what we now call a “sermon”.

Mishnah, Abot

Mishnah, Abot

4. Teaching in the Old Testament

Kevin argues that the Old Testament uses the word “teaching” in a broad sense, and that this raises a question over the “narrow” sense I say is found in Paul. I don’t find this a convincing line of reasoning. We are trying to discover what Paul specifically meant by “teaching” when he forbade women to do it. Looking at a word in the whole corpus of Scripture can be useful, but it is not decisive. Different authors use words in different ways. Just think of the term “prophet” and “prophesying”. Imagine insisting that Paul’s use of these terms in 1 Corinthians 11-14 must be the same as that found in the biblical Prophets! It wouldn’t work, and nor does it work for “teaching”.

5. Teaching in the New Testament

When Kevin turns to the New Testament, several misunderstandings slip in. For example, he sees it as significant that there are references to transmitting the apostolic deposit (what I call “teaching”) that do not use the word “teaching”, but instead use terms like “passing on” (1 Cor 15:3). What Kevin doesn’t tell his readers is that a key part of my argument in Hearing Her Voice is precisely to show that “teaching” is “a perfectly apt alternative term” for “passing on”. And I do the exegetical work to demonstrate the point. In Paul’s earlier letters the words “teaching” and “passing on” appear together in parallel. In the later Pastoral Epistles we don’t find the expression “passing on” at all, even though commentators all agree that ensuring the apostolic doctrines are passed onis one of the central themes of the Pastoral Epistles. The word in the Pastoral Epistles that does all the heavy-lifting for this concept is “teaching” (1 Tim 1:10; 1 Tim 4:6; 1 Tim 6:1, 2, and 3; 2 Tim 2:2; 2 Tim 3:10; Titus 1:9; Titus 2:1; Titus 2:10). Paul’s words in 2 Tim 2:2 capture the thought perfectly: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teachothers”. “Teaching” is the process of faithfully transmitting the apostolic deposit.

Kevin thinks the Sermon on the Mount provides “crucial” evidence against my argument. In Hearing Her Voice I note that the Lord’s Sermon is designated “teaching” (Matt 7:28-29). I add that this isn’t because the Sermon on the Mount is an exposition of Old Testament passages; it’s because it’s a new authoritative body of tradition. But Kevin replies that “The Sermon on the Mount is filled with Old Testament allusions, parallels, and explanations.” As a result, he says, we cannot create a neat distinction between “teaching” and expounding the Bible. On the one hand, I need to say that I do not create such a neat distinction. In Hearing Her Voice I repeatedly say things like (to quote myself): “Teachers used Old Testament passages as background and proof for their new covenant message, but exposition of Scripture was not the defining feature of teaching”; or “the apostolic traditions often explained how Jesus fulfilled the Law and the prophets.” But the more obvious point is that the Sermon on the Mount really isn’t anything like an exposition of Old Testament passages. There are many allusions and a few citations. But I can’t see a single Old Testament passage that Jesus “expounds” in the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine a seminary student today handing in the Sermon on the Mount to her Homiletics class as an example of an exposition of Old Testament passages! 

6. Teaching in the Pastoral Epistles

When Kevin turns to the Pastoral Epistles themselves—the immediate context of Paul’s prohibition against women “teaching” in church—he offers some interesting remarks. First, he fully acknowledges that “teaching” is about “passing on the good deposit of the apostolic truth about Jesus” (his words). We agree for a moment. Then he cites two authorities to contradict me. He says that evangelical biblical scholar Bill Mounce “does not reduce the Christian tradition to oral sayings only, to the exclusion of Scripture explication”, and then he cites the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament as saying “the historical connexion between Scripture and didaskein [teaching] is still intact”. If I had said that Paul’s concept of “teaching” excluded any explanation of Old Testament passages, Kevin would have a point. But I don’t. I frequently note in Hearing Her Voice that the Old Testament features in Paul’s concept of “teaching”, precisely because the core apostolic doctrines are the fulfillment of the Old Testament (just like in the Sermon on the Mount). But this doesn’t mean “teaching” is defined as “explaining Bible passages.” More to the point, however, both authorities offered by Kevin in fact agree with me that the core idea of “teaching” in the Pastoral Epistles is the authorised transmission of the apostolic doctrine of the Christian gospel. 

This is where I feel Kevin has created a bit of a strawman out of me, making his task of critique easier than it should be. He says things like “on Dickson’s interpretation Timothy was to read the Scriptures, exhort from the Scriptures, and then lay down the apostolic deposit without ever expounding any of the Scriptures just read”; or again (purporting to describe my view), “Paul never meant for teachers to explain Bible verses in reproving, correcting, or training either. The Bible may inform these tasks, but it never involves exposition of any kind. This strains credulity to the breaking point.” Yet, throughout Hearing Her Voice I urge readers not to imagine the very thing Kevin imagines. I tried to make it clear (a) that the Scriptures have a key role in what Paul’s calls “teaching” but (b) that this doesn’t mean “teaching” can be defined as expounding the Scriptures. Consider this key quotation from Hearing Her Voice

The apostolic traditions are full of demonstrations that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. Studying the Jewish Scriptures, then, is hugely beneficial for Timothy’s task of laying down for his churches what the apostles have said (i.e., teaching). But this does not mean that teaching is expounding a Bible passage—as vital as exposition is for the health of the church.

Or, as I say later in the book, “As central as Scripture was to the teaching of Paul and Jesus, Scriptural exposition is not the defining or constitutive characteristic of their teaching.” This is the idea that Kevin inflates to the point of incredulity. My claim (a) that “teaching” in Paul is not constituted by exposition is amped up by Kevin to mean (b) that I am saying “Paul never meant for teachers to explain Bible verses in reproving, correcting, or training either” (Kevin’s rendition of my view). 

“Teaching” in the Pastoral Epistles according to the standard scholarly New Testament dictionary,  New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis , vol.1. Zondervan, 2014, 715.

“Teaching” in the Pastoral Epistles according to the standard scholarly New Testament dictionary, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol.1. Zondervan, 2014, 715.

7. Teaching today

Kevin thinks that because I don’t view every sermon as “teaching”, I have too low a view of the modern sermon. He says “In Dickson’s telling, the sermon is essentially a running commentary plus application.” And thus my “understanding of contemporary preaching is too impoverished”. Kevin’s way of putting things is artificial. The truth is, I think the Bible is the Word of God. So explaining the Bible is a holy act, and applying it to people’s hearts in the power of the Spirit is life-changing. Just because I reckon Paul would have called many of our sermons “exhortation” rather than “teaching”—and therefore would have happily invited women to give some sermons—does not mean that I devalue pulpit ministry.

Finally, Kevin offers a series of remarks designed to make my view seem too complicated ever to put into practice. He writes:

Complementarians who try to thread the needle and argue that “this message on Sunday morning is a sharing not a sermon” or “this woman preaching is under the authority of the session” will find that their arguments for not letting women preach all the time and in any way look exceedingly arbitrary.

Or again, “With all these elements of preaching jumbled together, how could Paul have expected Timothy to untangle the ball of yarn and know what he was supposed to not permit women to do?”

It is true that a blanket-ban on women giving any kind of sermon is more straightforward than my proposal. Simpler still would be never allowing women to read the Bible in church, give a testimony, or sing up-front (of course, some churches adopt precisely these policies). But we are not aiming at simplicity. We all want to be biblical. And there are nuances in the Bible that Kevin seems to flatten out. It is the apostle Paul himself who says that “teaching”, “exhorting”, and “prophesying” are all “different”. Kevin may call this “threading the needle” but I insist it is biblical. All sermons today will take the form of citing and explaining Bible passages. But some sermons will principally be designed to lay down for the church the core apostolic doctrines (“teaching”). Other sermons will principally be designed to encourage the church to heed the commands or comforts of Scripture (“exhorting”; or perhaps “prophesying”). Even if it is only two or three times a year, churches will hugely benefit from hearing women’s voices exhort us to trust and obey the Lord.

Conclusion 

Some realities survive Kevin’s polite but forceful critique:

1. Paul himself distinguishes between “exhorting”, “prophesying”, and “teaching”.

2. Paul expected women to “prophesy” in the congregation.

3. Paul never forbade women to “exhort” the congregation.

4. Paul did forbid women to “teach” the congregation.

5. “Teaching” refers to laying down the core apostolic doctrines.

6. Not all contemporary sermons are “teaching” in the Pauline sense.

7. The Bible does not restrict every kind of sermon to men, and so trusted women ought to be giving at least some sermons in our churches.


John Dickson is an author, historian, and ordained Anglican Minister in Sydney. He is Distinguished Fellow at Ridley College, lecturer in Christian origins at the University of Sydney, and a Visiting Academic (2017-2020) in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford.