“Teaching” in the pastoral letters and today: a brief reply

This post is the fourth (and, for the moment, final) instalment in a kind of “interactive book review” of John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a response to John’s book, entitled “What’s happening to our preaching?” John then wrote a reply entitled “In Defence of Inadequate Books on Preaching”. He asked me to publish his response to my response as a post on my site so it didn’t get lost in the comments section. I was happy to do so, but I also thought it was worth making a further (brief) reply.

Over the last 10 days I’ve received a number of comments and private messages about this topic. Thanks to all – but I apologise that I have simply been unable to answer most of you. The day after John sent me his reply, we moved house, and very soon thereafter I started a new job. Most of my time over the last week or so has been occupied by scrubbing, assembling kids’ furniture, sorting, stacking, trying to find bits and pieces from boxes, and getting used to my new responsibilities. While I haven’t been able to get back to all of you, please be assured that your emails and comments have informed my reply here, and have helped my further thinking about these issues.

Now, on to discussing John’s reply:

I’m grateful for a number of points John made in his reply to me. In particular, I thank John for pointing out some elements of imprecision in my response, especially in my overly broad “definition” (or at least, in what has been taken as a “definition”) of “teaching” in the pastoral epistles. I won’t reply to everything John has said here, but I will concentrate on a few points of central significance to the discussion.

On rhetoric and motives

While I’d like to get stuck straight in to the issues, it is necessary first to pick John up on his statements concerning my motives in engaging in this discussion. John said:

For those who don’t think women should give sermons at all, Lionel has provided a way ‘out’ of my argument. He hasn’t overturned my rationale for inviting women to preach; he has simply helped colleagues who share his view feel better about being unmoved by my argument. That is a success—for both of us. Lionel has held the ground and given further respectability to the general practice of Sydney Anglicans.

According to John’s analysis of the situation, then, my measure of “success” (and thus my implied motive in writing a response to his book) is the simple continuation of a respectable status quo amongst fellow Sydney Anglicans in which women never “give sermons” at all. Whether John intended it or not, this way of speaking feels to me a lot like the kind of “socio-rhetorical analysis” and attribution of “imagined motives” which John dislikes in his own reviewers. John claims I am simply providing a “way out” of his argument to justify my general practice; I could of course reply by saying that John’s book functions to provide a “way out” of 1 Timothy 2:12 to justify his general practice…but guessing each other’s motives like this doesn’t get us very far. Let’s stick with assessing each other’s argument based on our own stated motives, rather than on what we think the other person’s measure of “success” might be.

So, to clear the air, I need to remind my readers that I was quite genuine when I said, in my original post:

If we should (and I agree with Dickson that we should) be hearing more of the voices of the women among us, at the very same time we will need to be discerning about the relational dynamics involved. We will need to do things that take seriously and clearly demonstrate those relational dynamics. After all, this is the thrust of 1 Corinthians 11 & 14—and the issue at hand in 1 Timothy 2

Obviously John and I differ on things. But if the only result of our discussion were that the majority of people felt comfortable thinking and doing things the way we have in the past, I would consider it a failure. This is my measure of success: as a result of this discussion, I want us to hear more of the voices of women among us, while simultaneously being discerning, in a biblically-informed manner, about the relational dynamics involved. I’m sure this would also be the measure of “success” for many of my Sydney Anglican colleagues, both men and women.

General and specific meanings of the word “teach”

As our discussion has continued, the various possibilities for the use of the word “teach” have multiplied. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it shows that we’re making some progress, nuancing our understanding of the issues and of the biblical words involved.

As I read it, there are at least four possible understandings for “teach” in play at the moment in our discussion–each of them standing at different levels of “generality” and “specificity”. We could represent these understandings as subsets of each other:

What does the word "teach" mean?

1. Any kind of public speech?

John’s initial alternative definition of teaching, to which he contrasted his own definition, was very broad. Ultimately we have seen (and John has conceded) that this was an inadequate alternative. He says:

There are some things I should concede. Lionel picks me up for frequently contrasting my own strict understanding of ‘teaching’ (in 1 Tim 2:12) with what he calls an “extremely generalised sense”, where ‘to teach’ refers to pretty much any kind of biblical speaking in the front of church.

Since John has conceded that this is an inadequate alternative, there is no need to discuss it further.

2. Authoritative transmission of truth?

In my initial response to John, I suggested a more specific understanding of the term “teach”: “the authoritative transmission of truth from one individual to another.” This is, as John points out, an understanding of the term “teach” which covers most of its uses in the Scriptures (and, indeed, in ancient Greek usage in general). Whenever we read the word “teach” in the Scriptures, we are expecting the author to be talking about a person transmitting truth to another person (or to a group of other people), within a relationship that usually involves some kind of order. The relationships involved do, of course, vary in nature depending on the context. The word is used of Moses “teaching” the law to Israel (Deut 4:1), of the Israelites “teaching” the law to their children (Deut 4:10, 11:19), of God “teaching” the art of war through bitter experience to Israel (Judges 3:2), of God “teaching” wisdom to his servant (Psalm 119:66), of a father “teaching” the ways of wisdom to his son (Prov 4:4) of instructors “teaching” the ways of wisdom to a child (Prov 5:13), of God “teaching” a person his sins and transgressions (Job 13:23), of fathers (wrongly) “teaching” their children to run after idols (Jer 9:14), of Jesus “teaching” Israel in the synagogues (Matt 9:35), etc.

I introduced this formulation primarily in order to show that the observation behind the first plank of John’s argument–i.e. the observation that “teaching” is one specific kind of speech among others–could be explained by something other than his extremely definite, technical definition of the term. There are different kinds of speech in the Christian community. Teaching is one kind of speech, which is different from other kinds of speech because the relational dynamics involved are different. As I said, “‘teaching’, when contrasted with other kinds of biblical or gospel speech, implies or assumes a clearer sense of an ordered relationship of authority between teacher and disciple.” Thus “[w]e do not have to jump to the specialised, technical sense to explain the parallel use of ‘teaching’ alongside ‘prophesy’, ‘exhortation’, etc.”

Nevertheless, I also need to make a concession. I recognise that this understanding is not precise enough to do everything I implied it could do. In particular, this understanding needs to be made more precise in order to deal with what’s happening in the pastoral epistles. As John says:

Lionel’s definition of teaching is still so broad that I have to say quite firmly that it does not work for Paul, especially for the Pastoral Epistles. When I say ‘does not work’, I do not mean it is not true. I mean it is not precise enough.

I concede that in my first response to John, I didn’t clearly set out the fact that the word “teach” in Paul, and particularly in the Pastoral Epistles, is concerned with a particular kind of content. We do indeed need to be more precise about the term:

3. Authoritative transmission of the apostolic deposit?

In the pastoral epistles, when the word “teach” is used, in most if not all cases it is referring to the apostolic teaching. John thus formulates his understanding of the word “teach” as follows:

‘teaching’ in the Pastorals is the authoritative transmission of the truth of the apostolic deposit from one individual to another

As it stands, I’m quite happy with this understanding of the term. It makes sense, and it’s workable in the Pastoral Epistles. But of course, this definition by itself does not contribute directly to John’s precise argument about 1 Tim 2:12. Formulated this way, “teaching” could include much of what we call “preaching” in our modern context.

4. Authoritative transmission of the apostolic deposit verbatim, without elaboration?

John is thus not content to allow the previous understanding of the term “teach” (3) to stand by itself. He takes it further. “Teaching,” for John, is more specific. It is:

transferring intact the memorized collection of statements of the apostles

To be even clearer, John explicitly rules out the idea that “teach” refers to any kind of elaboration upon the memorized collection of statements:

I resist expanding the referent for ‘teaching’ to include further elaborations based on the apostolic deposit. I insist that teaching in the technical sense refers to repeating and laying down what the apostles said, not to the many and varied insights and applications which might flow from that body of tradition.

It is this final step that I have been arguing is unwarranted. Most of John’s arguments do indeed show that “teaching” means the kind of “level 3” understanding (“the authoritative transmission of the truth of the apostolic deposit from one individual to another”). But he does not ultimately show that “teaching” it is at “level 4”–i.e. he does not effectively rule out elaboration upon the words of the apostles.

“Teaching” in the Pastoral Epistles

John points out that since 1 Timothy 2:12 occurs in one of Paul’s Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus), we should concentrate particularly on the usage of the word “teach” elsewhere in the Pastoral Epistles. This restriction is of course understandable. There are certain similarities between these three letters of Paul which predispose us to think that the usage of words will be similar in each one of them. Nevertheless, we need to keep in mind two caveats.

Firstly, and most importantly, it would be naive to come to the pastoral epistles as if we were dealing with a linguistic “blank slate”. In understanding the usage of a word in a given context, we cannot simply ignore the usage of the word elsewhere. Paul is speaking to people who spoke Greek, and who had some knowledge of the Old Testament (I suspect even better than ours!); therefore we must assume that they were familiar with the general understanding of “teach” which I have outlined above (level 2). This general meaning should be the default position for any semantic investigation, until proven otherwise. Even if, for good reasons, we end up narrowing down the usage of the term significantly, the general meaning of the term must still inform our conclusions. In other words, the burden of proof does not lie on those who start their investigation of the usage of a word with its normal, generalised meaning. The burden of proof, rather, lies on those, like John, who seek to narrow the definition down by positing a “particular”, “technical” definition. This is not to say that technical definitions of words cannot exist. It is just to say that a very specific particular technical meaning of a word, pervasive across a particular grouping of letters, is not, as John seems to imply, the default position which should be considered true until proven false. Rather, it is a proposal which needs good solid evidence in order to be accepted. The question is not whether I can find an “out” from John’s argument. The real question is whether John can succeed in providing sufficient proof for his very specific, technical meaning.

Furthermore, we must bear in mind that the pastoral epistles themselves differ from one another in emphasis. 1 Timothy is, on the whole, more concerned with general church issues–i.e. behaviour in the “household of God” (1 Tim 3:15). 2 Timothy is, on the whole, more concerned with issues involving Paul’s personal ministry and its significance for Timothy’s personal ministry and the future of the apostolic teaching (2 Tim 1:14). It would not be surprising, then, for us to find a word used in slightly different contexts in the two letters. In 1 Timothy, we expect words like “teach” to be used in the context of ensuring that the “household of God” is operating well. In 2 Timothy, we expect words like “teach” to be used in contexts in which Paul is ensuring the future of apostolic gospel ministry. If we find the word used in the expected context in 2 Timothy, we are not bound to assume that it must be used in exactly the same way in 1 Timothy. In other words, we cannot simply assume a uniform, very specific, definition for a word across this corpus of letters which we have designated “The Pastoral Epistles” until we have examined the usage in each case.

Let us examine some usage now, briefly. Rather than plodding through each occurrence of the word, I will concentrate on John’s two most central arguments: the connection between the noun and the verb, and the meaning of the verb in 2 Tim 2:2.

The noun “teaching”

As John rightly points out, when Paul uses the noun “teaching”, the source and content of the teaching is the words of Jesus and/or the apostles (e.g. 1 Tim 6:3). This means that we can safely assume that the cognate verb “teach” in Paul usually means doing something with the apostolic words. But what exactly? John would say that the verb “teach” refers only to the passing on of this word verbatim, and not to any kind of elaboration on this word (level 4, above). But this is not an obvious step to take. It makes more sense to assume that to “teach” means to employ various didactic means to ensure that other people learn the “teaching”. This would include passing it on to others verbatim, but there is no obvious reason why we must narrow down the referent to unadorned verbatim transmission.

2 Timothy 2:2

John frequently points to 2 Tim 2:2 for his technical definition:

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim 2:1-2)

Here, the passing on of apostolic words is clearly in view (cf. 2 Tim 1:13-14), and the word “teach” is used in this context. Does this mean that the word “teach” itself must be a technical word, referring only to the process of passing on the collected statements of the apostles, without any reference to elaboration (level 4, above)? John claims that it does. But that is far too long a bow to draw from the way Paul writes. Paul simply refers to the process of passing on apostolic tradition (without using the word “teach”), then introduces the word “teach” at the end in order to extend the process he has just outlined to future generations. Given this sentence structure, it is most reasonable for us to assume that Paul has decided to use a word that by default has a slightly more general referent (level 3, above) within a specific context: the passing on of the apostolic teaching via particularly trustworthy people, from generation to generation. There is no grounds to assume that Paul is excluding any didactic methodology apart from verbatim recitation from the process of “teaching” here. Furthermore, although the use of the word in 2 Tim 2:2 should bear some resemblance to its use in 1 Tim 2:12, there is no reason to assume that we should transfer the entire context from 2 Tim 2:2 (intergenerational transmission) into 1 Tim 2:12 (teaching in the context of congregational life). 2 Tim 2:2, in other words, proves far less than John claims.

So, despite John’s reply, I still don’t find the proposal he outlined in his book for the very specific meaning of the word “teach” in 1 Tim 2:12 convincing.

Sermons today

What are we actually doing when we preach today? This is a worthwhile question to ask, even if the answer takes some thought and discussion. I have suggested that the character of much modern preaching cannot easily be separated from the biblical notion of “teaching” in the context of congregational life. Nevertheless, I recognize that more biblically-informed reflection on this question is needed.

On the one hand, as Mike pointed out, we should be seeking to discern the variegated nature of relational dynamics in all of our congregational speech. It would be tragic if all we did as a result of John’s book was to get fixated on one aspect of congregational life (“the sermon”) in order to determine whether it is “forbidden” to certain people or not. This was what I meant when I said I was dissatisfied with John’s lack of attention to relational dynamics as he examined the relevant Bible passages. I wasn’t seeking simply to promote a “binary” model of authority (that’s one of the reasons I used the phrase “relational dynamics”). Rather, I was seeking to communicate the fact that John’s own approach to the passages in question (especially 1 Cor 11), in which he concentrates almost exclusively (disclaimers and footnotes notwithstanding) on asking what was “forbidden” and what was not, is itself inadequate. And of course, it would be inadequate for us to respond to John simply by asserting the opposite of what he’s said.

On the other hand, I agree that we should be asking serious questions about what we are actually doing in “the sermon” today, and how what we are doing does or doesn’t relate to to “teaching” in the New Testament sense. Of course, because I’m not convinced by John’s argument that the word “teach” has such a narrow referent, I believe that there are more sermons that are close analogies to what Paul called “teaching” than John does. But that doesn’t mean I want to go along with a bare polarised approach to the issue. I do think it’s right for us to question our modern categories, to seek to make them more biblically informed. What is preaching anyway? Is all “preaching”, preaching? What’s happening to our preaching? It’s these things that I’d like to reflect over in the next little while.


A lot of discussion has taken place since I published this. A fuller history of the entire discussion, along with links to various contributions arrange chronologically, can be found here.

On the issue of the meaning of the word “teach”, Claire Smith has provided a much better response than mine! Claire’s excellent essays on the topic can be found in the book “Women, Sermons and the Bible”.

On the issue of what “preaching” is – my fuller reflection can be found in my essay “Preachers and Leaders” (available online for free on this site).

Comments on this post can be found here.



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2 responses to ““Teaching” in the pastoral letters and today: a brief reply”

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