Preachers and Leaders Preface: The publication history of Hearing Her Voice

WSB-cover-thumbnailBackground: This post is an online preface to my essay “Preachers and Leaders” which I am posting on this blog in instalments. The essay has been published in the book Women, Sermons and the Bible: Essays Interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice (Peter G. Bolt and Tony Payne, eds., Sydney: Matthias Media, 2014)

Here are the sections of the essay which appear on the site so far:

This preface is intended to defend my essay against one particular accusation. It is not necessary to read this preface to understand my essay. This preface does not deal directly with the gospel of Christ, nor with substantial points of biblical interpretation, nor with any of the theological or historical or practical issues I discuss in my essay. Rather, this preface deals with a particular charge relating to the publication history of one of the books to which my essay refers. John Dickson, the author with whom the essays in our book are mainly interacting, has publicly charged it with being “deeply flawed”. The flaws, were they shown to be real, would presumably affect my own essay along with the others in the book. I therefore feel it necessary to defend my essay (along with those of my fellow contributors) against this charge, and in this way to clear the ground for any readers who may be disturbed by it.

John’s charge against our book

Here is the nub of John’s accusation (made on Facebook as a public post – emphasis mine):

I feel Matthias Media has let us all down a bit in the women-preaching debate by choosing to base their critique of Hearing Her Voice on my first edition, instead of on the greatly clarified second edition—an advance copy of which was sent to them, upon their request, nine months ago.

Facebook may not be the best place for a detailed demonstration of the ill-effects of their decision, but readers of both books should know that, while I am grateful for the good things the authors have given me to think about, I regard their critique as deeply flawed on this account.

John’s charge, in other words, is that we took his original published book too seriously, that we did not take proper account of the “greatly clarified” second edition, and that as a result our work is “deeply flawed”.

The key issue according to John

The main issue around which John’s charges currently revolve is whether the word “teach” in 1 Timothy 2:12 is applicable today. John’s two editions deal with this issue differently. John has charged us with not taking this difference into account. Furthermore, he regards this issue as being exceedingly significant–indeed, he has claimed that those who do not grasp his views on this issue will end up with an “entirely mistaken view of [his] argument”.

An incomplete charge

John has repeated the charge a number of times, but has not yet fully substantiated it. He has not yet pointed to any deep flaws in our book in relation to the main points it makes in regard to the meaning of the word “teach” (didaskō). When this was pointed out to John (again on a Facebook thread), he agreed. He said that while he was able to respond with substance, he did not want to do so yet because he was “playing a long term game”. Before substantiating the charges he had made, he simply wanted people to rely on his sincerity in making the charges and to “ponder” them for a while before they saw the evidence. Here is John’s comment on the Facebook thread:

Of course, I do intend to show that the most significant infelicities in WSB fall precisely in the sections on didaskō. But given I’m playing a long term game, I am content at this stage to say once again, with hand on heart, that WSB repeatedly says things about what I think that could not have been said if the editors had chosen to make the 2nd edition the basis of their critique …

it is true that the real action is around what ‘teaching’ refers to, but I am happy to pause here and let people ponder how (from this side of things) the debate could have been much better served by Matthias Media.

John has repeated this charge here, again in response to somebody asking him to engage directly with the arguments. He says, once again, that we are in the “early weeks”, and that he first wishes to establish that our book has misrepresented him before engaging directly with the substantial issues.

The need for a response

I was originally planning to wait until the accusation that our book was “deeply flawed” had been fully substantiated1 before responding. However, given that the charge has been public for a while now, that John is still repeating it in various forms on Facebook, that it is generating a large number of comments, and that people are “pondering” it, I feel I need to provide a response now based on the information John has provided.

What John wrote about “teaching”

For those who are unfamiliar with John’s book: John’s key argument (in both editions) is that the term “teach” (didaskō) in 1 Timothy 2:12 is being used in a strict sense: it means carefully preserving and laying down for a church the exact words of the apostles. “Teaching” in this sense is about passing on the oral tradition of the sayings of Jesus and the apostles prior to the formation of the New Testament canon, where these sayings were recorded for future generations.

The first edition: no one “teaches” any more

In the first edition of his book, John argues and concludes that this sense of “teaching” (i.e. the strict sense that occurs in 1 Tim 2:12) has no significant modern equivalent today because the canonisation process completed its purpose. Therefore 1 Tim 2:12 is not directly relevant to modern sermons. John concludes the first edition of Hearing Her Voice by presenting three possible responses. He clearly indicates that his argument leads readers to the second response: “no one teaches any more” (emphasis mine):

I can imagine three broad responses to this short book (apart from outright rejection). Some may only accept the broad point made in chapter 1, that there are numerous different speaking activities listed in the New Testament and only one of them is restricted to men. As a result, some may decide (afresh) to find ways to give women more of a voice in the church service, inviting them to give “talks,” whatever we call them, designed to strengthen the faith of those present. I would be delighted with such a response.

Others may embrace my entire argument and conclude that no one “teaches” any more in the strict sense mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:12 and that, in any case, explaining and applying a Bible text is never called “teaching” in the New Testament. That activity is closer to “exhorting” (or “prophesying”). As a result, all sermons are open to suitable men and women.

I can imagine a third response. Some may conclude that, although the modern sermon cannot be wholly equated with what Paul calls “teaching” in 1 Timothy 2:12, some sermons today may be close enough analogies to the careful transmission of the apostolic deposit that they should only be given by qualified men. I have wondered about this. The problem is, every time I come up with a “for instance,” it smacks of a legalism that does not reflect the gospel. Nevertheless, on this view, sermons are seen on a spectrum: some are more like prophesying and exhorting and aim to urge obedience to Scripture or encourage confidence in God’s truth; others function more as a focused mandating of apostolic doctrine. Those who arrive at this conclusion will probably also find themselves wondering how the biblical principle of male responsibility might determine the relative frequency of men and women in the preaching roster. (Hearing Her Voice first edition, Conclusion)

Changes in the second edition

In one very important way, the first edition and the second edition agree: the actual argument of the second edition still, according to John, leads to the conclusion that no one “teaches” any more. John retains this sentence from the first edition in his conclusion:2

Others may embrace my entire argument and conclude that no one “teaches” any more in the sense mentioned in 1 Timothy 2:12 … (Hearing Her Voice second edition, p. 103).

However, in his second edition, John also includes some instances in which there may be a significant enough analogy between his particular view of ancient “teaching” and a special rare category of modern “sermon” (which he calls a “teaching-sermon” or a “mandating-of-apostolic-doctrine sermon” undertaken by a senior minister) to make 1 Timothy 2:12 indirectly applicable in this case. He also significantly modifies his conclusion to reflect this change. Where he discusses response (3), he:

  • removes the words “I have wondered about this. The problem is, every time I come up with a ‘for instance,’ it smacks of a legalism that does not reflect the gospel. Nevertheless,” (Hearing Her Voice first edition).
  • adds the words “(closer to my own current thinking)” (Hearing Her Voice second edition, p. 104)

I can imagine a third response (closer to my own current thinking). Some may conclude that, although the modern sermon cannot always be equated with what Paul calls “teaching” in 1 Timothy 2:12, some sermons today may be close analogies to the careful transmission of the apostolic deposit. On this view, sermons are seen on a spectrum: some are more like prophesying and exhorting and aim to urge obedience to Scripture or encourage confidence in God’s truth; others function more as a focused mandating of apostolic doctrine (Hearing Her Voice second edition, p. 104)

Hence, sermons at the “mandating-of-apostolic-doctrine” end of the spectrum–which I believe is not the typical Sunday sermon–ought to be preached by the (male) Senior Minister. (Hearing Her Voice second edition, p. 105)

That is, John says that on this particular score, his own “current thinking” (p. 104) no longer “embrace[s]” his “entire argument” (p. 103).

Taking the changes into account

John has charged us with not taking these changes into account. Is this charge correct?

Taking the second edition into account

Firstly, it is not accurate simply to say, as John has done, that we “base[d]” our critique on the first edition of his book. Tony Payne, one of the editors of our book, details the process we as authors went through to take the second edition into account:

Accordingly, starting in August 2013, the WSB authors went back through all the essays and revised them, making sure that we noted and interacted with any significant points at which the second edition corrected or clarified the first, and interacted with additional arguments or evidence adduced in the second edition. (Readers of WSB will see for themselves that we have done this.) This procedure meant that the many readers of the first edition could read a critique of the edition they had in their hands, but also see any points of substance at which the second edition clarified or improved the argument. It also meant that readers of the second edition suffered no disadvantage (because new or clarified material in the second edition was carefully and clearly interacted with).

It is important to note that the first edition was an internationally published work in its own right. For those in John’s explicitly stated target audience (i.e. “leaders of Reformed evangelical churches”, especially in Sydney), the first edition of Hearing Her Voice is the edition they received for free.

Taking this particular change into account

Did we take the particular change John mentions about the applicability of “teaching” into account? Yes. Claire Smith, whose essays form the core of Women, Sermons and the Bible, wrote at length about this change in the appendix:

Perhaps the most unexpected and in some sense significant change in the second edition is found in the conclusion. It is the admission that John himself is not fully convinced by the argument of his book.

In the conclusion to his first edition, John imagined three possible responses to his book.

  • The first would reject the bulk of his theory, but seek (afresh) to find ways for women to contribute in church services, by giving ‘talks’ but not sermons.
  • The second would “embrace [his] entire argument and conclude that no one “teaches” anymore” in the 1 Timothy 2:12 sense, and that “explaining and applying a Bible text is never called “teaching” in the New Testament”, and so “all sermons are open to suitable men and women”.
  • The third response would conclude that modern sermons fall along a spectrum, and sermons that were “a focused mandating of apostolic doctrine”, while not wholly equivalent to the ‘teaching’ on view in 1 Timothy 2:12, would be close enough analogies.

It was reasonable to assume that, as the book’s author, his own position is the second option—that of embracing his “entire argument” and thus concluding that since no-one ‘teaches’ today in the manner of 1 Timothy 2:12, the prohibition does not apply. It turns out, however, that this is not so. In the conclusion to the second edition these three options remain, but we learn that Dickson’s “own current thinking” is “closer” to the third response—the one that sees sermons on a spectrum, some of which can be given by men or women, but others only by men. To be fair, he also thinks that embracing his entire argument and concluding that all sermons are open to suitable men and women is “a plausible application of the biblical data”—but evidently not plausible enough to persuade him.

Dickson is to be commended for his honesty. But I for one was left wondering why he had written and published a book—and even produced a revised and expanded second edition—advocating a view of which he is not fully convinced.

Perhaps it is this tension—between the end point of his theory and his actual view—that lies behind the inconsistencies that keep surfacing in the book. For example, full acceptance of his theory would mean that ‘teaching’ was a time-limited activity that involved ‘laying down and preserving’ or ‘transmitting intact’ the apostolic deposit. Once the New Testament was written and canonized, the apostolic deposit was laid down and preserved, and so this activity ceased. In John’s own words: the apostolic deposit of faith “is now ‘deposited’ in a set of texts. It resides not in uniquely authorized men, but in the fixed form of the New Testament writings.” And again: a sermon “expounds and applies the Bible text where those traditions are already preserved and laid down”. This is the logic of his argument. On this view ‘teaching’ no longer happens. It cannot.

However, Dickson believes ‘teaching’ still occurs today, although it is not clear how. He says that: “Modern preachers expound the teaching and exhort believers to live in accordance with the teaching, but they do not preserve and transmit it to the same degree or in the same manner [as New Testament teachers]”. But it is hard to see how modern preachers preserve or transmit the ‘teaching’ in any degree or any manner, if the traditions are now authoritatively laid down and preserved in the New Testament (as Dickson’s main argument asserts).

He also says, in both editions, that ‘teaching’ does occur today when the New Testament is reproduced and read out, but the second edition clarifies that the public reading of Scripture is “simply performing the text, not preserving or laying it down”, and so women are not prevented from doing it.

In both editions, too, he thinks that something close to teaching might occur in some contemporary sermons and, in the second edition, in his preferred view, he suggests that some sermons are “teaching-sermons”. But he admits his own thoughts on what this type of sermon involves are “not fully formed”—except that it is clear (to him) that “modern sermons are typically more like exhortation than laying down the apostolic deposit (‘teaching’)”. He avoids giving examples.

On the issue of whether women should give this sort of “teaching-sermon”, he says it is “an open question”. But he then says that he continues to think “Paul expected preaching itself to reflect the complementarity of the sexes”, and that “some” would think that this complementarity should be reflected in congregational preaching, not just church structures, and hence conclude that “teaching-sermons” should be done only by “the (male) Senior Minister”. But it is unclear if he is one of the “some” who would think this—especially given that he thinks the view that authority resides in the canonical biblical text not the speaker is a “reasonable line of argument”, and the end point of that view is that both men and women can give all sermons. (Women, Sermons and the Bible, Appendix)

Thus Claire:

  • examined John’s second edition closely.
  • found that there was indeed a real difference in his conclusions about the modern applicability of his view on “teaching” between the first and second editions.
  • found this difference surprising and strange, given the actual argument of John’s book and given the fact that John still says in his second edition that those who “embrace my entire argument” will conclude that “no one ‘teaches’ any more in the sense mention in 1 Timothy 2:12”.
  • realised that this difference did not affect the key argument of John’s book (it did not clarify his argument–indeed it made it less coherent) and therefore was not directly relevant for her critique.

Given the nature of this difference between the two books (i.e. real and puzzling but not significant for his main argument), Claire took it into account in the most appropriate way. She decided to base her main argument on the main argument of John’s book. And she made a detailed and lengthy discussion of John’s second-edition “current thinking” (which does not embrace his entire argument) in an appendix.

I had a similar reaction to Claire’s. I noticed the incoherence in the second edition on this score, but did not dwell on it. I concluded that, although there was a real difference between the two versions at this point, it was not a significant difference, either for embracing the entire argument of Hearing Her Voice, or for the particular point I was making in my essay. After all, my essay is not about the existence or non-existence of special rare “teaching-sermons” or “mandating-of-apostolic-doctrine” sermons given only by “the Senior Minister” which might also involve “teaching” according to John’s understanding. My own essay is about the nature of the typical, regular sermon, which is, as John says, is not what he is talking about (as he says in his second edition, “sermons at the ‘mandating-of-apostolic-doctrine’ end of the spectrum–which I believe is not the typical Sunday sermon–ought to be preached by the (male) Senior Minister.”).

I hope this preface has allayed any fears you may have had arising from this accusation about the essays in the book Women, Sermons and the Bible, and that the essay itself will be of value for your discussions concerning the nature of modern preaching.

This post is a preface to a series:


  1. Clarifying edit: replaced the word “made” with “substantiated”
  2. only removing the word “strict”