Hearing Her Voice image

Hearing Her Voice

Back in 2002 I remember hearing Wayne Grudem give two talks at Together on a Mission (the Newfrontiers international leaders’ conference). There was very little I disagreed with in the first talk. As a “complementarian” (I don’t particularly like the word but it’s a helpful shorthand) Grudem made a compelling case for Eldership being male. What I was less convinced by, however, was his practical application and outworking of his theological position in his second talk. Amongst other things he contended, for example, was that Biblically it was inappropriate for a woman to teach in a Bible College. One of the most formidable theologians I have come across is Kirsty Birkett – she is a woman of razor sharp intellect who holds a “complementarian” position on church government but is also quite happy to teach at Oakhill, one of the UK’s most conservative Reformed Bible Colleges. I wasn’t convinced by Grudem on that point and, having met Kirsty and her boss Mike Ovey and talked to them about her role, I am utterly convinced the body of Christ needs women like her exercising the gifts God has given her in large measure.

More problematic to me, however, was Grudem’s insistence at the conference that as an Elder at a local church I had no authority to allow a woman to exercise any sort of “pulpit ministry” because I have no mandate to permit what Scripture explicitly prohibits (1 Timothy 2:12).
As a conservative evangelical complementarian who believes in male headship in the home and in the church I have wrestled with this one for 15 years and more but I have now come to the conclusion that Grudem was wrong on 1 Timothy 2:12. He was right in many respects, but wrong in saying that the Bible forbids women to exercise pulpit ministry/preach a sermon.  Andrew Wilson whetted my appetite in this blog but it was John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice that proved decisive.
At first sight, Dickson is hardly someone who you might think would set the theological cat amongst the pigeons on the issue of women “teaching”.  He is a Sydney Anglican – theologically conservative and Reformed in every respect and a convinced complementarian. All the more reason why I was intrigued and ultimately convinced.
Dickson is clearly a very able man.  His CV makes impressive (sickening?) reading.  Rock singer, degree in Theology, higher degree in Ancient History, University lecturer, ordained Anglican clergyman, prolific author, TV presenter… The list goes on and on.  Dickson is clear – he is still a complementarian -  but, in his book Hearing Her Voice, he comes to the conclusion that we have made some fundamentally wrong assumptions in prohibiting women from pulpit ministry.  His arguments are essentially threefold:
1. We have misunderstood what Paul means by “teaching” in 1 Timothy 2:12.  Dickson defines “teaching” in a narrow and technical sense to mean the oral tradition passed down from the apostles and eye witnesses to the next (Timothy) generation in the first century before the Early Church had a written New Testament.  The “teaching” as spoken of by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12 was something quite specific.
2. Whilst forbidding women to exercise a particularly authoritative function in defending and preserving the apostolic tradition, Paul by no means prohibits women from public ministry.  Prophesying, exhortation and evangelism are all permitted.
3. Exegetical preaching, which is essentially what I do on a Sunday morning because I believe it to be the most effective model for faithful Biblical preaching, is more akin to exhortation than it is to the “teaching” described by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12
In a careful unpacking of these arguments Dickson comes to the conclusion that it is perfectly permissible to allow a gifted and trained woman to “preach” on a Sunday morning and still be utterly faithful to Scripture.  He is very conscious that in the conservative and complementarian circles he moves in, this position will not make him universally popular, but there it is perfectly possible, he argues (and I would agree) to hold a complementarian theology and honour women exercising “pulpit” ministry.
I don’t agree with everything Dickson says in the book.  As a Sydney Anglican he doesn’t see any place for apostolic ministry in the church today.  He also defines “prophesying” in a classic Puritan sense of inspired preaching/exhortation rather than in a charismatic sense.  Nevertheless, I found Hearing Her Voice one of the most stimulating and thought provoking books I have read in recent years.  As the team leader amongst our Eldership I will still be doing the bulk of the preaching in our church and, between us as Elders we will be doing about three quarters of the “pulpit ministry”, but I am also genuinely committed to raising up other gifted, called and anointed preachers, both men and women.

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