Why Women Can Give Sermons image

Why Women Can Give Sermons

Over the Christmas period, Zondervan released three e-books on the subject of women in ministry. New Testament scholar Mike Bird presented a classic egalitarian case (Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives and Bobby Haircuts), Kathy Keller gave a classic complementarian one (Jesus, Justice and Gender Roles), and John Dickson presented a fascinating soft complementarian argument for women giving sermons (Hearing Her Voice, recently reviewed here by Andy Johnston). All sorts of remarks could be made in response to all three books, each of which are enjoyable to read, pithy, brief and clearly argued. But what I found most interesting was the apparent agreement, from all three writers, that women can give sermons in church.

Mike Bird, as an egalitarian, is the least surprising in this regard. For him, obeying the New Testament today does not involve any distinction in the roles or offices open to men or women; operating with a somewhat different hermeneutic than I would, he concludes that Paul was only speaking to the situation at Ephesus when he wrote 1 Timothy, and that no absolute restriction was intended. I have written about this before, and no doubt will again, so I will leave it for now. Suffice to say that, if we operate with what I have previously called the presumption of obedience, his argument will be unlikely to convince.
John Dickson, a fellow Sydney Anglican, reaches the conclusion that women can (and should) give sermons in a very different way. His hermeneutical approach is exemplary: he assumes that we should obey New Testament imperatives unless it is clear from the context that we shouldn’t, and he affirms male eldership as a clear New Testament teaching. For Dickson, though, the issue is that New Testament does not prohibit women from giving sermons, and in fact gives examples of them speaking in ways which look a lot more like modern sermons than we may have noticed. If we are to obey the New Testament, then, we ought to expect and encourage the same level of participation from women today.
His argument is simple. It is frequently assumed in evangelical sermons that “giving a sermon” and “teaching” are the same thing. Therefore, when 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits women from teaching, it must be prohibiting women from giving sermons. Dickson contends, however, that the modern practice of delivering sermons (speaking at the front of a meeting for anywhere between five minutes and an hour, explaining the meaning of Scripture to people, urging them to obey it, and applying it to their lives) is not identical to the Pauline concept of teaching (preserving and handing on the apostolic deposit of truth, in the era before the New Testament was written down), and is probably far more like the concept of exhortation (as in Acts 13:15, where Paul is said to give a “word of exhortation” which looks remarkably like a modern sermon: a public speech following a Scripture reading). He points out, rightly, that if 1 Timothy 2:12 had said women should not exhort, or preach the gospel, or even prophesy, we would not therefore have assumed that all forms of public speaking were thereby prohibited, merely the one that was explicitly mentioned. In the same way, Dickson argues, we should not restrict women from exhortation, prophecy and evangelism just because Paul restricts them from teaching.
Personally, I am unpersuaded that the meaning of didaskō and didachē can be narrowed so definitively to “formally preserving and transmitting the apostolic witness, until the canon of Scripture is complete”. The expectation of 1 Corinthians 14:26 is that bringing a “teaching” is something ordinary believers will do in the course of a gathered church meeting, along with prophecies and so on; this does not fit at all well with the formalised preservation sense favoured by Dickson (and neither, in my view, do Galatians 6:6, Romans 12:7, Hebrews 5:12 or James 3:1). The compound verb heterodidaskalein, “to teach falsely”, surely does not mean “to misquote or corrupt the sayings of Jesus”, but more broadly, “to teach different doctrines” (such as myths, genealogies, and so on), which makes it likely that didaskein is broader as well. Dickson freely admits that his view means that the New Testament gift of teaching has ceased, along with the apostles, and although I commend him for his boldness on this point, I remain unpersuaded that his narrow definition is correct. Even if it is not, however, his broader point stands. If a contemporary sermon is one of exhortation, rather than of teaching - which Dickson argues they generally are - then women would not have been stopped from giving them then, and should not be stopped from giving them now.
From what I can tell, Kathy Keller agrees. The main thrust of her book is different from Dickson’s, which makes them an excellent pair to read together; as a strong woman who grew up egalitarian, her personal story is of immense interest, and her theological concern is less with the giving of sermons, and more with the desire to submit to Scripture even when it says things we don’t like. Nevertheless, the way she describes the meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12 indicates that she believes giving sermons, in and of itself, is something that both men and women can do, so long as it does not involve giving “authoritative teaching”. She summarises the meaning of this phrase (based on taking didaskein ... oude authentein as a hendiadys) to refer to the role of the male elders in “judging personal and corporate faithfulness to the apostolic ‘deposit’ of truth”; other forms of oral discourse, she believes, are permitted. In other words, it is not the giving of sermons but the definition of doctrine that is reserved for male elders.
Kathy Keller’s definition of “teaching” is, in my view, more persuasive than John Dickson’s, although as I have argued previously, it is difficult to read the entire Pauline corpus without seeing a distinction between two types: teaching as explaining the meaning of the Bible to others (in the general letters), and Teaching as defining and guarding the apostolic deposit of truth (in the Pastorals). Interestingly, though, Keller and Dickson seem to agree - and I say ‘seem’, because Keller doesn’t actually say whether she believes women should give sermons or not - that the word ‘teach’ is not necessarily to be equated with the public explanation of Scripture as it takes place in contemporary evangelical churches. The perhaps surprising result of this is that all three of these ebooks, purportedly released to give a sense of the spectrum within evangelicalism, apparently agree on one of the most controversial questions in the gender debate: that women today can give sermons.
This doesn’t mean they’re right, of course. Readers will, quite properly, want to ask whether what Paul meant by “teaching” is a necessary part of contemporary sermons, even if it is not to be equated with them; on Dickson’s (more controversial) definition the answer is no, but on Keller’s definition things are less clear, and the answer may well be yes. Greek experts will question the conclusion that 1 Timothy 2:12 is a hendiadys, since the verbs are so far removed from each other in the sentence. Others will want to talk about the application of all this: even if men and women who are not elders can give sermons in church, is it not assumed in the Pastorals that the public explanation of Scripture will be done by elders in the vast majority of cases? And in the light of the gender split in the contemporary church, in which women outnumber men by nearly two to one, might there be a missional reason for continuing to emphasise the importance of men delivering sermons? These are valid questions, and it seems to me perfectly possible (whether or not it is persuasive) to agree with Dickson and Keller that women are not restricted from giving sermons in the New Testament, but to conclude for practical reasons that sermons should still be given by men. It may be significant that, in the church led by Kathy Keller’s husband Tim, this is exactly what happens.
Nonetheless, the joint contribution of this mini-series of ebooks is of substantial importance. The gender debate has been extremely divisive within evangelicalism in the last decade or two, especially (although by no means exclusively) in North America, and one effect of this has been the hardening of previously held positions, such that some egalitarians have developed and articulated a new hermeneutic to buttress their view, and some complementarians have increased the restrictions on the roles of women to buttress their view. So to find three books which express their views with such courtesy and clarity, and even find agreement on something as contentious as this - if that’s what it is - is impressive, and could, over time, lead to a thawing on both sides. We can but hope.
If it does, then presumably the irony of the situation, in which a woman writes a book that teaches men what it means for women not to teach men, will not be missed.


Andrew is now on Twitter as @AJWTheology

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