Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A revolution based on what a verse doesn't say

Hearing Her Voice: A Biblical Invitation for Women to Preach by John Dickson

This book is all about one verse in the New Testament: 1 Timothy 2:12, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." Dickson argues that the verse does not forbid women from giving sermons today. His argument is as follows (pp. 80-81): There are many different different forms of public speaking in the New Testament, such as "exhorting", "preaching", and "teaching". Only one of them is forbidden to women – "teaching", in 1 Tim. 2:12. According to Dickson, this actually refers to "preserving and laying down the traditions handed on by the apostles", and this is not what happens in most modern-day sermons. Hence, women are allowed to give sermons today.

This is a rather idiosyncratic, and certainly very narrow definition of "teaching", and Dickson is not convincing. But even if we were to grant his definition, he is still on very flimsy ground.

Dickson fails to demonstrate why women are allowed to "exhort". The New Testament seems to use that word in two different ways: both personal encouragement, and delivering a "word of exhortation". The latter is used in Hebrews 13:22, in reference to the entire book, and Hebrews does seem to be a sermon, or at least composed of sermonic material. Why can women give this sort of exhortation? Dickson seems to suggest that because that particular word is not used as a prohibited activity for women, it is allowed. In this way, Dickson stands firmly in the Anglican tradition of the normative principle of worship, holding that whatever is not forbidden is allowed, but as an adherent of the regulative principle, I must reject this. The onus is on Dickson to demonstrate that women are allowed to preach; the fact that they are "not forbidden" is not good enough.

Again, even if we accept Dickson's definition of teaching, it is much better to see it applying today as "telling people what the Bible says". In fact, there is another possible definition, which Dickson completely ignores: "teaching" is what teachers do. And the New Testament says a lot about "teachers". Unfortunately, Dickson fails to mention Ephesians 4:11 ("He gave some to be apostles, and some to be prophets, and some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers"). Actually, he does allude to it on p. 78, and seems to suggest that the office of teacher has ceased. But this verse is talking about the pastor/teacher as a single office, and this office is restricted to men (1 Tim. 3:1-2). This is the office that Timothy held, and he was told to devote himself to "the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching" (1 Tim. 4:13). This is describing the work that a (male) pastor does, and there is no indication in the New Testament that other people do this as well. Thus, there are good reasons why we would conclude from the New Testament that women are not allowed to "exhort", even if we grant Dickson's idea that modern-day sermons are essentially "exhortations" based on the text.

In short, Dickson is presenting an argument from silence. The book has a very feminist-sounding title, and my edition has quite an outrageous subtitle: "A Biblical Invitation for Women to Preach". (Other editions have "A Case for Women Giving Sermons"). Well, it's not a biblical invitation at all. It is based entirely on what Dickson argues one verse is not saying. We should not base doctrines on what single verses say, let alone on what they don't say.

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