John Dickson’s Response to John Starke’s TGC Review

A Fesponse to The Gospel Coalition review of
Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons
by John Dickson

 The most awkward rejoinders are those you write to your friends and theological kin; doubly so when you feel you have to point out to them that they have not correctly described the argument of your book or, where they have, how they seem to have overlooked the parts that anticipate and answer the criticisms they raise.

John Starke, editor at The Gospel Coalition, wrote a sincere and polite review of my recent Hearing her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons. It’s what I would expect. As a sometime contributor to the Coalition blog, I have always found John to be thoughtful and a gentleman. TGC guidelines prevent him from publishing this response, but he has assured me privately that holding different views on this question does not exclude someone from the TGC family. Indeed, he added, “we would be more than thrilled to receive any other proposals for articles.” This is a model of evangelical disagreement.

John rightly explains that my argument involves pointing out that while Paul clearly forbids women to ‘teach’ men, he nowhere excludes them from other speaking ministries, such as ‘exhorting’ or ‘prophesying’. He is also correct that I think a contemporary Bible exposition is closer to Pauline exhorting than teaching.

However, when John begins to explain what I mean by teaching, he drifts into a rigid, if not exaggerated, account of my views. At first glance, it seems he relies only on my own words. He quotes me as saying:

Historical and exegetical considerations combined make clear that “teaching” for Paul means preserving and laying down the fixed traditions of and about Jesus as handed on by the apostles. Teaching is not explaining a Bible text, nor is it applying God’s truth to congregational life; it is making sure that the apostolic words and rulings are well known and maintained.

So far, so good. Then, without warning, John interprets this passage to mean that ‘teaching’ for me “merely means preserving and laying down apostolic tradition” and that it “cannot include explaining and applying.” The logical problem is clear. There is a world of difference between saying that teaching is not explanation and applying God’s truth and saying that it excludes these activities. Imagine I said “football is not running up and down a green pitch” and then you accused me of saying that football excludes the activity of running up and down a green pitch.

The important point, which I tried to made clear throughout the book, is that the constitutive element of teaching in the Pastoral Epistles is laying down the apostolic deposit. I make clear throughout the book that the work of ancient teachers will no doubt have included explanations, appeals and applications but that these dimensions were not the constitutive aspect of the teaching activity. Passing on the apostolic words was the defining core of the role: “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 2:2). This has to be so, for, as I make clear in the book, there was no New Testament in this period (AD 60s). Congregations could not turn to the Gospels and read for themselves what the apostles said about Jesus. They had to rely on those who memorized and repeated the apostolic deposit (just as Jewish teachers were entrusted with recalling the rulings of the authoritative rabbis later complied in the Mishnah). I happily concede that teaching would have included explanations and appeals, just as I am sure that prophesying and exhorting relied upon and made reference to the apostolic teaching. But this doesn’t turn ‘teaching’ into prophesying/exhorting any more than it transforms ‘prophesying/exhorting’ into teaching. Paul says these three activities are ‘different’ (Romans 12:8). My book tries to probe how they are different and underlines that Paul forbade women to engage in only one of them in the mixed congregation. To offer one of a number of quotations from the book that make this point:

I would not dispute that ancient teachers were involved in something like exposition (of the Old Testament as well as the memorised or written apostolic traditions). I can well imagine that their teaching—i.e., their transmission of the apostolic deposit—was frequently augmented with explanations and exhortations on the basis of the traditions. However, that should not distract us from observing that the constitutive purpose of teaching, as distinct from explanation, prophesying, exhorting, and preaching, was, as I hope I have demonstrated already, to pass on the memories, rulings, and insights of the apostles. Put another way, just because ancient “teaching” could combine with (or even morph into) “exhortation” does not mean that exhortation is teaching. We have seen that Paul distinguishes between these two activities, and he only forbids one of them to women.

Having inaccurately described my understanding of ‘teaching’, John goes on to offer some non sequiturs. Part of his review shows how ‘exposition’ of the Old Testament text was already part of the apostolic teaching. This apparently undermines my contention that teaching—passing on the apostolic tradition—is not defined by Bible exposition. John writes:

Surely, that tradition would derive from Jesus’ teaching on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). Therefore, the apostles laid down and preserved what Jesus taught, since he promised the Spirit would come and remind them of everything he said (John 14:26; 16:13-15). However, if Jesus’ teaching on the Emmaus road is apostolic tradition, then we have something different from Dickson’s definition of teaching, since what Jesus taught was fundamentally expositional and explanatory. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

I repeatedly make the same point in my book, sometimes clearly anticipating John’s criticism. “I am not denying,” I write in one place, “that ‘teaching’ is related to the Old Testament Scriptures. I have already said that the apostolic traditions often explained how Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets.” I add, however, that “this does not make teaching the same thing as exposition of Scripture.” That is the point I would ask John to dwell on. Of course the apostolic tradition is replete with demonstrations from Old Testament Scripture of how Jesus fulfills the promises to Israel. But this does not change my argument at all (it is part of my argument). Only by overlooking this element of my case can John make his observation seem like a valid criticism.

He seeks to strengthen his case by pointing to the apostolic letters and, in particular, to the letter to the Hebrews. He writes:

Many interpreters even believe the letter to the Hebrews was a sermon. This makes it very difficult to distinguish “teaching”—not only in 1 Timothy 2 but throughout the NT—from sermons and public expositions.

I, too, think Hebrews was probably a sermon (or two), but it is interesting to observe what the author himself calls what he is doing in the letter. He does not think of it as ‘teaching’ but ‘exhortation’. Early in the letter, he complains, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food” (Heb 5:12). Clearly, ‘teaching’ here refers to the basic doctrines of the apostolic testimony. He is mildly shaming them for not being able to move beyond ‘teaching’ to the things he really wants to talk to them, things which he does in fact go on to speak about in the following paragraph: “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation” (6:1). It is clear here that ‘teaching’ is the foundational activity of rehearsing the apostolic deposit (the very thing the author wants to move beyond).

So, what does the author himself call the wonderful elaborations, expositions and applications of the Old Testament found throughout the letter? Heb 13:22 has the answer: “Bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written briefly.” ‘Word of exhortation’ is exactly the same expression used of the speech Paul was invited to give after the synagogue Scripture readings in Acts 13:15. It is part of the reason I believe our contemporary sermon would be classified by Paul principally as ‘exhortation’ rather than ‘teaching’. There is surely teaching in exhortation, just as there is exhortation in teaching, but the two are not identical and Paul forbids women to do only one of them in the mixed congregation.

Some of John’s other criticisms depend on similar misunderstandings. For example, reflecting on the call of Tit 1:9 to promote good teaching and refute false teaching, he asks, “How could the false teachers be refuted without explanation and application?” I would say, very easily: through the correct laying down of the apostolic deposit. Good teaching simultaneously promotes good teaching and refutes bad teaching. But more simply, and to repeat what I have already said, I am not denying that explanation and application accompanied teaching. I am simply insisting that, in a period when there was no New Testament to expound, ‘teaching’ was constituted by the repeated laying down of what the apostles said concerning Jesus and the new covenant.

Finally, John points to the ongoing role of elder-teachers in 1 Tim 3 and elsewhere as proof that ‘teaching’ cannot be an activity with “no meaningful modern equivalent”. I need to push back a little here. What I say in the book is that “no one today performs a role exactly equivalent to that of the ancient teacher.” I repeatedly indicate that while ‘teaching’ has been transposed into the New Testament itself, there are ongoing parallels in the ministry of the modern church. Bible reading is one. When the New Testament is read out loud in church, the apostolic deposit is being rehearsed word-perfectly (even if the reader is not charged with the same authority or ability as a repository of apostolic tradition).

Another way ‘teaching’ continues in the modern church will surprise those who have read John’s review but not my book. Some sermons will function as conscious mandating – laying down – of the apostolic doctrine. In the conclusion of the book, I indicate that some readers may “conclude that no one “teaches” any more” and so “all sermons are open to suitable men and women.” But this isn’t my view. I deliberately offered this as the second of three possible responses to my argument. The third response is described last because I wanted to emphasise it:

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 admit that I struggle to think of particular examples of such ‘teaching’ sermons (an earlier edition of the book I presented some examples but I began to feel I was being too prescriptive and legalistic). Moreover, as I go on:

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.

This third response is the final reflection of the book because it is where I am up to at this moment. It is therefore simply inaccurate to suggest that I have removed all meaningful modern equivalents of New Testament teaching. Within a Reformed context, I am simply arguing that while ‘teaching elders’ ought to be qualified men, sermons need not be restricted to men, for not all sermons can be identified with Pauline teaching. They are just as easily associated (I think more so, for the reasons outlined in the book) with what Paul calls ‘exhorting’ and even, as the Puritans called them, ‘prophesying’.

I am thankful for the polite tone of John Starke’s review and for the invitation to continue offering pieces for The Gospel Coalition blog, but I cannot help feeling that the clearest response to his criticisms would be found in a rereading of the book itself.

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  • dick

    John, I wonder if you’ve any thoughts on why women were considered valid witnesses and contributors to the apostolic testimony (for example, Luke clearly used the eye-witness testimony of Mary; the women’s testimony to the resurrection etc) but were not permitted to be authorised teachers of it?

  • daniel

    obviously he thinks they can be authorised teachers?