Should Women Preach in Our Churches?

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This is not an article about the case for complementarianism instead of egalitarianism. That matters, of course, but this piece is for self-identified complementarians wondering if their theology can allow, or should allow, for women preaching.

Here is the question I want to address:

Is there biblical justification, given basic complementarian convictions, for the practice of women preaching sermons in a Sunday worship service?

Most people reading this column understand the immediate relevance of this question. I’m not going to rehearse the cases where this question has been raised or sift through recent responses online. Instead, I’m going to interact with what I think is the best case, from a complementarian perspective, for allowing women to preach. First, I’ll explain the argument for women preaching as fairly as I can. Then I’ll make a case why the argument—no matter how plausible it may sound at first—fails to convince.

Hearing Her Voice

The best argument I’ve seen for women preaching is by the Australian minister and apologist John Dickson in his book Hearing Her Voice: A Biblical Invitation for Women to Preach (Zondervan, 2014). With affirming blurbs from J. I. Packer, Craig Blomberg, Graham Cole, and Chris Wright, one can see why this has been an influential book. Even if you aren’t familiar with the book, I’m quite certain it’s influenced people you do know. Besides the commendation from well-respected evangelical scholars, Dickson’s book is a model of clarity and accessibility. In a little more than 100 pages, Dickson makes a thoughtful, straightforward case—as one who admits “to being a broad complementarian” (88)—for the legitimacy of women preaching sermons in Sunday services.

Not surprisingly, Dickson focuses on 1 Timothy 2:12. While the application seems obvious to many of us—women aren’t permitted to teach or to exercise authority, so they shouldn’t preach sermons—Dickson argues that we’ve misunderstood what Paul meant by teaching. “Put simply,” Dickson writes, “there are numerous public-speaking ministries mentioned in the New Testament—teaching, exhorting, evangelizing, prophesying, reading, and so on—and Paul restricts just one of them to qualified males: ‘teaching’” (11–12).

At the heart of Dickson’s argument is a simple syllogism, we can summarize like this:

  1. The only thing women can’t do in worship is teach.
  2. For Paul, teaching was a technical and narrowly conceived enterprise that is not the same as our modern sermon.
  3. Therefore, women can speak in almost every way in a church service, including preaching the sermon.

So, if preaching a sermon does not count as teaching, what did Paul mean by teaching? Dickson explains:

1 Timothy 2:12 does not refer to a general type of speaking based on Scripture. Rather, it refers to a specific activity found throughout the pages of the New Testament, namely preserving and laying down the tradition handed on by the apostles. This activity is different from the explanation and application of a Bible passage found in today’s typical expository sermon. (12)

Dickson builds the case for this preliminary conclusion in four parts.

Part One. There are several different kinds of speaking mentioned in the Bible: prophesying, evangelizing, reading, exhorting, teaching, and so on. We know from texts like 1 Corinthians 12:28, 1 Corinthians 14, Romans 12:4–8, and 1 Timothy 4:13 that Paul did not treat these speaking ministries as identical. Only one of these types of speaking—the activity of teaching—is restricted to men (27).

Part Two. In the ancient world, and specifically for Paul, to teach (didasko) was a technical term for passing on a fixed oral tradition (34, 45). Teaching does not refer to expounding or explaining but to transmitting words intact (33). With the close of the biblical canon, there is not the same need for teaching in this technical sense.

Part Three. In the New Testament, teaching never means explaining or applying a biblical passage (50, 54). A teacher was someone who carefully passed down the fixed traditions or the body of apostolic words from their original source to a new community of faith (57, 59, 61). Some contemporary sermons may contain elements of this transmission, but this is not the typical function of weekly exposition (64). What we think of as the sermon is more aptly called exhortation (65).

Part Four. The apostolic deposit is now found in the pages of the New Testament. No individual is charged with preserving and transmitting the fixed oral traditions about Jesus (72, 74). Our preachers may be analogous to ancient teachers, but we do not preserve and transmit the apostolic deposit to the same degree, in the same manner, or with the same authority (73, 75). The typical sermon where a preacher comments on the teaching of the apostles, exhorts us to follow that teaching, and then applies that teaching is not itself teaching. The modern sermon is, depending on your definition, more like prophesying or exhorting, both of which are open to women (75).

From Yes to No

Dickson includes academic footnotes in making his case, as well as caveats and qualifications along the way. But the gist of his argument is arrestingly simple: Teaching is not what we do when we preach a sermon. Only teaching is forbidden to women. Women, therefore, can preach sermons in our churches.

I find Dickson’s thesis unconvincing for two basic reasons. I believe his view of ancient teaching is overly narrow, and his view of contemporary preaching is exceedingly thin. Let me unpack this conclusion by looking at teaching from a variety of angles.

Teaching in the Early Church

The strength of Dickson’s approach is that he rightly points to the different speaking words in the New Testament. True, teaching and exhorting and prophesying and reading are not identical. And yet, his overly technical definition of “teaching” does not fit the evidence, or in some instances even square with basic common sense. If “I do not permit a woman to teach” can mean “I permit a woman to preach because preaching doesn’t involve teaching” we must be employing very restrictive definitions of preaching and teaching.

More to the point, we have to wonder why this highly nuanced reading has been lost on almost every commentator for two millennia. In a revealing endnote on the last page of the book, Dickson acknowledges, “I have no doubt that within time the word ‘teaching’ in the early church came to mean explaining and applying the written words of the New Testament (and entire Bible). That would be an interesting line of research, but I am not sure it would overturn the evidence that in 1 Tim. 2:12 Paul had a different meaning of this important term” (104). That is a telling admission. But it invites the question: “If ‘teaching’ in the ancient world clearly had a narrow meaning of repeating oral traditions, why does no one seem to pick up on this exclusively technical definition?” To be sure, the Bible is our final authority, but when an argument relies so heavily on first-century context, you would expect the earliest centuries of the church to reinforce the argument, not undermine it.

When an argument relies so heavily on first-century context, you would expect the earliest centuries of the church to reinforce the argument, not undermine it.

Take the Didache, for example. This late-first-century document has a lot to say about teachers. They are supposed  to “teach all these things that have just been mentioned” [in the first ten chapters of the book] (11:1). They are to teach what accords with the church order laid out in the Didache (11:2). Importantly, the Didache assumes the existence of traveling teachers, apostles, and prophets, all of whom are said to teach (didaskon) (11:10-11). It is telling that “teaching” is a broad enough term to include what prophets and other speakers do, not to mention the Didache itself.

While “teach” can certainly include passing on oral traditions about Jesus, it cannot be restricted to only this. As Hughes Oliphant Old explains, “the Didache assumes a rather large body of prophets, teachers, bishops, and deacons who devote full time to their preaching and teaching” (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, 1:256). With full-time teachers and “a daily assembly of the saints, at which the Word was preached” it is hard to imagine these various ministers engaged in “teaching” that steadfastly avoided the explanation of all biblical texts.

Of course, the true teachers were passing on the apostolic deposit, but this does not mean they were simply repeating the sayings of Jesus. In the Didache, parents are told to teach (didaxeis) the fear of the Lord to their children (4:9). The author(s) apparently does not think teaching is restricted to a highly technical definition. Nor does he think preaching is little more than a running commentary plus application. “My child, remember night and day the one who preaches God’s word to you, and honor him as though he were the Lord. For wherever the Lord’s nature is preached, there the Lord is” (4:1). According to the Didache, teaching is broader than transmitting oral traditions, and preaching involves more than a few words of exhortation.

Teaching in the Synagogue

One of the key points in Dickson’s argument is that the Pauline conception of teaching is rooted in the practice of the Pharisees, who passed on the oral traditions of their fathers (Mark 7:7). Just as the Pharisees might repeat the sayings of Hillel, so might the New Testament teacher repeat the sayings of Jesus. According to Dickson, the closest parallel to New Testament “teaching” is the passing down of the rabbinical traditions that we find repeated and piled up in the Mishnah (39).

This is an important line of reasoning for Dickson, one he repeats several times (39, 73, 100–2). The problem with the argument is twofold.

First, while the Mishnah collects the sayings of first- and second-century rabbis, these rabbis saw themselves explaining and applying the Torah. In other words, even if the Mishnah is our example of “teaching,” there is no bright line between “oral tradition” and “explaining texts.”

Second, the Jewish synagogue service provides a much better parallel to early Christian worship services than the Mishnah. After all, Paul is talking about corporate worship in 1 Timothy 2. For centuries leading up to the Christian era, the Jews had cultivated the art of preaching and gave it a privileged place in synagogue worship. According to Old, “there was a large core of dedicated men who had given their lives to the study of the Scriptures, and who prepared themselves to preach when the leadership of the synagogue invited them to do so” (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, 1:102). It makes more sense to think Paul had in mind the well-developed tradition of men doing exposition in the Jewish worship service, when he prohibits women from teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12, as opposed to the mere repetition of oral traditions.

Teaching in the Old Testament

What’s more, this synagogue teaching ministry had its roots in the Old Testament. Moses taught (didasko, LXX) the people the statutes and rules of God—repeating them yes, but also explaining and applying them (Deut. 4:1–14). The priests, at least some of them, were to be teaching priests (2 Chr. 15:3), going through the cities of Judah teaching (edidaskon, LXX) people the Book of the Law (2 Chr. 17:9). Ezra set his heart to study the Law of the Lord and to teach (didaskein, LXX) his statutes and rules in Israel (Ezra 7:10). Likewise, Ezra and the Levites read from the Law of God and taught (edidasken, LXX) the people so they could understand the reading (Neh. 8:8).

The practices described in Ezra and Nehemiah give every indication of already being well established. There are texts, there are teachers, there is a congregation. We have in miniature the most essential elements of Jewish synagogue services, and the Christian services that would use synagogue worship as their starting point. It’s hard to imagine Paul meant to communicate, let alone that his audience would understand, that when he spoke of “teaching” he had in mind nothing of the Old Testament or Jewish tradition and was only thinking of Pharisees passing along oral sayings. In each of the Old Testament instances above, the teacher explains a written text. That doesn’t mean didasko must involve exposition, but the burden of proof rests with those who assert that it most certainly does not mean that.

Teaching in the New Testament

I agree with Dickson that the prohibition against women teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12 should not be taken in the broadest sense possible. Paul does not mean to forbid women from ever transmitting knowledge to someone else. He is addressing propriety in worship, not the sort of teaching we find from women to women in Titus 2 or from Priscilla and Aquila to Apollos in Acts 18. But just because we reject the broadest definition of teaching does not mean the only other option is the narrowest definition. Dickson would have us equate “teaching” with passing on oral tradition. That was certainly part of teaching in the apostolic age, but many of the places in the New Testament that speak of the apostolic tradition never mention didasko (1 Cor. 2:2; 3:10; 11:2; 11:23–26; 15:1–11; Gal. 1:6–9; 1 Thess. 4:1–2). The language instead is of receiving, delivering, or passing on.

Crucially, the Sermon on the Mount is labelled as “teaching” (Matt. 7:28–29). According to Dickson, the Sermon on the Mount is “teaching” because Jesus is correcting the tradition of the scribes and handing down his own authoritative traditions. What Jesus is not doing is expositing a text (54). Of course, Dickson is right in what Jesus is doing. He is wrong, however, in asserting what Jesus is not doing. The Sermon on the Mount is filled with Old Testament allusions, parallels, and explanations. One doesn’t have to claim that Jesus is giving a modern sermon as we might. The point is not that “teaching” everywhere in the New Testament means “exposition,” but that the two ideas cannot be neatly separated.

The first-century Jewish understanding of teaching must not be separated from the judicious interpretation of inspired texts.

Jesus was recognized by many as “rabbi,” an informal title meaning “teacher.” As a teacher, Jesus frequently quoted from or explained Old Testament Scripture. In fact, Old argues that Jesus’s teaching in the Temple courts at the end of his ministry was meant to show Jesus as the fulfillment of the rabbinical office. In Matthew 21–23 we see the different schools of the time—Herodians, Pharisees, Sadducees—come to Jesus with their questions about the Law, and Jesus answers them all (1:106). In solving their riddles and stepping out of their traps, Jesus showed himself to be the master teacher, the rabbi of all rabbis. And in this display, he constantly explained and interpreted Scripture. The first-century Jewish understanding of teaching must not be separated from the judicious interpretation of inspired texts, nor can it be restricted to “passing along oral traditions.”

Teaching in the Pastoral Epistles

But what if—despite the Old Testament background and the synagogue background and the use of “teaching” in the Sermon on the Mount and the broader understanding of teacher in the early church—Paul choose to use a very narrow definition of teaching in the pastoral epistles? After surveying all the uses of “teaching” in the Pastoral Epistles, Dickson concludes that “teaching,” as a verb and a noun, refer not to Bible exposition but to apostolic words laid down for the churches (59). Simply put, “teach” does not mean exegete and apply; it means repeat and lay down (64–65). Pauline “teaching” was never (Dickson’s word, my emphasis) exposition in the contemporary sense (74). Whatever else teaching may entail in other places, according to Dickson, for Paul it only meant laying down oral tradition.

Dickson is certainly right that “teaching” in the Pastoral Epistles is about passing on the good deposit of apostolic truth about Jesus. Conservative complementarian scholar Bill Mounce, for example, has no problem affirming that 1 Timothy 2:12 has to do with “the authoritative and public transmission of tradition about Christ and the Scriptures” or that it involves “the preservation and transmission of the Christian tradition” (Pastoral Epistles, 126). But notice that Mounce does not reduce the Christian tradition to oral sayings only, to the exclusion of Scriptural explication. Likewise, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament argues that didaskein “is closely bound to Scripture even in the NT” (146). Later the TDNT affirms that even in the pastoral epistles “the historical connexion between Scripture and didaskein is still intact” (147).

One does not have to equate didasko with a three-point sermon to see that transmitting the apostolic deposit can scarcely be done apart from biblical references and exposition.

Surely this is right. Are we really to think that when Paul insisted that the elders be apt to teach that this had no reference to handling the Scriptures or rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15)? Teaching must be broader than passing on oral traditions, for how else could Paul tell the older women “to teach what is good” (kalodidaskalo) to the younger women? Or consider 1 Timothy 4:13, where Paul tells Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and to teaching. Sure, these are not identical tasks, but on Dickson’s interpretation Timothy was to read the Scriptures, exhort from the Scriptures, and then lay down the apostolic deposit without every expounding any of the Scriptures just read.

Similarly, Dickson argues that when Paul says all Scripture is profitable for teaching, he means Timothy would privately read Scripture so that he could be better equipped to publicly pass on the good deposit, but again, without expounding a Bible passage (52–53). If this is correct, then Paul never meant for teachers to explain Bible verses in reproving, correcting, or training either. The Bible may inform these tasks, but it never involves exposition of any kind (57). This strains credulity to the breaking point. Look at the preaching in Acts. There was hardly any handing down of the good deposit that did not also explain the Scriptures. And in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul is explicitly passing along what he also received the message is not the mere repetition of verbal formulas, but the apostolic tradition that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. One does not have to equate didasko with a three-point sermon to see that transmitting the apostolic deposit can scarcely be done apart from biblical references and exposition.

Teaching in Today’s Sermon

If Dickson’s definition of ancient teaching is too narrow, his understanding of contemporary preaching is too impoverished. In Dickson’s telling, the sermon is essentially a running commentary plus application. I confess I have a very different view of what preaching entails, not because preaching is less than exposition and application, but because it is much more. The preacher is a kerux, a herald (2 Tim. 1:11). Of course, we don’t preach with the authority of an apostle, but for those qualified men called to preach they do pass along the apostolic deposit and they ought to preach with authority. Why else would Paul command Timothy—with such dramatic language and with such dire exhortations—to preach the word; to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Tim. 4:1–2)?

In the end, I believe Dickson’s approach is not only historically and exegetically unconvincing, it is practically unworkable—at least for complementarians. Egalitarians will affirm women preaching for all sorts of reasons. But complementarians who try to thread the needle and argue that “this message on Sunday morning is a sharing not a sermon” or “this woman preaching is under the authority of the session” will find that their arguments for not letting women preach all the time and in any way look exceedingly arbitrary.

The heraldic event—no matter the platform provided by the pastor or the covering given by the elders—cannot be separated from exercising authority and teaching, the two things women are not permitted do in the worship service.

At various points, Dickson admits that some preaching today may involve teaching and that the different kinds of speaking in the New Testament probably overlapped.

  • “I am not suggesting that these three forms of speech (teaching, prophesying, and exhorting) are strictly separate or that there is no significant overlap of content and function” (24).
  • Some contemporary sermons involve something close to authoritatively preserving and laying down the apostolic deposit, but I do not believe this is the typical function of the weekly exposition” (64).
  • “I have no doubt that Timothy added to these apostolic teachings his own appeals, explanations, and applications, but these are not the constitutive or defining elements of teaching. At that point, Timothy would be moving into what is more appropriately called ‘exhortation’” (65).
  • “I am not creating a hard distinction between teaching and exhorting, but I am observing that, whereas teaching is principally about laying something down in fixed form, exhorting is principally about urging people to obey and apply God’s truth” (65).
  • “No doubt there was a degree of teaching going on in exhorting and prophesying, just as there was some exhorting (and maybe prophesying) going on in teaching” (66–67).
  • “I also think that some transmission of the apostolic deposit still goes on in every decent sermon, in some more than others” (79).

With all these elements of preaching jumbled together, how could Paul have expected Timothy to untangle the ball of yarn and know what he was supposed to not permit women to do? Just as importantly, how are we to discern when a sermon is just exhortation without authority and when it moves into an authoritative transmission of the apostolic deposit? Perhaps it would be better to see “teaching” as more or less what the preacher does on Sunday as opposed to a highly technical term that doesn’t make sense out of the early church, the Jewish synagogue, Jesus’s example, or Paul’s instructions.

The heraldic event—no matter the platform provided by the pastor or the covering given by the elders—cannot be separated from exercising authority and teaching, the two things women are not permitted do in the worship service.

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