A question for Reform: what is "teaching"?

My post Reform are hypocrites over women teaching has attracted quite a lot of readers (145 directly so far, plus those reading from the main page and from RSS etc feeds) but surprisingly little response. Indeed the only actual comments on the post, apart from my own, are three thoughtful comments from TC Keene, who defends Reform on the charge of hypocrisy without actually agreeing with their position.

Perhaps TC has hit the nail on the head in his latest comment, in which he (in another comment he states that he is male) writes (in part):

Reform supporters will be bemused but possibly contemptuous of the remarks concerning Carrie’s leaflet … For some reason that is opaque to me and is clearly equally opaque to others but seems completely natural to Reform supporters that they never question it, written teaching does not fall under the ban on women teaching men. It has never done and it probably has never occurred to most of them that it should.

I replied (again in part):

if Reform really does teach that “written teaching does not fall under the ban on women teaching men”, then why haven’t they included this point in any of their written teaching? Or perhaps they have – in that case, where is that written teaching? Even if this “seems completely natural to Reform supporters”, they know by now that it doesn’t to others. So where are the Reform people coming out and saying this?

So if it is Reform’s position that only oral teaching is true teaching, where does this idea come from? TC suggests that it has roots in pagan Greek philosophy. Maybe. But I was surprised to find that in the New Testament the words didasko “teach”, didaskalos “teacher”, didache and didaskalia “teaching” etc are almost entirely restricted in their application to spoken teaching. I could find only one place in which any of these words are used of the written teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures, in Romans 15:4, and none where they referred to any other written material. Thus for example in 2 Peter 3 the author avoids these words when talking about both his own previous letter (v.1) and the letters of Paul (vv.15-16).

So perhaps Carrie Sandom could have made an exegetical case that the prohibition on a woman teaching (didasko) in 1 Timothy 2:12 applies only to oral teaching and not to distributing written teaching material. However, in her leaflet The role of women in the local church she makes absolutely no attempt to do so. As a result she leaves herself open to the interpretation I have made of her words, according to the regular English meaning of “teach” which includes written as well as oral teaching. If this is not what she meant, she should have said so. And if she, or someone else from Reform, would now like to clarify to me that this was indeed her meaning, I will withdraw my charge of hypocrisy.

However, if the Reform position is that women are forbidden only to teach orally, then that leads to some interesting issues about where the line should be drawn across which women are not allowed to step. Carrie Sandom teaches that there is no “blanket prohibition on women speaking” in a church context. So they can speak, but not to teach, and they can teach, if they don’t speak what they teach. Does sign language for the deaf count as speaking? Is a woman allowed to be an interpreter for a male teacher? Is she allowed to read out written teaching material? What if she reads out what she has written herself? But that’s what most male preachers do!

The whole thing can easily get ridiculous. I am reminded of how in 1988 Margaret Thatcher tried to deny publicity to Irish republicans by banning broadcast of the voice of their leaders like Gerry Adams. The broadcasters promptly got round it by dubbing the voices of actors over pictures of Adams and others speaking – and the republicans ended up with more publicity rather than less.

I am also reminded of how Jesus mocked the distinctions the Pharisees made between different kinds of oaths (Matthew 5:33-37) and condemned them for straining out gnats while swallowing camels (23:23-24). I’m sure Jesus’ message to Reform would have been similar: he would condemn them for focusing on small matters like exactly what women can do while

you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Matthew 23:23 (TNIV)

0 thoughts on “A question for Reform: what is "teaching"?

  1. I did not say, I repeat, I DID NOT SAY, that the prioritising of oral teaching over written had its roots in pagan Greek philosophy. That is a travesty of what I said. I said that this view was paralleled in Greek culture and with such distinguished company we should respect it enough to enquire what may be true about it.

  2. My last post was a little intemperate; I apologise.

    I do think we need to draw Reform folk into discussion rather than challenge them to debate. Their natural habitat is the world of polemics. Polemics have their place but an exclusive reliance on polemics precludes much possibility for change. Polemics demand that you largely exclude the possibility that you might be wrong. People draw metaphorical lines in the sand. Even winning the argument seldom leads to anyone changing their minds; they merely go away and look to their favourite teacher for bolstering arguments.

    Challenges such as what about this circumstance or that circumstance (what about sign language etc) can easily descend into the kind of problem finding exhiibited by the Sadducees in Matt 22″23ff. They need to be expressed as real enquiries rather than challenges.

    I assume that all this issue of teaching revolves not around teaching but around authority, in fact that seems as I write it a statement of the bleeding obvious. It seems that for Reform people, teaching through the written word can only be persuasive rather than authoritative. When teaching is given orally, very often an authority issue emerges and it is against this that they bridle. Where there is no authority issue, there is no problem. This of course shifts the debate to whether women can or should have authority. I have no problem with women having authority. The obvious meaning on 1 Co 11:10 is that women are to wear hats as a sign of their authority (yes, theirs and not their husbands despite older translations that provoked one Greek expert to exclaim that all too often NT scholars claim a meaning entirely by assertion); so Paul does see them as having authority.
    It is this notion of authority that leads to some of the variation within Reform circles. Some see women teaching ‘under the covering of male headship’ as perfectly acceptable; others do not. Some see female leadership of homegroups as acceptable on the grounds that there is a communal rather than a hierarchical structure and so no authority issue; while others insist that only men may lead a homegroup if is is a mixed group.
    An interesting issue might also be whether teaching should have this authority association at all. Mark Strom, in Reframing Paul, argues strongly that this very close association bordering on identity between teaching and authority needs to be challenged and is in fact challenged by Paul. Certainly the close association leads to some absurdities. People who are able teachers but who could not lead an alcoholic to the beer in a brewery are placed in leadership because they are able teachers and so are thought to be in authority. Reform is particularly prone to this. They often select leadership on two criteria, teaching skill and conformity to Reform orthodoxies. Other qualities are often largely ignored.

  3. TC, thanks for the correction. I took your words “such notable forbears”, referring to Aristotle etc, as implying some kind of genetic descent of the idea from them. But if that is not what you meant, I’m sorry.

    On the other hand, I would think that the NT usage does have its roots in classical Greek usage of didasko and cognates, which would be how these terms were used of the ancient philosophers. That doesn’t mean that the NT writers, or Reform, incorporated pagan philosophy into their thinking, just that that is how the Greek language worked.

  4. TC, your second comment crossed with my one. I have of course challenged Reform to a debate in rather polemical terms, precisely because that is where they seem at home.

    Yes, discussions to find common ground might have been a better alternative. But then I rather think they wouldn’t get anywhere. Their camp now seems to have abandoned any attempt to find common ground over women bishops and instead has declared all out war. So now, if I have any aim in this debate, it is to show them up as a tiny group of ridiculous fundamentalists, who shouldn’t be allowed to force their opinions on the church as a whole. If they “go away and look to their favourite teacher”, then at least they go away.

    Yes, maybe “for Reform people, teaching through the written word can only be persuasive rather than authoritative”. The problem is, that is precisely the opposite of how we think in the western world. We only accept as authoritative what is written down. Indeed it is the opposite of what Reform officially believe, as in their Covenant they write of

    The … supreme authority of “God’s Word written”.

    Ironically the modern western idea that only written material is authoritative “gospel truth” probably has its roots in this evangelical insistence that only the written Bible is authoritative.

    I agree with Mark Strom’s view as you present it. There is very little in the New Testament to connect teaching with authority. The content of the teaching may have been authoritative, but if so it derived its authority not from the person delivering it but from the Word of God to which it conformed.

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