Starting with Deborah
In many cases, to address the matter of women in ministry, scholars begin with Genesis. But I prefer to begin with Deborah. Why? For me, she makes all the difference. That is because this one case study in Scripture overturns virtually all arguments against women church leaders. (In 2012 I wrote a blog on some of the details in Judges 4-5, FYI)
But—women are not gifted in leadership. Deborah was.
Women belong in the home sphere. Deborah was called to lead a nation.
Women should focus on supporting their husband. Deborah alone was judge over Israel.
Men should have final say. Read the book of Judges. Men do and say some really dumb stuff. A lot.
The reason I start with Deborah is because, when people say that women shouldn’t be pastors, preachers, elders, or leaders, they must explain why this is so. They must reason out what exactly disqualifies women. (It is not enough to say, “the Bible says so.” Even if it did, Christians are thinking and reasoning people; we need to know why we make the ethical decisions we commit to.)
History tells a long story of men depicting women as too emotional, too weak, too stupid, or gullible. (Case in point: in a 1995 essay, Thomas Schreiner portrayed women as more susceptible to deception, but in a revised 2005 edition, that argument was removed. See documentation at the end of this blog.) That was pretty much the main rationale for no women leaders until the late 1970s and 1980s. With the rise of women CEOs, women scholars, and women politicians, it became thoroughly unreasonable to put men a cut above women in leadership or intellect. So, the argument again women shifted to “gender roles” and “gender spheres.” It was unsustainable for complementarians to urge that women were mentally or emotionally unqualified to lead. Rather, the argument shifted to focus on the proper place for women—as supporters of other women, and caretakers of home and children. (This shift of argument is well-documented in Alan Padgett’s book, As Christ Submits to the Church.)
So, for many complementarians, the ideal woman is a good mother, a submissive wife, and a supporter of children and other women in a church context. If there is a clear boundary line for complementarians, it is that women absolutely cannot carry out executive authority over a man (based largely on their reading of 1 Tim 2).
And yet, Deborah does just that. She
- “was leading Israel” as prophet (4:4)
- served as judge over Israel by “holding court” (4:5)
- speaks firmly to Barak the command of the Lord (4:6) (note that she summoned for him, he didn’t ask for her)
- commands Barak to attack Sisera (4:14)
Some have argued Deborah was not a real “judge,” because it doesn’t say she was “raised up.” But the Song of Deborah makes this pretty clear: “in the days of Shamgar…the highways were abandoned; travelers took winding paths. Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel” (5:6-7).
There have been all kinds of rebuttals against seeing Deborah as an example of female executive authority over men. Here is how I would respond.
Wasn’t she used by God because no man could be found willing to lead? If you read Judges, there are hardly any good men at all, and yet Gideon and Samson are considered “judges.”
Wasn’t she just a prophet, representing God? She was a prophet, but she was also more. Prophets (alone) don’t “hold court” in Israel.
Did she really have authority over men? 4:5 is pretty clear that all kinds of Israelites went to Deborah to have their cases and disputes resolved by her. If it were just women, I am sure the text would have made this clear. Also, see below what Ambrose writes about this matter, because he was convinced she was the sole executive leader over all Israel, over women and men.
So, let me state again that I bring up Deborah first because she busts so many myths about whether or not women are capable of executive ministry; and it demonstrates that Scripture blesses and honors her ministry. She is the only positive (developed) character in Judges.
Women can lead. Women did lead. They did it well. They sometimes did it alone. They prophesied. They commanded. They spoke the Word of the Lord. They warned. And they sang victory songs.
Before you say or hear someone say, But women aren’t good at/women aren’t wired for/women struggle with—filter it through the Deborah test. If Deborah did it, don’t make it a genderized limitation. I think men and women have differences, but capacity for leadership isn’t one of them. I am lucky to have had many incredible women mentors, colleagues, leaders, and pastors in my life, all who demonstrated extraordinary leadership skills.
I would like to end this post with an extended quote from Ambrose, bishop of Milan (340-397). Ambrose talks here about Deborah as a model of courageous leadership. It reminds me that even many centuries ago Deborah was recognized for her incredible leadership. (I have put in bold certain lines I felt were especially poignant)
For [Deborah] showed not only that widows have no need of the help of a man, inasmuch as she, not at all restrained by the weakness of her sex, undertook to perform the duties of a man, and did even more than she had undertaken. And, at last, when the Jews were being ruled under the leadership of the judges, because they could not govern them with manly justice or defend them with manly strength, and so wars broke out on all sides, they chose Deborah, by whose judgment they might be ruled. And so one widow both ruled many thousands of men in peace and defended them from the enemy. There were many judges in Israel, but no woman before was a judge, as after Joshua there were many judges but none was a prophet. And I think that her judgeship has been narrated and her deeds described, that women should not be restrained from deeds of valor by the weakness of their sex. A widow, she governs the people; a widow, she leads armies; a widow, she chooses generals; a widow, she determines wars and orders triumphs. So, then, it is not nature which is answerable for the fault or which is liable to weakness. It is not sex but valor which makes strong.
Concerning Widows 8.43–46.
John R. Franke, ed., Old Testament IV: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 115.
see Thomas Schreiner, “An interpretation of 1 Tim 2:9-16,” in Women in the Church (ed. Kostenberger), 141, 144 (1995 edition).