Women in ministry 1: Deborah

Before we get started I need to make three things clear.

First, some of you reading this might not understand what the big deal is.  The question of “women in ministry” may not even be a question in your mind, and you may not even realize that it is, in fact, something of a controversy within this faith we call Christianity.  Others may find the question, “should a woman lead a congregation?” downright silly and maybe even offensive.  Let me assure you, I wouldn’t broach the subject if there wasn’t a controversy surrounding it.  Since it’s controversial, the questions need to be addressed.  In other words, I’m not trying to stir up an argument – the argument is already there.  I’m trying to do my part to resolve it.

Second, I want to admit that I don’t think this issue is simple or easy.  My high regard for the Bible means that I approach any question of interpretation with as much care and thought as I can muster.  People who don’t think women should lead men in ministry honestly have some pretty good material to back them up.  I just think they’ve missed the point of that material.  The New Testament, when properly read, points toward a new reality that is being realized in our midst.  It’s a reality where “there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male nor female,” but we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).  This is what the kingdom that Jesus rules looks like, and it’s the kingdom that is both “now and not yet.”  Christians should be finding ways to realize this kingdom in the here and how.

Third, I just want to say early on that my research this semester has convinced me more than ever that the Bible affirms women in every aspect of the ministry.  What’s more, it has lit a fire in my belly for this issue.  The weight of what we’ve done – that we’ve effectively silenced the voices of half the Church for two millennia – has struck me harder than ever before.  This upsets me because I’ve missed out on the words that God may have wanted share with me through women that were silenced.  It upsets me because the Church today would probably be in much better shape if we had not missed nearly 2000 years of opportunities to listen to our sisters in Christ.  It upsets me because countless women have probably felt a call to ministry-much like I did-but never followed through with it because of this.  It upsets me because the lengths that some have gone to in order to maintain a patriarchal church structure have been at times downright deceitful (wait till we get to the story of Junia!).  It should upset you too.

OK, enough of that.  Time to get down to business.  I wrote a paper on this issue for my master’s program this semester, and as such it is not very appropriate for a blog post.  So over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a series on women in ministry, including stories of women in the Bible who were ministers, as well as some insights on relevant Bible texts that have been used to both support women in ministry and to argue against it.  Today, we start in the Old Testament.  I want to introduce you to Deborah.

Deborah: Prophet, Judge, Military Strategist, Leader.

Any good investigator should seek to uncover the whole story.  When it comes to the question of women in spiritual leadership over men, we too must first uncover the whole story.  One of the earliest and most significant instances of this is found in the book of Judges.

In Judges, the nation of Israel was continually bouncing in and out of apostasy.  Periodically, they would get themselves into trouble (in the form of capture by an enemy nation) and God would graciously raise up a judge who would deliver them (2:16).  Deborah is one such judge.

If you grew up going to Sunday school, you have probably heard of the book of Judges.  You may or may not be familiar with the story of Deborah.  This is unfortunate because you’re probably very familiar with Samson, the machismo guy who got himself into all sorts of trouble through his arrogance.  Samson may have an amazing story, but he was arguably the worst judge of them all.  You may have heard of Gideon as well.  Deborah might have gotten a nod, but her story is rarely preached.

As a judge, she exercises legal authority as she administers justice to the whole nation of Israel from her home base under the “palm of Deborah.”  It was here that the whole nation of Israel “came to her to have their disputes decided” (Judg. 4:5).  She exercises militaristic authority over Barak son of Abinoam (and therefore an entire army) as she gives him the marching orders to take his men to Mount Tabor in order to conquer Sisera.  Barak responds by pleading for her presence with him (4:6-8).  Most significantly, Deborah exercises significant spiritual leadership over the men of Israel through her designation as a prophet (4:4), which is demonstrated in her pronouncement over Balak (v. 9), not to mention the prophetic nature of the “Song of Deborah” which takes up all of chapter 5.  However, it is also quite significant to note that the ancient Israelites would not have understood the distinctions between types of leadership that I just imposed.  “The notion of the separation of civil and religious authority makes no sense in the theocratic life of Israel at this time” (Davis, 2009).  However, it is helpful for the modern reader to understand the full depth and breadth of her leadership, which was indeed instituted by God, who “raised up judges” (2:16).

That’s not all that’s significant about Deborah.  She has some uncanny parallels to another prophetic figure you may have heard of: Moses.  Here’s what John Davis has to say:

“Both Moses and Deborah functioned  as judges (Exod. 18:13, Judg. 4:4); both sat for judgment, and the  people  came  to  them  (Exod.  18:13,  Judg.  4:5);  both  proclaimed  the  word  of  the  Lord  (Exod.  7:16,  Judg.  4:6);  both  were  proph- ets  (Deut.  18:15,  Judg.  4:4);  both  pronounced  blessings  (Exod.  39:43,  Judg.  5:_4);  both  pronounced  curses  in  the  name  of  the  Lord (Deut. _7:15, Judg. 5:_3); both had military generals (Joshua,  Barak); both gave instructions to the people as to how the Lord  would defeat the enemies (Exod. 14:14, Judg. 4:6); in both cases,  the  Lord  caused  the  enemy  in  chariots  to  panic  and  flee  (Exod.  14:_4,  Judg.  4:15);  God’s  victory  is  told  first  in  prose  (Exod.  14,  Judg. 4), then in poetry (Exod. 15, Judg. 5); Moses (and Miriam,  Exod. 15:1) and Deborah (and Barak, Judg. 5:1) led the people in  worshipping God after their great deliverance.12 In Judges, Debo- rah  appears  as  a  “second  Moses”  figure  whose  authority  derives  from the God of Sinai.”[1]

Some have argued that God used Deborah because there just weren’t any men who were obedient at the time.  If there had, then surely God would have preferred to have a man be in charge.  This view ignores the commendation of the many obedient male leaders in Israel at the time (Judges 5:2, 5:9).  Deborah, it seems, was God’s choice for Israel in a dire moment in their history.

Others may point out that Deborah’s leadership is a far cry from the New Testament description of local church ministry.  The Church as we know it had not yet begun, so how can she be used to demonstrate the validity of women in ministry?  A lot could go into this discussion, but for me it boils down to this.  God’s redemptive purposes can be seen all throughout the Old Testament.  I believe they are more fully realized in the New, but we can’t discount clear examples of God breaking social barriers in the Old.  This happens all over in the OT and this is no small example.

Deborah is a dynamic example of a woman leading men in judicial, militaristic, and spiritual ways.  If I could go back in time, I would ask my Sunday School teachers to not only teach me about those male Judges who messed plenty of things up.  I’d want to hear about Deborah, too – and the many other women that have that weren’t talked about, such as Huldah.

Who is Huldah, you say?  I’m glad you asked.  We’ll find out next time.



[1] Davis, J. (2009). First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives. Retrieved April 22, 2012 from CBE International: http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/free-articles

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