I recently met up with one of my friends who is a woman in church leadership. She is sure of her calling and functioning well, but wanted to meet with me to discuss some Biblical texts concerning the leadership of women, with a view to understanding them better, and being better equipped to defend her leadership when challenged. She and I have both been brought up with conservative Christian theology. We both hold to the view that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and is our ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice. So it matters to us, as women who lead, that our position is consistent with Biblical teaching.
Deborah’s name was mentioned – an outstanding Old Testament leader. You would have thought that her very presence would help to convince Bible-believers that there is no gender bar in God’s view. But no – my friend cited teaching she had heard over the years to the effect that Deborah was an exception – she could not be seen as an example to today’s women, as she was only in position because the men God really wanted in the role had not stepped up! My hackles rose: I felt a rant coming on. Here it is:
How insulting is it to half the human race to say that they can only lead when the other half completely fails?
How insulting is it to the other half of the human race (sorry, this is sounding a bit complicated now, I realise; that’s the nature of rants) – how insulting is it to men to say that they are all so weak and helpless that you have to appoint an even more weak and helpless individual (as a woman is in the eyes of the people who make this argument) to do the job?
How insulting is it to God to say that God cannot appoint someone with the right qualifications so God has to make do with second best?
Now I’ve got that off my chest, let’s look at what the Bible actually says about Deborah. Her story can be read in Judges 4, and then a song she composed (a rare bit of Scripture written by a woman) in Judges 5. Can you see where a man should have been doing Deborah’s job but didn’t? I can’t. What I surmise is that those who taught my friend had a nod to, and a sloppy reading of, 4:8, where Barak, the army leader whom Deborah prophetically ordered into battle, refused to go unless she accompanied him.
But look – Deborah was already in her position of leadership before that! She was a prophet. She sat under the same tree giving judgements for so long that it got named after her. She functioned in her prophetic leadership role when she summoned Barak in the first place to give him his orders from God. She was not especially impressed when he displayed his lack of confidence, but she realised he needed her support and so, as a good leader, gave it. She did her job and she helped Barak do his.
Rant over, I think. Leaders, whatever our gender, have a lot to learn from Deborah.