That Pesky Deborah Question

Asian Lady 01 FramedScripture clearly prohibits women from positions of teaching men within a church context  (1 Timothy 2:11-14). But as fewer and fewer professing Christians take this passage seriously, they find all sorts of ways to raise objections. Most notably, whenever I express objections to women in church leadership, people waste no time in challenging me to account for women in Scripture who seem to have held leadership positions. Certainly, each of these women should be explained, and I believe it can be successfully demonstrated that not one of them sets a precedent for women taking church leadership roles.

Of all these women, Deborah usually gets mentioned the most frequently because she judged Israel during the period of the judges, and God indeed spoke through her to command Barak to fight against Sisera. Read Judges 4 to get the whole story.

Don’t expect a thorough teaching on Deborah from me. Since men, as well as women, read this blog, I need to be careful not to lapse into teaching when I explain the various biblical positions that I hold. That type of care obviously intensifies when I write about women assuming positions of  authority in churches. I can just imagine how quickly people would accuse me of hypocrisy! More importantly, I want to be obedient to the Lord, using my writing in ways that honor Him. If I then crossed the line from affirming biblical truth to actually teaching, I would be rebelling against Scripture’s prohibition against women teaching men.

That said, I feel a responsibility to grapple with the infamous “Deborah Question” while The Outspoken TULIP is still in its introductory phase. I hope that my thoughts will encourage you to examine Scripture for yourself, and that you’ll prayerfully consider the perspectives I offer.

To begin with, I notice that verse 4 of Judges 4 merely states that Deborah judged Israel, whereas Scripture generally introduces judges using the phrase, “the Lord raised up…” Couple this different introduction of Deborah with Judges 21:25, which says “everyone did what was right in their own eyes,” and ask the obvious question: Did God appoint Deborah as judge, or did she assign the role to herself? I don’t know. Frankly, neither do you! And the fact that He spoke through her in the specific instances concerning Barak may not necessarily validate her entire prophetic ministry. Has He ever used one of your sinful choices to bring about His greater will? He’s certainly done so in my life! But His blessing in no way justified my rebellion. Therefore, I suspect He used Deborah in spite of her willful rebellion.

But even if Deborah served as a judge because the Lord placed her in that position, should we assume that she therefore sets the stage for women to be pastors or to lead congregational prayer? I once  chatted with pastor and fellow blogger Dan Phillips about Deborah as a sanction for women pastors via Twitter. Dan pointed out that Old Testament Israel is not synonymous with the New Testament Church. Would we make Sampson a model for Christian pastors? Hopefully not! Than neither should Deborah serve as one.

In approaching historical narratives in the Bible, we must treat them as descriptive before determining whether or not they prescribe Christian behavior. Yes, Deborah judged Israel during a time when it had a theocratic form of government, and God graciously used her to motivate Barak to lead his army against Sisera. But God also used David’s sinful marriage to Bathsheba to produce Solomon, and I know that we mustn’t interpret that fact as a prescription for adultery and murder. Deborah’s period of leadership in Israel simply doesn’t mitigate 1 Timothy 2:11-14. We can appreciate her role in delivering Israel without misconstruing it as permission for women to usurp male leadership in church settings.

As you can see, I have studied Deborah, and I see no reason to cite her (or any of the other strong women in Scripture) as a reason to accept women pastors.  I could go into greater detail in exploring Deborah’s ministry, but again, I must  resist the temptation to establish myself as a Bible teacher. Instead, I hope you’ll see that we can question her position of judging Israel, and that we have  no reason to form a correlation between any of Israel’s judges and Christian pastors.

2 thoughts on “That Pesky Deborah Question

  1. Ha ha funny, I’ve been studying Deborah this week myself. I learned that a judge was a military leader. Since Barak is mentioned in Hebrews 11:32 along with other judges of Israel from that era it’s assumed he was judge also. Perhaps they were co-judged, like Paul and Priscilla were co-laborors. (Rom 16:3)

    I also learned that Isaiah 3:12 shows that God sometimes allowed women to rule as a punishment for a national sin, the female leader was a judgment. Perhaps that was what was meant in Judges 4:9 when Deborah was speaking to Barak that the victory would fall tot he hands of a woman.

    I liked your example of Solomon being raised up despite the sinful fruit from which he came and that his raising up should not be taken as license for murder and adultery, just as Deobrah’s raising up should not be taken as license for women to rule. In any case, it’s clear that women were usually not leaders in any sense anywhere in the Bible.


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