Deborah: The Exception, not the Rule

“Now Deborah was a woman, a prophetess, and the wife of Lappidoth. She judged Israel at that time!”

(Judges 4:4)

Now, to all of my friends and acquaintances who would like to suggest that there is a Biblical precedence for women to be in church leadership or serve as Pastors on the basis of Deborah, did you notice the emphasis on the language here in this verse? “Now Deborah was a woman, a prophetess, and the wife of Lappodoth. She judged Israel at that time.” The author of this text goes out of his way to stress the fact that Deborah was a female and she was serving in this capacity — a capacity in which one did not expect a female to serve. The point is that Deborah’s place here is meant to be shocking to the reader. “What!?! A female judge!?! No way, that’s not proper!?!” And it wasn’t proper, but as the account of Deborah unfolds we see the theme arising of men who will not rise to the position of responsibility.

So, the question that one should ask is not, “Does Deborah establish a precedence for female church leadership?” Clearly, she is presented as an exception and one does not establish the normative rule on the basis of exceptions. The question one should ask is, “Would there ever be a context where, as in Deborah’s time, an exception was being made, and if so, what would that look like?”

The answer to that second question is seen by some to be an open door, because I have heard people argue that virtually every female pastor is one such exceptions. And while I want by no means to malign the character of such women, it must be clear that when you have a large number of “exceptions,” they are no longer exceptions. Of the 12 judges in the book of Judges, a book covering a span of more then 300 years, there is one such exception. There is nothing normative about Deborah and her situation. In fact, in her case, there are no men to be found (we will see that in Deborah’s song), the commander of the Army seems to be a bit of a coward, and though Deborah is introduced under Lappidoth’s authority (he is still the covenant head of her household), he doesn’t play much of a role in this account (in fact, this verse is the only mention of his name).

Surely, we don’t live in such a world. Men are able and willing to take up leadership in Christ’s church and to do so in submission to the Biblical mandate of male covenant headship in the church. Further, those pushing for women in church office are often not under the spiritual headship of their husbands (as is Deborah) and thus are trying to achieve an agenda, not humbly serving as an exception. And finally, it is clear in this account that God is doing a remarkable work not only to liberate Israel, but to shame the men who will not stand up and her role is clearly not meant as normative as you never again see another female judge arise. So to answer the second question mentioned above, the answer is first, we are not in such a time where there are no men stepping up to the job and secondly, there would have to be a radical change in the circumstances to bring such a change.

Thus, the power of this account, then, is not one of establishing a precedence for females in church leadership, but instead in humbling the men who should have been the ones rising to the task of leading God’s people.

4 Comments

  1. gtnyetoo

    I do see this; and whereas one time I might have been offended by it; now I see it as a truth that needs to be addressed in our churches. As a member of a Presbyterian church who does have women as very good strong leaders, I do see the need for more men to step up and become involved in these rolls. This is not saying that they’d be better leaders than the women only that the men, for some reason, when they see women taking the reigns tend to step back and allow women to take over . . . .kind of an attitude . . .ah I work for a living let my wife handle the church stuff, the faith stuff, the prayer stuff, etc. not only in the church but in the family as well. We need men to step up and be strong, Christian leaders in both the church and in their families. For our children’s sake . . . because they are watching.

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    1. preacherwin

      “Better” is a relative term, depending on how you want to define it. If you define “better” as “able to get things done,” then I would agree that men would not necessarily be better. If you define “better” in terms of being more Biblical, then that is a different matter and clearly, men make better church leaders than women because that is the Biblical model we are given.

      Recently I heard a statistic from a baptist friend who said that if a mother starts coming to church, there is about a 15% chance that the kids will follow her example, but if the father comes to church, there is an 80% chance that the kids will follow the father’s lead. I don’t know the how or context of the statistic, but it at least is a reminder that you are right: “they are watching.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. gtnyetoo

    It’s tricky and complicated how I feel about all of this, Win. Of course I meant the first way “able to get things done” and as you know, who are any of us to question God – that said we know in our hearts that we still do. I’m still wanting to justify it all by saying that men won’t step up if women do in their place and I do think Deborah shows that that’s what is happening. But my question is why wouldn’t the men step up? Fear, self preservation, or as far as being church leaders is it because they don’t want to “lead” with women; or is it just because they are lazy and see that the women will get it done anyway so why bother? Any way you look at it; it doesn’t make the men look too good. So . . . as a woman who has been a leader in a church (before I started discussing things with you that is) should I even question it? Should I just accept that that’s God’s will for men to be leaders and not try to reason it all out? Or should I wonder at why the men didn’t step up? Is God accusing the men or is he just putting women in their place? Do you see what I’m getting at? Should I ask why or just let it lie?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. preacherwin

      I think that the answer has to do with roles that God has graciously given to men and women, at least to be normative. Men are called to lead in Christ’s church and God brings his judgment to the church for not nurturing that idea. In some cases, God has raised up Deborah-type-ladies, but never as an ongoing model and always to shame the men for not rising up, not to establish a new routine. So, it is always temporary until the men stand.

      So, I would say, always ask, ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘who’, etc… and always challenge the church of Jesus Christ to submit to the Word of God. Helpful?

      Liked by 1 person

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