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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.