One of the popular topics during the past fifteen years has been the role of women in the church. As with so many other subjects, members of the Lord's church once understood what the Bible taught with reference to the equality of men and women before God (Gal. 3:28) and the difference in their roles in the church (1 Tim. 2:11-14). But in an age when some are changing worship which would be acceptable unto God into what pleases and entertains themselves, and when baptism has been rejected by some as a part of salvation, it should not also be surprising that women are now being allowed to take positions of leadership.
First of all, a distinction must be made between role and worth. People often assume that a difference in roles is due to superiority of intellect or ability, but Paul explains the basis for the difference:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into the transgression (1 Tim. 2:11-14).
Notice that neither reason relates to any country's culture of the first century. Paul cites first the fact that God created man before woman. He already had the leadership of man in mind from the outset. The second reason involves her being deceived by Satan. Genesis 3:6 says: "She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate." She not only sinned, but she also led her husband into sin. Thus, she forever lost her right of leadership. Some women protest that such a pronouncement is not fair. They will need to register their complaints with the One who established the order (by creating Adam first). It is just as legitimate to deny women the leadership role based (in part) on her sin as it is for her to still experience pain in childbirth as punishment.
To demonstrate that leadership does not deny equality one need only consider the Godhead. All three members are eternal and share the same essence. Yet the Father is the leader. Jesus said that He did not speak on His own authority: "But the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak" (John 12:49). Furthermore the Holy Spirit who would guide the apostles into all truth would "not speak on His own authority": whatever He heard from the Father was what He would speak to them (John 16:13). If the Father, therefore, could exercise the leadership role in the Godhead and equality be maintained, why cannot the same thing occur in the home and in the church?
Is Jesus inferior to the Father? Is the Holy Spirit worth less because He does not exercise the leadership role? All should agree that each member of the Godhead is of great value. In order for someone to draw the conclusion that women cannot be leaders because they are somehow worth less than men, one must equally conclude the same about Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
The concepts of role and worth must be disassociated, and the Scriptures must be accepted for what they teach. It is our current culture that seeks to discredit the Word of God on this, along with so many other, subjects. The Word of God is truth (John 17:17).
Occasionally, in the course of a discussion of this kind, someone will cite a woman who exercised leadership in the Old Testament. This cannot be considered proof for women leading in the church (over men) even if the case could be proved because we know God allowed certain departures from His ideal will during that time period.
Jesus sets forth God's ideal will concerning marriage as now binding (with one exception) in Matthew 19:3-9. But in the Old Testament He allowed polygamy, and, though He never approved of the practice, He did regulate it (Deut. 21:15-17). Likewise, He never approved of divorce, but Moses permitted it because of the hardness of their hearts. Therefore, it should not be surprising if there is an occasional departure from the norm as regards the roles of women.
Exodus 15:20 presents Miriam as a prophetess. There are eight Old Testament Scriptures that use the word; in at least seven of them the woman is the female equivalent of a prophet (the eighth one may refer to a prophet's wife).
Miriam was a leader--of other women. The text begins in Exodus 15:1: "Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord...." The song itself continues through verse 18, verse 19 being a summary statement. This description follows:
Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dances. And Miriam answered them [the men, gws]: "Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea!" (Ex. 15:20-21).
We should notice first of all that Miriam's followers were women. Answered is a key word. The implication is that the men and women were singing back and forth to each other. The Pulpit Commentary suggests that the words recorded in verse 21 constitute a chorus which the women sang at the end of verse 5, 10, 12, and 19. Moses, apparently, led the men, and Miriam led the women in this song of praise directed toward God.
The occasions in which Miriam spoke as a prophetess are not set forth. She and Aaron, as they rebelled against their brother, said, "Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?" (Num. 12:2). God suppressed their vain thoughts by pointing out that Moses was greater than either of them (Num. 12:6-8). Nevertheless, Miriam was a prophetess, but there is no record of her publicly addressing the congregation, and none of what she said was written down or preserved. There is no proof she exercised authority over men.
Deborah is probably the most oft-used example of a woman in a leadership role. She was the prophetess who judged Israel (Judges 4:4). She proves beyond a doubt to anyone (who might be confused about the value of women) that they are capable, spiritual, and intelligent. That she held a position of prominence is indisputable, but it is of interest to see the way in which she went about doing what needed to be done.
She did not champion 'the feminine mystique,' as Betty Friedan did; she was not a former "playboy bunny," as Gloria Steinem was; nor was she bisexual like Patricia Ireland. There is no evidence to suggest that she was seeking self-exaltation or pre-eminence in any way. She refers to herself as "a mother in Israel" (Judges 5:7).
In fact, her chief problem seems to be finding a man with enough courage to lead (an occurrence not uncommon in some congregations of the Lord's church today). Judges 4:5 explains the manner in which she judged: "And she would sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim. And the children of Israel came to her for judgment."
She did not force her way into a meeting with the elders of the city, blurting out, "I'm in charge here!" She did not assume control of the troops based on her own military exploits and prowess. Instead it appears that her wisdom, inspiration, and abilities were well-known and respected. The people came to her in a quiet, serene setting, and she rendered her judgments. How can such a circumspect lady be used to justify women preachers today, who stand before hundreds or thousands in a public place?
When she sent for Barak, she did not say, "Get out there and fight, you lazy coward." Instead, she phrased it thus: "Has not the Lord God of Israel commanded, saying, 'Go and deploy the troops at Mount Tabor...and I will deliver him [Sisera] into your hand'?" (Judges 4:6-7). Had it not been for Deborah's prompting, who knows when the men might have taken action? How often today would congregations fulfil the work God has required of them were it not for the prompting of some conscientious sisters?
Even so, Barak refused to engage the enemy unless Deborah accompanied him (Judges 4:8). She consented but pronounced that Sisera would be given into the hands of a woman (v. 9). After she tells Barak the day of victory (v. 14), she is not mentioned again with respect to the fighting.
As predicted, Sisera was taken captive by a woman--not Deborah, but Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. He turned aside to hide in her tent (there was peace between their houses), and as he slept, she drove the peg into his temple (Judges 4:17-21).
Many think that Deborah composed the song that she and Barak sang, which begins with the words: "When leaders lead in Israel, when the people willingly offer themselves, bless the Lord!" (Judges 5:2). This wording may be a mild rebuke to both leaders and followers. A paraphrase for the church today might be: "When we all do what God has commanded us to do, it is wondrous how the Lord blesses us."
The Pulpit Commentary suggests that, in place of village life ceased in Judges 5:7, the text should be rendered leaders ceased. Others, however, point out that the safety of villages was threatened because this was a time of anarchy and violence. Highways and villages became deserted out of fear of attack (see Clarke, Keil and Delitzsch). Even if the word leaders does not belong in verse 7, it is not difficult to see why commentators might link certain expressions to a lack of leadership, since Judges 4 makes that reality rather obvious.
Should men have exercised leadership at this time? Yes, but it did not happen until a mother in Israel arose (shame on the men of that time). God used this special woman to spark Israel into performing His will. The fact is, however, that Deborah's success ruins the feminist's case because she accomplished great things, more or less, behind the scenes instead of taking the lead out front. The manner in which Deborah accomplished God's purpose should be noticed. She did not execute her judgeship as the men did; she sought out a man to lead the nation. She accomplished great things while still recognizing and respecting that there are different roles for men and women.
Miriam (Ex. 15:20) and Deborah (Judges 4:4) are the first two women mentioned who are termed prophetess. The next two references are parallel accounts involving Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron. 34:22).
Josiah was the last good king before the Babylonian captivity, and there was in his day a woman with a reputation not unlike Deborah's. Josiah's men went to inquire of Huldah, and she gave them a response from God. Again, there is no evidence that she was out publicly proclaiming the word, but God did speak through her. This account could not rightly be used to justify women preachers today.
Nehemiah 6:14 is the last Old Testament passage that provides a specific name for a prophetess--Noadiah. The reference is so brief that we do not know what good things she might have done, but we do know that she was a hindrance to the work of Nehemiah. He asks God to remember her, along with Tobiah and San-ballat, because they tried to make him afraid. She may have even been a false prophetess.
The other Old Testament reference is found in Isaiah 8:3: "Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son." The Pulpit Commentary suggests that she is merely being called by the title of her husband, but even if this interpretation is not correct, there is still no evidence that she proclaimed publicly the Word of God. At best, all that could be claimed is that she was a prophetess after the order of Deborah and Huldah.
The New Testament introduces us to Anna the prophetess, who "did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day" (Luke 2:36-38). Having seen the baby Jesus, she "spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem." She can scarcely be faulted for wanting to pass along the good news, but nothing indicates that this was a public proclamation so much as it was a personal sharing with all those who would listen.
The last prophetess mentioned by name (whether it is her real name or whether it stands for her character) is Jezebel! She was a prominent leader and teacher, and the congregation at Thyatira was rebuked because they allowed her "to teach and beguile" Jesus' "servants to commit sexual immorality and to eat things offered to idols" (Rev. 2:20). Did she exercise the role designated for men? It is possible, and if she did, so much the worse. But whether she injected her poison into the church publicly or privately, the congregation failed to act as they should have to stop her (an abdication of male leadership again?).
The New Testament mentions that there were other women who prophesied (Acts 2:17-18), but the context does not suggest a public proclamation. Philip had "four virgin daughters who prophesied" (Acts 21:9). Again, the context in which they prophesied is not specified. How can such examples be used today then as authority for women preachers when not one word states that the spoke in public in the presence of men? Actually, they did not even prophesy in private regarding Paul's future. When God wanted to deliver a special message of warning to Paul, he brought Agabus down from Judea (Acts 21:10-11).
One writer charged that when these daughters went home and talked to their husbands, telling them the Word of God, that it would then become a case of women teaching men. This is a strange argument since virgins do not usually have husbands. But there undoubtedly were married women who possessed miraculous gifts who did speak to their husbands. Where in the Scriptures does God ever forbid husbands and wives from discussing spiritual matters? Homes are private, not public. So long as family roles are not violated (Eph. 5:22-33), then why may a man not profit from the knowledge and insight of his wife? Those who attempt to justify female preachers from the women and the texts cited herein fail completely.
*Send comments or questions concerning this article to Gary Summers. Please refer to this article as: "THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN THE CHURCH (PART 1) (5/30/99)."