As a little girl Sunday school scholar, my favorite Bible story was the Old Testament story of Deborah, the Prophet turned warrior. I grew up in a time when it was strongly implied, if not outright preached from the pulpit, that a woman’s place was to be subservient to a man’s. Our whole purpose for being created was to serve our husband, therefore our whole purpose had to be to have a husband, and, if you were blessed, you would also have children to serve and a house to clean.
A woman was allowed to serve/lead in church as long as she was ministering to women, or until a man stepped up to take over whatever ministry it was that had temporarily allowed a woman at the helm. As I matured, so it seemed did the church—the music changed and got louder, the organ was replaced by drums, pastors wore trendier clothes—but the place of women seemed to stay the same. Now we were assured from a plexiglass pulpit that we weren’t less than a man in God’s sight, we were just different—the difference being that we just weren’t leadership material. But I still had my story of Deborah to cling to.
Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet who was judging Israel at that time. She would sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go to her for judgment. One day she sent for Barak son of Abinoam, who lived in Kedesh in the land of Naphtali. She said to him, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: Call out 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun at Mount Tabor. And I will call out Sisera, commander of Jabin’s army, along with his chariots and warriors, to the Kishon River. There I will give you victory over him.”
Barak told her, “I will go, but only if you go with me.”
“Very well,” she replied, “I will go with you. But you will receive no honor in this venture, for the Lord’s victory over Sisera will be at the hands of a woman.”
—Judges 4:4-9 (NLT)
A pastor almost ruined the story for me once. His take was that Deborah was allowed to lead the fight only because the man wouldn’t. I never heard it preached that Barak just might have respected her leadership abilities—she was Israel’s judge, after all. Instead, it was taught as a bad thing, that a woman would dare to lead so many men. Yet she succedded in leading them to victory, and, as much as I searched the Scriptures, I never found words—inspired or otherwise—that dammed her for daring to do so.
Jael also took up the battle cry and bludgeoned King Sisera to death. The more I searched the Scriptures for the denouncement of women who dared to assume leadership roles, the more alive the pages became with examples of women who had made a difference in the history of Christianity and of the world.
There were the daughters of Zelophehad (Num 26:33; 27:1-11; 36:1-12; Josh 17:3-6), who were responsible for changing inheritance laws in Israel. Then there were the daughters of Job, who received an inheritance equal to their brothers, so that they only had to marry if they wanted to. Rahab was the town whore who, when she acted outside of the dictates of the male leaders in her community, became an ancestor of Christ (Joshua 2:1, 3:6:17-25; Matthew 1:5; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25).
Then there’s the New Testament. Enter Jesus, who, bif I’m reading it right, seems to encourage feminism. He has an unsupervised conversation with a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) at a time when it was considered taboo for any woman to talk to any man who wasn’t her family. Not only that, her conversation with Jesus is the longest one-on-one dialogue recorded in the Gospels. She not only picks a theological fight with Jesus, Jesus is actually interested in what she has to say. Then, when she recognizes who Jesus actually is, she becomes the first missionary and her village her congregation.
There are also the wealthy women who supported Christ’s earthly ministry, as well as Mary Magdalene, who is often found alongside the disciples, listening, learning, and living a forgiven life. And there was Mary, who left the housework and sat at Jesus’s feet to be educated (like a man), and he praised her for making the choice to do so.
Let’s not forget about Phoebe the deacon (Rom 16:1-2), and Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3, 18-19, 24-26; Rom 16:3-5; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19). She and her husband served churches in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome. They were tentmakers like Paul, working together on their trade and in the church. Paul considered both of them coworkers with him in the gospel.
The Bible boasts of page after page of women with stand-alone value. Whether they are married or not, whether they are leading armies or baking bread, it seems that God was interested in women as just as much as men. God wanted to hear what they had to say, wanted to speak to them, and opened the door for them to speak. Speaking of bread, when Jesus was asked what the kingdom of heaven was like, he used the illustration of a woman baking bread:
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”
—Matthew 13:33 (NLT)
In a time when women needed men to speak for them, Jesus not only include them in the conversation, he spoke to them in a way that they could understand. How is it then that far too many churches read the Bible and deduce that women should be subservient to men?
Jean Bonin is an aggrieved Kingdom dweller who discovered writing as therapy at a young age.