The early evangelicals were the first to provide a biblical foundation for women’s leadership in church and society, though many evangelicals today have abandoned the hard-won gains for women’s leadership made by their ancestors. Those who advance women’s liberation and those who would deny it both turn to Scripture for support.
It was the Bible that drove the early evangelicals in their work as suffragists, abolitionists, and as missionaries. They were the first to develop a whole-Bible approach to their advocacy of ethnic and gender equality. While some today believe women can lead a country but not a church, the Bible consistently celebrates women like Deborah whose leadership as a judge and also a prophet influenced all of Israel. In fact, Israel refused to go into battle without her (Judg. 4:6-9)! Prophets as a group held positions of leadership over all God’s people. Whereas priests petitioned God on behalf of the people, God used prophets to guide the covenant community—especially the priests and kings. Because of this, prophets like Deborah and Huldah brought leadership, exhortation, and correction to the highest levels—to Israel’s kings, priests, and also other prophets. Deborah led Israel’s civil and religious leaders!
Huldah is another example of a female prophet whose leadership brought sweeping reform, both religiously and socially. When the Book of the Law was discovered (2 Chron. 34:14-33, 2 Kings 22), King Josiah (622 B.C.) and his committee sought Huldah’s advice, rather than Zephaniah’s or Jeremiah’s, both of whom were prophets during this time. Huldah’s exhortation to obey the Torah shaped Israel for nearly 1000 years.
And, there is more! Consider the leadership of the business woman mentioned in Proverbs 31, or female warriors like Jael and Deborah, or the women who were leaders at the city gates of Jerusalem. The legacy of women’s leadership carries forward into the early Christian community. Here we find women house church leaders like Nympha (Acts 16:13-15, 40), Lydia (Acts 16:13-15, 40), Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11), Apphia (Philem. 1:2), the Elect Lady (2 John 1:10) and Priscilla (Acts 18:2, 18-19, 26, Rom. 16:3, 1 Corin. 16:19, 1 Tim. 4:19). There was also Junia—an apostle (Rom. 16:7), and Phoebe a deacon (Rom. 16:1), both of whom held positions of prominent leadership.
Given the patriarchal culture of the ancient world, it is revolutionary that Scripture celebrates women leading Israel’s army; judging disputes; advising Israel’s prophets, priests, and kings; and serving as apostles, deacons and house-church leaders. God delights in using whomever God wishes despite the cultural expectations of ancient or modern people. Scripture provides no refuge to those who wish to grant women opportunities for leadership in the secular sphere while excluding them from leadership in the spiritual sphere. Just as the gifts of leadership are not restricted by gender, neither are the spheres in which these gifts are used—the secular or spiritual, as biblical history illustrates.