Four Godly Role Models

Anointed Leadership

If the on-going discussion about the role of women in leadership too often seems to ring hollow and trite, it may be because there is more to the issue and its implications for the Church than mere slogans and simplifications.

The proof is in the pages of the Bible where a look at women in leadership roles in the Old Testament – even before Christ lauded Mary of Bethany for her countercultural approach to God – reveals a remarkable variety of styles and approaches. What is revealed in the lives of judge and warrior Deborah or intercessor and infl uencer Esther? What can be learned about negotiation from Abigail or about the power of submission from Sarah? All add up to vivid role models of anointed women for whom leadership was simply never an issue.

Deborah

As found in Judges, chapter fi ve, the Song of Deborah is one of the oldest passages of Scripture. It sheds intriguing light on ancient attitudes about the authority of women. In a government where God was King and Lawmaker, Deborah was ‘the’ judge, charged with interpreting the law. She was also a prophetess, the feminine of the word used to describe Isaiah and Jeremiah. Beyond her authority and position, her boldness and courage set Deborah apart as a biblical role model. At a time of acute danger for Israel, Deborah provided guidance, encouragement and, ultimately, thanksgiving for a great military victory over the enemy.

She hardly accomplished these daunting tasks by being demur and retiring. Accustomed to dispensing justice as she sat under her tree on Mount Ephraim, Deborah knew how to use her authority to get the job done. It was a can-do spirit that took charge when she appointed Barak to head the army and delivered the word of the Lord that he should lead them to war. But Barak wouldn’t budge unless Deborah went with him. She agreed but added, chiding him for his reluctance: “the honor will not be yours, for the Lord shall hand Sisera (the opposing leader) to the a woman” (Judges 4:9 NIV).

Deborah revealed the true depth of her gift for leading. With victory, she gave thanks to the Lord for avenging Israel, worshiping him in song. At once a hymn of deliverance and an exhortation to her people, the Song of Deborah is also a well-timed commendation to her commander in chief, Barak. It is Deborah’s graciousness that exemplifi es her ability to motivate and inspire.

The story of the audacious, proactive, and powerfully self-assured Deborah provides an encouraging example for women who too often feel that assuming a leadership role comes at the cost of their femininity. As the prophetess herself declared clared in her ancient ode, “Awake Deborah and utter a song!” For many women, God’s summons to bold and decisive leadership may sound very much like a wake-up call.

Esther

Worlds away from the empowering Deborah, Esther demonstrates an altogether different picture of a woman assuming the role of leadership. What her story in the Book of Esther reveals is that it is often only in the act of obedience that true leadership qualities emerge.

Esther was taken captive by a Persian King and eventually made his queen. It was in the midst of lavish luxury and privilege that Esther learned of the plight of her people, threatened with utter extinction by a law engineered by a close associate of the King. Esther was moved both by compassion for God’s people and an active intercessory spirit to step into the breech.

After prayer and fasting she devised a strategy, one fraught with great danger and personal risk, to expose the architect of the evil plan against her people. As the story unfolds we see the young queen struggling to answer God’s call. It is an intimate look into the heart of a woman, but is it also a gripping account of how she used her head to win the day.

Esther’s intervention with the King depended on a subtle strategy executed in a murderous atmosphere of court intrigue. Her ability to alter the course of events and save the Jews depended on an ability to understand human nature, speak the truth at moments of maximum effectiveness, and finally, a skill at working behind the scenes against her adversaries for the purpose to which God had called her.

The saga of Esther also demonstrates how prayer, godly wisdom, diplomacy, persuasion and persistence are invaluable tools for women leaders. But it is the details of this remarkable young woman’s emerging faith, as it was tried and tested in a life threatening situation, that speaks most clearly to the “unqualified” tag too many women hang on their leadership aspirations. For Esther, as much as for any woman who hears a call on her life, God’s gift made a way, even as, in the process, He raised up a servant willing to risk all through her obedience.

Abigail

The Old Testament heroine Abigail presents yet another nuanced and richly revealing portrait of a woman in leadership. The first thing we learn about Abigail in I Samuel: 25 is that she was a woman of “good understanding,” exactly the quality she will need to defuse a potential bloodbath.

Yet Abigail also has her own issues. She is married, we are told, to Nabal who was “evil in all his ways,” and had mortally insulted David. He denied provisions to David, who had faithfully watched over his sheep and servants, while they were in the wilderness. Abigail did not accept actions or decisions, even by her husband, that were not just and would lead to dire consequences for her household. Knowing David was purposing to revenge her husband’s affront, Abigail went with a peace offering and counseled Davidagainst shedding blood or acting in a way that would stain his own reputation and harm his rule when he became King.

It took all of Abigail’s persuasive powers to dissuade David from slaughtering her husband and his men, and her petition to the angry young warrior, even then on the run from Saul, points out how “good understanding” is a leadership quality that can cut through the most intractable problem. 

Abigail also, in intercessory fashion, identified with the trespass of her husband and asked forgiveness. By giving up her right to proclaim innocence, by takingon the burden of responsibility in the interests of reconciliation, Abigail’s leadership model is one of humility.

It is Abigail’s spirit of urgency, her passion for reconciliation, that are so evident in her pleas to David, along with her mediating skills and her innate insight into the hearts of men. Abigail’s understanding is indeed “good” and she has the confidence to express it clearly and persuasively. Abigail is the consummatediplomat, seeking common ground and facilitating compromise. So impressive were her skills and so attractive were her personal attributes, David himself made Abigail his wife after her husband’s timelydeath.

Sarah

By far one of the most familiar and beloved female figures in Scripture, the leadership modeled by the matriarch Sarah, is among both the most effective and the least understood. Sarah’s strength was the direct result of her surrender, a willingness to acknowledge and honor God’s purpose, and a lifetime of experience in putting that principle to practice. Sarah was willing to leave all she knew to follow her husband who was following God.

Living with Abraham was certainly no walk in the park: it was more like a walk across the desert as she followed him to a new land that God had promised. God was guiding her husband and it was her place to follow. In fear he sold her into a harem and pretended to be her brother to keep from getting killed because of her beauty. 

Sarah was unselfish. We see a glimpse of her heart when she gives her handmaiden Hagar to her husband in hopes she would bear the child Sarah could not.But it was the presumption of her actions that eventually taught her to look and listen for God in all things. 

When Sarah heard the Lord’s promise of offspring, as numerous as the stars, at the age of 90+, she could only laugh. Whether she was reacting with skepticism or delight is open to interpretation, but it was through her willingness to be a vessel of God’s plan, no matter how unlikely it sounded, that Sarah’s pattern to surrendered leadership comes into sharp relief. “Through faith she received the strength to conceive, though past childbearing age and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who hadpromised”(Hebrews 11:11).Although Sarah is cited in 1 Peter3:6 as an example of obedience, she was no shrinking violet. When she saw Ishmael, Abraham’s son by her maid Hagar mock Isaac, her son and God’s child of promise, she insisted that Abraham throw him out.

By her example, Sarah has showncountless women that in the everydayroles they fulfill for family and community, and by the patience and wisdom that comes from a life lived in surrender, leaders are shaped and sent out. 

Deborah, Esther, Abigail and Sarah: four examples of diverse and distinctive leadership styles. These four biblical role models, nevertheless, share a characteristic common to all great leaders, male and female: they heard God’s call and they answered it.