What the example of Deborah reveals about gender authority

"Little Debbie" or Powerful Prophet?

The twenty-something man with spiky hair and trendy, too-tight jeans strummed his guitar as he spoke. “See, I’m the spiritual leader of our home, the sole provider for my wife and children…”

I’ll admit, I was surprised to hear this message coming from stage during a Christian rock concert, an outreach event put on by a local church. I couldn’t help but wonder what the singer hoped his comment would accomplish, especially since he was speaking primarily to unmarried teens and the older, dual-income parents chaperoning them. I shifted in my seat and glanced at my friend, who had just wrapped up a sixty-hour week that allowed her husband to keep his youth pastor position at the church hosting the event—a job that had great eternal benefits, but rather anemic financial ones. Seriously? This singer was going there?

Mercifully, the moment passed, and he got back to banging out a U2-meets-Lincoln-Brewster-inspired mashup of southern gospel hymns. His out-of-place plug for male headship stuck with me, but no one else seemed fazed by his comment, probably because the worldview he promoted was so common—men are the spiritual leaders and financial providers, which makes women, by definition, financial and spiritual dependants. It is God’s ideal arrangement for the family and the church, according to many people, never mind that fewer and fewer Christian families fit within that mold. 

As women have gained increased influence in society, and as Bible scholars offer a consistent egalitarian interpretation of Scripture, gender traditionalists have had to work harder and more creatively to justify the subordination of women within the church and family—even to themselves. And work they have! One thousand years ago, theologians conjectured that women were morally defective (even more so than men), and needed to be controlled. More than one hundred years ago, the prevailing view was that women were the weaker sex, and needed guidance and protection. The current trend is an attempt to redefine woman­hood itself, to re­cast cultural values regarding femininity as God’s perfect design for women. It’s not that women are morally inferior to men, or that they are weak and need to be guided by someone stronger and smarter; it’s that they’re sweet, nurturing, beautiful creatures whose reason for existence is to make everything lovely for their husbands, their children, and everyone around them. It’s a perfect pitch for women living in a materialistic, image-focused society, who cut their whitened teeth on Seventeen Magazine and flip on HGTV when they’re tired, depressed, lonely, or bored. Better Homes and Gardens and the Bible—together at last!

As unbiblical as those lines of reason­ing are, the question remains: How do we understand verses like 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man”? For Christians who view the Bible as their sole and ultimate authority, the question is not whether God inspired Paul to write those words, but whether they were specific instructions for the original recipients about how to follow God in their cultural context, or universal mandates that need to be followed today.

To answer that question, we need to pull out the wide-angle lens and look at a passage like this in the context of the rest of Scripture. Human ethics change with the times, and are notoriously situational. There are, however, no exceptions to God’s perfect, unchanging principles. 

So, were there exceptions to the instructions Paul gave to Timothy? Has it ever been okay for women to be in authority over men, or to teach and proclaim God’s word to males?

The answer, of course, is yes. 

The most obvious example of female authority is Deborah, the famous prophet and judge, who led God’s people through battle with their Canaanite oppressors and into forty years of peace. Not bad for a girl. Not bad for anyone. 

It seems that whenever Deborah comes up, comple­men­tarians try to brush her off as a second-string leader God resorted to because he couldn’t find a man for the job—never mind the fact that the Bible doesn’t say that, and never mind that this idea takes a rather low view of the sovereignty of God. But even if the men of Israel were as woefully unworthy as “Deborah-demoters” make them out to be, and even if God had no choice but to reluctantly fall back on Deborah (which is preposterous!), the circumstances through which she assumed authority are irrelevant. If God was opposed to women being in positions of spiritual and civic authority over men, he would not have put Deborah in a position of authority over men, period. God will not break his own laws, violate his own standards, or go against his own convictions, just because some guys are being goof-offs.

Others try to soften up the bold, confident prophetess, to melt down her strong personality and recast her in the image of Donna Reed doing jury duty. Deborah is too potent for their tastes—they prefer “Little Debbies,” sweet, soft women whose words and actions are easy to swallow and conform to predictable factory specifications. Consider this excerpt from Becoming: The Devotional Bible for Women, which pairs Judges 4 and 5 with a pretty aquamarine devotional titled “Homemaker and Soldier?” 

The thing I love most about Deborah is that she was married. Although she was judge of Israel, she still had wifely duties to fulfill and a man that needed her as a companion and desired her as a lover. We can be strong and wise women with leadership skills that are powerful, yet submissive in spirit to the Lord and especially our husbands.

Huh? 

First of all, “homemaker” hardly seems like an honest way to describe a woman responsible for leading a nation, unless you have an awfully broad definition of “home.” I’ve never heard politicians Hillary Clinton or Condolezza Rice referred to as homemakers. Besides, I seriously doubt that Deborah was going home after a hard day of judging Israel to whip up a nice lamb stew for her hubby, tidy up the kitchen, get the kids in the tub, and then unwind with a few board games before collapsing, exhausted, into bed. I could be wrong, but hopefully the woman had a little domestic support!

Second, while it’s nice that Deborah had a sweetheart to go home to, the thing I really love about her is that God used her to deliver the Israelites from Sisera’s cruelty. Her story was included in the Bible because of her role as a leader and liberator, not because of her role as a wife. That may be hard to accept for those who believe that a woman’s ultimate role is that of wife and mother, especially if they have made sacrificial, life-altering decisions to conform their lives to the homemaker track. But “submissive homemaker” is simply not a label we can apply to Deborah with any biblical integrity. 

And lastly, why would Deborah be “especially” submissive to her husband, over and above her previously mentioned submission to God? It may have been a linguistic slip, but I suspect that it reveals something about the worldview underlying the devotional, a mindset derived from a not-so-subtle twisting of Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit yourself unto your own husband, as unto the Lord” (KJV).

Now, this passage in Ephesians doesn’t mean that women should consider the voice of her husband on par with the voice of God, but many people teach that it does—that the “spiritual authority” a husband wields over his wife is absolute, even overriding God’s, since her husband is “as Christ” to her. Proponents of this extreme view claim that even if a husband asks his wife to do something immoral, such as signing fraudulent documents or not intervening when he abuses the children, the wife is biblically obligated to comply. A woman is assured that as long as she obeys God through submitting to her husband, she will not be held responsible before God for those actions (or lack thereof), since she is under her husband’s headship and “spiritual authority.”

As outrageous as it sounds, this horrific misinterpretation of Scripture is surprisingly widespread and is often used by abusers to manipulate people they claim are under their “spiritual authority”: their wives, children, congregations, or anyone else below them on the world’s totem pole. Obviously, that is a gross twisting of God’s Word and intent, and reveals a wrong-headed view of spiritual authority.

The incredible thing about spiritual authority is that it really has nothing to do with us at all—it’s God’s work in us and through us that provides us with the spiritual authority we need to do the things God has called us to do—the spiritual firepower, if you will. Read through the Bible, and you’ll see that the spiritual authority God lends people is very functional, for the purpose of equipping them to carry out their calling, for God’s glory, not their own. In fact, God took great pains to make it clear that it was his power working through people like Deborah, Moses, David, and Paul to accomplish his purposes in the world, not any inherent powers that had been unconditionally ascribed to them because of their gender, ethnicity, social status, or even their unique gifts and abilities.

As the body of Christ, it is crucial that we pay close attention to the ways in which God is working in and through the people around us; that we are humble, gentle, and patient with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and respectful of the callings God has placed on their lives—whether they are a competent female judge with a nation to guide, a spiky-haired complementarian with a golden voice and an incredible heart for youth, or a faithful, hardworking mother taking overtime so her husband can stay in his ministry position. That’s what Christian community is all about—building one another up in love, and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, our one true Head.