The presidential elections last year provided a unique opportunity to observe the gains women have made politically in the United States. While the Republicans selected a female vice-presidential nominee, the Democrats nearly nominated a woman as their presidential candidate. Both parties made history.
But for those of us steeped in the history of early egalitarians, the political prominence women enjoy today can be understood as a direct extension of the gains earned for women by early evangelicals and their biblical support for women’s suffrage. Christians like A.J. Gordon, Frances Willard, Sojourner Truth, and others argued more than one hundred years ago that God gives gifts of leadership not because of gender, education, skin color, or class, but because of God’s own choosing. Because of this insight, the early evangelicals advanced some of the most sweeping social reforms in all of history, including women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery.
But what about our friends who believe that God’s plan is that only men should hold positions of leadership? Can a person with these convictions in good conscience vote for women in high political office? Several years ago, a prominent theologian presented his case for male leadership in the church and the home. During the question portion of his lecture, a woman raised her hand and asked why he would limit women’s authority only in the church and home? Why not also insist upon male authority in all of society as well? Her question was aimed at a core inconsistency in his position. After all, if God really intends for men, rather than women, to be “heads” or “leaders,” then it is only logical that women should not hold any positions of leadership over men, in any sphere. How did this particular theologian respond?
He said he was having a hard enough time keeping women submissive in the home and church, never mind society — secular professions. His remark was intended to be humorous, and while many chuckled, his implication was clear. Because he maintains a male-only model of leadership, he does not wish to grant women positions of leadership over men, at any time, in any situation. To be consistent, if you hold this patriarchal view, women should be excluded from any leadership over men in any field including medicine, science, finance, business, education, and so on. Of course, to uphold this view, you will need to overlook many passages in Scripture that show how women had God’s blessing in their service in faith communities, as well as in secular fields.
Consider Deborah, who served Israel as a prophet and judge. Deborah held court under the palm of Deborah in the hill country of Ephraim. The Israelites — both men and women — appealed to her authority as a judge, and she made binding decisions regarding their disputes (Judg. 4:4-5). Deborah’s leadership as a judge and prophet influenced all of Israel. As a prophet, Deborah offered leadership over God’s covenant people. Whereas priests pleaded on behalf of the people to God, prophets were used by God to guide the covenant community — especially the priests and kings. Because of this, prophets like Deborah brought leadership, exhortation, and correction to the highest levels of Israel’s leaders. What is more, Israel refused to go into battle without her (Judg. 4:6-9), again underscoring the respect her community held for her leadership.
Like Deborah, Huldah was a female prophet who had the respect of all of Israel. During the reign of King Josiah, when the book of the law was discovered (2 Chron. 34:14-33, 2 Kings 22), King Josiah (622 BCE) and his committee went directly to Huldah for advice, rather than to either Zephaniah or Jeremiah — both of whom were prophets during this time. Huldah’s exhortation to obey the Torah led to some of the most sweeping reforms in Israel’s history for nearly 1,000 years. If this isn’t both spiritual and societal leadership, I don’t know what is!
And there is more! Consider the leadership of women like Rahab, Jael, Miriam, Ruth, Esther, and the women who were leaders at the city gates of Jerusalem. Given the patriarchal culture of the times, the fact that there were women leading Israel’s army; judging disputes; exhorting and advising Israel’s prophets, priests, and kings; declaring the ways of God to the people; and bringing fruitful, badly needed reforms reveals that God placed women in positions of leading secular leaders (kings) and also religious leaders (priests). Scripture makes clear that God delights in using whomever he wishes, despite the gender prejudice of ancient or modern people. Because prophets and judges influenced all of Israel, women like Deborah held authority and brought guidance to the life of God’s people and to their leaders.
While some believe a woman can lead a country but not a church, egalitarian evangelicals have never made the distinction between women’s leadership in the secular world and women’s equal service in the church. Why not? Because Scripture does not make such distinctions. Why would anyone want a world in which all God-given talents are not given wide and deep opportunities for service — in churches and also in secular spheres?