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Published Date: June 5, 2006

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Left-Handed Ministry

I believe that left-handed people are fully capable and called by God for ministry. I believe left-handed people can serve in ordained ministry or any other capacity, just as right-handed people can. However, some oppose left-handers. They believe that God made left- and right-handers equal in essence only, while denying them access to certain vocations. Ordained ministry is for the right-handers only, as the claim goes. Believe it or not, the Bible does portray left-handers in ministry. Take Judges 3:15: “Again the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer — Ehud, a left-handed man…” I’m guessing you have never heard of Ehud, I know I hadn’t until I met a few left-handers trying to respond to their calling….

I grew up in a Lutheran church of the ELCA. My mother was involved in the local church ministry and in other city-wide ministries. I was raised to believe in the full equality of men and women in every aspect of ministry. Why would I question the role of women when many capable, called, and gifted women (including my mother) were doing God’s work all around me?

Returning to Ehud, our token left-hander, I should tell you that he helped bring freedom to the Israelites. They had been under the authority of Moab for 18 years. Sure, they were disobedient in the sight of the Lord, but they were fed up with being punished. They had learned their lesson this time, and they wanted God to know! So they cried out for deliverance. God answered their call by sending Ehud, the promised deliverer. But how could a left-hander get rid of that oppressive Moab and their pesky King Eglon?

When I started attending Bethel University, I met Christians who thought, lived, and acted like me in many ways. It was refreshing to be in a community of people who cared about serving Christ and pursuing an education at an institution that integrated faith and learning. But I also found disagreement on the issues of women in ministry from some of my fellow students. Some young men were against women in ministry, claiming the Bible limited women’s roles. Some young women believed this too—even some of the women studying in the biblical and theological studies department told themselves that they could never be pastors despite their gifts in theological thinking and leadership. Suddenly, I needed a defense for what I took for granted. How does the Bible support women in ministry?

Ehud decided to present a tribute to the Moabite king, who was of course happy to receive a gift. However, the narrator reveals something to readers that King Eglon didn’t know. Ehud made a double-edged dagger and fastened it to his right thigh under his clothing. After presenting the king with the tribute, and thereby earning his favor, Ehud told him that he had a secret message. Now, if there’s anything kings like more than tributes, it’s probably secret messages. And Ehud had a surprising one….

I devoted my time to studying refutations of complementarian arguments. I even enrolled in an class that explored gender and the Bible, where I was first exposed to the ministry of CBE. My professor offered the exegetical arguments that supported both the egalitarian and the complementarian view. Unfortunately, many dismissed her interpretation as “biased.” But I appreciated the logic of her points based on the biblical text. I read more books, found resources online, and even memorized responses to complementarian claims. I became very good at shooting down arguments that opposed women in ministry. But I forgot something along the way….

Ehud requested privacy so he could share his secret message with the king. The king, eager to receive this revelation, dismissed all the servants and guards. “I have a message from God for you,” declared Ehud, making it all the more juicy. Craving the disclosure, the king stood up. Just then, Ehud reached with his left-hand across to his right thigh and unsheathed the message. He quickly plunged the sword into the king, so deeply in fact, that the handle even got lost in the mass of flesh. (The Bible is a little more explicit, but the curious can read it for themselves in Judges 3:20ff.) Since the servants were waiting outside, Ehud needed to slip out carefully. The Israelites had to respond, and quickly, before the Moabites consolidated power….

What I forgot was my experience. I had forgotten that to me — and many others in the global church — the issue of women in ministry, and even leadership, was not contested biblically. My experience had led me to the knowledge that women can be fully called by God to serve in any capacity. I focused on responding through argument. This approach is important, but it’s not exhaustive. I failed to invite my complementarian friends to experience the powerful way God was using women’s leadership in the church. Maybe they would have written off such experiences the same way they dismissed the so-called “bias” of a brilliant — and female — professor….

After Ehud off-ed King Eglon, he snuck away without the servants noticing. When they finally decided to enter, they found their king slain. Ehud returned to Israel and blew his trumpet to prepare the army. “Could Ehud have been a “deliverer” for Israel if he were right-handed?” many wonder. Most of the left-handed supporters argue that the Bible clearly shows the full potential and calling of those born left-handed. The guards would have frisked the left leg, where right-handers would have hidden weapons. So only a left-hander could have fulfilled God’s will. Right-handed supporters are quick to respond that God only used a left-hander in that particular situation because no right-hander was available. “The left-handers are always God’s second choice,” they claim. Doesn’t such a debate forget that God used Ehud, regardless of whether he was the first or second choice?

Entering seminary at Princeton, I encountered less resistance to women in ministry. Considering that just under half of my peers are women, I would hope that everyone can see the potential of these women. They are called and capable, and perhaps even over-qualified for many ministry positions. However, even if many seminaries, like Princeton, educate nearly equal numbers of men and women, the struggle in the church remains. Due to the theological restrictions of women in many denominations, people are not given the opportunity to experience the leadership of these seminary-educated women.

Israel experienced 80 years of peace after their victory over Moab (v. 30). But as most biblical stories demonstrate, the Israelites soon forgot their deliverance. Canaan became the new oppressors after the death of Ehud; Israel cried out again to God and God brought a deliverer: the prophet Deborah. She commanded Barak to assemble ten thousand men and led them into battle against Sisera, the commander of the army of Canaan. He replied that he would only go if Deborah would go also. Upon consenting, Deborah also prophesied some- thing else: “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”

In many ways, Israel’s experience with women leaders is similar to my own. The narrative does not find Barak questioning Deborah on grounds of gender. Rather, he knows she is one who brings the Word of God. His obedience does not make him weak or submissive to women, but to God. It is God who provided the orders and the deliverance. The glory being given to a woman serves to teach both Barak and Deborah that the glory of victory is not their own, but God’s. Whether it is women or men in leadership, all are servants of God. A leader is only capable in the ministry of the church as long as they are willing to submit themselves to God’s Word. And as the Bible teaches us, both women and men have shared in that very capacity.

God uses people who are right-handed and left-handed. God uses men and women. God doesn’t use women as a second choice any more than God doesn’t use left-handers as a second choice. Admittedly, there are no such groups as the left-handers and the right-handers, because it is a little silly to think that being left- handed could ever discredit someone’s ministry. Being left-handed is circumstantial, like being a woman, and that alone will not dictate the extent to which God is able to work in and through someone. What our academic arguments might lose sight of is the simple and empirical evidence: we have women pastors, and women serving in all other areas of ministry. While we can argue back and forth about what is biblical, we could also allow ourselves to experience the powerful ways in which God is already using women in the church today.