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Published Date: March 5, 2005

Published Date: March 5, 2005

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Standing before Moses: Insights from the Daughters of Zelophehad on Leading Change

A few years ago, the leaders of a major denomination struggled with the issue of women in their executive leadership ranks. Women could be ordained as pastors but could not ascend to the next level of clergy leadership, District Elder. Through the years more women began to call for a shattering of the “stained-glass ceiling”1 that prevented them from assuming key decision-making roles. Finally, at the denomination’s annual convention of clergy, a series of policy resolutions were debated. Many of the current leaders advocated that women should be elevated to the next level of leadership but must be given a title other than District Elder. Two women delegates were given permission to address the Board of Directors. These two women boldly represented the sentiments of a vast number of women of this denomination.

They passionately and clearly set forth their appeal. In essence, they argued: “This denomination has a grand history of supporting women in ministry, having ordained women into ministry from its inception nearly one hundred years ago. We have failed to continue our legacy. Women comprise over seventy-five percent of the membership of our churches, yet they are not represented adequately in the top leadership ranks. Limiting their executive leadership presence is a type of sacral apartheid and giving them a separate title is discriminatory.”

In speaking up, these daughters of destiny embodied the courage and passion of five women in ancient Israel known as the Daughters of Zelophehad, who helped to shape the destiny of Israel. We do not often hear about the Daughters of Zelophehad, but they were important women in their community of faith. Their story provides a biblical framework for understanding how the women of one denomination helped to change their leadership system, and thus encourages more of us to work for gender equality in leadership.

A New Generation of Leaders

We first read about Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad, in Numbers 26 where they are included in the genealogy of the Israelites. God had commanded Moses to take a census of the congregation because the first generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt died in the wilderness without reaching their destination, Canaan. God was preparing the new generation to enter into that Promised Land, and the Daughters of Zelophehad were part of this group. Their place in the genealogy indicates their connection and significance to this faith community. 

At the convention where the denomination struggled with the issue of gender and leadership, a great number of women knew it was time for women’s full inclusion. Traditional gendered understandings of the titles “elder,” “district elder,” and “bishop” prevented many of the male leaders of this denomination from granting women full leadership inclusion. 

The founders of this denomination cited the Apostle Paul’s guidelines “to ordain elders in every city…if any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children, not accused of riot or unruly” (Titus 1:5–6 KJV) as their reason for excluding women the position of Elder. Paul’s qualifications seemed to indicate that Elders were to be men, yet these early church leaders also supported women’s call to ministry. They attempted to resolve this paradox by creating a type of “dual sex system”2 in which ordained men were given the title Elder, and women in ministry were given the title Evangelist or Pastor. Under this system, a woman could never officially rise to the leadership rank of District Elder or Bishop.

As times and perspectives changed, more of the leaders began to argue that New Testament women who served the church as overseers of local congregations—such as Priscilla, who led along with her husband, Aquila (Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Rom. 18:18; 16:3, 2; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19)—were the equivalent of Elders. They also argued that Paul instructed that male Elders must be the husband of one wife because issues of divorce and marital fidelity were more prevalent among men in Greek cities such as Ephesus.3 Still others pointed out that in Romans 16:7, Paul referenced a woman named Junia as being outstanding or notable among the apostles,4 thus establishing the New Testament precedent for women’s leadership at the highest levels of the church. Not a few of the delegates felt the issue was also about resistance to change, people wanting to preserve the status quo, to keep things “as they have always been.”

Challenging the Status Quo

People in any system who resist change by protecting their interests are known as the “old guard.” This title has nothing to do with the age of the leaders but with their mindset and their resolve to protect the old ways of doing things—in spite of mounting evidence for change. 

The women who challenged the status quo of this particular denomination wanted to empower more women to live out and follow their leadership call. As these contemporary Daughters of Zelophehad spoke out, the Board and the entire convention could not help but hear the underlying call for justice. The question became, how would they respond?

When the ancient Daughters of Zelophehad raised their voices, the Israelite men listened. The Israelite culture in which they lived was embedded with rules that excluded women. Just one example was the rule about who was—and who was not— permitted to inherit property. The inheritance laws dictated that only men could own property and, upon a man’s death, his sons would inherit it. Inheritance was a critical, inalienable right that passed from father to sons. A man’s name was continued not just in the genealogy, but also through land and property ownership. The case of the Daughters of Zelophehad presented an interesting dilemma not quite covered by the existing laws and customs: What if a man died and left only daughters?

Would his family name disappear from the rolls of land ownership? These were the important issues raised by the Daughters of Zelophehad on behalf of their father’s name. Their father had died, and they were the only survivors. The question was what would happen to their family name and property.

The process they used to raise the issue of inheritance for daughters is enlightening. First, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah joined together to approach the existing all-male leadership. They operated in unity and spoke with one voice. Next, the Daughters of Zelophehad laid out the merits of their claim. They explained who their father was, reminding the leaders that Zelophehad had done nothing worthy of having his inheritance stripped. They argued that his name should not be removed from his clan simply because he gave birth to daughters. Their position was that their father’s property rightfully belonged to them.

The Daughters of Zelophehad could have remained silent and let the tradition of passingproperty on to sons continue. Yet in the name of their father they decided to speak out about injustice and try to change the existing state of affairs. They remind us of the importance of challenging the status quo by working within the system and appealing to the values that already exist in the community.

Consequently, women of the denomination which struggled with female leadership informally began rallying together following in the footsteps of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They prayed. They discussed the issue among themselves. Some researched, while others continued to speak up at their conventions. A few organized and participated in a forum to educate other members of the denomination on the issues of gender equality. Others wrote articles on women and leadership. In different ways, these church women “stood before Moses”—men in leadership who had the power to change the rules.

The Theology of Gender Justice

Moses was the leader of Zelophehad’s community at the time, and along with “the priest, the leaders, and the entire congregation” he stood at the “entrance of the tent of meeting” to hear the Daughters’ request (Num. 27:2 NRSV). Can you imagine the courage it took for these women to stand before this daunting group? Fortunately, after listening to the Daughters’ appeal, Moses “brought their case before the Lord” (Num. 27:5 NRSV). Womanist theologian Delores Williams states, “When Moses takes the matter to God, the sisters’ request becomes a theological issue.”5 Isn’t the issue of women’s leadership in today’s communities of faith more than a sociological or civil rights issue? Isn’t it also a theological issue? Claiming leadership is not clamoring after titles, as some have suggested, but rather a focused pursuit of a God-given calling that structural and organizational barriers must not limit.

Wise is the leader who takes the issues to God in prayer. When autocratic leaders try to make decisions with no input from people, or no spiritual guidance, they in essence begin to play god. They reinforce a rigid system that protects their own interest and power as leaders. Spiritually sensitive leaders are open to change.

The Daughters of Zelophehad took a stance that flew in the face of all their tradition. They were willing to confront something they saw as unjust. They found the courage to challenge the existing laws of inheritance in a culture ridden with complicated rules that recognized only men. They became catalysts for change not only for themselves, but also on behalf of all women.

And God moved Moses to rule in favor of the women. The Lord said to Moses, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and turn their father’s inheritance over to them” (Num. 27:7 NIV). God gave Moses a plan to take before the Israelites, a plan that was to change their inheritance laws and serve as a precedent in case law for generations to come, including our own.

On that fateful day when the divided denomination voted, God moved the convention delegates to support the women. They voted to have the Board figure out a way for women to be elevated to the higher offices and be given the same title as men. What the women of this denomination were saying was right. The Board was to report back the next year with a plan to equitably elevate women to the next level of leadership and forever shatter the artificial barrier that had prevented them from pursuing their God-ordained leadership potential.

And so it was, a year later, again after much debate, the voices of women prevailed. The delegates of the convention voted to grant to women the title District Elder, with all corresponding responsibilities, rights, and privileges, and to give Diocesan Bishops the right to elevate women to that office at their discretion.

The Ripple Effect of Change

Any change in a system ripples through the system and creates the potential for more change. After Moses changed Israel’s inheritance laws, the tribal leaders of Manasseh foresaw a problem with the new ruling, and they proposed another change. They realized that if a woman received her inheritance and then married into another tribe, the inheritance would go with them to the new tribe. The tribal leaders wanted Moses to do something to prevent this economic loss to their own tribe.

Just when the women were granted the rights of inheritance, marital custom in their patriarchal system created conflicts that might erode the very right for which the Daughters had advocated! Even with the Daughters of Zelophehad, one step forward seemed like two steps backward.

Moses struggled with accommodating women’s rights and ensuring stability in the community. The compromise Moses made was to maintain that the daughters could own land, as long as they married within their tribe. This passage cannot be used to justify contemporary marital selection, but it does affirm the process and outcomes that ancient women ultimately took to secure their rights to inherit a piece of the Promised Land.

In fact, their actions alert women today of the necessity of properly preparing for the challenges that may come, if the change for which they advocate is not properly implemented. Here are some things that we contemporary Daughters of Zelophehad need to consider as we continue to stand before Moses and work for change within our communities of faith.

Build a network of change agents

Just as the five Daughters of Zelophehad together approached the leadership of Israel, so must the women of churches, denominations, or religious institutions unite to raise a collective voice. Too often too many of us have tried to initiate change on our own. Instead, we need to build a network of change agents. Networks of like-minded women and men can provide spiritual and social support, resources, information, strategy, and access. Women auxiliary leaders, lay directors, pastors, and ministers need to come together in forums to keep the real issues on the table. We need to call upon more women scholars to continue explicating the issues. We need to include women writers to disseminate our stories in various publishing outlets. We need to bring the woman in the pew into the discussion so she can share the ways in which she is excluded in various venues. We need to network with our national, state, and local women’s associations for meeting, talking, supporting, affirming, and sharing successes and failures.

Encourage the advocacy of Moses

Another necessary step is to encourage more men to advocate on behalf of women’s full inclusion in the leadership of our churches and denominations. Just as Moses became an advocate for women among the other male leaders, most churches, denominations, and religious institutions have a number of powerful men who can serve as Moses for women. Some of these male leaders have been vociferously supportive of women in the debate, while others have stayed on the fence, refusing to speak one way or the other. Women need to stay in dialogue with these men and affirm their support. We also need these “Moseses” to talk to other men, in ways that only men can initiate difficult conversations with each other and explore their fears and concerns about change. These men can pave the way for women to hold more open dialogue with those who seem to resist change.

Develop systems of accountability for institutions

Churches, denominations, and other religious institutions need to provide quantitative measures of the presence of female leadership within their ranks at all levels. Current leaders need to scrutinize their systems, policies, and practices to make sure they are creating an environment that allows women to respond to the call of God in the same way that men respond to the call of God. As more jurisdictional, diocesan, and regional leaders are required to provide reports that document the demographics of their leadership ranks, more leaders will come to see—  through numbers—the staggering inequities that exist within the leadership ranks of our churches and denominations.

Develop formal systems of leadership formation and preparation

Even though more women are being educated in our seminaries and Bible colleges, women continue to be passed over for pastoral placements, and they struggle to plant and maintain church start-ups. Women continue to be overlooked for denominational and administrative appointments. The customs and practices of most of our churches and denominations show us that the line of leadership accession is as much political as it is spiritual. For its entire history, top leadership in most of our denominations has been passed down from men to other men. No doubt, there is an informal system of relationships, such as mentoring and coaching, that undergird such a system. Women have not only been excluded from the formal leadership structure, but they have also been excluded from the informal system that grooms men for top leadership. One remedy would be to develop a system in which the leadership potential of women is cultivated by assigning them mentors who could train and coach them on the “insider” dimensions of denominational leadership. Mentoring systems are necessary for formalizing the informal rules and creating a culture of equal access for women.

Perhaps you see gender inequities in your church, denomination, or workplace. May the Daughters of Zelophehad’s story encourage you not to look the other way. May these courageous women’s voices resound within your heart and encourage you to step up and speak out. Only as more of us become agents of change and use our voices to call for the dismantling of unjust systems will transformation occur within the systems in which we worship and work.


  1. According to Cheryl Sanders in her essay on “History of Women in the Pentecostal Movement” (Cyberjournal for Pentecostal-Charismatic Research [Oct. 1, 1996]), church historian Susie Stanley “uses the term ‘stained-glass ceiling’ to describe barriers to women’s leadership and advancement in Christian denominations with a long history of ordaining them.” See Cheryl Sanders, “History of Women in the Pentecostal Movement.”
  2. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, If It Wasn’t for the Women…: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2000), pg. 63.
  3. Linda Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), pgs. 142–143.
  4. Much controversy has surrounded Junia. According to Peter Lampei in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, the earliest church leaders accepted that Junia was a woman and an apostle. It wasn’t until the Medieval church that copyists began writing the masculine form of the name in manuscripts, thus obscuring her gender. According to The New Interpreter’s Bible, “Junia is thus one of the female ‘apostles,’ the only one so called; though presumably others, such as Mary Magdalene, were known as such as well” (pg. 762). According to the New Spirit Filled Life Bible, “the most likely understanding, and that most common in earliest church exegesis, is…Junia [was] part of a husband-wife apostolic team” (Rom. 16:7 note, pg. 1575)
  5. Delores Williams, “A Theology of Advocacy for Women” Church and Society (Nov./Dec. 2000): pg. 5.