Every now and then I comment on the debate about the role of women in the church, and the arguments on both sides are well rehearsed and increasingly entrenched. One of the key examples given for the egalitarian case (those who believe that every role or office in the church is open to believers of either gender) is the old testament character of Deborah.

It’s often seen that Deborah poses a challenge to the complementarian view (those that think that God differentiates some roles according to gender while loving and valuing both genders equally) and to see Deborah as a problem of course does the great lady a huge injustice as we shall see, but I think there are some valid questions that Deborah poses to both sides of the debate.

Who was Deborah? Deborah was an OT judge whose story can be found in Judges 4-5. She was a prophetess, the judge of Israel and the wife of Lappidoth (Jdg 4:4) who plays no part in the story. During her time as judge Israel defeated the Canaanite king Jabin and his commander Sisera (Jdg 4:2) and led to a period of 40 years of peace for Israel (Jdg 5:31). She is self-described as ‘a mother of Israel’ (Jdg 5:7)

What was a judge? Really it was as it sounds, a judge. The template for the judges is Moses (Ex 18:13-26) , the people would come to him for judgement on boundary issues, interpretation of the law, solving disputes between individuals, families, clans and tribes. After the intervention of Jethro, only the most serious cases would be brought to the top judge.

After the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan under Moses and Joshua, the leadership of Israel passed not to an individual but to the leaders of the 12 tribes, judges and elders (Josh 24:1) under the LORD’s leading, while the Levites and priests continued to oversee the worship and sacrifices of Israel. This arrangement didn’t work out all that well as Israel repeatedly screwed up only for God to save them.

The pattern of the book is described in Jdg 2:10-20 and the saviours of Israel were known as judges. They weren’t always good moral examples (Gideon was an idolater, Samson had relationship issues and Jephthah sacrificed his daughter) and they were a mix of warriors and judges over a period of around 4-500 years. The weaknesses of this form of government eventually led to their desire for a king. The greatest judge was arguably the last one Samuel who was prophet, priest and judge.

Is there a contemporary equivalent of a judge? Probably the closest is something like a law lord or supreme court justice mixed in with charismatic ability to summon the armies. It really wasn’t like a Prime Minister or President with central executive power but these judges remained unifying and dominant figures during their tenure.

Is there a contemporary equivalent of a judges role in the church? Not really. The church is not a nation or a state with boundaries or armies (or at least it’s not supposed to be).

So what of Deborah? Well, Deborah clearly combined a number of spiritual gifts that did continue into the NT era even if the office she filled didn’t. She was a prophetess and clearly had the gift of wisdom to be Israel’s most senior judge and the one to whom the warriors looked; Barak famously refused to go to battle without her presence with the army.

So what’s the problem? The problem for the complementarians is that Deborah was clearly the key figure in Israel and if a woman could lead Israel then why not a church? Deborah clearly had an authority that men were willing enough to submit to. The response to this sometimes wonders about the state of Israel’s men (Barak being case in point) and feel they were of such poor quality that no one else suitable was around. This while possibly true does a great disservice to Deborah. Although interestingly later on it’s Barak who is remembered as a judge and not Deborah (1 Sam 12:11 & Heb 11:32) so he can’t have been all that bad.

Any problems for the egalitarians? Yes. It’s just Deborah. No other woman in scripture comes close to having her authority and responsibility – queens like Esther had no power other than personal influence over the King and queens like Jezebel don’t provide good role models. So the question is why just her and how to view her not as an exception but as a rule?

If you blame the men then that makes God look a little weak: it’s not as if God had a problem picking unlikely leaders and confounding expectations, ‘You know I did try to get another woman but they are just too stiff-necked!’

So what do we do? The dangers are obvious, play her down and diminish her or play her up & make her out to be what she was not. The uncomfortable path is in the middle as you upset both sides but it seems to be the most responsible course. Her spiritual gifts both prophetic and wisdom are gifts that are not gender restricted so she clearly serves as a powerful role model there. Her charisma shouldn’t be doubted or made less of by focusing on Barak and there seems to be no good reason to be worried by strong, charismatic women exercising their gifts today.

However Deborah wasn’t a priest, she wasn’t a queen, she wasn’t a prime minister, she wasn’t lots of things and an OT judge (male or female) is not a precursor to a New Testament church elder so she is an uncomfortable fit if you try and do that. As would Gideon, Samson and every other judge except for possibly Samuel.

So we carry over what should be carried over, we leave behind what shouldn’t and give thanks to God for the life of Deborah.