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How do you solve a problem like Deborah?

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 to 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.

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9 Thoughts to “How do you solve a problem like Deborah?”

  1. Peter Kirk

    Phil, I can’t help thinking you are misunderstanding the role of an Old Testament judge in comparing it with “a law lord or supreme court justice”, not “a Prime Minister or President with central executive power”. Obviously there is a lot of anachronism in the comparison with a modern Prime Minister or President, but then there also is with a modern judge. But there seems no doubt that the judges were rulers of their people, with effective authority over them even if no formal executive power. Perhaps not like the President of a stable country like the USA but like the new ruler of a country emerging from colonialism or dictatorship, someone who has become a leader through charismatic authority rather than formal election. Maybe Lenin and Mao would be modern examples, or more recently in the same lands as Deborah, Yasser Arafat. I note that Gideon for one had sufficient authority to establish his son as a ruler and king – but that proved a disaster.

    My point is, of course, that the Bible envisages a godly woman as the effective leader of a nation. What that implies for the church is another issue.

    1. Hi Peter, good to hear from you again and thanks for the comment. I hear what you’re saying and the role of judge is tricky to describe. My undestanding is that Israel was essentially a federal and feudal society, the twelve tribes were autonomous but linked (not exactly the EU), so the heads of the tribes ‘ruled’ the tribes and the judges were focal points of unity at times of crisis or when in need of impartiality. I guess judge then might be closer to the secretary general of the UN, only with actual authority!

      So the authority a judge had is not the same as a king (no raising taxes for example), nor the same as a priest, nor were all of them prophets, and like kings many of them were not models of righteousness and probably not all judges ‘judged’ like Moses, Deborah & Samuel in terms of deciding points of law and dispute. So any judge (Deborah included) proves to be a slightly trickier example than we might think.

      But then I have no problem with the concept of Lappidoth being the head of Deborah’s home but Deborah being the leader of Lappidoth’s nation. Unlike some more extreme views I don’t see that those two need to be in conflict.

  2. Sue

    Here is Grudem,

    “God gave men, IN GENERAL, a disposition that is BETTER SUITED TO TEACHING AND GOVERNING in the church, a disposition that inclines more to rational, logical analysis of doctrine and a desire to protect the doctrinal purity of the church, and God gave women, IN GENERAL, a disposition that INCLINES MORE TOWARD A RELATIONAL, NURTURING EMPHASIS THAT PLACES A HIGHER VALUE ON UNITY AND COMMUNITY IN THE CHURCH (v.14)” (pg. 72).

    So he believes that by nature women cannot govern. And yet, Deborah did govern for 40 years and God blessed her rule.

    In addition, Grudem says that women can prophecy but they cannot judge prophecies. 1 Cor. 14.

    So, clearly Grudem, and many complementarians, see Deborah as doing something that God has not created women to do.

    They explain away Deborah as having a unique gifting because of male failure. Sometimes, I read that it was okay under the Old Testament law for a woman to be a judge but not after Christ came. Or perhaps, women could judge during a time when there was no division of church and state. But now women can rule a nation but not a church.

    One has to wonder what all this says about God. Is God a fickle, wavering and waffling creature who cannot make up his mind about women?

    Or is this the interpretation that man has put on the matter?

    1. Hi Sue
      Thanks for the comment. Like I said, I think explaining away Deborah due to the failings of the men is both unfair to Deborah and unfair to some of the men (as they are later remembered too – Barak in Hebrews for example).

      I agree that many get themselves tied up into knots over it. I’m not sure Grudem is right to try and explain differences in terms of disposition. I can’t see that being helpful so I personally disagree with that explanantion.

      Deborah is a challenge – the rule of men is not consistent, she breaks through. But just her, just once and that’s a good question to ask a sovereign God who raised up plenty of other unlikely leaders. So why not more women? I’ve not heard a good answer that doesn’t also makes God look ‘weak and wavering’ in his dealings with people.

      I think the nature of a judge is also a challenge because there is no contemporary equivalent and so what is a judge today other than a judge? But the gifts the OT ascribed to Deborah (wisdom & prophecy) are also ascribed to other women in the NT, so that is an obvious clear continuation.

      Like I said, I think questions for all sides when you think about Deborah.

      1. Sue

        Thanks. I am surprised, however, that you think that God would allow a woman to be a leader in one kind of state, but not in another. It makes God appear to be variable towards women depending on history.

        Also, because you use the ESV, you can hardly count Junia as an apostle. Surely complementarians are the winners of the exegesis gymnastics competition.

        1. I use lots of translations Sue, don’t read too much into the use of the ESV. I chose it because it’s a more word-for-word translation. I see gymnastics on both sides and that’s because there are texts that make uncomfortable reading wherever you sit.

          I’m not sure I see God as being variable in the way you describe. Perhaps that’s as a result of my gender!

          As for Junia, I wrote a post about her here

          1. Sue

            I really enjoyed your post on Junia. I had not read some of those commentaries before. So thanks for that!

            I know this is a small point, but I do believe that there was an agreement by some Christian men to deliberately record Junia’s name as “most likely masculine.” This was done in the NA critical Greek text of the New Testament. After that many modern Bibles changed the name to Junias. In spite of the fact that most of your commentaries do not reflect this, most modern Bibles did have a masculine name in this place. RSV, NIV, NASB to mention a few.

            I think we need to understand that this does look like a conspiracy to some people. It is not unjust to use that expression to describe what happened.

            In addition, as soon as her gender was cleared up, the NET Bible proposed a different translation to explain away her apostleship.

            I do not feel that the fact that she was likely an apostle proves anything for egalitarians. However, the history of this incident, is certain proof that some Christian men will always work hard to diminish the status of women. Therefore, men in general, as a gender, are not appropriate leaders of women.

            Leadership must be decided on the grounds of morality and not on the basis of gender. The men who do work so hard to diminish the status of women, are often considered exemplary men in the Christian community.

            I hate to say it, but women have not been well served by these men.

            Egalitarians are not perfect, but there is room to be open to a wider spectrum of interpretations, and there is room for women themselves to have a genuine voice.

          2. Hi Sue

            I don’t know enough about the translation issue to comment.
            There are sadly always those that misuse power, and those that have it often strive to keep it. I hope you’ll not find a defence of the indefensible here. Thanks again for leaving your thoughts.

          3. Sue


            I think you are being quite honest and open. It took me years to realize that a few men were manipulating the text in order to reinforce the subordination of women. Complementarianism is untenable given human frailty and fallibility.

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