It’s time the American church stopped arguing about female roles and started empowering women for ministry.
The debate over whether God equips and calls women to serve in positions of spiritual leadership is not over. In 2008, some of the same Christians who were delighted to see Sarah Palin run beside John McCain were also reluctant to welcome women to the pulpit on Sunday morning. And when Gospel Today magazine published an issue with women preachers on the cover, more than 100 Christian bookstores removed the magazine from their counters.
Clearly some Christians believe a woman can lead a country but not a church. But what does Scripture say? Does God’s Word make a distinction between a woman’s spiritual and secular leadership?
Consider Deborah, whose service as a judge and prophet influenced all of Israel. Her leadership and spiritual insight were so significant that the men of Israel refused to go into battle without her (Judg. 4:6-9). She is quoted in Scripture as saying, “Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, a mother in Israel” (5:7, TNIV). On a regular basis, as “a prophet … [who] was leading Israel at that time,” she “held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided” (4:4-5, emphasis added).
Prophets, as a group, held high positions of leadership over God’s people. Whereas priests pleaded with God on behalf of the people, prophets were used by God to guide the entire nation, particularly its leaders—the priests and kings. Thus prophets such as Deborah and Huldah brought leadership, exhortation and correction to the highest levels of Israelite leaders: the kings, priests and other prophets.
God called Huldah as a prophet during the reign of King Josiah. When the Book of the Law was discovered (2 Chron. 34:14-33; 2 Kings 22), Josiah and his committee went directly to Huldah for advice rather than to either Zephaniah or Jeremiah—both male prophets during this time. Huldah called Israel to obey the Torah and led the nation to its most significant reform in nearly 100 years.
Unlike people today, those living in Old Testament times did not make a distinction between spiritual and secular leadership. For this reason, leaders such as Miriam, Ruth, Esther, Rahab, Jael and the women who were keepers of Jerusalem’s city gates influenced all of Israel. In spite of the patriarchal culture of the time, women led Israel’s army; judged disputes; exhorted and advised Israel’s prophets, priests and kings; declared the ways of God to the people; and brought major social and spiritual reforms.
Scriptural examples clearly show that God equips and calls women to leadership, despite the cultural expectations of ancient or modern people.
In the New Testament, Christ’s completed work on Calvary leveled the divisions and hierarchy among the people of God, as noted by the apostle Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:27-29: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (NRSV).
Those who are clothed in Christ are no longer identified or limited by their ethnicity, class or gender. If God is our parent, and it is from Him that we receive our ultimate inheritance, then our sisters and brothers receive equally the same inheritance from God’s Spirit.
What do we receive from God? We inherit salvation—the forgiveness of sins. We also receive sanctification—the Spirit’s power to oppose sin, prejudice and oppression. After we become members of Christ’s body, the Spirit works to build unity and mutuality between those whom Christ has redeemed. He also gives each of us spiritual gifts for service (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:7-10; Eph. 4:11-12), which are not distributed according to gender, class or ethnicity.
Because the ground at the cross is level, the Spirit’s gifts do not come in gender-specific or ethnic-specific occupations. Thus, we find slaves, gentiles and women all serving as evangelists, apostles and teachers alongside Paul, spreading the gospel, building and leading house churches. This is the pattern spelled out in 1 Corinthians 12:28: “God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers” (TNIV). Here are a few examples:
Female apostle. Junia is a woman who was imprisoned along with Paul for working to spread the gospel. She was not only an apostle but also “prominent among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7, NRSV). It wasn’t until the Middle Ages, when prejudice against women became prominent, that anyone doubted Junia was a woman.
Female prophets. As in the Old Testament, prophets in the New Testament provided correction and encouragement to the church. The spiritual well-being of the church was strengthened by prophets (Acts 21:10-11; Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Cor. 14:1,24,29-32; Eph. 2:20; Eph. 4:11-13). Thus, Luke identifies leaders who were also prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1), and Paul suggests that prophets and apostles make known the mysteries of Christ (Eph 3:4-5).