But What About Deborah?

Written By
William O. Einwechter

Editor’s Note: This article was written in 2008 in response to the nomination of Sarah Palin for office of vice president. As we enter into another presidential election cycle in 2011, the question of Christian support for a woman running for high office in the United States has again risen with the candidacy of Michelle Bachmann. Although the following article was a response to a particular historical moment, the argument made here directly applies to the candidacy of Mrs. Bachmann and all other women who are seeking to govern society from the office of civil magistrate. In effect, the name of Michelle Bachmann (or any other female politician) can be substituted for "Sarah Palin" throughout the article.

The nomination of Sarah Palin to be the vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party has thrilled evangelicals, whether they are egalitarian[1] or semi-complementarian[2] in their views on men and women. Some have been extravagant in their praise of Palin’s candidacy, while others have been more measured. But there has been a near unanimous agreement that Palin is an excellent choice for vice president, and that her place on the Republican ticket enables Christians to confidently support John McCain for president, in spite of his questionable “conservative” record. Some evangelicals have even been sent into what one might call political ecstasy over Sarah Palin.

But some Christians have serious doubts and concerns about the biblical propriety of Sarah Palin’s quest for the vice presidency. Their concerns center around the biblical teaching on the great importance of the roles of a wife and mother in her home, and how these roles can, in good conscience, be reconciled with Palin’s own circumstances: five children, one an infant with special needs and one daughter facing a “crisis pregnancy.” The fact that Palin, who professes to be a Christian, is a self-proclaimed feminist and embodies the anti-Christian feminist vision for womanhood deeply troubles those who desire to rebuild the biblical family and restore the beauty and splendor of Christian womanhood. In addition, there are a number of us who believe that God has ordained the order of male headship for every sphere of government: family, church, and state. Therefore, as we understand Scripture, it is a violation of God’s law for a woman to seek the office of civil magistrate (doubly so if she is a wife or mother), or for Christians to support her or vote for her.[3]

Evangelicals who have enough biblical sense to feel the weight of these concerns, and yet still believe that they should support Palin and the McCain/Palin ticket (otherwise Obama might be elected!), seek to find some biblical justification for their position. In this search, all roads seem to lead to Deborah. In Deborah they see the answer to their dilemma. Here, they believe, is the example of a godly woman who exercised political leadership in Israel. Her ministry was obviously God-approved, and so the story of Deborah proves that, at least during extraordinary times, God calls women to serve as rulers, kings, and judges, and to lead men and nations. Therefore, from their perspective, the Christian debate about Palin is over, and all the concerns of the previous paragraph are no longer valid. In their view, Sarah Palin is a Deborah for our day.

Although the example of Deborah may seem to settle the matter for many, the issues at stake in Palin’s candidacy have such a potential impact on the cause of biblical family reformation and the doctrine of biblical authority that the scriptural account of Deborah requires faithful biblical interpretation, and its application to the question of women magistrates in general, and to Sarah Palin in particular, requires careful thinking. This essay seeks to accomplish these things and answer the questions: Does the example of Deborah establish the biblical propriety of female civil magistrates? Does it provide Christians with a biblical justification for their support of a woman for civil office?

Does the Example of Deborah Establish the Biblical Propriety of Female Civil Rulers?

There are a number of issues that we need to explore in regard to this question. We have to determine the historical context of the book of Judges. We have to decide what the office of “judge” entailed. We need to determine Deborah’s role, and whether or not we are justified in saying that she filled the role of a “judge” and/or the office of a civil magistrate. We need to understand how historical examples relate to the direct instruction of the law of God. We need to consider the ramifications of the view that Deborah’s example establishes the rightness of female magistrates and how that view affects our understanding of the role of women in the family and in the church.

1. The historical context of the book of Judges.

The book of Judges records the history of Israel from the death of Joshua until the birth of Samuel[4] (Judg. 1:1; 21:25; 1 Sam. 1:1-28). This is one of the darker periods of Israel’s history. It was marked by lengthy seasons of apostasy, sin, and lawlessness (Judg 17:6; 21:25). It contains a uniform cycle that goes from sin in Israel, to oppression by other nations, to repentance by the people and prayer for God’s mercy, to deliverance from foreign oppression by the power of God through specially chosen leaders that were called “judges.”

What is important to note, for the purposes of this essay, is the recurring phrase in Judges that “in those days there was no king in Israel” (Judg. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). This indicates that there was neither a central government nor a chief magistrate to give unity and direction to the whole nation.[5] In the days of the judges, Israel was a loose confederation of tribes that were governed by “elders.” These elders consisted of the rulers of the individual tribes, and the local elders in the towns and villages; the government of the people in terms of civil law and justice rested in their hands (Judg. 2:7; 8:16; 11:5; 21:16; Ruth 4:2; cf. Num. 32:28; Deut. 5:23; 16:18; 19:12; 21:2-6, 19-20; 22:5-8). The men who were the appointed civil leaders in Israel at that time of Judges were also called the “governors of Israel,” i.e., those who make or decide law, rulers, civil leaders, commanders (Judg. 5:9, 14; cf. Deut. 33:21; Ps. 60:7), and “princes,” i.e., those who have dominion in the civil sphere, rulers, chiefs, captains (Judg. 5:15; 10:18; cf. Deut. 1:15).

In defining the role of the judges in the book of Judges, and in determining Deborah’s place and function in the historical setting of Israel’s government in the time of the judges, these historical facts must be kept in mind. If we set aside the structure of Israel’s civil government in that day, we are in danger of drawing faulty conclusions concerning the nature of the “judges” and the nature of Deborah’s service to Israel.

2. The function of the “judges” in the book of Judges.

It is significant to note that the “judges” in the book are not identified with the elders of Israel. This means that the judges were not part of the normal, structured government of Israel, and so, whatever the exact nature of their public leadership was, and it may have varied, they were not civil magistrates; they did not govern in the civil sphere. Evidence of this fact is seen in the story of Gideon, one of the most illustrious of the judges. After his great victory over the Midianites, he was offered the position of chief ruler of Israel, but he categorically turned down the offer.

Then the men of Israel said unto Gideon, Rule thou over us, both thou, and thy son, and thy son's son also: for thou hast delivered us from the hand of Midian. And Gideon said unto them, I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the LORD shall rule over you (Judg. 8:22-23).

Further evidence is provided by the example of Samson, one of the most well known of the judges. There is no indication whatsoever from the Bible that he ever held any civil office or carried out any of the duties related to the office of civil judge or ruler, yet the text says, “he judged Israel twenty years” (Judg. 16:31). In fact, none of the men who served as judges are ever pictured in the text of the book of Judges in the role of a civil magistrate (i.e., of ruling as elders, princes, or governors). Or, as Richard Schultz expresses this fact, “There is no clear textual evidence that these individuals ever exercised any judicial authority. . . .”[6]

What, then, was the role of the judges? In answering this question, we should begin by defining the word “judge.” The Hebrew word has three basic senses: 1) to act as a lawgiver, to rule, to govern; 2) to decide controversies, to establish justice and equity; 3) to execute judgment, to punish the guilty, or to defend the cause of the oppressed.[7] The particular sense in which this word is used in any given text must be determined by the context. According to its usage in connection with the judges of the book of Judges, the word should be understood in the third sense. The judges were men who were used of God to defend the cause of an oppressed Israel by executing judgment on the enemies of Israel. Hence, when the text says that they “judged Israel” it does not mean that they governed Israel as civil rulers, but that they carried out God’s judgment on Israel’s oppressors and defended the people from further oppression.[8]

We ought to make this deduction concerning the meaning of the word “judged” because of the way the term is used in the book of Judges in relation to the judges. The biblical text indicates that the judges functioned as national deliverers, i.e., they were men who were raised up by God to fight against the enemies of Israel in view of breaking the yoke of Israel’s foreign oppression (Judg. 2:14-19; 3:9-10, 15; 1 Sam. 12:8-11). The author of the book of Judges defines the role judges played during this period as follows:

. . . the hand of the LORD was against [Israel] for evil, as the LORD had said, and as the LORD had sworn unto them: and they were greatly distressed. Nevertheless the LORD raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them (Judg. 2:15-16).

In fulfilling this role, they are pictured as men of war leading the armies of Israel, i.e., they were military commanders. This role is clearly portrayed in the cases of Othniel, Ehud, Gideon, and Jepthah. Othniel is the first judge of this period, and the description of his service as a judge is instructive and representative of the others:

And when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer to the children of Israel, who delivered them, even Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother. And the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel, and went out to war: and the LORD delivered Chushanrishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand; and his hand prevailed against Chushanrishathaim (Judg. 3:9-10).

The role of Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon is not specifically stated in the biblical text, but based on the example of the other judges, we can assume that they fulfilled a similar military role in Israel. Shamgar and Samson were also judges, and although they did not lead any armies, they were men of war who defeated the enemies of Israel single handedly. This leaves us with Deborah and Barak. What were their roles? Which one was the judge, or were they both judges? We will consider these questions in the next section.

3. The role of Deborah in the book of Judges.

If we are going to understand the role of Deborah in the book of Judges, we must carefully consider what the text actually says about her. We must not read our own ideas into the text, superimpose our own system of government on the text as a grid to understand Deborah, nor assume that because the text says she “judged Israel” that it means she judged in the same way as Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Gideon, Jepthah, and Samson. She must be understood in her own historical and biblical context. How does the biblical text describe Deborah and her role in Israel? It says:

And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment (Judg. 4:4-5).

This text reveals three things about Deborah. First, she was a “prophetess.” This is the feminine form of the Hebrew word for “prophet.” The biblical role of a prophet was to speak the Word of God to Israel in terms of God’s will (law) for Israel, and His plan for the future (prophecy; cf. Deut. 18:15-22). Up until the time of the judges, the term prophet had been applied to only two men: Abraham (Gen. 20:7) and Aaron (Exod. 7:1); Moses is compared to a prophet but is placed in a class by himself (Num. 12:6-8; Deut. 18:15; 34:10). The word “prophetess” had only been applied to one woman: Miriam (Exod. 15:20). In other words, the prophetic role had not been exercised since the days of Moses. This makes the statement that Deborah was a prophetess all the more remarkable.

What did she do as a prophetess? If her role was similar to other prophets in Scripture, then she spoke the Word of God and prophesied of the future. The story of Deborah indicates that she did both: she gave the Word of God to Barak, and prophesied that Israel would win the upcoming battle with Sisera (Judg. 4:6-7). She may also have carried out a ministry similar to the only other prophet mentioned in the book of Judges (Judg. 6:8-10), who rebuked the people for their sin and called them to repentance. But Deborah does not appear to have exercised her prophetic role in the towns and villages of Israel or by going out and preaching to the people. Instead, the text reveals that she ministered at her own dwelling and gave the Word of the Lord to those who came to her.

Second, she was “the wife of Lapidoth.” This is actually an obscure phrase, and its meaning is disputed. Some believe that it reveals the name of her husband. Others, believe it gives the place where she is from, i.e., she is “a woman of Lapidoth.” Others think that it refers to the fact that she made wicks for the lamps of the Sanctuary. Because of the ambiguity of this phrase, it is uncertain whether or not she was a married woman. Most likely, the text is identifying the place of her origin. 

In Judges 5:7, Deborah refers to herself as “a mother in Israel.” There is debate over what this actually means. It could indicate that she was married (or she may have been a widow at the time of Judges 4-5) and was a mother of children. But it could also be figurative, indicating that Deborah saw herself as one who had a maternal concern for Israel. Regardless, the phrase does point to Deborah’s consciousness that her role was consistent with her female gender. What she did for the house of Israel was consistent with what a godly mother would do for her own household in times of distress. It also shows that Deborah did not presume to take headship in Israel or usurp authority over the men.

Third, the text says that she “judged Israel at that time.” It is important to understand that the function of Judges 4:5 is to explain how she judged Israel: the people of Israel came up to the place where she dwelt seeking “judgment” from her. What, then, does it mean that she “judged” Israel? There are a number of things to consider in answering this question. Note, first of all, that her judgment was tied to her gift of prophecy. Her judgment was a charismatic function related to her prophetic role. There is no indication in the text that her judging was based on a position (an office) she held in the civil government of Israel; she is never identified as an “elder,” “governor,” or princess. Next, consider the fact that the place of her judgment was under a palm tree and not in the gates of the city, the place where the elders (the civil rulers and civil judges) normally governed (Deut. 16:18; Ruth 4:1-2; Prov. 31:23). Finally, note that her judging was not related to defending the cause of Israel against foreign oppressors by fighting against them, but it appears to have involved settling disputes and questions of law for the children of Israel. If we take the words of the Scripture as our guide, we see that the judging ministry of Deborah was not that of an appointed civil magistrate or a military leader, but of a divinely inspired woman giving God’s Word to those in Israel who sought her out.

Therefore, the Hebrew word for “judged,” as it is used in reference to Deborah, means to establish righteousness and equity. It describes the action of deciding controversies and discriminating between persons and between right and wrong in civil, religious, domestic, and social disputes or questions (the second sense of the word “judged” as defined above). The word “judged” is applied customarily to the action of a civil ruler, but it is not an action that only official rulers can carry out. We must remember that the particular meaning of a word has to be determined by its immediate context. In the context of Judges 4, the word “judged” does not mean to rule as a civil magistrate (the first sense of the word “judged” as defined above), or to execute judgment (the third sense of the word “judged” as defined above), but it is applied to a prophetess giving divine guidance to Israel and settling the disputes of those who came to her. Matthew Henry gives an insightful explanation of Deborah’s ministry in Israel:

She judged not as a princess, by any civil authority conferred upon her, but as a prophetess, and as God’s mouth to them, correcting abuses and redressing grievances, especially those which were related to the worship of God. The children of Israel came up to her from all parts for judgment, not so much for the deciding of controversies between man and man as for advice in the reformation of what was amiss in things pertaining to God. Those among them who before had secretly lamented the impieties and idolatries of their neighbors but knew not where to apply for the restraining of them, now made their complaint to Deborah, who, by the sword of the Spirit, showing them the judgment of God, reduced and reclaimed many. . . .[9]

Since Deborah is specifically identified as a prophetess (and not as a civil ruler), and since her judgment is tied to her prophetic gift, Henry’s view admirably fits the context. As a prophetess, Deborah did not bear the sword to enforce her decisions or counsel as an elder or civil magistrate would have done. While her word was to be heeded, she did not dispense justice through civil sanctions or punishment. Furthermore, there are no biblical examples of prophets enforcing their counsel through civil punishment either. Rather, the prophet was the mouth piece of God communicating the consequences of disobedience with the promise that God would vindicate His Word through judgment by providential or miraculous means. It is the civil magistrate’s decisions and judgments that are enforced by civil sanctions. But, the prophet brought a message from God with enforcement coming from God Himself. In Judges 4:4-5, we do not see a civil ruler issuing or enforcing orders, but a godly woman giving divine counsel, answering questions, and settling disputes for those who voluntarily sought it.

In view of the context, in view of the nature of Israel’s civil government in the days of Deborah, and in view of the description of her ministry, it is best to conclude that Deborah was not a civil magistrate and held no formal position of civil leadership in Israel. She had an important ministry, and at times she may have rendered judgment on questions of civil law, but she was a prophetess, not an “elder” or a “governor.” There is no evidence that Deborah ever sought or held the office of a civil ruler. With this conclusion the Reformer John Knox is in full agreement:

Such as have more pleasure in light than in darkness, may clearly perceive, that Deborah did usurp no such power nor authority, as our queens do this day claim. But that she was endued with the spirit of wisdom, of knowledge, and of the true fear of God: and by the same she judged the facts of the rest of the people. She rebuked their defection and idolatry, yea and also did redress to her power, the injuries that were done by man to man. But all this, I say, she did by the spiritual sword, that is, by the Word of God, and not by any temporal regiment [government] or authority, which she did usurp over Israel.[10]

4. Deborah was not a “judge” in the sense that the book of Judges defines that role; that specific role belonged to Barak.

We are also justified in concluding, from Judges 4:4-5 and from the rest of the account of Deborah and Barak, and from the description of the actions of Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Gideon, Jepthah, and Samson that Deborah was not one of the judges of the book of Judges.[11] This conclusion is based on the following considerations.

First, she did not fulfill the role of a warrior or lead Israel into battle. When it was time for Israel to rise up and throw off the yoke of Jabin, king of Canaan, and judge the enemies of God’s people, the Lord did not call or appoint Deborah to fight Jabin or command the armies of Israel. Instead, God used her, as His prophetess, to call and appoint Barak to that position (Judg. 4:6-7; 5:12). And although Deborah accompanied the army at Barak’s request, she did not lead the army into the battle or direct the fight once it began; the text leaves no doubt that Barak was the military commander.[12] It was the faith, courage, and leadership of Barak during the battle itself that brought deliverance to Israel (Judg. 4:10-17; cf. Heb. 11:32) and judgment on Jabin. As a warrior and the actual military commander that led Israel to victory, Barak should be considered the “judge” in keeping with how the term is employed during this era (Judg. 2:16; 3:10).

Second, the author of Hebrews points to Barak, not Deborah, as the judge of their time. When the writer of Hebrews is recounting the victories of faith wrought through the judges of the book of Judges, he does not mention Deborah at all; instead, in a list of other judges who helped to rescue Israel from pagan oppressors, he names Barak. He says: “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae . . .” (Heb. 11:32). Thus, the New Testament connects Barak with the other judges, and affirms that Barak was one of the deliverers of Israel who brought God’s vengeance on the heathen and freedom to the oppressed in Israel.

Third, it is clear that the other prophet mentioned in the book of Judges (Judg. 6:8-10) was not a judge. This unnamed prophet declared the Word of God in his day, but it was Gideon who was called of God to be the judge and lead the army of Israel. We see some similarities between this picture and the time of Deborah. She was a prophetess who gave God’s Word to Israel, but when the time for deliverance from oppression came, it was Barak who was called to lead the army of Israel. In both cases, a distinction appears between the prophet or prophetess and the judge. Deborah played a different role as prophetess than the one Barak fulfilled as a man of war who commanded the armies of Israel and brought deliverance from the Canaanites. Strictly speaking then, Deborah was not a “judge” (Judg. 2:16; 3:10).

Richard Schultz concurs with the conclusion that Barak, not Deborah, was the judge: “A unique usage of spt [judge] in Judges (as a verbal part.) occurs in 4:4 with respect to Deborah, who is explicitly described as a prophetess . . . and who takes no leadership in the battle other than to assure Barak of victory (4:14) or, following the victory, to lead the song of Praise (5:1, 12). . . she is not being portrayed as judge (like Barak) in chs. 4-5 but rather as the divine spokesperson.”[13] Deborah’s role as a prophetess, according to Schultz, was that of “issuing the call to Barak to lead Israel into battle (4:6), thus designating him as the next individual to lead Israel.”[14]

Deborah was a great woman, and she played a significant role in the victory of Israel over Jabin, but her role was fulfilled as a prophetess (Judg. 4:4); she was not an “elder” or “governor,” and she was not one of the “judges.” The unique prophetic role of Deborah in the book of Judges does not support a doctrine of female magistrates, and, therefore, does not validate the candidacy of Sarah Palin to be vice president of the United States. In fact, the example of Deborah is a rebuke to Palin’s (or any other woman’s) political aspirations.

5. The example of Deborah and its normative significance and application must be harmonized with the didactic portions of Scripture.

We must be very careful in how we use biblical examples and narrative texts. They should not be used to establish doctrine or practice by themselves; and, specifically, they should never be used to overturn the clear teaching of Scripture contained in the law and the prophets in the Old Testament, and the words of Christ and His apostles in the New Testament. In other words, the significance of examples and narratives must be determined by other passages that speak more directly to the doctrine or practice is view. This principle of hermeneutics is formally stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and, therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

This principle teaches that the example of Deborah ought to be approached cautiously, and its normative significance and application must be determined by passages that speak more clearly.

The example of Deborah is often used to prove that women can serve as civil rulers. But as we have endeavored to show, the text does not support the interpretation that she was a civil magistrate in Israel. Therefore, it is our decided opinion that Deborah cannot be legitimately used as an example to support the doctrine that women are permitted to serve in the office of civil ruler.

Nevertheless, we recognize the likelihood that some will reject this interpretation. But, the crucial hermeneutical principle we are discussing here means, that even if it can be proven that Deborah was a civil ruler, her example cannot be considered normative or a standard of Christian ethics unless it is searched out and shown to be so by other Scriptures that speak more clearly on the subject.

What do other Scriptures have to say on the subject of female magistrates? Since we are talking about examples and narratives, we will begin with those. In the Bible, every positive example of civil rulers, besides the example of Deborah (which we believe is not an example of a civil ruler) present the rulers as men. Esther was not a civil ruler and cannot be used in that regard. She was a queen, i.e., the wife of king Ashasuerus, and she exercised no civil authority beyond her own personal influence on the king.[15] Therefore, if we were left to examples alone to settle this issue, we would have to conclude that it is God’s will that men are given headship in the civil sphere.

But we are not left to examples. On this matter, God has revealed Himself in a definitive fashion. He has specifically instructed His people to choose men to be civil rulers (Exod. 18:21; Deut. 1:13; 16:18; 17:15). Furthermore, whenever Scripture addresses the subject of civil magistrates, it always does so in terms of men and never in terms of women (2 Sam. 23:3; 2 Chron. 19:5-7; Neh. 7:2; Prov. 16:10; 20:8, 28; 29:14; 31:4-5; Rom. 13:1-6). But this is still not all. The Bible also establishes the doctrine of male headship based on the creation order (Gen. 2:18; 1 Cor. 11:3, 8-9; 1 Tim. 2:12-13), and this created order is upheld, as we would expect, in an explicit manner through the passages that teach that men are the head of the home (Eph. 5:22-24), the officers of the church (1 Tim. 2:11-3:12), and the rulers and judges of the state (Deut. 1:13).

There can be no question that all these texts, particularly when taken as a joint witness, speak far more clearly to the issue of women civil magistrates than does the (disputed) example of Deborah. John Knox explains the principle of hermeneutic we are discussing here and shows how the example of Deborah cannot be used to prove or establish a doctrine of female rulers:

. . . particular examples do establish no common law. The causes were known to God alone, why he took the spirit of wisdom and force from all men of those ages, and did so mightily assist women against nature, and against his ordinary course: that the one he made a deliverer to his afflicted people Israel: and to the other he gave not only perseverance in the true religion, when the most part of men had declined from the same, but also to her he gave the spirit of prophecy, to assure king Josiah of the things which were to come. With these women, I say, did God work potently, and miraculously, yea to them he gave most singular grace and privilege. But who hath commanded, that a public, yea a tyrannical and most wicked law be established upon these examples? The men that object the same, are not altogether ignorant, that examples have no strength, when the question is of law (Examples against law have no strength when the question is of law).[16]

For of examples, as is before declared, we may establish no law, but we are always bound to the law written, and to the commandment expressed in the same. And the law written and pronounced by God, forbiddeth no less that any woman reign over man, than it forbiddeth man to take a plurality of wives, to marry two sisters living at once, to steal, to rob, to murder or to lie. If any of these hath been transgressed, and yet God hath not imputed the same: it maketh not the like fact or deed lawful unto us. For God being free, may for such causes as be approved by his inscrutable wisdom, dispense with the rigor of his law, and may use his creatures at his pleasure. But the same power is not permitted to man, whom he hath made subject to his law, and not to the examples of fathers. And this I think sufficient to the reasonable and moderate spirits.[17]

To sum up, even if Deborah was a civil ruler (and the evidence indicates that she was not), her example cannot be used to establish the principle that Christians ought to support a woman for the office of civil magistrate, because such a doctrine flies in the face of so many other Scriptures that speak more clearly on the issue; these other Scriptures require civil leaders to be men. It is a very dangerous practice to seek to build doctrine and practice on examples alone; especially on examples that contradict the explicit teaching of God’s law. The hermeneutics and arguments of those who are using Deborah to justify Christian support for Sarah Palin are setting a terrible precedent that will reap a bitter harvest in the future.

6. If the example of Deborah is used to justify female rulers in the state, then it can also be used to justify female teachers and rulers in the church.

We must speak very carefully here and emphasize again that Deborah does not constitute proof for a doctrine of female rulers. We have sought to prove that Deborah was not a civil ruler but a prophetess who gave divine guidance to those in Israel who sought her out. However, what needs to be understood by those who teach that Deborah’s example establishes the propriety of female rulers (at least under some circumstances), is that, in making their argument, they have done more than simply prove that women can serve as civil magistrates. They have also established, whether intended or not, that women (at least under some circumstances) may serve as teachers and leaders in the church. 

How is this so? Since, in their view, Deborah was a ruler in Israel who spoke the Word of God to Israel (i.e., to the Old Testament church), is it not logical to deduce that a woman may rule in the church and teach God’s Word in the New Testament church also? Thus, on the basis of the same method and rationale of those who argue that her example proves that a woman may serve as a civil magistrate, she also becomes an example of the propriety of female teachers and female elders in the church. And, since those who would use Deborah as an example of a female ruler have already established the principle that texts that speak more clearly cannot be used against the example of Deborah as a civil ruler, then, logically, the New Testament texts that speak more clearly about the role of women in the church cannot be used to deny a gifted woman the right to preach and teach in the church either.

This is precisely the position of evangelical feminists. They argue that the example of Deborah establishes the rightness of women governing in both church and state. In fact, they seem more concerned to use her example to validate women elders and preachers, than to justify women civil magistrates. And, if the details of the text of Judges are understood, and the arguments of the semi-complementarians for Deborah’s validation of female civil rule are accepted, then it is hard to avoid the conclusions of the evangelical feminists. If the headship of men in the civil sphere falls or is compromised by Deborah, then the headship of men in the church falls or is compromised by Deborah.

The semi-complementarians who argue that under normal circumstances men should govern in the civil sphere, but under abnormal circumstances it is permissible for women to govern, logically need to concede the same for church leadership (and, for that matter, family leadership). If God’s order can be set aside in the civil realm and women installed as civil rulers when men fail to give proper leadership, then it is permissible to set aside God’s order in the church and install women as church elders when men fail to give proper leadership in that sphere. If Sarah Palin can be accepted as a biblically legitimate candidate, according to the model of Deborah because we live in extraordinary times, then Sarah Palin can also be accepted as a church elder, if she should seek that office, for the same reason.

Evangelical feminists are rigorously consistent in their doctrine of egalitarianism: it applies in every area of life. Semi-complementarians and their compromised position on male headship will not be able to win the debate against their egalitarian opponents in the long term because their position is not biblical. Semi-complementarians have already conceded egalitarianism in the public sphere; which sphere will they surrender next? On the basis of their endorsement of the example of Deborah as a standard for female rule over men in the state, it seems that the sphere of the church is in danger of falling next (we think that in various ways this has already begun), unless they repent and return to a biblical complementarianism that recognizes man’s headship in all spheres of life.

Conclusion: The example of Deborah does not establish the propriety of female rulers.

We conclude on the basis of biblical exegesis and the application of sound principles of hermeneutics and logic, that the example of Deborah does not establish the biblical validity of female civil rulers. We also conclude that there will be grievous consequences from accepting the faulty argument that the story of Deborah confirms the biblical acceptance of female rulers. Therefore, we urge Christians to think biblically and not use Deborah as justification for female magistrates in general, or for the candidacy of Sarah Palin in particular; because to do so is to corrupt the Word of God, undermine the authority of God’s law, violate a critically important principle of hermeneutics, and further encourage human autonomy in Christian ethics. We must not jettison the law of God by throwing off the counsel of the Scriptures as unpopular, antiquated, or unclear. It is God’s Word that illuminates our steps; Christians must not resort to doing that which is right in their own eyes.

In addition, we believe that it is foolish (if not blasphemous; cf. Titus 2:5) to compare the feminist Sarah Palin to Deborah and to use Deborah to validate her candidacy. Deborah was a prophetess who stood for God’s law in a corrupt society. Palin is not a prophetess, and instead of standing for the authority and truth of the law of God, she has violated God’s law by her feminist life-style and her support of public policy positions that are contrary to God’s law. Deborah was a great prophetess; Sarah Palin is only another Republican politician.

Furthermore, we contend that it is presumptuous to argue that since we live in a period of history like unto the period of the book of Judges, we can assume that God has raised up Sarah Palin for us in the same way that He raised up Deborah for Israel. How do those who make this claim justify it? How do they know that the plan of God for Israel in the days of the Deborah is the same plan that He has for America today? How do they know that Sarah Palin is a Deborah for our day? Perhaps she is something else entirely. Perhaps she has been raised up to test the Christian church, to see if our allegiance is to the Republican party and its agenda, or to Jesus Christ and His kingdom; to see if we are willing to sacrifice the biblical doctrine of Christian womanhood, and support a woman who embodies the feminist vision of womanhood for the sake of winning an election; to see if we are willing to compromise on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture for the sake of political expediency? Perhaps she is a manifestation of God’s judgment on the church in terms similar to Isaiah 3:12 (in the context of Isaiah 3:12 the women who ruled over the men were foolish women; they were not wise and godly women of the faith and character of Deborah)?

We cannot presume to know the secret will of God, and then act on our presumptions and say we are doing God’s will. Rather, we are commanded to obey the revealed will of God by doing all the words written in the law of God (Deut. 29:29). It is only by obeying God’s law (Deut. 1:13) that we can know how to vote (or not vote) in this or in any election.

Finally, we reject the perspective of those who say that even though it is normal for men to rule in the civil sphere, we have to be willing to allow for an exception from time to time and not cling so tenaciously to God’s created order for men and women, or to His commandments. This sounds like pure sophistry to us. Where in Scripture is such a thing taught? If we must be willing to make exceptions in regard to female magistrates, then we must also be willing to do the same in regard to God’s appointed order for the church and the family. But they seriously err who use the example of Deborah to argue that Sarah Palin is an exception that we need to embrace. The fact is, Sarah Palin is not an exception in our current political circumstances in America. She is part of a host of women who have moved into high positions of leadership in American civil government. To support Sarah Palin is not to yield to a Deborah-like anomaly, but to validate the whole feminist agenda of women ruling over men in the civil sphere.

1. ^ Evangelical egalitarians believe that there are no gender distinctions between men and women in terms of roles or leadership possibilities. They contend therefore, that women can serve in all positions of leadership in the church and the state, and are of equal standing (in terms of authority) with their husbands in the home. Egalitarians argue that every woman is free to choose her own course in life according to her own gifts and desires, and is not limited by divine law to fulfill a specific role or submit to any order of male headship. Another name for these evangelicals could be “Christian feminists” because they have sought to integrate the worldview of feminism with Christianity. 

2. ^ Semi-complementarians believe that there are gender distinctions between men and women. They teach that men have the headship in the spheres of family and church, and that men and women have separate but complementary roles to fulfill. They are designated semi-complementarians because they believe that the role relationships between men and women are strictly limited to the family and the church and have no application beyond those two spheres. Therefore they believe that there are no gender distinctions in what they call the public sphere, e.g., politics and civil government, business, law, or education. In the words of Wayne Grudem, they are “two-point complementarians” (Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth [Colorado Springs, CO: Multinomah Press, 2004], p. 518). The biblical position is three-point complementarianism: 1) family, 2) church, and 3) state/society.

3. ^ For a fuller presentation of this perspective see “Sarah Palin and the Complementarian Compromise.”

4. ^ Although Samuel brings to an end the period of the judges he himself is not considered a “judge.” Samuel was a Levite, priest of God, and a prophet of the LORD. Samuel is a transitional figure in the history of Israel, even as Joshua was a transitional figure in Israel. Both were men with singular gifts and callings. He is also similar to Moses in that both he and Moses fulfilled an utterly unique role in Israel’s history. Moses was the giver of the law and the founder of Israel’s theocracy. Samuel was the first great prophet of Israel and the founder of Israel’s kingship in that he anointed Israel’s first kings at God’s command. Both Moses and Samuel functioned as prophets, priests, and civil judges. None of the judges of the book of Judges come close to the role of Samuel, he is in a class of his own.

In regard to 1 Samuel 7:15-8:3, it is best to see Samuel’s role as a judge in terms of Deuteronomy 17:8-13. As the leading priest in Israel, he functioned as a supreme judge who handled the cases that had proved too difficult for the local elders and judges in the gates. Samuel, as a priest, fulfilled the role of judge given to him by God in Deuteronomy 17:8-13 by traveling to three locations: Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpeh. Here he held court to decide the cases the local elders could not resolve. In this role, he functioned not as a “judge” in the book of Judges, but as a supreme court judge according to the structure of civil government set forth in Deuteronomy 17.

5. ^ This phrase refutes the notion that the “judges” functioned as the chief magistrates of Israel. It makes no sense to say that there was no king in Israel, if the “judges” acted in a capacity similar to kings.

6. ^ Richard Schultz, “shapat,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 5 vols., ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 4:218.

7. ^ Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1907), p. 1047; Samuel P. Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949), p. 844.

8. ^ The text of Ruth 1:1, “Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled. . . .” does not contradict this conclusion. The Hebrew text states, literally, “in the days when the judges judged.” If the judges were deliverers, then the sense is something like this: “Now it came to pass in the days when the judges were raised up by God to deliver Israel.”

9. ^ Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Whole Bible, 6 vols. (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, reprint of 1708 edition), 2:138.

10. ^ John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

11. ^ Deborah does not fit the model of these six men, the only judges whose work for Israel is actually described in the text. Furthermore, the work of these men does not fit the description of Deborah’s work — giving counsel and deciding controversies (Judg. 4:4-5). It seems suspect to argue that Deborah was a judge when she did something none of the other judges are recorded as doing — settling disputes — and she did not do what these judges are recorded as doing — leading Israel into battle! The only consistent, revealed aspect of the judges’ role in the book of Judges is that they were men of war who brought God’s judgment on Israel’s enemies and delivered the nation from foreign oppression. Deborah does not fit this revealed description of the judge’s work, but Barak perfectly fits this description.

12. ^ The account of the battle clearly places Barak in the position of the leader. It is Barak, not Deborah, that “called Zebulun and Naphtali” (Judg. 4:10); it is Barak who “went up with ten thousand men at his feet” (Judg. 4:10); Heber showed Sisera that “Barak the son of Abinoam was gone up to mount Tabor” (Judg. 4:12); Deborah tells Barak that “the LORD hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the LORD gone out before thee?” (Judg. 4:14); it is Barak that leads the way down from mount Tabor with “ten thousand men at his feet” (Judg. 4:14); it is “with the edge of the sword before Barak” that the LORD overthrows Sisera (Judg. 4:15); and it is Barak who “pursued after the chariots” (Judg. 4:16, 22). Emphasis added to the biblical quotations.

13. ^ Schultz, “shapat,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 4:216.

14. ^ Ibid.

15. ^ After the deliverance of the Jews through Esther’s courage and influence, it was Mordecai, not Esther, who was raised to high political office and given authority to govern (Esther 8:2, 9, 15; 9:4; 10:2-3).

16. ^ Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

17. ^ Ibid.

This article was originally published by Vision Forum on October 2, 2008.