The grounds which Synod Meppel used to justify their decision to allow churches to ordain women to all ecclesiastical offices were given on July 4 in a letter from the executive of the Synod to our Dutch sister churches. The Synod made separate decisions to justify female participation in the office of deacon, elder, and minister. Since the elder office is the basic governing office in the church and the office of minister is an elder office, this article will focus on the Synod’s decision to open the elder office to women. The Synod declared that: “There are biblical grounds to call women alongside men into the service of supervision, the pastorate, and teaching and thus into the office of elder.” Considering the many potential ramifications of this far-reaching decision, let us briefly consider each of the four grounds which Synod gave in turn.
The first justification for female ordination into the elder office which Synod mentioned is: “The persons of Miriam (Micah 6:4) and Deborah (Judges 4-5) show that women in the old covenant participated in governing and judging in cooperation with men.”
Since Miriam will come up in the next synodical justification, we will now concentrate on Deborah. Is the fact that Deborah functioned as a judge and prophetess a valid reason to open up the office of elder to women today? The answer must be no when you consider the following. A primary rule for the correct interpretation and application of Scripture is to place the passage in question within its biblical context. Deborah lived in the days of the judges. This was a time characterized by Israel’s repeated apostacy, followed by divine judgement, and the desperate cry of the nation for deliverance. God would repeatedly graciously respond by raising up a judge who would rescue the people from their enemies. In Deborah’s time the LORD sold his rebellious people into the hands of Jabin, king of Canaan (Judge 4:2-3). In these critical times Israel cried to the LORD for help and he used Deborah to give deliverance.
It is important to note how God introduced Deborah and how he involved her for the salvation of his people. We read that “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgement” (Judg 4:4-5 ESV). With the preceding two crises, the Hebrew expression “the LORD raised up a deliverer” (Judg 3:9, 15) is used. We also frequently read of the judges being empowered by the Spirit for their military task (Judg 3:10; 6:34; 14:19; 15:14). Remarkably, these expressions are not used with Deborah. Rather she is introduced as a prophetess and not a military leader.
As a prophetess she was judging Israel. One could imagine that as a judge she was resolving legal issues brought to her. However, this interpretation is unlikely. A judge in the book of Judges is a military leader who delivers Israel and when judge “so and so” judged Israel for so many years, then it means he ruled Israel for so many years (e.g. Judg 3:10; 10:2, 3 etc). The NIV therefore translates that she “was leading Israel” (Judg 4:4). How was she leading Israel? She was a prophetess. People came to her “for judgement” (Judg 4:5). In other words, in this time of national crisis when Israelites “cried to the LORD for help” (Judg 4:3), they came to Deborah for the judgement of God which she as prophetess could give in answer to their cry for help. As prophetess she was God’s representative for the people and spoke God’s Word.
As a result she summoned Barak and gave him God’s command to mobilize ten thousand men to defeat the foe (Judg 3:5-7). When he protested because he was afraid, Deborah assured him that she would accompany him. Her coming along as spokesperson for the LORD gave tangible expression to the fact that God himself would go with Barak and give him the victory.
Deborah is never pictured as a military leader of Israel, a judge in the sense of Othniel or Gideon. She was a prophetess. It is therefore not surprising that there is no reference to her with respect to the battle. Although she gave leadership through her prophetic task, she is not described in Scripture as the judge who delivered Israel from Sisera. Rather it is God who is specified as the deliverer of Israel (Judg 4:23) and he used another woman, Jael, to kill Sisera (Judg 4:21). Deborah’s subordinate role as prophetess and not as military leader is also evident from the fact that God did not send Deborah to lead the troops into battle, but Barak. Furthermore, when Samuel would later mention deliverers of Israel (1 Sam 12:11), he did not mention Deborah, but he did name Barak, the commander. Similarly, Deborah is not mentioned with the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, although several judges, including Barak (v. 32) are, but not Deborah. All of this underlines her relatively modest role with respect to the deliverance of Israel.
God raised up Deborah to be prophetess in Israel at a time of crisis. Deborah’s function as prophetess was an exception within an exceptional situation. The face that she was also known as the wife of Lappidoth could indicate the ad hoc character of her office. People came to her in the current circumstances for God spoke through her, but there is no record of her going out and prophesying among the people. Without taking anything away from her being a prophetess, it should not be forgotten that she is also identified as a married woman, indeed as “a mother in Israel” (5:7). Her prophetic office was not everything. She also fulfilled a woman’s normal place in Israelite life.
Can Deborah function as an example for us to follow for today by ordaining women into the office of elder? The answer is clearly no. The situation in Israel was desperate and by way of exception God raised her up as a prophet in Israel. In this way God enabled her to pass on God’s command that Barak (and not Deborah) summon and command a military force against the enemy (Judg 4:6-7). The fact that God used a woman to make this clear was an implicit condemnation of the lack of male leadership in Israel. Furthermore, the need for Deborah to accompany Barak and to go with him to the battlefield (Judg 4:9-10) underlined how male leadership was totally lacking in Israel. For a woman to have to goad a male to take charge and so in effect give leadership was akin to a disaster (cf. Isa 3:12). It showed that things had gone terribly wrong. Deborah is therefore not an example to be followed and her situation provides no justification to open the leadership offices of the church to women. But, as Calvin noted on 1 Timothy 2:12, God is sovereign and he can do in extraordinary circumstances what we are not allowed to do. He therefore did use Deborah in a special way for his service.
To be continued.
Cornelius Van Dam (professor emeritus of Old Testament at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario). This is the first of two instalments. The complete article is in Clarion (Canadian Reformed Magazine) July 28 2017, pp. 423-426.