“For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry” (1 Sam 15:23).
It seems that despite the clear instructions in scripture there is a growing number of women entering the pastoral and teaching ministry. There is also a growing number of women elders and leaders in churches and congregations. What has happened to bring about such change?
Feminists’ Arguments are Smoke and Mirrors
Many of the arguments in favour of women in leadership and teaching roles in the church are from history and practice, but scripture is the Christian’s authority, not the Church Fathers, not the Medieval Church, not the Reformation churches, nor the contemporary churches. Christian feminists bring in every woman from scripture they can to make their case seem convincing and overwhelming, but it is just smoke and mirrors. The issue is not whether some women, such as Ruth, “bucked the system” (Evans) by proposing marriage; or others such as Rizpah were able to pressure the king (2 Sam 21:10); the courage and faith of women is not in question to most Christians. The issue is women as leaders and teachers in the church. No matter how many women the feminists produce, all they’re doing is muddying the water because there is only a handful of women in the bible who were actually leaders and teachers, not a solid and steady stream of them as the feminists would have us believe. Yes, there were many women who were worthy of praise, and some of my favourite personalities and examples of faith in the OT are women. But faithfulness, godliness, courage, heroism, wisdom and suffering do not equate to leadership. The number of faithful women in the bible is irrelevant when we’re talking about leadership in Israel or the Church.
Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans, for example, in her blog, says that when it comes to women in ministry, many Christians read scripture through the lens of 1 Tim 2:11-15 where Paul forbids women from teaching and ruling in the church. She says that in view of the multitude of women in scripture who are honoured by God and praised by their community for teaching and exercising leadership, she sees 1 Tim 2:11-15 as an anomaly and that it’s hard for Paul’s statements to be applied. So does that mean this passage is not scripture? Did Paul make a mistake which, having been foisted on the Church, is to be ignored because of the trauma it causes godly women? This is a view held and taught by Professor Bart Ehrman, but not originating with him; it originated in the Higher Critical halls and colleges of unbelieving theology which undermines trust in the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. It’s easy to disprove doctrine if you remove the passages which teach it!
But Rachel even appeals to the ridiculous in her attempts to deny the biblical commands. She writes: “Of particular concern to Paul was a group of young widows who had infiltrated the church and developed a reputation for dressing promiscuously, sleeping around, gossiping, spreading unorthodox ideas, interrupting church services with questions, mooching off the church’s widow fund, and generally making common floozies of themselves (1 Timothy 5). Many scholars believe these women were likely influenced by the popular Roman fertility cults of Artemis that encouraged women to flaunt their sexuality and freedom to a degree that scandalized even the Roman establishment, hardly known for its prudish morals. Worship involved deviant sex, shirking off marriage and childbearing, possible abortions and infanticide, and immodest dress that made adherents indistinguishable from prostitutes” (Rachel Held Evans blog article “For the sake of the gospel, let women speak”).
The claims that 1 Timothy (and 2 Timothy and Titus) was a “pious forgery” written in the 2nd century arose during the 19th century; I won’t deal with that here except to say that Clement of Rome (died 99 AD), Polycarp (69-155 AD), Irenaeus 130-200 AD), Tertullian (160-225 AD) and Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) accepted it as one of Paul’s; so it was known as a Pauline epistle from the beginning.
Rachel also gives a disclaimer, saying that the Old Testament was written in a patriarchal society, therefore men are more often the protagonists in the stories than women, and held leadership more often than women. But surely the Old Testament was inspired by God, as it says in 2 Tim 3:16? It wasn’t men who designed Israelite culture and society, it was God. It wasn’t Moses who invented the Law and foisted it on the nation; and the law wasn’t developed from stories told around the camp fire and handed down to posterity; it was God who gave it as a blessing to his people; it was the revelation of God for his people. God gave the Law from Mt Sinai amidst flames, thunder and lightning, thick cloud and darkness, angels, trumpet blasts from heaven, and earthquake. And he prefaced the whole thing with the words “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exod 20:2). He meant it to be obeyed and imposed severe penalties on any infringements of his law (Heb 2:2). So to blame the lack of women leaders and teachers on a patriarchal society is astonishing, and ignorance at best; but I know Rachel isn’t ignorant because I’ve read some of her books.
Rachel is troubled because women in Israel were regarded as property (Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21; Judges 5:30); fathers were to be paid if their daughter was raped and the victim had to marry her oppressor (Deut 22:28-29); and she enumerates a list of significant examples of inequitable treatment of women which men didn’t have to suffer. I agree with her that these examples are troubling to our modern minds. But I dare not challenge God about it, nor try to undermine the scriptures to soften the impact. God knew what he was doing and he did it the way he wanted it done. He did impose those conditions on the society and culture of Israel, whether we like it or not; indeed, whether they liked it or not. But scripture doesn’t record any women who thought they lived in an unjust society. And I’m very sure that if I had to go back in time to live as a woman in the ancient world, I would without hesitation choose to live in Israel rather than in any of the other nations!
Perhaps Rachel missed this passage when she was reading through her bible: Moses, when addressing the nation of Israel, said “Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Deut 4:5-8).
Rachel’s approach is around the wrong way. When Paul wrote his letters to Timothy, he based his statements about women on the Law, particularly Genesis chapters 2 and 3. His statement is not an anomaly but the application of the Law to NT church practice. And in the OT, it was the women leaders and teachers who were the anomalies. To build church practice on exceptions to the rule is wrong use of scripture. We can be thankful for the anomalies of women teachers and leaders but we cannot make it normal – scripture does not allow that. We can be thankful for the women of courage and faith in the bible but we shouldn’t therefore open the doors of the church to women to lead and to teach simply because God chose or allowed some to do so. God has stipulated what he wants, and he tells us, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim 2:11-12). The source of this command is not misogyny or culture, it is God’s law. So the very next verse says “For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression” (1 Tim 2:13-14). To undermine such a clear statement in the bible is dangerous, not only because women are taking up leadership roles in increasing numbers, but it sets a precedent, and anything else in the bible that is unpopular can also be turned around. And it’s just plain disobedience. Either accept the bible as it is or reject it – but please, don’t change it to suit your ideals or wishes; if you do that you’re simply fashioning an idol in your own image.
Backdrop to the Old Testament
It was the law for the firstborn son to inherit the property rights but on occasion God made an exception to this rule and chose the second son e.g. Jacob over Esau, Judah the fourth son, Ephraim over Manasseh, David, the youngest of eight sons, etc. The rule of the firstborn inheriting the birthright never changed but God sometimes worked outside that rule for his own purposes, which he doesn’t always disclose. So to see women being used by God outside the norm doesn’t invalidate the norm.
The order of things as ordained by God was that men were the leaders of the family, of the tribe, of the nation, and of the sacrifices in the tabernacle, and later, temple worship (e.g. 2 Chron 20:13; Num 27:15-17). A female was under the authority of her father while she remained unmarried in his house; she wasn’t even allowed to make vows unless he validated them. When she married she then came under the authority of her husband and, again, could not even make a vow without his permission (Numbers chapter 30). If she did make a vow without first checking with her father or husband, they could invalidate it.
When a male child was born, the mother was unclean for seven days; on the eighth day the child was circumcised, and then the mother remained unclean for a further thirty-three days. However, if the child was a female, the mother remained unclean for fourteen days, and continued in her uncleanness after this for sixty-six days (Leviticus 12:1-8). So there is a difference here between male and female, and that difference was made by God. Sadly, men have used their position to demean and abuse women but that was never God’s intention (1 Pet 3:7; Eph 5:23, 25).
The family tree was traced through the male. The genealogy in Luke’s gospel traces the line through the son, while Matthew’s gospel traces it through the father (obviously, this amounts to the same thing). However, Matt 1:5 mentions Rahab the harlot and Ruth as being in Jesus’ ancestry; they were not leaders but they do rate a mention in the genealogy; and Mary was also mentioned as the one through whom he was born. Nowhere in scripture is there even a hint of Rahab, Ruth or Mary being a leader or a teacher.
Sin, Judgment, and the Curse
In Genesis 2:18-25, during the process of creation on the sixth day, God made a woman out of Adam to be a helper and companion to him. The apostle Paul understands this to mean that Eve was subordinate to Adam because she was created for him (1 Cor 11:9). Eve’s role and purpose in life was to be a help and companion to Adam; this was God’s intention for her. Then in Gen 3:16, after Adam and Eve had sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, God tells Eve “…thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”.
Apart from the fact that the consequences of sin are judgment and punishment by God, the bible itself says that Adam and Eve, and the whole creation, were cursed. By God! For all time! Gen 3:14 tells us God cursed the serpent; in v.15 he pronounces enmity between Christ and Satan and their seed; in v.16 he says to Eve “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”; and in v.17 he cursed the ground and pronounced sorrow on Adam because of it. In Gen 5:29 and 8:21 the ground is described as cursed; and Rom 8:18-21 confirms this, showing that it is the whole of creation that is under the curse, that it was God who cursed it, and that it remains so to this day and will do until the end of the world.
In discussing Gen 3:16, the domination here is not a sinful domination but headship of the husband over the wife, and it was imposed by God. But before anyone gets upset and cries “Unfair! Sexism!” let’s just consider the situation. Adam and Eve rebelled against God! By their act of disobedience, they plunged the whole of creation under a curse for the rest of time; consequently all human beings are made guilty and are enemies of God from the moment of conception (Psalm 51:5). Every conceivable misery came into this world because of their one act of disobedience! The whole creation was wrenched away from God and plunged into rebellion and death; and the only remedy for such a stupendously catastrophic sin was that God himself should become a part of this fallen creation and suffer death, the penalty for sin, in order to rescue those who had become his enemies!
So is it right to complain because God dares to exercise his just judgment, part of which was to subject wives to their husbands? Shouldn’t we rather be giving thanks to God that he didn’t destroy the world at that moment, or that he didn’t simply withdraw his hand and leave us to our wickedness? Shouldn’t we rather be thankful that he promised a Saviour instead (Gen 3:15)? So what if women have to submit to their husbands? So what if men have to work by the sweat of their brow? So what if we can only speak to God through a mediator now instead of face to face as Adam could – at least we can still speak to him. At least we are his children and will be with him in eternity. That’s when we will have our rest. Shame! Just do what God says, and be thankful!
Sadly, some Christians want to be the boss, to be in control, both male and female, but that is sin, and I’ve seen the evil consequences of how that works out as some schismatic makes a grab for power and control over the church – it’s very ugly and destructive. But to imply that any person who defends the biblical instruction that women should not teach or have authority over men is doing so because they want to be boss is offensive. Defending and practicing what scripture teaches is not siding with the devil, as some imply. I’m not opposed to women; but I am opposed to women and men who won’t submit to God’s law, and who try to draw others into their rebellion. However, the judgment was for man to rule, not to abuse. That rule included the responsibility to protect the woman, to provide for her and to love her (1 Pet 3:7).
Female Leaders in the Old Testament
Female heroes in Israel
The Christian feminists rightly show how God used some women in both Old and New Testaments, and I don’t begrudge praise to these worthies. Many of them were unintentionally heroic as they sought to be faithful to God e.g. the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh (Exod 1:15-22), Jael (Judges 4:18-22; 5:24-31) and Rahab the harlot (Josh 2:1-24; 6:17-25). However, being heroic doesn’t make them leaders. Scripture even praises them for their courage and faith, and it is because of their courage that we know of them today, their deeds having been recorded in scripture. But they were not leaders.
Female prophets in Israel
In an article on “Prophet” in Smith’s Bible Dictionary it distinguishes between the gift of prophecy and the prophetic order. Samuel established colleges of the prophets, similar to our theological colleges, for training in the Law. It was from these colleges that the inspired prophets who wrote scripture came i.e. the four Major Prophets and some of the twelve Minor Prophets in our Old Testament. The other prophets had the gift of prophecy, such as Amos and Huldah; they were not leaders of Israel but brought God’s messages to them; just as the prophet Agabus in Acts was not a leader in the church. And female prophets in the bible are not the norm but exceptions to the rule. God can and does sovereignly change his laws when and where he wishes, but that is his prerogative, not ours.
There are five prophetesses named in the Old Testament – Miriam (Exod 15:20); Deborah (Judges 4:4); Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chron 34:22-28); the wife of Isaiah the prophet (Isa 8:3); and Noadiah, a false prophetess (Neh 6:14). There is also an unspecified number of false prophetesses mentioned in Ezek 13:17-23.
Because God knew that false prophets would arise and ravage the Church (Old and New Testaments) he gave guidance as to how the people can identify them (Deut 18:20-22; Acts 20-28-29); once identified the false prophet is not to be feared or heeded.
Female leaders in Israel
There are only four women who could be regarded as leaders in Israel in the Old Testament – Miriam, Deborah, Jezebel and Athaliah – five if you count Esther. Two of these were pagans; Athaliah usurped power and leadership, and Jezebel married it; so half of the female leadership of Israel was evil. Miriam was a failure as a leader; which leaves Deborah – and Esther, who was more a leading figure than a leader – the only ones who can be commended.
The first of these feminist candidates for female leadership to consider is Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, and a prophetess. She is praised by the Christian feminists but the only comment we have in scripture about her is a negative one (Deut 24:9); she was a bad example and was held up to be a warning to the people because of her sin (Num 12:1-16). In fact, Miriam was the one punished by God with leprosy, and Aaron was untouched. Miriam, a woman, reached out for equality with Moses, the male leader of God’s people, and was punished and made a public example.
It is significant that Moses was called by God to lead Israel (Exod 3:10) and this leadership passed on to Joshua after Moses died (Num 27:15-23). Aaron was Moses’ spokesman (Exod 4:14-16) and therefore subordinate to him; he was also the high priest. Only men were permitted to offer sacrifices to the Lord, and only those men who were of Aaron’s line. In Exodus chapter 18, when the burden of leadership was becoming too much for Moses, he chose able men out of all Israel to judge the people. So one has to wonder what kind of leadership was left for Miriam to exercise. The scriptures record that she ledthe women in a song of praise and thanks (Exod 15:21) but it was common for the women of Israel to sing on significant occasions e.g. when David returned from battle with the Philistines (1 Sam 18:5-9). Leading women in song doth not a national leader make.
As a “leader”, Miriam had her chance to lead responsibly while Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Law; but what happened while he was away? The people made a golden calf and worshipped it, running around naked and participating in sexual immorality as part of that worship (Exod 32:25). Where was Miriam during all this? Aaron led the people in their apostasy and making idols. Why didn’t Miriam, as co-leader, stop him or at least challenge him?
So whatever kind of leadership Miriam possessed, she must still have been subordinate to Moses and Aaron. And she proved to be a weak leader and a bad example.
Then there is Deborah. And it’s at least interesting that she is only mentioned in Judges. In an obscure reading in 1 Sam 12:11, when Samuel recalled the Lord’s deliverances of Israel, as he rebuked the people for wanting a king, he recalls Bedan, whom some scholars think is Barak due to different manuscript readings, and others e.g. Douay Rheims Bible, suggest it could mean Samson “because he was of Dan”; but none here mention Deborah as one of the saviours of the nation along with Jerubbaal (Gideon), Jephthah and Samson. And in Hebrews chapter 11, in the “roll of heroes of faith” it is Barak who is mentioned, not Deborah (Heb 11:32).
I’m not trying to undervalue Deborah, I admire her, but I must point out these facts because the feminists won’t. Even though the victory went to Jael because she slew Sisera, it was still Barak who gets the mention in Hebrews chapter 11. In the feminists’ efforts to magnify Deborah they often undervalue Barak; the scripture doesn’t do this. Obviously, Barak played a more significant role than the feminists give him credit for.
The account of Deborah is found in Judges chapters 4 and 5; she is the only female leader in scripture who is commended; and she had a powerful and very effective leadership. And when compared to some of the other judges, such as Samson and Jephthah, she is worthy of every commendation. She judged Israel and resolved controversies (Judges 4:5), spoke messages from God (Judges 4:4, 6-7), led Israel back to God (Judges 5:7), and, with Barak, led Israel’s army against the oppressor (Judges 4:9, 14; 5:12); Deborah was also a prophetess (Judges 4:4).
Why did God choose Deborah, a woman, to be a judge and prophet, to lead his people? Why did he even give her the gift of prophecy? Scripture doesn’t say, so any reason given must be speculation. Just because a woman was chosen by God to be a leader and prophet doesn’t abrogate the law; it doesn’t give permission to any and all women to take it upon themselves to become leaders and prophets. It simply means that in this case God chose a woman for his own undisclosed reasons.
Esther was a godly and brave young woman who was taken to be King Xerxes’ queen. As queen of the Persian Empire she was queen of Israel, a part of the empire, by default. However, Esther did not rule in her own right and was subject to two men – her cousin Mordecai who caused her to approach Xerxes uninvited, a risky thing to do; and her husband Xerxes, the most powerful man in the world of his time. Her rule did not amount to much, even though queen, and it was also precarious. She took her life in her hands when she approached Xerxes’ throne uninvited; and the events in Esther chapter 1 show that even the court advisors and princes could remove her if they wished. Although she was queen, she had a very limited sphere of authority; even her decrees were only made with the king’s authorisation and in the king’s name (Esther 8:8), so she was really just a well-to-do wife, and her power would have been limited to the harem. And dare I point out that after having recounted all of Esther’s courageous faith, the final chapter of the book is dedicated to the greatness of the two male protagonists, Xerxes and Mordecai. I can understand the frustrations of women as they read what appears to be another example of the unfair treatment of women; but this is the bible; and the bible was written by men chosen by God “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21).
But let’s take a closer look at Esther. The Kroegers say Esther “…ran counter to her husband’s expressed wishes. (She) engaged in both wifely and civil disobedience in order to preserve her ethnic group in her husband’s empire…The king was delighted with his wife’s prudence, asking what further he might do (9:11-12) and then vesting her with authority” (Kroeger, page 18).
This is another glaring example of distortion misrepresentation of the situation and/or the text. The bible shows that she did not go against her husband’s express wishes. Yes, she approached the king without being invited to do so, which was against the law (Esther 4:11); but there was a legal loophole which she took advantage of, even though it was at the risk of her life. But she first spent three days in fasting and prayer: “Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king’s house..…when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she obtained favour in his sight: and the king held out to Esther the golden sceptre that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the sceptre” (Esther 5:1-2).
So even though Esther approached the king, she went in humility and submission, waiting for his invitation to come. Xerxes clearly did not see this as “wifely or civil disobedience”. Chapter 1 of Esther shows the result of such wifely disobedience. The previous queen, Vashti, refused to come to the king at his command: “therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him” (1:12). Compare this with 5:2 above. The king and his advisors saw that Vashti’s disobedience was a threat to the whole family structure, because if she was not punished, her example would spread throughout the kingdom, “For this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported, The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. Likewise shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king’s princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen. Thus shall there arise too much contempt and wrath” (1:17-18). Clearly, Esther was not seen as disobedient. So I suggest that the feminists take Esther as a role model, not of disobedience to their husbands, but of godly submission to them.
I would also point out that, in general, female leaders, far from being a blessing to Israel, were God’s judgment on the nation for their sin. “As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths” (Isa 3:12).
Feminist Arguments are not New
The rebellion of Korah is a striking example of the kind of arguments the feminists resort to. Korah was a Levite, one of those authorised by God to serve him in the temple. He, and Dathan and Abiram and On, and “two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown” gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?” (Num 16:2-3).
See how Korah puts a pious gloss over his rebellion by claiming equality of holiness for the congregation, and that the LORD is among them just as he is with Moses and Aaron. They wanted to destroy the order that God had established and replace it with themselves and their own agenda. They even gathered a sizeable following with many significant leaders among them. This is exactly the line that Christian feminists take. There are now many leaders (bishops and popular personalities in the churches with huge followings i.e. “men of renown”, theological colleges, churches, and denominations) who are promoting and advocating women as leaders and teachers in the churches, and they argue that women are no less holy or worthy than men, and that God is with them.
Korah’s privileged position was no defence or justification. Moses rebuked him and reminded him of his privileged position as a Levite: “Seemeth it but a small thing unto you that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them? And he hath brought thee near to him, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee: and seek ye the priesthood also?” (Num 16:9-10). The rebels were just that – rebels! And God does not tolerate rebellion – it is as the sin of witchcraft (1 Sam 15:23). So, in judgment he gathered them together and the earth literally opened up and swallowed them all – the rebels, their wives, children, animals and possessions – everything that was theirs or connected with them was destroyed and removed from the congregation. This is a very sobering lesson on how seriously God views such sin.
Is it not enough for women that God has saved them and they have eternal life with God to enjoy?
Are they not content with serving God in the church, like the Levite, but they must have the “priesthood” also?
But it doesn’t end there……
“But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD……And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment”; and 14,700 people were killed by the LORD before Moses and Aaron were able to make atonement for them (Num 16:41, 44, 45).
This is so applicable to the issue of women in ministry and to the feminists who are pushing for it. Even when the people of Israel saw the earth open up and swallow the rebels and all that pertained to them, an act that only God could do, they still blamed Moses and Aaron! It’s clear to me that the Christian feminists’ argument is not with men whom they perceive to be trying to suppress women, but with God who ordained the role of women in the family and the Church!
Please – don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that God is going to open the heavens and hurl fire and brimstone on the heads of Christian feminists because they are advocating women eldership and teaching authority. All I’m saying is that as there is such a clear analogy here in the rebellion of Korah, the feminists are under warning, and should step back and re-think their false theology and practice. There is no biblical warrant to make any change whatsoever in the church when that change is clearly forbidden by God in his word.
“Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands….Even as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord….” (1 Pet 3:1, 6).
Kroeger, Richard, and Kroeger, Catherine, 2004, Internet article “Women Elders: Called by God?”; no longer on net
Morris, H, 1976, “The Genesis Record”, page 123, publ. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture references in this article are from the King James Bible.