Could Deborah be an elder in the church?

Could Deborah be an elder in the church?

Question
Deborah was a prophet and an Israelite judge. Could she qualify for being an elder in a church?
Answer
Women have some extraordinary gifts both inside and outside the church for the glory of God alone. Deborah was a judge, a position similar to a ruler, such as a queen or president. To judge meant to rule (cf. Ruth 1:1), yet Deborah wasn't in a leadership position in the Old Testament church where the priests and Levites were the leaders. Only men served in these positions (cf. Exod. 13:2; 28:1-4; Num. 3:10-12; Deut. 17:8-13; 33:10; Heb. 5:1, et. al.). As well, Deborah doesn't meet the qualifications for being an elder established by the Holy Spirit in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. For instance, the husband of one wife isn't near a match (1 Tim. 3:2). However, as Judges informs us, Deborah was nonetheless very gifted and called of God.

There are some strong indications that Deborah actually preferred that men would take the lead. In Judges 5:2 she says, "When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves — praise the Lord!" (NIV84). My Jewish Bible states it this way: "When men let grow their hair in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly, bless ye HaShem!" (JPS 1917). It can be said that "growing hair" reflects men taking courage to lead and fight. And in Judges 4:8-9, there is this exchange between Barak and Deborah:

Barak said to here, "If you go with me, I will go, but if you don't go with me, I won't go. "Very well," Deborah said. "I will go with you. But the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, but the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman."

So, it appears that though Deborah was extraordinarily gifted by the Holy Spirit, she still preferred that men do the leading. I believe she and the apostle Paul would have gotten along just fine. In 1 Timothy 2:11-12 Paul writes:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

I believe an interpretative study (examining the historical background, doing a lexical study, and scrutinizing the sentence structure, the exegesis in context, the hermeneutics, and application [1]) and the natural reading of the passage shows that God forbids women from serving as pastors or elders in his church. So, simply put, this text prohibits women to officially teach or rule in the church (cf. 1 Cor. 14:33-35; that is, women should not teach as elders or in elder-like ways. Some have argued that 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is specific only to Ephesus, but this is not the case. Why? Because in the fuller context (1 Tim. 2:11-14), Paul contends that man was created first and then the women and that Eve was deceived first while Adam overtly rebelled first. So, as a creation ordinance, this text applies to all churches, not just Ephesus.

This said, throughout Scripture we observe women engaged in acts of speech during worship, for instance, singing (Exod. 15:20-21; cf. Col. 3:16). As matter a fact, we see other women instructing and exhorting diverse audiences as well. Along with Deborah we have Miriam and Esther (Exod. 15:1-21; Est. 4:1-17). In a private setting, Priscilla, together with her husband Aquila, explained the fullness of gospel to Apollos (Acts 18:26). In public, women prophesied (not preached) in the church (Acts 2:11, 17; 1 Cor. 11:5; 14:26), and the whole congregation – including men – profited from these interactions with the Spirit (Rom. 15:14; 1 Cor. 14:31). We even observe that women should teach other women (Tit. 2:3-5).

So, 1 Timothy 2:11-12 does not state that women cannot do other things for the common good of the body of Christ (Eph. 5:22-33). As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Therefore, I say that while a qualified woman such as Deborah might biblically exercise authority in civil government, she should not rule in the church. But even if one argues that Deborah was an elder, I personally hold with John Calvin who wrote, "God's extraordinary acts do not annul the ordinary rules by which He wishes us to be bound." [2] And God's ordinary means are quite specific in 1 Timothy 2:11-14; 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 and implied by the other Old Testament examples cited above (cf. Exod. 13:2; 28:1-4; Num. 3:10-12; Deut. 17:8-13; 33:10; Heb. 5:1, et. al.).

Scripturally speaking, women should be willingly submissive in the church. However, as Deborah and others show us, this is not because women are any less capable than men. Why then? Because this is how our God made us to reflect his image (Gen. 1:26; 1 Tim. 2:11-14). Christ is a male and he is the head of the church (Eph. 5:32; Col. 1:18). Elders are under-shepherds (cf. Acts 20:28) who should reflect the image of the Chief-Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4; cf. John 10:11; 1 Pet. 2:25). So this would mean the church better reflects God's image when male elders lovingly teach and rule, and women, being no less worthy than men, willingly cede official authority to men in the church.

Reference

[1] Köstenberger, Andreas J. (Editor), Schreiner, Thomas R. (Editor). Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, 2nd Edition, Baker Academic; (August 1, 2005).
[2] Calvin, John. Calvin's New Testament Commentaries: A New Translation, Vol. 10; (Eerdmans, 1964), page 217.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).