Woman Leadership

Woman Leadership
By: Evelyn Miranda-Feliciano
Retrieved from Vol. 7 No. 3 (1991)

“What? Is it still an issue?” I responded to a telephone invitation to become a panelist in a symposium on “Should Women be Leaders?”

“Unfortunately, it still is,” an apologetic female voice on the other side replied. “That’s the reason for the symposium.” I had to beg off graciously. First, because I was busy preparing for a trip, and second, I thought the whole meeting was a waste of precious energy.

The trip brought me to Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. Definitely, I thought such an issue would be a dodo there.

I was totally wrong. I came upon a highly agitated campus. The point of controversy which spun several feminist meetings among very articulate Christian women was Dr. J. Packer’s article (a British theologian, professor, and writer of Knowing God fame) which says to the effect that based on his well-reasoned study, that women should not be ordained as ministers of the church. “What? Here, too?” I asked my friends, thoroughly amused this time.

I have always believed, secure in my sexually unprejudiced upbringing, that leadership in the church or anywhere else is not in any way gender-bound.  It is an ability. A gift. A talent. Or a combination of skill, learning, and circumstances. When one has it, he or she has it! Regardless of sex.

That this article has to deal with women on leadership—as if there is a lingering doubt or an unarticulated question on the propriety of some of them becoming leaders—is an unhappy assignment for me. No wonder I kept putting it off until I reached the dangerous point of not writing anything at all. I dislike the thought that may be unintentionally contributing to the divisiveness along the sexual lines in an already very much divided society. The least that we need today is the battle of the sexes all over again. I do not wish to stroke a flame.

Let me just tell a story.

The Military Strategist is a Woman

Those were times of living dangerously. It is a transition period between the unsettled, nomadic life of the wilderness and the laying down of roots in God’s promised, albeit hostile land of Canaan. The Jews had arrived at last. But the land had to be wholly subjugated and claimed as God commanded. This, they were able to do, but the generation that followed after Joshua’s death hobbled between completely obeying Yahweh and compromising with their idolatrous and pagan neighbors. For after Joshua, a period of disintegration, tribal discord, and defeat followed as described in the book of Judges. Only when the people cried to God did He raise up judges to save them (Judges 2:16). Deborah was one of these prominent figures, virtually one of Israel’s national heroes.

These judges are sometimes called ‘saviors’ (Judges 3:9, 15), implying that they were not merely judicial arbiters. God’s Spirit charismatically empowered them for the deliverance and preservation of Israel (Judges 6:34). This understanding imparts new meaning to the word “judge,” namely that of a leader in battle and a ruler in peace.1

Deborah fitted the description. Her ascendancy to leadership is described this way:

“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin King & Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera who dwelt in Harosheth Haggoyim. Then the people of Israel cried to the Lord for help, for he had nine hundred chariots of iron and oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years. Now 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 Epraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (4:1-5)

Following the chronology of A.E. Cundall2, Deborah was the fourth judge of Israel with Barak as a military commander. She was the only woman among the twelve judges mentioned. Yet, what is impressive about her account is its sensibility. The narration is straightforward and factual. One does not feel a sense of tokenism or an effort to either sentimentalize or idealize womanhood through Deborah. This is significant.

It gives us the impression that the author acknowledges and most likely, welcomely accepts the fact that some women, like some men, are gifted in spiritual public leadership and are called upon by God to become national figures in some points of history. Hence, the unembellished narration in Judges 4 or even that of Queen Esther’s in the Book of Esther. This fact is overlooked by John Calvin, one of the most influential theologians of the Western world, when he commented: “Unquestionably, wherever even natural propriety has been maintained, women have in all ages been excluded from the public management of affairs. It is the dictate of common sense that female government is improper and inappropriate.”3 Calvin must have missed Deborah in his readings of the Old Testament!

For definitely, she was a woman in public affairs. She rose to power in a challenging national situation. For twenty years, the Jews lived in virtual terror under the cruel subjugation of a despotic king, Jabin of Canaan. He had a well-known army commander by the name of Sisera whole military might be brought shivers down the spine of his enemies. He had nine hundred chariots of iron, a modern acquisition at that age, which meant speed, mobility, and better maneuverability in the arena of war. The Jews saw their situation as hopeless, and humanly speaking, they called to God for help. And as God is always merciful and gracious even to erring people, He answered them by providing a woman judge in their midst who was primarily a prophetess and arbiter but who turned to be an excellent military strategist with a keen sense of nature’s ways. She dared to accompany the doubtful Barak, the Jewish commander, to war. Her multi-giftedness, courage, and obedience saved the whole nation.

Deborah, we are told, was a married prophetess, which means that being God’s man or woman has nothing to do with one’s marital status. As a prophetess, she was basically a woman of the Word of God. A spiritual leader, first and foremost. Her main interest was to bring God’s intent to her countrymen with the conviction that her proclamation of it would radically change them and their whole situation. This she did by means of warnings and encouragement concerning the present and the future. As we often hear, the office of the prophet or prophetess is to foretell and forthtell. And these, Deborah was faithful in doing. 

Yet, she was also a judge. Her headquarters was based under the ‘palm tree of Deborah’ between Ramah and Bethel, a rather centrally located area accessible to people of Israel from all directions. She had that serious and delicate task of settling their disputes—may be local, which could not be handled adequately by their local judge or intertribal wrangling that required a national arbiter. As pointed out, she (Deborah) was a judge in the ordinary, non-military sense of the word. It was probably because of her charismatic renown that the Israelites had recourse to her in the straits to which they were reduced under Sisera’s oppression.4

Nevertheless, though she was adjudicating non-militarily, Deborah was used by God to envision a military strategy that would crush the proud Sisera and give peace to Israel for the next forty years (Judges 5:31). She summoned Barak and ordered him to gather his men in the mountain of Tabor to draw Sisera’s chariot below and promised him victory from the Lord. Ever a logical and military tactician, Barak must have been quite anxious about such backhanded audacity coming from a female judge at that. But perhaps, he remembered the utter desperation of his people and was willing to risk it on one condition: “If you will go with me, he propositioned Deborah, “I will go, but if you do not go with me, I will not go.

Curiously, commander Barak should desire Deborah’s presence in the Kishon battle. What could she probably do there? She was a prophetess, God’s spokesperson who saw dreams and vision and interpreted His word to His people. She was not trained for the blood and gore of war. She was a public official who wielded her pen to announce judicial cases. She did not know how to wield a sword or carry armor. Nevertheless, Barak wanted her to go with him.

Was Barak afraid? Did he lack self-confidence? But he was a military officer honed on the battlefield. Did he doubt Deborah’s prophecy of victory? Was it too much to believe that freedom could be won? It is possible that Barak, for all his training, has succumbed to pessimism. After all, twenty years of defeat, oppression, and national shame could break any man’s hope for victory, freedom, and dignity. Barak might have wanted to ensure that with Deborah on his side, defeat if it would come, would not be his alone but hers as well. 

Deborah, on her part, saw nothing but victory. Her answer was definite and clearly showed her confidence. “I will surely go with you,” she said. But also gave him a foreshadow of his tarnished military image because he doubted: “…nevertheless, the road to which you are going will not lead you to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera to the hand of a woman.” This was a time of women heroes. 

The tragic account of Sisera’s defeat was, on a cursory glance, a combination of nature’s handiwork and that of woman power working concertedly against him. From the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5, it appears that while Sisera’s mighty chariot thundered through the banks of river Kishon, a cloudburst opened the dam of heaven and overflowed the river, begging down the iron chariots and drowning some of Sisera’s men. It was then relatively easy for Barak’s waiting men from the mountain slopes to rush down the mud-strapped enemies and slay them. 

Sisera, on the other hand, seeing that his army was in disarray and defeat was inevitable, escaped taking refuge in a woman’s tent quite confident that she was a friend (Judges 4:17). But Jael, the wife of Kenite, had her sympathy with the Israelites. Breaking all the Eastern hospitality rules, she killed the hated Sisera while in his dog-tired sleep and turned his body over to Barak. After twenty years of oppression, the whole nation of Israel exploded into happy singing of praises to God for His triumphant deliverance. A newfound freedom was theirs again. Deborah and Barak led the festivities. 

Though they were careful to attribute their victory to God, they were not people to downgrade their own contribution. Their song’s first stanza states a truth worthy of the emulation of any nation desirous of liberation—military, economic, or political. 

“That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the Lord!”

The leaders took the lead. Deborah was not judge and prophetess for nothing. She was not merely a titular or nominal head dependent on her self-serving advisers and court jesters’ whisperings for her decisions. She was her own person, a visionary. A person of integrity, deserving of respect from her own people. She was decisive on crucial issues as she was brave. She had faith in the ability of God to wrest a victory for them from their enemies.

The basic trait is that leadership is regardless of sex. A leader must take leadership seriously by leading. There is no more cardinal truth than this.

For when leaders lead with integrity and seriousness, it is much easier for followers to follow willingly. The task of leadership is to inspire followers to actions of nobility, of sacrifice, of greatness. Perhaps, in the field of battle, Barak became a much braver soldier, a more inspired tactician, a more awesome commander with Deborah on his side. Her audacious presence was a great encouragement for him to win the war.

Yet, Deborah and Barak did not glory over the fact that they led the nation to victory. They acknowledged with humility that it was God’s triumph. They prayed, “Lord, when thou didst go forth…” And they narrated: “The mountains quaked before the Lord, the God of Israel.” (Judges 5:4-5). Then they encouraged the people:

“Tell of it, you who ride on tawny asses, you who sit on rich carpets, and you who walk by the way.  To the sound of the musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel” (Judges 5:10-11)

And this is where the greatness of Deborah as a national leader lies. She may have been described in the song as “Mother of Israel” (Judges 5:7) who brought positive changes to people’s lives, but she did not lose sight of her vicious leadership, fine mind, and keen judgment; her courage were gifts from Yahweh. It was only when she was sensitive to God’s voice and implicitly obeyed Him that God exalted her in the midst of her people above all other men and women. For obedience is just another face of humility. Our Lord Jesus Christ, centuries later, reiterate this truth time and again: “He who is the greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Mat. 23:11; Luke 14:11; 18:14).

God raised Deborah as a judge in Israel at a time when it needed a decisive and courageous leader. That she was a woman was not at all an impediment as many are prone to regard. The most important thing was that she was attuned to God’s voice, was capable of harnessing the people to unite in the name of their covenant to Yahweh, and courageous enough to take her faith in places of significant risks such as in the arena of actual mortal battle. Based on our present-day standard, Deborah was quite a “modern” woman reminding us of some world-class leaders such as Israeli’s Golda Meier, Indira Gandhi, England’s Margaret Thatcher, Ceylon’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike and our very own Corazon C. Aquino of the 1986 vintage*

*Similar with today’s female world leaders: New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taiwan’s first female President, Tsai Ing-wen, United States’ first female Vice President, Kamala Harris, and our very own Vice President Leni Robredo.

Should women be leaders?

The example of Deborah makes the question irrelevant. The spiritual spheres, public affairs, and even military realms are just as much of the world of women as they are of men. Both sexes were divinely-breathed, created in the image of God. Together they were commanded to rule and have dominion.  The story of Deborah is a graphic example of what woman leadership can do under the guidance of the Spirit of God. The same guidance is needed by any man who wishes to become an effective leader.

With Deborah as one of our spiritual foremothers, any woman gifted with leadership can exercise her gift in peace and confidence that God will look kindly on her. 

Study Guide:

  1. List down three common reasons why there appears to be resistance against women leadership both inside and outside the church?
  2. How do you counter such resistance biblically?
  3. What actions could be taken to make leadership not necessarily gender-bound?


[1] D. Douglas, ed., “Judges” The New Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962, p.676
[2] David and Patricia Alexander, ed., “Judges”, Handbook to the Bible, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William Publishing co, 1973, p.217.
[3] E. Margaret Howe, Women, and Church Leadership, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982, p. 62.
[4] J. D. Douglas, ed., “Deborah”, The New Bible Dictionary, p. 303

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