We see male leadership in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. The pattern began at creation and is maintained with patriarchs, priests, kings, apostles, and elders. If you’re wondering, “What does the bible say about leadership?” read or listen to this chapter from Your Marriage God’s Way for answers.
Table of contents
- FEMALE LEADERS IN THE BIBLE DON’T CONFLICT WITH GOD’S PATTERN OF MALE LEADERSHIP
- FIVE REASONS DEBORAH SUPPORTS MALE LEADERSHIP IN THE BIBLE
- THE PATTERN OF MALE LEADERSHIP IN THE BIBLE CONTINUES TODAY
- THE REAL QUESTION ABOUT MALE LEADERSHIP
I was not raised in a Christian home. While my parents were moral, hardworking, and I learned much from them, they didn’t model gender roles for me as they’re presented in Scripture. This led me to believe men and women are identical regarding their roles and responsibilities. Aside from the obvious, such as not going into the bathroom of the wrong gender or playing on the opposite gender’s sports team—things that tragically our world is even starting to get wrong—I didn’t think of men and women acting much differently from each other.
This was even the case when I went through ROTC and then became an Army officer. Except for a few differences, such as lower requirements on the physical fitness tests, I didn’t see men and women facing different expectations or being treated differently. Although I wasn’t a Christian at the time, and even though I couldn’t put my finger on it, there was a nagging suspicion that men, versus women, should lead. You probably have this thought in the back of your mind too. Why is that? Because, as Scripture reveals, God created men to lead. We see that throughout the history of God’s people. The pattern of male leadership began at creation and is maintained throughout Scripture:
- There were patriarchs instead of matriarchs.
- The tribes of Israel were named after men.
- The only legitimate mediators between God and people were men (i.e., priests instead of priestesses).
- God appointed kings instead of queens.
- God called men to serve as the focal points of His covenants with mankind (for example, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus).
FEMALE LEADERS IN THE BIBLE DON’T CONFLICT WITH GOD’S PATTERN OF MALE LEADERSHIP
So why do we see examples of female leadership in Scripture? What about queens, prophetesses, and at least one female judge—Deborah? Were these women anomalies? Are they examples of rebellion against God’s design, or is there another explanation? To answer these questions, let’s look at them individually.
Scripture mentions three prominent queens, and they fall into two categories: evil and good. Jezebel (1 Kings 16-22; 2 Kings 9) and Athaliah (2 Kings 8, 11) were evil women who seized control and became tyrannical leaders. Jezebel instituted the worship of the false god Baal across Israel and persecuted followers of Yahweh. Athaliah murdered her grandchildren upon the death of her son and then seized the throne of Judah. Clearly, neither woman serves as a good example.
On the other hand, Esther stands in contrast as a godly queen. We see through the account of her life that she supported male leadership through her submission first to her adopted father, Mordecai, and then to her husband, King Xerxes of Persia. This wasn’t the only factor that allowed her to save her people from annihilation. There was also her courage in going before the king knowing “that any man or woman who goes into the inner court to the king, who has not been called, he has but one law: put all to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter, that he may live” (Esther 4:11). All of this reveals a heart that’s yielded to God. The whole of her life contributed to her submissive attitude and made her useful to God.
Under the Mosaic covenant, only men could be priests because they were the teachers: “[The priests] may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken” (Leviticus 10:11). When priestesses are mentioned, they are associated with pagan religions such as the worship of Astarte or Baal. Wayne Grudem, professor of theology and cofounder of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, explains:
“Think of the Bible as a whole, from Genesis to Revelation. Where is there one example in the entire Bible of a woman publicly teaching an assembled group of God’s people? There is none.”Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 82.
While we find no scriptural examples of women publicly teaching an assembly, it’s worth noting that no negative association is attached in Scripture to women being prophetesses. They could occupy this office because it was not a leadership position, and it did not cause them to teach men:
It is instructive to note in the Old Testament that some women were prophets, but never priests. It is the priests who had the more settled and established positions of leadership in Israel. Prophecy is a different kind of gift from teaching, and when women functioned as prophets they did so with a demeanor and attitude that supported male leadership. Women who had the gift of prophecy did not exercise it in a public forum as male prophets did. The reason for this is that such a public exercise of authority would contradict male headship.John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 217.
If we briefly consider two examples of the most prominent prophetesses in the Old Testament, we see how their ministries not only didn’t conflict with male headship but actually supported it. The first is Moses’s sister Miriam. After the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, Moses led the nation in a song of praise (Exodus 15:1-19). Then Miriam did something similar in Exodus 15:20-21, but with an important difference: “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them: ‘Sing to the Lord…’” Note that Miriam led only the women in singing, as opposed to leading both women and men as her brother Moses had done.
Conversely, consider what happened when Miriam joined Aaron in challenging Moses’s leadership. In Numbers 12:2, Miriam and Aaron asked, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through [you]? Has He not spoken through us also?” Apparently, they thought they should have some of Moses’s authority. In response, God quickly called the people of Israel to the tabernacle of meeting, appeared in the pillar of cloud, rebuked Aaron and Miriam, defended Moses, and gave Miriam leprosy for rebelling against God’s appointed leader (Numbers 12:4-10).
After Moses interceded for Miriam, her leprosy was removed, but God still commanded that she be put outside the camp for seven days (Numbers 12:13- 15). What’s puzzling here is that Aaron engaged in the same sin as Miriam, yet only she was punished in this way. Why the difference? Scripture gives no indication that Miriam did anything worse, or even different than Aaron: “Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses…So they said, ‘Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?’” (Numbers 12:1-2). While it was bad for Aaron to try to usurp his brother’s authority, it was worse for Miriam because she was the initiator.
We fast-forward almost one millennium to another prominent prophetess: Huldah. While Miriam lived during the wilderness wanderings, Huldah lived during the reign of one of Judah’s greatest kings: Josiah. During his restoration of the temple, the Book of the Law (Pentateuch) was discovered. When it was read before Josiah, he was grieved to discover how far his nation had strayed from following God. Tearing his clothes, Josiah sent messengers to “inquire of the Lord” (2 Kings 22:13). Those messengers went to Huldah the prophetess. The significance of Huldah’s response is that she did not publicly proclaim God’s Word. Rather, she explained it privately to the messengers (2 Kings 22:15-20). She exercised her prophetic ministry in a way that did not obstruct, but instead, supported male headship.
Numerous other prophetesses are listed throughout Scripture, making clear this role was not an anomaly:
- Deborah, who also served as a judge (Judges 4:4)
- The wife of Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 8:3)
- Anna, who spoke about Jesus’s birth in the temple (Luke 2:36-38)
- The four daughters of Philip the evangelist (Acts 21:9)
In each case, however, like Huldah, there is no record of these women having the public teaching ministries of their male counterparts.
Other women in the Bible are not called prophetesses but are recorded as prophesying:
- Hannah, mother of Samuel the prophet (1 Samuel 2:1-10)
- Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:39-45)
- Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46-55)
In every instance, the women prophesied under the headship of a husband or father or, in the case of the widow Anna, the temple’s male leadership.
Judges were Israel’s primary rulers for almost three-and-a-half centuries. They also commanded armies, making these some of the strongest leaders in Scripture. So why did Deborah serve as judge? In discussions about the role of women in church leadership, Deborah is often the first example brought up to support the idea of female leaders. For this reason, Deborah’s example is worth looking at more closely. We’ll see she also supports the principle of male leadership.
First, There’s No Mention of Deborah Being Appointed by God
Throughout the book of Judges, as men rise to leadership, we read verses that confirm they were chosen or empowered by God:
- “The Lord raised up a deliverer…Othniel” (Judges 3:9).
- “The Lord raised up a deliverer…Ehud” (Judges 3:15).
- “The Lord [said to Gideon], ‘Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel…Have I not sent you?’” (Judges 6:14).
- “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29).
- “Samson…grew and the Lord blessed him. And the Spirit of the Lord began to move upon him” (Judges 13:24-25).
But with Deborah, there is no indication God specifically appointed her to that role. Judges 4:4 simply says, “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time.” When we are introduced to her, we read that she is female, and what is missed in the English translations of the Bible is a negative emphasis that appears in the original Hebrew text of this passage:
Judges 4:4 suggests some amazement at the unusual nature of the situation in which a woman actually has to judge Israel, because it piles up a string of redundant words to emphasize that Deborah is a woman. Translating the Hebrew text literally, the verse says, “And Deborah, a woman, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she was judging Israel at the time.” Something is abnormal, something is wrong—there are no men to function as judge! This impression is confirmed when we read of Barak’s timidity and the rebuke he receives as well as the loss of glory he could have received.1
Second, Deborah’s Ministry was Private Versus Public
Judges 4:5 says Deborah “would sit under the palm tree…and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.” The people approached her privately. She did not publicly teach the Word of God, as was the case with Huldah and other prophetesses. Rather, Deborah is another example of a woman limited to private and individual instruction. Even when Deborah called for Barak, Judges 4:6-7 shows her speaking to him privately:
She sent and called for Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “Has not the Lord God of Israel commanded, ‘Go and deploy troops at Mount Tabor; take with you ten thousand men of the sons of Naphtali and of the sons of Zebulun; and against you I will deploy Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude at the River Kishon; and I will deliver him into your hand’?”
Third, Deborah Encouraged Barak to Lead
Let’s note some key phrases in these verses:
- The statement “Has not the Lord God of Israel commanded?” should not be understood as Deborah giving orders to Barak. As a prophetess, Deborah received a word from God and passed it along to Barak, confirming what he already should have known—that God had commanded him to lead the army.
- The directive “Go and deploy troops” is particularly significant because Deborah was judge at the time. She was in the position typically occupied by Israel’s commander. But rather than summon or command troops herself, she let Barak know that God had called him to lead.
- The phrase “against you I will deploy Sisera” clarifies God’s plan for Sisera to attack Barak, not Deborah.
- “I will deliver him into your hand” indicates God wanted Barak, and not Deborah, to receive the victory over Sisera.
These are confirmations that even while serving as judge, Deborah affirmed the rightness of male leadership when it came to leading God’s people, not only looking to Barak to lead but letting him know this was what God wanted. Sadly, Barak did not step up and assume the role God wanted him to fulfill. Instead, Barak told Deborah, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!” (Judges 4:8). We recognize here that something is not right about a man telling a woman, “I will not go to battle unless you go with me.”
Fourth, Deborah Rebuked Barak for Failing to Lead
Not surprisingly, Deborah rebuked Barak’s reluctance: “I will surely go with you; nevertheless there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). Deborah’s prophecy came true. God routed Sisera’s army before Barak, but it was a woman, Jael, who ended up defeating the enemy commander (Judges 4:17-22). Barak should not have insisted Deborah accompany him into battle. Instead, he should have taken leadership of the army himself.
This entire account is not advocating for female leadership; instead, it is presented as a criticism of Barak. The book of Judges records some of Israel’s worst days, and the absence of male leadership is a strong reflection of the time. One of the most common mistakes people make when they approach Scripture is to take a descriptive passage (or one that merely describes) and turn it into a prescriptive passage (or one that prescribes). In other words, they treat a descriptive historical account as though it is prescriptive instruction that should be followed. This is the danger of citing Deborah’s judgeship as evidence for female leadership over God’s people. Her example actually serves as a rebuke to the nation of Israel regarding the absence of male leadership.
Later, during another dark period in Israel’s history, the prophet Isaiah asserted that when women ruled over the people, that was a sign of God’s judgment: “As for My people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O My people! Those who lead you cause you to err, and destroy the way of your paths” (Isaiah 3:12).
Fifth, the Account Is Descriptive Versus Prescriptive
Neither the book of Judges nor the account of Deborah and Barak are presented as examples to follow. The book of Judges is largely an example not to follow, as it recounts the serious breakdown of leadership among God’s people. Judges 17:6 and 21:25 offer valuable perspective to us about that time period: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The nation had abandoned God—that is the context in which Deborah ended up becoming a judge. And as we saw, she served that role privately and reluctantly.
Although Deborah’s judgeship is not prescriptive of female leadership, is there application here for marriages? Absolutely:
- When men expect their wives to assume responsibility for taking the family to church or praying and reading the Word together as a family, they are acting like Barak. They are abandoning the role God has given them.
- When a wife is urging her husband to lead and a husband resists or prefers that his wife take charge instead, he is acting like Barak.
If Deborah is prescriptive of anything, it’s that of encouraging Barak to lead and do what God desired of him. She rebuked him when he would not take charge. Note especially that when Barak refused to lead, Deborah did not take control of the situation herself. Rather, she let God direct Barak’s steps and victory. Her story should motivate women to do what she did—encourage a man to lead. And Barak is prescriptive in that his example should motivate men to avoid the mistake he made—failing to lead.
THE PATTERN OF MALE LEADERSHIP IN THE BIBLE CONTINUES TODAY
The pattern of male leadership established at creation is maintained throughout the Old Testament and carried into the New Testament. The 12 disciples were men. Jesus could have chosen six men and six women, but He chose all men for these leadership positions. The 70 evangelists who were sent out after the 12 were all men (Luke 10:1). Again, though Jesus could have chosen 35 men and 35 women, we see that He chose all men.
In the New Testament, church elders are identified as men. Consider the qualifications for elders as stated in 1 Timothy 3:1-5: “If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work…the husband of one wife…one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission.” We see the same when Paul discusses elders in Titus 1:6, 9: “If a man is blameless, the husband of one wife…holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught.” When churches appoint female pastors or elders, they have rejected the teaching of God’s Word. God does not recognize women in those positions because according to the scriptural pattern, only men can occupy those offices.
In 1 Timothy 2:12-14, the apostle Paul instructs: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.” Elsewhere Paul wrote about women praying and prophesying (1 Corinthians 11:5) and teaching younger women (Titus 2:3-5); therefore, it is clear he didn’t expect them to “be in silence” all the time. Instead, when the church has both men and women present, women should take on the role of silent learner (versus teacher). Again, this has to do with authority—a woman is not to usurp the role of a male leader and put herself in a position over a man. The foundation of these verses comes from two truths we already discussed:
- Adam was created first.
- Eve was deceived. While it sounds as though Adam is commended for not being deceived and Eve is condemned for being deceived, the opposite is true. Eve was not as much at fault because she was deceived, while Adam was more at fault because he sinned knowingly.
You might be wondering if there are some exceptions to the principle of male leadership. Yes, there are. When I was an elementary school teacher, most of the principals I worked for were women. I submitted to their authority and did my best to serve them, the school, and my students in ways that glorified Christ. Even in the family and the church, where these verses have the clearest application, exceptions occur. In our home, when we show the children how to cook or paint, I’m happy to defer to Katie and follow her lead. One morning as we prepared to return from a family vacation, as we got ready to leave, I asked Katie how she wanted us to pack up and unload when we arrived home.
Twice a year at Woodland Christian Church the ladies’ planning meeting takes place to iron out the details for the next six months’ worth of events. This is a stressful and difficult job for the woman in charge. For the weeks leading up to the meeting, and during the meeting itself, I do my best to support the ladies’ planning coordinator. Many of the events planned at this meeting end up being overseen by women, such as our Family Camp and Beach Camp. I try to serve the women in charge, asking them if there are any ways I can serve them, such as announcing information from the pulpit or putting signup forms in the foyer. Many of our plays have female directors. When I’ve been in the plays, I take my orders from women. Our vacation Bible school has often been led by a woman because most of the men are working during the day when the preparations and the event itself are taking place. I do my best to support the women in these various roles.
THE REAL QUESTION ABOUT MALE LEADERSHIP
In our gender-confused world there is objection to male leadership. There is a clash in our culture with resurgent feminism creeping into the church and family, but we must hold to the clear teaching of the Bible. Sometimes people ask, “Why can’t women be in leadership over men?” Let me affirm that in no way do the Bible’s teachings on this matter mean that women are less worthy, less useful, or less valuable—not at all! We will see in an upcoming chapter that although women are not identical to men, they are equal to men and they have strengths that men do not have. The Bible’s teachings also have nothing to do with talent. Some women are fantastic teachers and leaders, and they should use their gifts accordingly, except for in those areas where Scripture has specifically stated otherwise, as seen earlier in this chapter.
What it does have to do with is the order of creation—Adam was created first—and Eve’s being deceived. Beyond that, I cannot say because those are the only two reasons Paul gives in 1 Timothy 2:13-14. The real question we should be asking is not, Why can’t women lead? The real question—and it is the same question we often face in our marriages—is, What does God’s Word say?
I understand this is not an easy teaching to absorb in today’s cultural climate. Habakkuk 2:4 says, “The just shall live by…faith” and Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God].” When we think about walking by faith, we might imagine missionaries going overseas to dangerous parts of the world or taking on a ministry that terrifies us. But in our daily lives, walking by faith means trusting God when we don’t understand His Word, or perhaps even disagree with it. Walking by faith means being willing to say, “This doesn’t make sense, but I’m going to trust and obey.”
This might need to be the case for you with the Bible’s teaching on male leadership. As we move into the following chapters and look at what the Bible says about headship and submission in more detail, let me remind you that God knows what’s best for all areas of life, including the family and the church. His design for marriage is the ideal. He wants us to have strong, healthy, joyful relationships. When we follow God’s Word, we can fully enjoy the benefits and beauty that give us marriages God’s way.
I want to invite you to remember this now, because in the following chapters we’re going to start digging into what it looks like being a Christian husband and wife. Some of what the Bible says might be unfamiliar territory to you, contrary to what you expect, or even conflict with what you’ve believed up till now. Should that be the case, remind yourself that God knows best, and He wants what’s best for you—especially in your marriage, because it’s a picture of His Son’s loving relationship to the church.