As I mentioned in my previous post about reading the Bible through a complementarian filter, I do believe this practice can have dangerous theological implications. The complementarian problem with Deborah is the perfect example of this.
Because the teaching of 1 Timothy 2 (I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man) is arguably one of the centerpieces of the complementarian doctrine, any Scripture that appears to be even slightly contrary to it must be explained away. In the case of Deborah, this is especially true. Here is the relevant passage:
Deborah, a prophet and judge: Judges 4:1-14
1 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, now that Ehud was dead. 2 So the LORD sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the LORD for help.
4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading[a] Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. 6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. 7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”
8 Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
9 “Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 There Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. Deborah also went up with him.
11 Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ brother-in-law,[b] and pitched his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh.
12 When they told Sisera that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 Sisera summoned from Harosheth Haggoyim to the Kishon River all his men and his nine hundred chariots fitted with iron.
14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. 15 At Barak’s advance, the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot.
According to complementarian teaching, Deborah being both a judge and prophet (the ONLY judge listed in the Bible with that distinction) is just not acceptable. So it is explained away. It has to be explained away as an anomaly because it simply doesn’t fit the complementarian 1 Timothy 2 doctrine.
God Really Couldn’t Find a Man?
The most common way of explaining away this passage is that Deborah was used because God couldn’t find a man to fulfill the job. And that is the reason given. God used a woman because no man was available and the fact that God used a woman shows how bad things were.
I’ve always found that answer completely unsatisfying both spiritually and intellectually. It has always seemed like a cop-out to me. I was reflecting on this and recently realized that to take this stance is tantamount to denying two central facts about God.
In the first, saying that God used Deborah only because no man was available is to deny God’s omnipotence. God couldn’t find a man to work with? This is the same God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart multiple times. The same God who gave Abraham a baby in his old age. The same God who chose David, the youngest, over his brothers. The same God who chose Jacob and not Esau. The same God who waited forty years for Moses to be ready to lead his people out of captivity. This same God couldn’t move one measly man in all of Israel to be used as a judge? Does someone really want to say God was incapable of finding a man to work with? This has to be a flat out denial of God’s omnipotence. I can’t see it any other way.
In the second, God using Deborah would seem to seriously call into doubt God’s omniscience as well. According to the complementarians, the appeal to the created order of Genesis 1-3 in1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 is used to demonstrate that women are not to lead and are to be subject to men. They view this as a binding doctrine starting in the Garden of Eden and continuing to the present day.
So if this setup with women being forbidden to lead because of the created order is true, why did God establish a created order He would be forced to violate? If we believe God is omniscient and knows the beginning from the end, wouldn’t He know that there wouldn’t be a man to put in place as judge and He would be “forced” to “settle” for a woman? Why would God establish a principle that He knew he would have to violate? And how can God violate His own created order? Aren’t those the options? Either God isn’t omniscient and didn’t realize He would end up in this situation or else He chose to violate his own established creation order that He commands in the same Scriptures that recognize Deborah’s godly leadership.
And if we come to the conclusion that Deborah was a legitimate leader, deliberately chosen by God, why would God use women in the Old Testament and then put MORE restrictions on them in the New Testament when the entire point of Christ’s coming was to bring freedom?
Say what you will, but the fact is that Deborah would be unwelcome in complementarian churches today despite being specifically chosen, gifted and equipped by God to lead His people.
This is part of the Exploring a Woman’s Freedom in Christ Series.