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Question and Answer

Deborah's Leadership Position


How does one reconcile the fact that Deborah was a Judge (and a competent one) and the OPC/Reformed position against female elders and pastors?


This is an important question, and one which can be resolved by considering who Deborah was and the reasons the Orthodox Presbyterian Church will not ordain women as elders or pastors.

Deborah was a judge, a position roughly equivalent to a ruler such as a queen, president, or other civil authority. To judge was to rule. (This can be seen from Ruth 1:1, which has the phrase in many translations "judges ruled" rather than simply "judges judged.") In the original Hebrew, the noun and verb have the same root, just as in English; but because the Old Testament judges were rulers, this is considered a legitimate translation.) It was not a position of religious authority; the priests and Levites were the preachers and worship leaders during that time.

Though some in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition have argued that women should not serve as civil magistrates (most notably John Knox), the OPC has never officially taken such a position, and the Westminster Standards (you can find these online here) do not explicitly take a position on this issue (unless it be argued that a single reference to civil magistrates as "nursing fathers" in the Westminster Confession of Faith be taken as a statement that a woman may never serve as a civil magistrate).

Why does the OPC not ordain women to office in the Church? It is because of texts such as these:

"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

"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 Timothy 2:11-12)

These texts, as the surrounding contexts make clear, forbid women to teach or rule in the Church. Thus, whether a woman such as Deborah might legitimately exercise authority in the civil government, she may not in the Church.

John Calvin's comments in his commentary on 1 Timothy 2:12 may be helpful here:

12. But I permit not a woman to teach. Paul is not taking from women their duty to instruct their family, but is only excluding them from the office of teaching (a munere docendi), which God has committed exclusively to men. This is a subject we have already gone into in relation to I Corinthians. If anyone challenges this ruling by citing the case of Deborah and other women of whom we are told that God at one time appointed them to govern the people, the obvious answer is that God's extraordinary acts do not annul the ordinary rules by which He wishes us to be bound. Thus, if at some time women held the office of prophets and teachers and were led to do so by God's Spirit, He who is above all law might do this, but being an extraordinary case, it does not conflict with the constant and accustomed rule."

John Calvin, Calvin's New Testament Commentaries: A New Translation, Vol. 10 (Eerdmans, 1964), p. 217.

In a sermon on 1 Timothy 2:13-15, Calvin comments that God raised up Deborah to show men their slothfulness when the people of God were in bondage, and some believe that there are suggestions in Judges 4 and 5 that Deborah preferred it when men took the lead ("When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves, praise the LORD!" "Judges 5:2) rather than being dependent upon a woman (Judges 4:8-9):

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."

In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Calvin had said this in his comments on 1 Corinthians 13:34:

34. Let the women keep silence in the churches.... But we should understand this as referring to the situation where things can be done in the regular way, or where the Church is well established. For a situation can arise where there is a need of such a kind as calls for a woman to speak. But Paul is confining himself what is fitting in a properly organized congregation.

John Calvin, Calvin's New Testament Commentaries: A New Translation, Vol. 9 (Eerdmans, 1960), p. 300.

That is, according to John Calvin, in an extraordinary situation God may choose to use a Deborah, but ordinarily (especially in the Church, where there is "a properly organized congregation" and "where things can be done in the regular way, or where the Church is well established"), the rule is that men are ordained to teach and to rule.

I hope this addresses your question. Please feel free to respond to me if I can be of any further assistance. May the Spirit of Christ continue to direct you as you wrestle through the more challenging matters in his Word.

About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.

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