5 Reasons Deborah Supports Male Leadership

Judges were Israel’s primary rulers for almost three-and-a-half centuries. They also commanded armies, making them some of Scripture’s strongest leaders. So why did Deborah serve as judge? Her position is often the first mentioned to support female leadership. Does she conflict with God’s pattern of male leadership? Let’s take a look!

1. There’s no mention of Deborah being appointed by God

Throughout the book of Judges, as men rise to leadership, verses identify them as chosen or empowered by God:

  • Judges 3:9—The Lord raised up a deliverer . . . Othniel.
  • Judges 3:15—The Lord raised up a deliverer . . . Ehud.
  • Judges 6:14—The Lord [said to Gideon], “Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel . . . Have I not sent you?”
  • Judges 11:29—The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.
  • Judges 13:24–25—Samson . . . grew and the Lord blessed him. And the Spirit of the Lord began to move upon him.

But with Deborah there is no recognition of God’s appointing. Judges 4:4 simply says, “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time.” Her introduction emphasizes that she is female, but in a negative light. Wayne Grudem, co-founder of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, explains in Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth (p. 134):

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.

2. 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 nation approached her privately. She didn’t publicly teach God’s Word. Like Huldah and other prophetesses, she is another example of a woman limited to private and individual instruction. Even when Deborah calls for Barak, Judges 4:6–7 shows her speaking to him privately:

Then 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’?”

3. Deborah encouraged Barak to lead

Notice several phrases in the above verses:

  • The statement “Has not the Lord God of Israel commanded?” shouldn’t be understood as Deborah giving orders to Barak. As a prophetess, she received a word from God and passed it along to Barak. She confirmed what he already should have known, that God 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 the troops herself, she let Barak know that God called him to command them.
  • The phrase, “against you I will deploy Sisera,” reveals 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 claim victory over Sisera.

All this shows that even while serving as judge, Deborah affirmed the rightness of male leadership, not only looking to Barak to lead but letting him know this was what God wanted. Sadly, Barak didn’t step up but instead 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 something isn’t right when a man tells a woman, “I won’t go to battle unless you go with me.”

4. Deborah rebuked Barak for failing to lead

Not surprisingly, Deborah confronted Barak about his 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 but instead taken leadership himself.

This entire account is not advocating for female leadership but is instead 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. Deborah’s judgeship actually served as a rebuke to the nation regarding the absence of male leadership. Later, during another dark period in Israel’s history, the prophet Isaiah asserted that women ruling 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).

5. Deborah and Barak are descriptive, not prescriptive

The book of Judges describes the breakdown of leadership among God’s people: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25). In general the book of Judges is presented as an example not to follow; it is not prescriptive.

Is there application for today? Definitely:

If there is an example to be followed here, it is Deborah. She encouraged Barak to lead, told him what God desired of him, and rebuked him when he would not take charge. It is also worth noticing what she did not do. When Barak refused to lead, she did not take control of the situation herself but rather let God direct Barak’s steps and victory. Her story should motivate women to do what she did, and Barak’s failure should motivate men to avoid the mistakes he made.

Discussion Questions

  • If someone promoted female leadership using Deborah as an example, how would you respond?
  • What lessons can women learn from Deborah?
  • What lessons can men learn from Barak?

16 thoughts on “5 Reasons Deborah Supports Male Leadership

  1. This was very powerful man of god and very needed in this present age. I see a lot of opposition to male leadership and even in some of the responses to what you were teaching. We live in a already jezebel and ahab society that wants to abolish manhood and praise perversion. This has encouraged me even the more to stand as a man of god in this society. God bless you and may the love of Jesus Christ empower you amen.

    1. Hello Cody,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad my post encouraged you. The relationship between Ahab and Jezebel is a perfect example of a swapping of the roles that caused problems for them and others. Think of the situation with Naboth: Jezebel had him murdered, while Ahab passively sat by. His wife led, and he submitted to her plan. Adam and Eve, and Abraham and Sarah are other good examples. In Gen 3:17, God rebuked Adam…

      and have eaten of the tree
      of which I commanded you,
      ‘You shall not eat of it,’”

      We know the fall took place when Adam and Eve sinned, but God points out WHY the fall took place: because Adam obeyed his wife. He was passive. Go forward a few chapters and you reach Abraham and Sarah…

      Genesis 16:2 Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And ABRAM LISTENED TO THE VOICE OF SARAI.

      It’s the same words that God said to Adam. We know this caused problems too.

  2. The most interesting parallel in the Deborah account is how similar it is to today’s society… men who should be leading who are not, and women who are left standing in the gap searching for a leader. In both God is what is missing – and Christians know that. It proves that while often times it seems so much has changed since the Bible was written, so much is still the same.

    1. Hi Marissa,
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, there’s definitely application for today. While submission receives an amount of criticism from unbelievers and even some professing Christians, as a pastor the most common criticism I hear is, “My husband won’t lead.” This leaves women having to be like Deborah and carry some of the load that’s meant for a man. I appreciate that you recognized the application Scripture has today.

  3. There is something about this story that I love. This is a hot topic with a lot of people, but we can learn a lot when we really look at what the Bible says about it. I am probably in the minority being a woman who thinks that men should lead.

  4. Hey Scott, thanks for really digging into this text and pulling out some very practical insights. You do a nice job of making strong, clear applications without going beyond what the passage warrants.

    From everything I see, we’re at a moment where many (most?) men struggle with leadership. It’s beyond the scope and point of your post, but I wonder why you think this is true (if you do), and, how you would recommend men addressing it. In my experience, many men ‘know’ they should lead, but find it very hard to make progress even after making this discovery.

    Thanks again for bringing up this important topic!

    1. Hi Bryan,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. I especially appreciate the feedback on the points, that they don’t go beyond what Scripture teaches.

      In regards to your question, “Why do men struggle with leadership?” I hate to say it, but I have to put the responsibility on some churches. We can’t blame the world and/or the culture, because we don’t expect the world/culture to agree with God’s Word. If you look at the comments on my recent posts, Male Leadership Is God’s Pattern, and Complementarianism Versus Egalitarianism, you’ll see the criticisms in the comments are from people claiming to be Christians; mostly women by the way too. They’re all for female pastors and they’re terribly opposed to wives submitting to their husbands.

      More than likely they’re also part of egalitarian churches that encourage women to lead in the home and the church, and indirectly encourage passive men. The remedy is for churches to clearly teach God’s Word and encourage the men, especially the husbands and fathers, to be the pastors/shepherds of their families. One other subtler issue is the view that churches are responsible with raising their children. When the view is, “I don’t have to pray with my children or read the Bible with them, because I take them to church and/or youth group” there will be spiritually lazy/passive men. It goes back to Genesis 3 when God told Adam, “Because you heeded the voice of your wife.” God was looking to the weakness of men to submit to their wives, and indirectly the weakness of women to take control of their husbands (“Your desire will be for your husband”; a desire to control).

  5. While I am a huge proponent of male leadership in the church, I do think that we need to be careful in saying that Deborah was not appointed by God. He clearly used her and spoke through her to lead the people of Israel.

    1. Hi Bailey,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. I definitely would not deny that God used her!

      When other judges are introduced there’s a clear indication of God’s appointing. What verse gives the same indication for Deborah?

    2. Scott – Not all the judges had a clear statement indicating God’s appointment (There is Elon and Abdon in chapter 12 which had nothing more said about them). However, Judges 2:16 does show that “the LORD raised up judges”. So regardless of the individual attention given, the earlier text does indicate that each judge was established by God. I believe it is unwise to downplay the establishment of Deborah as a judge over Israel. The text clearly shows that it was an ordination from God. The fact that “Israel saw God defeat Jabin” is testimony to God’s working through Deborah. To say that Deborah was a judge because there were no men to lead is a stretch. He chose Gideon who was a wreck of a man with all his doubts. With Gideon, He used the weakest of the weak to rescue His people. So it is with Deborah. How many times has God shown His power and strength through those that the world would see as “weak”. In that culture, to have a woman leading was just another sign that God can use ANYONE he calls to accomplish His purposes. To say that a man and not Deborah should have been leading is a slap in the face to God’s calling someone into leadership.

    3. Hi Michael,
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think it depends what you mean by “downplaying the establishment of Deborah as a judge.” I definitely wasn’t trying to do that. My attempt was to speak positively of Deborah. For example, I concluded by saying:

      If there is an example to be followed here, it is Deborah. She encouraged Barak to lead, told him what God desired of him, and rebuked him when he would not take charge…Her story should motivate women to do what she did.

      You said, “The text clearly shows that it was an ordination from God.” Where does it clearly show that? I don’t want to repeat the info I have in my post, but the commentary on Judges 4:4 and the argument from Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth is very strong.

      You said “God worked through Deborah.” I completely agree with you! But just because God uses someone, or uses a situation, doesn’t suddenly make it prescriptive (versus descriptive) or approve the decisions and actions of the individuals involved.

      I also agree with everything you said about God using the weak. Judges in general seems to be a case-study supporting your point…and I would say my life has been that as well :).

      You said, “In that culture, to have a woman leading was just another sign that God can use ANYONE he calls to accomplish His purposes.” It’s definitely true that God can use anyone He calls to accomplish His purposes. Whether it’s a man, woman, donkey (Balaam), fish (Jonah), etc. But just because God uses people doesn’t legitimize the situation or their actions. For example, keeping with the book of Judges, God used Samson’s disobedience with Philistine women to punish the Philistines. Judges 14:3-4 says:

      3 Then his father and mother said to him, “Is there no woman among the daughters of your brethren, or among all my people, that you must go and get a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?”
      And Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, for she pleases me well.”
      4 But his father and mother did not know that it was of the LORD—that He was seeking an occasion to move against the Philistines. For at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel.

      Yes, God used Samson’s disobedience for good, but we don’t look at this and think we should go out and marry people when we’re unequally yoked. Thank you for the discussion!

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