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?

10 thoughts on “5 reasons Deborah supports male leadership

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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).

  4. 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?

Do you have a question or thought? If so, please share!