The Role of Women in Public Life

By Barrett Duke
Nov 8, 2007

The question about the role of women in the political life of our nation is an important and certainly timely one. I do not believe that the Bible prohibits women from serving at any level of public life. The Bible’s instructions about the proper roles of men and women apply to the church and the family. The Bible does not speak directly to differing roles of men and women in public life.

Some people have developed principles from the Bible’s instructions about the proper roles of men and women in the church and family and applied them more broadly. Depending on the setting, the application of these principles has varying degrees of validity. In the church and in the home, the Bible teaches clearly that God has appointed the man to serve as the primary leader. In these environments the issue of spiritual headship figures prominently. As one moves further from roles where the exercise of spiritual authority is involved, it becomes more difficult to apply these principles.

Public service is essentially a secular role. While a person can certainly express spiritual opinions in that setting and can influence public policy related to spiritual activities, there is little, if any, assertion of spiritual authority. Some people choose to apply the biblical model of male headship to all activities in life, including public service, as a means to reinforce the biblical teachings on the proper role of men and women in the church and the family. The Bible does not prohibit this, but neither does it require it.

In fact, there are a number of biblical examples of women providing key leadership roles in the public life of nations. Consider the very affirming depiction of Deborah’s role as a judge in the book of Judges (Judges 4-5). The Bible says “the Israelites went up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:5). It even says that Barak refused to meet Sisera on the battlefield unless Deborah accompanied him (Judges 4:8). Some may note that the text does not explicitly state that God established Deborah in her role as judge and conclude that she did not occupy that role with the same divine authority as the other judges (cf., Othniel, Judges 3:9-10). But Deborah is not the only judge where the divine appointment language is not used. It is also not used for Shamgar (Judges 3:31), Tola (Judges 10:1-2), or Jair (Judges 10:3-5). It is evident that the divine appointment language is not needed to validate for the reader the divine appointment of the judges. Interestingly, the book of Hebrews singles out Barak’s accomplishments without mentioning the role that Deborah played, but this is understandable in light of the passage’s emphasis on the heroic and spectacular (Hebrews 11:32-33).

Some people have claimed that God calls women to leadership when He can’t find a willing man. Certainly, the vast majority of examples of leadership in the Bible are male, but that should not be interpreted to mean that women should be excluded from leadership in public life if a man can be found to do the job. The Bible gives no hint that Deborah was a judge because adequate male leadership could not be found. Indeed, we can be glad that Deborah wasn’t afraid to exercise leadership, since she is the one who summoned Barak and told him that he needed to obey God’s command to fight Sisera (Judges 4:6).

The Bible is clear about the leadership role of men in the home and in the church. Neither the example of Deborah nor any other female leader in, or outside, the Bible should be used as a means to undermine that design. In the same regard, God’s design for male headship in the home and the church does not require the exclusion of women from leadership in public life, where spiritual headship is not involved. Such extrapolation carries the biblical teaching about the role of women beyond the Bible’s own application.

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