I recently spoke with a young woman who was thinking about leaving the Christian university she was attending. She was on fire for God and wanted to preach the gospel, but had been told that she couldn’t preach because she was a woman. Although the university where I teach affirms women in all areas of ministry, it’s striking to me how many Christian universities and denominations still maintain a culture of hierarchy. Even though The United Methodist Church has been ordaining women for 60 years (and John Wesley himself licensed Sarah Crosby to preach as far back as 1761), many of the people sitting in our congregations come from different denominations, and some may never have heard a female preacher or seen a woman in a key leadership role. It’s important to help our congregations remember the long history of faithful women who have preached the gospel. For that reason, I offer the following list of just a few of the influential female leaders in biblical literature.
The Daughters of Zelophehad (Num 26:33; 27:1-11; 36:1-12; Josh 17:3-6). Although this story provides one of the more obscure testimonies in Scripture, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah left their mark on the people of Israel. When their father died without a son, the family inheritance was endangered, since women did not have inheritance rights in ancient Hebrew culture. These women boldly appeared before Moses and the leaders of Israel and asked to keep their father’s inheritance. God decreed that “the daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying,” and thus they were responsible for changing inheritance laws in Israel. They saw an injustice and boldly stepped forward to correct it.
Deborah (Judg 4:4-5:31). Both a prophet and a judge — which in this time period meant a charismatic ruler and military leader — Deborah regularly arbitrated disputes among the Israelites. Her role as a leader in Israel is stated as a matter of fact before the story even takes us into the battle that she leads with Barak to defeat the army of the Canaanites. The mighty Barak knows that it will be a difficult battle to face Sisera and his armed chariots, so he refuses to go unless the woman of God comes with him, assuring him that God goes into battle for the Israelites.
The Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42). Jesus’s conversation with this woman is the longest dialogue recorded in the Gospels. She picks a theological fight with Jesus about Samaritan and Jewish understandings of the messiah, but ultimately she recognizes who Jesus is. She then preaches to her whole village that Messiah has arrived — and they believe.
Rahab (Josh 2:1-24; 6:17-25; Matt 1:5; Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25). This crafty, fearless, resourceful woman is willing to betray her own people because she knows that the Israelite God “is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below” (Josh 2:11). She hides the Israelite spies and as a result saves her family from destruction. Despite her unsavory profession, she is commended on three separate occasions in the NT as a paradigm of faith.
Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2). Paul calls Phoebe a deacon, the same term he uses for himself and others (including Apollos and Epaphras) who preach and teach in the church. She was a wealthy benefactor who carried Paul’s letter to the Romans. As a leader in the church, affirmed by Paul, she had the authority to speak on Paul’s behalf to answer any questions the Romans had in response to his letter.
Priscilla/Prisca (Acts 18:2-3, 18-19, 24-26; Rom 16:3-5; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19). She and her husband, Aquila, served churches in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome. The two were tentmakers like Paul, and so they worked together on their trade and in the church. Paul calls them coworkers with him in the gospel. Priscilla likely had a higher status in the church than her husband, since her name is listed first more often than her husband’s. They knew the gospel well — so well, in fact, that when the intelligent and persuasive Apollos came to Corinth with an excellent but limited understanding of the gospel, Priscilla and Aquila “explained the way of God to him more accurately” (Acts 18:26).
Ruth (Ruth; Matt 1:5). This foreigner provides a shining example of God’s lovingkindness. After her Judean husband dies, Ruth leaves her home in Moab and travels back to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, despite the prospects of poverty and insecurity that lay ahead of her. Ruth pledges loyalty to Naomi and her God. She works hard gleaning in the field to provide for herself and Naomi (potentially dangerous work, since she has no male protector), and boldly approaches Boaz with a marriage proposal. He also models integrity and loyalty, addressing the proper customs so that he can redeem this unusual family. Each of the key characters in this story (Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz) place the interests of the other ahead of their own, and thus they model Christ-like faith centuries before their descendant, Jesus, enters the scene.
Since Scripture presents so many shining examples of female leadership, I will continue this list in my next post. Even then, I won’t be able to include all of the stories. The bravery, chutzpah, faithfulness, love, and kindness of these women remind us that leadership in the kingdom of God comes in many forms, if only we have eyes to see.