Bible Women with Spiritual Authority

Miriam, a prophetess who led Israel with her brothers Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4).
Extract from a painting by Anselm Friedrich Feuerbach

 This article is also available in Spanish here.

Spiritual authority is a difficult concept to define comprehensively;[1] however it is closely linked with hearing from God and being commissioned by God for ministry and service. Hierarchical complementarians are Christians who believe that it is only men, and not women, who have been given spiritual authority by God in the church and in the family.[2]

Complementarians believe that as the spiritual authorities, it is the men who need to seek God’s will and guidance on behalf of the church community. They believe that it is only male ministers who have the spiritual authority to hear from God in order to minister from “the Word” in a public church meeting. Complementarians believe that in the family, it is the husband who has direct authority from God, and it is the husband who has the final word on any decisions. They see the husband as the mediator of God’s will to the wife and children.

In contrast to what complementarians believe, the Bible contains several accounts where God bypassed husbands and male guardians and spoke to women directly with messages of vital significance. Where God did not speak personally, he sent angels. This article will look at a few of these women whom God entrusted with spiritual authority, Bible women who acted without the permission or protection of men.

OLD TESTAMENT WOMEN

Samson’s Mother (Judges chapter 13)

In Judges chapter 13 there is a narrative where the Angel of the LORD[3] reveals God’s plan for Israel’s deliverance to an unnamed woman. This unnamed woman was married to man named Manoah, and yet the Angel entrusted God’s plans and instructions to the woman. The Angel told the woman that she would bear a special son, and her son would deliver Israel from the Philistines. The Angel gave the woman instructions about her diet and he told her never to cut her son’s hair.

The woman told her husband about her encounter. Manoah, the husband, wanted to hear the instructions for himself, so he asked God to send the man of God again. He wanted to know how to bring up the child (Judg. 13:8). God answered his prayer but, again, the Angel appeared to the woman.  The woman ran to get her husband. When Manoah met the Angel, the Angel repeated what he had said previously to the woman:

“Your wife must do all that I have told her. She must not eat . . . . She must do everything I have told her.” (13:13-14, my underlines.)

God fully trusted the woman to obey and follow these instructions without her husband’s permission or help.

The woman recognised from the beginning that the messenger “looked like an angel of God, very awesome” (Judg. 13:6). Manoah, on the other hand, did not realise that the messenger was an angel until he offered a burnt sacrifice and the Angel of the Lord ascended in the flames and disappeared (Judg. 13:17). Terrified, he said to his wife, “We are doomed to die, we have seen the Lord.” The woman prudently replied, “If the Lord had meant to kill us he would not have accepted the burnt offering.” Throughout this narrative the woman shows herself to be discerning and sensible.

Deborah (Judges chapters 4-5)

No list of women with spiritual authority would be complete without Deborah who was the leader of Israel at some point in their history. Judges chapters 4 and 5 records Deborah’s leadership and does not mention that there was anything peculiar about her being both a leader and a woman.  In fact, her gender does not seem to have been an issue at all. Deborah was married, but the Bible mentions nothing at all about her husband, apart from his name: Lappidoth (Judg. 4:4).

In Judges chapter 5 we read that prior to Deborah’s leadership: “village life in Israel had ceased” (Judg. 5:7), “the roads were abandoned” (Judg. 5:6) and Israel had chosen false gods (Judg. 5:8). The clear implication is that Israeli society became more civilised, safer and more god-fearing because of Deborah’s leadership.

Deborah was an excellent and versatile leader. She was a prophetess (Judg. 4:4, 14), a judge (Judg. 4:5) and a military leader (Judg. 4:6-10). Deborah’s prophetic insight was accurate and she showed decisive leadership in military matters.

Complementarians have unfairly speculated that Deborah became a leader because there were no men capable of the task. However, the Scriptures are clear that Israel was not without male leaders at that time. Judges chapter 5 mentions leaders (Judg. 5:2-3), nobles (Judg. 5:13), princes (Judg. 5:2, 9, 15) and warriors. Moreover it is evident that Deborah encouraged other leaders in Israel, and that these leaders had great confidence in her leadership. [More about Deborah and the “no available men” argument here.]

In comparison with the other judges mentioned in the book of Judges, who were all men and mostly flawed, there is not one negative word said about Deborah. Yet complementarians still assert that leadership and spiritual authority is for men only. Rather than seeing Deborah as a scriptural precedent for women in leadership ministry, they dismiss Deborah as an anomaly. This stance of the complementarians is myopic and unjust.  Deborah was an outstanding and respected female leader blessed by God.

Other Old Testament Women

The Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah: The woman was a person of influence, possibly even the leader of the fortified town of Abel Beth Maacah in Israel.  As a civil leader in Israel, this women, like Deborah, would also have had a degree of spiritual authority. Through her wise use of authority and peaceful persuasion she rescued her town from being destroyed by Joab,[4] the commander of King David’s army. (See 2 Sam. 20:14ff esp v22).

Joab and David had no problem with heeding the good advice of women. Joab knew that David listened to women,[5] so when he was unsuccessful in persuading David about a certain cause of action he asked the Wise Woman of Tekoa to help him (2 Sam. 14ff). The Wise Woman of Tekoa and the Wise Woman of Abel Beth Maacah are not the same person. “Wise Woman” may in fact be a leadership title and not just a descriptor. Wise women may have functioned as living repositories of wisdom and lore passed on orally.

King Lemuel’s Mother: Proverbs 31:1-9 contains the words of an oracle (prophecy) of King Lemuel’s mother. This woman taught her son—a grown man and a king—this oracle. Her inspired words have been recorded in Scripture for other kings to learn from. [More on King Lemuel’s mother here.]

Huldah: When Josiah, King of Judah, wanted to learn more about how to worship God, he sent a delegation to a woman, to the prophetess Huldah (2 Chron. 34:19-33).

Linda L. Belleville (2004:113) writes:

The size and prestige of the embassy that sought her counsel indicates something about not only the seriousness of the situation but also Huldah’s professional stature: the High Priest (Hilkiah), the father of the future governor (Ahikam), the secretary of state (Shaphan) and the king’s officer (Asaiah). Huldah’s counsel was immediately heeded, and sweeping religious reforms resulted (2 Kings 22:8-20; 23:1-25).

The Wailing Women: During the dark days of Judah’s apostasy, when deception was rife (Jer. 9:4-6), the only people who listened to God and the prophet Jeremiah were some women. God gave the skilled wailing women a message and he authorised them to proclaim this message in his name. (See Jer. 9:17-22.) [More on Wailing Women here.]

A Shunamite woman came up with the inspired idea of building a small room to accommodate the prophet Elisha. Her perception, initiative and generosity brought great blessing to her, to her husband and to her son. When reading her story in 2 Kings 4:8-37 we can see that this woman had spiritual insight and fortitude. The Shunamite woman, and not her husband (2 Kings 4:23a), displayed and used authority for the benefit of her family.

Hannah is the main protagonist in the narrative of 1 Samuel chapter 1 where she prays for a child, vows to give that child back to God to be employed in Tabernacle service, and then fulfills her vow. Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, is portrayed as loving and supportive. Elkanah trusted in his wife’s decisions and actions, and complied with them. Apart from 1 Samuel 1:19b, it appears that Elkanah did not mediate or intervene in the situation at all. Furthermore, Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 is part of Holy Scripture, and has the spiritual authority of Scripture.

NEW TESTAMENT WOMEN

Mary the Mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38)

Most Bible scholars believe that Mary was a young teenager when she was visited by the angel Gabriel. Despite her age and her gender, God sent the angel directly to Mary with the message that she had been chosen for the wonderful role of being the mother of the Messiah.  Mary would have been under the protection of a guardian, who was very likely male, and she was betrothed to a man named Joseph, yet the angel Gabriel took God’s word directly to this teenage girl.[6]

If the complementarian concept of male authority is valid, one would assume that Gabriel would have visited the patriarch of Mary’s family with the news, especially considering the ramifications of the remarkable, and potentially scandalous, situation Mary would soon find herself in.

Mary’s humble compliance with God’s extraordinary calling on her life is exemplary.[7] Moreover Luke recorded Mary’s faith-filled song of praise, often called the Magnificat, in his gospel (Luke 1:46-55). These words of Mary have the authority of Holy Scripture.[8]

Mary Magdalene (Matt. 28:9-10; Mark 16:9-11; John 20:17-18)

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the fact that the first person to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion was a woman. Did Mary just happen to be at the right place at the right time for this monumentally momentous meeting with the newly risen Jesus, or was it a divinely appointed encounter?

I believe that it is no coincidence that the first person Jesus saw after his resurrection, at the dawning of the New Covenant, was a woman. Jesus’ act of redemption and his inauguration of the New Covenant brought equality for all people, regardless of gender. And with equality, the real possibility of affinity and harmony between the sexes, reversing the divisive effects of sin.

At their meeting, Jesus authorises and entrusts Mary with certain messages for his disciples who, as yet, still believed that their Lord and friend, along with their hopes, was dead.

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her” (John 20:18).

Jesus had no problem authorising and entrusting his marvellous message, that he was alive, to a woman. Jesus’ commission has led the Eastern Orthodox Church to call Mary Magdalene “the apostle to the apostles.” [More on Mary Magdalene here.]

Martha (John chapter 11)

Martha has been unfairly maligned by some because of just one incident (Luke 10:38-42); however, she made two very astute statements of faith concerning Jesus and eternal life recorded in John chapter 11.

Martha answered, “I know he [her deceased brother Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”  John 11:24
“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ,the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” John 11:27

This second statement is very similar to Peter’s recorded in Matthew 16:15-17:

“But what about you?” he [Jesus] asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”

Jesus states that Peter could not have known that he was the Christ, the Son of God, unless God the Father had revealed it to him. Likewise, Martha’s faith statements could only have come by divine inspiration.

Martha and her sister Mary of Bethany were devoted disciples of Jesus.  Jesus allowed Mary to anoint him and prepare him for burial (John 11:2). We hear nothing about their brother Lazarus’s faith in the Scriptures even though, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). Here Martha’s name appears first.  Martha was a woman of great faith and spiritual acuity. [More on Martha and Mary of Bethany here.]

Other New Testament Women

Since Pentecost, God has communicated personally with his people more freely, primarily through the agency of the Holy Spirit. When Peter quoted Joel’s prophecy on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, he made it clear that spiritual abilities, in particular prophecy, were now freely available to both men and women, to the young and to the old (Acts 2:17-18).

The Holy Spirit gives his gifts and abilities without apparent regard to gender (1 Cor 12:4-11); this includes the gifts of leading and teaching (Rom 12:6-8). Even complementarian Mary Kassian (1990:168) observes, “There is no evidence in the Bible that gifts are assigned by gender. While it is true that [male] elders may possess gifts of teaching, administration, and pastoring, it is equally true that women possess these identical gifts.”

In fact, several women are mentioned by name in the New Testament who functioned as church leaders and ministers: Philip’s daughters, Priscilla (with Aquila), Nympha, Phoebe, Junia (with Andronicus), Euodia and Syntyche, etc. [For more about these women see the links below.]

Conclusion

Mary Kassian, and other complementarians, have recognised that women tend to hear from God more than men, and yet they maintain that it is the men who have the spiritual authority in the church and home.[9] When I read the arguments of complementarians, I get the sense that they do not have confidence in the abilities of women. They seem worried that society will crumble if women take more initiative or move outside of certain restrictive roles which they erroneously claim have been instituted by God. It seems that complementarians have overlooked the Biblical examples where God used and blessed courageous women for his purposes, often in vitally important situations which had widespread ramifications.

From the Scriptures, we can clearly see that God does not speak solely to men and husbands, even in matters that directly affect them and their families. God can and does entrust his word – with the authority it entails – directly to women and wives. God can and does speak to women without using husbands and male church leaders as mediators. All believers have direct access to God through Jesus and his Holy Spirit, and vice versa.

There is one mediator between God and people (or humankind), the person (or human being) Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:5


Endnotes

[1] Complementarian Mary Kassian (1990:32-33) attempts to define “authority” purely in terms of hierarchical structures.

[2] Complementarians interpret the two instances (Eph. 5:23; 1 Cor. 11:3) where Paul says that “the husband is the ‘head’ (Greek–kephalē) of the wife” as meaning that the husband has authority, including spiritual authority, over the wife.  This interpretation assumes that the English (metaphorical) meaning for “head” is the same as the Greek (metaphorical) meaning for “head”.  In English, “head” can mean “chief” or “leader,” etc, however in Hellenistic Greek, of which New Testament Greek is a subset, “head” rarely means “chief” or “authority.” Moreover, complementarians elaborate on the supposed spiritual authority of the husband over the wife in ways that are not in any way supported by Scripture. [My article on Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters here.]

The authority which the Holy Spirit gives is a functional authority to engage effectively in certain ministries.  It is not an authority over a person or group of people.

[3] Many theologians believe that the Angel of the Lord may have been a Theophany or Christophany: a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ.

[4] Joab and his brothers Abishai and Asahel, who were all great warriors in David’s army, are frequently mentioned as being the offspring of their mother Zeruiah.  Their father’s name is never mentioned. One cannot help wondering what sort woman Zeruiah was, and what sort of influence she may have had on her sons.  (1 Sam. 26:6; 2 Sam. 2:13,18; 3:39; 8:16; 14:1; 16:9-10; 17:25; 18: 2; 19:21-23; 21:17; 23:18, 37; 1 Kings 1:7; 2:5, 22; 1 Chron. 2:16; 11:6, 39; 18:12, 15; 26:28; 27: 24.)  Zeruiah was one of David’s sisters (1 Chron. 2:13-16).

[5] David listened to Abigail (1 Sam. 25:23-35) and Bathsheba (1 Kings 1:11-31), etc.

[6] Only later did the angel tell Joseph about God’s plan for Mary.

[7] Mary’s humble and obedient response to the angelic message is a contrast to the disbelief of  Zechariah, the priest (Luke 1:19-20).

[8] The inspired songs, prayers, praises and teachings of Miriam (Exod. 15:20-21), Deborah (Judg. 5:1ff), Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1ff), Abigail (1 Sam. 25:28-31), King Lemuel’s Mother (Prov. 31:1-9), Mary (Luke 1:46ff) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:41ff) are considered prophetic and are included in Scripture. According to the stance of many churches, these women would not be permitted to teach men, or preach, about their own words, even though their words have the authority of Scripture.

[9] Mary Kassian (1990:111) has written, “. . . both psychology and history lend credible support to the biblical recognition of innate differences between men and women, with a major difference being a heightened spiritual perceptiveness in women.” Sadly, Kassian sees this heightened spiritual perceptiveness as including a general propensity towards spiritual deception among women. (The Bible never states that women are more easily deceived than men.) Despite believing that women are prone to deception, Mary Kassian has a public ministry as a Christian speaker and writer.


Works Cited

Kassian, Mary A., Women, Creation and the Fall (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1990)

Belleville, Linda L., “Women Leaders in the Bible” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothous (ed) (Leicester: InterVaristy Press, 2004) 110-125.

Merril Groothius, Rebecca, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role: Exploring the Logic of Woman’s Subordination” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothous (ed) (Leicester: InterVaristy Press, 2004) 301-333.

© 12th of October, 2010; Margaret Mowczko


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