What the Old Testament Says
While the Old Testament doesn’t mean to give us explicit instructions about men and women in the church, the Old Testament does show us a lot about men and women in general, and these patterns ought to shape how we think of sexual differentiation and complementarity in life and ministry. Here are five such patterns.
Pattern 1: Only Men Exercising Official Leadership
From start to finish, the leaders among God’s Old Testament people were men. We see this pattern first of all with the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Though imperfect men to be sure, they were responsible for the safety and well-being of their families. The Old Testament doesn’t emphasize the father’s rule in ancient Israel as much as it underscores the central role the father fulfilled as the provider and protector of the household. We could call this patricentrism instead of patriarchy, though rightly understood the latter term is not inappropriate.1
Following the patriarchs, we see that the leaders of the exodus and the conquest were men: Moses, Aaron, and Joshua. As Israel’s worship and polity developed, we see that the leaders under Moses were all men (Ex. 18:21–22). The priests and Levites were all men. The judges, with one exception, were all men. The priests, of every rank, were all men. The monarchs of Israel, with one exception, were all men. The most significant public prophets—people such as Elijah and Elisha, or Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel—were all men. All the writing prophets were men. All those who rightfully occupied a governing office in Israel were men. What about the apparent exceptions? Let me make a few quick observations.
As a judge, Deborah did not exercise a military function but came alongside Barak when he failed to go into battle by himself (Judg. 4:8). It was to Barak’s shame that his enemy would have to be killed by a woman (Judg. 4:9, 21–22; 9:53–54). Moreover, the judges in Israel were national deliverers more than formal officers with constituted authority.
Several women prophesied in the Old Testament, including Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah. These prophetesses in Israel should be celebrated, but they possessed no institutional authority and did not exercise the same kind of public ministry as many of their male counterparts.
Esther was a heroic queen, but she was not the ruling monarch, and she did not serve over Israel.
Athaliah was the only women to sit on the throne over Israel, but she rose to be queen not by God’s choosing or anointing but by assassinating all the royal heirs (2 Kings 11:1). When the rightful heir, Joash, is later revealed, Athaliah is deposed and put to death (2 Kings 11:13–16). Her reign, far from a notable exception to the rule, underscores the Old Testament notion that it was a sign of declension and embarrassment for women to rule over God’s people (Isa. 3:12).
Pattern 2: Godly Women Displaying a Wide Range of Heroic Characteristics
We should not equate male leadership with female passivity. Women are not bit players in the drama of redemptive history. The Old Testament is full of heroic women influencing history, exercising personal agency, and displaying a range of godly virtues.
The daughters of Zelophehad stood up for their families’ land inheritance (Num. 27; 36). Jael drove a spike through Sisera’s skull (Judg. 4:17–23; 5:24–30). The Shunamite woman appealed to the king for her house and her land (2 Kings 8:3). These are not wallpaper women, just hanging about in the background. They are examples of strength, courage, and resourcefulness.
Think of the godly woman in Proverbs 31. Her virtue is primarily in helping her husband—he trusts in her (Prov. 31:11), she does him good and no harm (Prov. 31:12)—and in maintaining her household (Prov. 31:27). This is the pattern we would expect from the creation account in Genesis. But don’t miss all that is excellent in this “homemaking” wife. She sells wool and flax (Prov. 31:13). She rises early and stays up late (Prov. 31:15, 18). She buys a field and plants a vineyard (Prov. 31:16). She makes coverings and clothing (Prov. 31:18, 24). She is generous (Prov. 31:20). She speaks wisely and teaches kindness (Prov. 31:26). She is a strong woman clothed in dignity (Prov. 31:17, 25). No doubt this is an idealized picture meant to serve as a capstone to the book that exhorts the reader to pursue Lady Wisdom.
We do not want women to be deflated every time they come to the dreaded Proverbs 31 woman. Instead they ought to be encouraged by the picture of a woman exercising all her physical, mental, and entrepreneurial powers by serving—with a broad array of virtues—her husband and her household.
Pattern 3: Godly Women Helping Men
Quick test: who are some of the most famous and exemplary women in the Old Testament? Don’t think too hard or too long. Who came to mind? Probably names such as Sarah and Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Rahab and Ruth, Deborah and Abigail, Eve and Esther. To be sure, there were imperfect women marked, at times, by disobedience (Eve), unbelief (Sarah), and deception (Rebekah). But where these women are exemplary, it is often on account of the good influence they exercised in steering, advising, assisting, and coming alongside men.
Sarah modeled respect for her husband (1 Pet. 3:6). Rahab hid the two spies (Josh. 2). Deborah strengthened the resolve of Barak (Judg. 4). Ruth convinced Boaz to all her to come under his protection (Ruth 3). Abigail dealt kindly with David, while also pleading forgiveness for her foolish husband (1 Sam. 25). Esther risked her life and intervened to direct her husband to the true threat in his kingdom (Est. 7).
We should not equate male leadership with female passivity.
These heroic women took chances and overcame difficult rulers and difficult circumstances, and they did so—only sometimes as wives to husbands—as the intelligent helpers God designed them to be.
Pattern 4: Ungodly Women Deceiving Men or Influencing Them for Evil (and Ungodly Men Mistreating Women)
Let’s try the same test in the opposite direction. Who are the most infamous women in the Old Testament—the ones renowned for their wickedness, the ones that our daughters don’t get named after? Many of the most obvious names are those who deceived, disrespected, or mislead their husbands. Think of Jezebel leading Ahab into greater and greater iniquity (1 Kings 21), Delilah tricking Samson (Judg. 16), or Michal rebuking David’s exuberant worship (2 Sam. 5). Of course, these patterns are just that—patterns. There are women in the Old Testament who make a name for themselves apart from men, but those are rare. Most of the positive and negative examples of women in the Old Testament are positive or negative based on how they influenced men for good or for evil.
It also bears mentioning that some of the most well-known women in the Bible are well-known because of the way they were treated wickedly by men. One thinks of the sad stories of Dinah (Gen. 24), Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11), and Tamar (Gen. 38; 2 Sam. 13), or of Lot’s daughters offered to the men of Sodom (Gen. 19), or Jephthah’s daughter (Judg. 11), or of the Levite’s concubine (Judg. 19). Men who abuse, malign, or mistreat women sin not just as human beings; they sin in violation of their calling as men. In our fallen world, should-be helpers can become hindrances, and, even worse, should-be protectors can become oppressors.
Pattern 5: Women Finding Pain and Purpose Associated with Bearing and Caring for Children
We saw in the creation account that Eve was a helper for Adam most fundamentally because she helped him fulfill the mandate to be fruitful and multiply—the one aspect of being an image bearer that the man could not accomplish himself. We also saw the woman experience the effects of the curse in her role as a mother. To be a woman is to be a womb-man, the type of human being with capacity to give birth to children (even if every individual woman may not have that physical ability or opportunity).
It’s not surprising then that the pain (because of the fall) and purpose (because of God’s design) of women is so often bound up in children. At almost every turning point in redemptive history we encounter a barren women who is given power by God to conceive a child: Sarah with Isaac (Gen. 21:1–3), Rebekkah with Esau and Jacob (Gen. 25:21–25), Rachel with Joseph (Gen. 30:22–24), Manaoh’s wife with Samson (Judg. 13:3–24), and Hannah with Samuel (1 Sam. 1:19–20). This pattern carries over in the New Testament with Elizabeth and John the Baptist (Luke 1:13) and in a different sort of divine intervention with Mary and Jesus (Matt. 1:18–25). By the same token, God punishes disobedience by closing the womb of Abimelech’s house (Gen. 20:18) and of David’s wife Michal (2 Sam. 6:23). Throughout the Old Testament, there are few things worse that can befall a people than barren women (Prov. 30:16–17) and few things as joyous as women being able to bear children (Ex. 23:26; Deut. 7:12–14; Pss. 113:9; 127:3–5; 128:3).
To be sure, a woman’s worth is not tied to the children she has or her ability to have any children at all. We’ve seen all sorts of ways women in the Old Testament serve God and save God’s people from harm. And yet there is a unique God-given purpose that women find in bearing and caring for children. Consider the opening chapters of Exodus. We think of Exodus as all about Moses, but before Moses bursts on the scene—and, in fact, in order for him to burst on the scene—we are introduced to several women. Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, allow Moses to live because of their bravery and ingenuity. Moses’s mother does the hard but right thing and preserves Moses by sending him down the river. Miriam serves her baby brother by scheming a way to bring Moses back home for a time. And Pharaoh’s daughter raised Moses as her own son.
In the opening pages of Exodus—this great narrative of God’s paradigmatic redemptive work—the entire story has been moved forward by women, and specifically by women looking after children. Shiphrah, Puah, Jochabed, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter—God used them all in mighty ways, in ways they couldn’t fully understand at the time, all by simply loving children and protecting their little lives. And notice that only one of these women was the birth mother of the child at the center of the story. Women who, for any number of reasons, do not bear children of their own can still be “mothers in Israel.” I’m not suggesting that working with children is all that women can or should do in life or in the church. But we should recognize the Old Testament pattern and celebrate that caring for children will be one of the main things—and one of the most amazing things—many women will do with their lives.
- For the distinction between these terms, see Andreas J. Köstenberger and Margaret E. Köstenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 60.
Kevin DeYoung is the author of Men and Women in the Church: A Short, Biblical, Practical Introduction.
What is at stake in God making us male and female? Nothing less than the gospel.
What do we say to our sons and daughters who ask, “Daddy and Mommy, what does it mean to be a man or a woman?” Tell them they are made in the image of God and for union with Christ.
Sister, don’t try to follow Christ alone. There is no substitute for your commitment and service to your local church.