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Deborah and the “no available men” argument

Unavailable, Unwilling, Unsuitable Men?

One of the perennial arguments from people who have a problem with Deborah being the leader of Israel is that God probably only allowed her to be the leader because there were no men who were available, willing, or suitable to take the job.

God didn’t choose Jonah because he was available and willing. In fact, Jonah was reluctant to obey God and go to the heathen city of Nineveh. He even tried to run away from God (Jonah 1:3). So it seems that a lack of availability or willingness in a person is not an obstacle to God when choosing someone as a minister or leader.

We don’t know why God chose Jonah to be his mouthpiece and instrument in bringing about the repentance of Nineveh. We can only assume that God chose him because he was the best person for the task. Similarly, it seems that Deborah was the best person for the task of leading Israel in her time, and so God raised her up to save Israel from her enemies (cf. Judges 2:18).

Deborah’s Leadership Roles and Qualities

Deborah in the BibleThe fact that Deborah was a woman is not especially highlighted in text, and there is not the slightest hint anywhere in the Bible that her gender was a problem. Rather the Israelites recognised her authority. Her seat was just north of the crossroads of busy trading routes in the centre of Israel, and the Israelites came to her there when they wanted justice (Judges 4:5).

Unlike many of the other judges, Deborah did a great job as leader and prophet. Deborah was an effective spokesperson for God, and her prophetic leadership extended to giving leadership to Barak, the general of the army (Judges 4:4-6). Barak respected Deborah, relied on her, and followed her orders (Judges 4:6, 8). Deborah, herself, did not shy away from entering the war zone (Judges 4:9-10), and, as a result of her leadership, Israel had peace for 40 years (Judges 5:31).

Furthermore, Deborah’s words have been recorded in the Bible, in Judges chapter 5, and so they have the authority of Scripture.

God’s Choice and Calling of Leaders

The argument that God chose Deborah to be the leader of Israel because there were no available or suitable men is not supported by Scripture. Moreover, being unwilling, unavailable, or even incapable, are not impediments to God’s calling. Moses, Gideon, Saul, and other Bible characters were, like Jonah, initially reluctant to follow God’s calling.

However, there were male leaders in Israel at the time of Deborah’s rule: nobles (Judges 5:13), princes (Judges 5:2, 9, 15), and warriors (Judges 4:6, 14-16), plus others who willingly offered themselves under Deborah’s leadership.

“When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves—praise the Lord!” From Deborah and Barak’s Song, Judges 5:2 (NIV).

Even though there were male leaders, God chose Deborah. He chose her to be a “mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7), a matriarch in the community of his people, a female counterpart to the patriarchs.[1]

God is still choosing to use certain women to lead his people. We need to be careful that we don’t second guess God’s choice, or the reasons for his choice, because of our own prejudices. Furthermore, we need to be careful that we don’t stand in the way of godly and gifted women whom God is calling today into ministry as leaders.


[1] Deborah Menken Gill, The Female Prophets: Gender and Leadership in the Biblical Tradition (PhD Dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1991) 31.

Dr Deborah Gill has also coauthored an excellent book with Dr Barbara Cavaness entitled God’s Women—Then and Now where they make the following pertinent statements: “Whereas Samson’s rule was confined to one tribe, [Deborah’s] authority “transcended tribal divisions”(Kindle Locations 685-686). And this: “The highest Old Testament religious office was not the priest, but the prophet”(Kindle Location 703).

Image: Ink and watercolour portrait of Deborah by artist Sarah Beth Baca. Used with the artist’s permission. All rights reserved. This portrait and others can be purchased here.

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Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood and Ministry
Paul’s Masculine and Feminine Leadership
A Collection of Articles on NT Women Church Leaders

Posted June 28th, 2012 . Categories/Tags: Bible Women, Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Ministry, Women in Ministry, , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

41 comments on “Deborah and the “no available men” argument

  1. Sarah says:

    The “no men available” argument takes a pretty low view of God’s power. I mean, if God commands that no women are allowed to have authority over or teach any men, isn’t He powerful enough to make sure a situation in which there are no men available for His plans doesn’t happen? And if He allows this situation to happen, why would He contradict himself and allow a woman in a leadership position if He universally and eternally doesn’t want them in such a place?

    I find it kind of ironic when Calvinists use the “no men available” argument and then fail to consider these questions or get mad when these questions are presented to them.

  2. Marg says:

    I was thinking along similar lines. If God really preferred male leadership, or only approved of male leadership, was he incapable of raising a man to lead? This question is especially problematic for Calvinist’s who emphasise God’s sovereign power and will.

  3. Geraldine says:

    This is a topic that came up by a brother in our fellowship. Inwardly I cringed when he said he believed women are only used in leadership because there are no available/willing men. It made me feel as a woman like God’s last resort or second best. I seriously don’t think they think these things through let alone study the Word to see if what they say has any truth in it. Like Sarah said above in her comment, “The “no men available” argument takes a pretty low view of God’s power.”

    When this does come up Elijah always seems to come to mind. He thought he was the only one left when in fact there were many other prophets he didn’t know about…

    Lord, they have killed Your prophets; they have demolished Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.
    But what is God’s reply to him? I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal! Romans 11:3-4

    If what they say is true, then who are we to say there are NO men available. How do we know that? Is not that man who actually says that not himself willing? And if we were to add up how many men use this reason why God uses women then thats quite a lot of men already! It doesn’t work.

  4. Marg says:

    Exactly. How do they know there were no men available?

    This reminds me Affirmation 9 of the Danvers Statement which seems to belittle God’s power by assuming that “… half the world’s population [is] outside the reach of indigenous evangelism …” I have no doubt that God is raising up indigenous leaders just as he is raising up women leaders.

  5. Lydia says:

    Great article, thanks!

    I think what totally smashes this argument (on top of everything you have said) is that there were available men at the time – at least one, actively judging in other parts of Israel – and God still chose Deborah!
    The obvious one is Shamgar, who is recorded as overlap.
    The others stem from the fact that Judges doesn’t seem to be written chronologically, and to fit into the timeframe between Joshua and David, a lot of them must overlap; so the most likely ordering puts Deborah at the same time as Gideon (since they share the 40 years of peace).

  6. Marg says:

    Thanks Lydia. I’ve wondered about the chronology of Judges. I’ll have to find out more about this.

  7. Great article Marg. It’s also disheartening to actually hear women use the ‘God couldn’t find a man’ statement concerning themselves. I’ve heard women speakers denigrate themselves in this manner. Kathryn Kuhlman was also one who said she was only in ministry because God couldn’t find a man who was willing. It makes me wonder if such women had heard that idea somewhere and taken it on board.

    • Marg says:

      I’ve heard women say the same thing. It is sad when women see themselves as God’s second best or last hope, when, in fact, they were probably God’s first choice for a particular ministry.

  8. TL says:

    Judges 4:4
    4 Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time.

    Deborah was both Prophet and Judge over Israel. And I believe Judges 5 indicates she Judged Israel for 40 years. The highest or most responsible position of service to Israel was that of Prophet. It was the Prophet that was moved of God to point out God’s choice of Judge. Deborah was both Judge and Prophet. Israel had 40 years of rest due to her leadership, the leadership of God’s chosen woman. One does not get to be a Judge unless God appoints it.

    • Marg says:

      Exactly! Judges 2:18.

      As I said on facebook, “It’s disturbing that some people disparage Deborah and her leadership just so that their understanding of 1 Tim 2:12 stays in tact.”

      When the whole counsel of Scripture on the issue of women in leadership is taken into consideration, it is their stance on 1 Tim 2:12 that is on shaky ground, and not Deborah’s leadership.

      • TL says:

        So true, Marg. The OT is the foundation setting upon which the NT is built. One must not go backwards to reinterpret the foundations in order to justify our personal interpretations of what was built on them. That is what the modern patriarchy/complementarian doctrines do.

  9. Donald Johnson says:

    Deborah was a judge prophet and she shares this distinction with Moses and Samuel as far as I can tell. This indicates a wide-ranging scope of authority authorized by God.

    All the judges in Judges were selected by God, as Judges says at the start.

    Some claim there is some hint of tarnish on Deborah as she is not explicitly mentioned in the Hebrews 11 Hall of Faith while Barak is, but prophets are mentioned as a group and she would certainly be included as a prophet.

    I have heard that some comps may acknowledge a woman as a modern day Deborah, but the implication is that such is exceptional and rare. If I was a woman and this kind of assessment came from a comp on myself, I would reject it unless they agreed to repent from their ideas on women in church leadership in general.

  10. Beth says:

    Great post!!! Great research! I love the art too! The last paragraph is awesome. God is still choosing to use women to lead his people! Yes!

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