This past Sunday I preached on Judges 4, which is the story of Deborah, Barak & Jael, who are all used by God to deliver God's People from cruel oppression. As per usual I offer to answer questions on the sermon, and questions are sent in by text message. The content of the passage touches on a couple areas of particular interest and so I had a few multi-part questions come in. Given the time needed to address these questions with care, I opted to not answer them on the spot and instead I give them here...
Q1. What does this wartime ethic look like for us? Can we lie in similar circumstances?
This question flows from Jael's use of deception to lull Sisera into a false sense of security so that she could assassinate him. Jael is lauded in multiple ways for this, firstly it is implied she gets victory glory for this (Jdg 4:9), and she is named "the most blessed of women" (Jdg 5:24) for her actions. Jael is part of a tradition of women who in extreme circumstances use deception to protect God's people (see Hebrew midwives, Rahab). God is truthful, he wants his people to be truthful and we are consistently reminded that lying is a path to ruin. Bearing false witness against your neighbour (i.e. lying in court about something, or destroying his/her reputation with lies) is particularly heinous.
So we have two seemingly competing ideas presented in scripture - don't lie, but some people are blessed for deception. So which is it?
The traditional way to understand this is the there is an allowance for deception in what we call war-time ethics. These ethics flow out of a biblical worldview. Ordinarily it is not ok to kill someone (it would be considered murder unless it's capital punishment), however in a just war it is ok to kill the enemy in order save others. Ordinarily, it is not ok to deceive someone, however if somebody is unjustly trying to attack people, it is ok to mislead to protect others and defeat the enemy.
This means in wartime people do things like camouflage their weapons, hide from enemy radar, etc. They trick the enemy into think their force is smaller, or larger than it really is. We feed false intel to the bad guys to destabilise them. And so on.
Under the Nazi regime, some people (including Christians) hid Jews to save them from the state, and they lied to the governing authorities about this. Most people conclude that the "liars" were right to do this, just like Rahab and the Hebrew midwives.
Some Christian theologians have argued that it is never okay to lie, and the biblical stories are just examples of God bringing good out of sinful actions. Given that Jael is called "most blessed among women" for her courageous action, and none of the women who act this way are admonished for their deception, I find it hard to agree with the "lying is a sin in every circumstance" assessment.
For the Christian, living in a world opposed to God, is such deception ever warranted?
In my opinion I would say "sometimes", but with these cautions:
Some Christians are very settled in their conviction to deceive to smuggle Bibles, or to use a work visa to enter another country primarily for the purposes of evangelism. Is this life and death? Well, kinda! People are dying without the Gospel of Life every day! It is an area where people land in different places in good conscience, and it deserves good consideration so that we are settled in conviction for when we are faced with similar dilemmas.
Much smarter minds than me have considered this topic, so you may wish to read further afield on the issue of Christian war-time ethics and perhaps just-war theory. It is relevant for both our spiritual walk as Christians, and our communal life as a nation.
Q2. If God raised up Deborah to highlight Israel's (Barak's) failure, then why is Barak (rather than Deborah) mentioned in Hebrews 11?
Each of the five judges mentioned, in fact most of the people in the whole chapter, are deeply flawed characters.
Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah and Samuel each have dark blights against their name, in summary respectively: cowardice, withheld obedience, sexual sin, rash promises and poor parenting. Yet, despite this God still used them wonderfully. As awful as each of these guys were in some respects, God still used them by faith to accomplish great deeds. In Barak's case, while he had a bad start in our story, he finished well; he obeyed, and God used him mightily.
I think the author of Hebrews deliberately draws out such flawed characters (including Rahab, David, Moses and Abraham) to show how God still works by faith even in people who have made big mistakes. Our heroes of the faith are messed-up just like us, and so we too can be encouraged to follow their example of faith despite our own failures.
As to why Deborah doesn't get a mention, I can't say, other than "time would fail [the author of Hebrews] to tell" of all the heroes of the faith, including Deborah (Heb 11:32).
Q3. How can women in the church today be assured that fulfilling/obeying whatever God calls them to in ministry, is powerful, needed, treasured and valued rather than God's 'second choice' (because others aren't obeying), or worse, that they're an 'indictment' on the church?
Firstly, I would note that obedience is always an indictment (i.e. allegation of wrongdoing) toward those who are disobedient. The faithless are uncomfortable with the faithfulness of others, because it reveals their own failures. Deborah, or anybody's faithfulness, is going to be a light in the midst of the dark, and it will reveal the shortcomings of others. While we always want everybody around us to faithful, it is better to be a pillar of faithfulness (and thus an indictment on others), rather than to join in with the sinfulness around us.
Next, the way that anyone (woman or man) can be assured that our ministry is good, is by God approving it. God gives us a wide "zone of joy" in which to serve Him, and he gives us boundaries (just like at the start in the garden of Eden). So all of us are called to serve (minister) in God's Church with our gifting and generosity within the boundaries God has placed for our good and mutual benefit.
Women are called to serve Christ's church, heroically and faithfully like Deborah, Mary(s), Sarah, Jael, Rahab, Saphira, Dorcas, and many others. The value and power of that ministry is given by God, and should be rightly recognised and applauded by others. Yet like many Christian ministries down through the ages (e.g. Jeremiah), we may be mocked and hated for our faithfulness and obedience. Although we would love the recognition and appreciation for our ministry from those around us, there may unfortunately be long seasons where our only consolation comes from the LORD, even among those who say they serve God. We must push on faithfully through every season, leaning on Him as our comfort and assurance.
There are times where there is a vacuum (others aren't obeying) and your faithfulness may look like you're out of bounds. However, it could be that actually your service is good, but the context around you has changed. Let's say I'm providing CPR to someone while I wait for a paramedic, I'm not God's "second choice" I'm God's first choice for this time. Yes, a paramedic will be better in the future, and a surgeon perhaps better again, but right now I am God's provision. I'm not claiming to be a paramedic, or trying to do all the things paramedics are trained to do, but I'm the best thing the patient has, and God's gift to them in that moment. Obviously this is an example where I'm not the best person for the job, but there are many areas of service where you will be the best person for the job either because you are a woman, or regardless of your gender.
A word on calling: Some people mean different things by the word "calling". God has set down in writing what we are "called" to. It is objective and non-negotiable. We do however sometimes use the word "calling" to refer to how providentially, and with the Spirit's gifting, we are enabled for a particular kind of ministry. As we try to discern this secondary type of calling, we can rest assured it will never call us to act contrary to God's clear commands. If you are working in God's church in accordance with both of these callings, you are most faithful and blessed!
Please note, the temptation for some women, especially those tied up with wonderful but weighty responsibilities to their family, is to hear this discussion about serving God in the church and then think "I'm failing because I have so little time and resources to serve with". In different times and seasons your family needs may impede your ability to serve in certain ways in the church, but you are not "short-changing" Jesus or his Church, you are serving Jesus and his Church by serving your family. That said, some will use family as an excuse to not serve; examine your heart before the Lord and see if you're withholding obedience.
So to directly answer the question directly: women in the church today can be assured that fulfilling and obeying whatever God calls you to in ministry, is powerful, needed, treasured and valued and not God's 'second choice'. Your faithfulness may be an indictment on others, but it is better to be faithful, and perhaps you will be the example that brings others to repentance.
Q4. Could the current women leaders/pastors movement be an indictment on the church? If yes, are there any particular differences between our day and Deborah's (assuming she was not punished or wrong for taking man's role in the narrative in judges)?
Let me first comment on the bracketed part of the question. I don't think Deborah was in the wrong at all, there was nothing to punish. She was the faithful one! She was a prophetess which was not at issue; although not as common as male prophets, prophetesses were given messages from God and used by him. "Deborah is called a prophetess, one of five such women in the OT (cf. Miriam [Ex. 15:20]; Huldah [2 Kings 22:14]; Isaiah’s wife [Isa. 8:3]; and Noadiah [a false prophetess; Neh. 6:14])" (The ESV Study Bible p445).
The text is not clear about how Deborah took on the role of a judge. My gut feel is that Deborah became a judge organically (like the rest of the Judges*). I reckon she was doing her job as a prophetess, that she gained a reputation for speaking God's truth, as well as being known as wise and trustworthy. With the dearth of faithfulness and God's truth in that time, people would have sought her out for help with a wide variety of issues and she became the port of call for important matters. My assertion is that such wisdom and faithfulness was a rarity. The problem isn't that Deborah was the best at what she did, but that the people who should have been leading in their society (like Barak) were not up to scratch.
An example. Imagine a home where a husband and wife should be King and Queen over the kingdom that is their household. The husband shirks his duty and does not provide spiritual leadership, yet the wife labours on faithfully trying to teach the kids the faith. She's not usurping, she's just being faithful, and her faithfulness is exemplary. From one direction, it may look like she's trying to take the lead over her husband, but that is not the reality. I think Deborah was a spiritual mother to Israel in the absence of any good fathers.
A related example. In churches sometimes, particularly small churches, we can see this phenomena: a church where there are very few people who really know how to read the Bible, and the rest of the church are quite spiritually immature. Those who can help others understand the Truth are going to become defacto "leaders", whether they be men or women. There's no one else to do the job, and the people in this position have not claimed it or sought it. God is providentially using them for a season to help God's people without those people trying to usurp spiritual authority. They await with eager longing the day that biblical chruch leadership is established among them.
So coming back to the first part of the question, yes, the current women leaders/pastors movement is an indictment on the church because it highlights a divergence between what God has said, and what is happening around us. As we talk about this, it has nothing to do with men versus women, or men trying to bring down women. It is entirely about trying to be faithful men and women who make up the holy Church of Christ. We are all made in the image of God with equal value and dignity, yet complimentary in nature and function. We need to work together as God intends for us, not be opposed to one another in a war of the sexes. Much of who we are in two genders overlaps as common to all humanity, yet in the areas of Church leadership and public teaching, God has assigned it to certain qualified men. Men and women have gendered assignments that the other cannot take on, and each gender finds great blessing in trying live the way God made us and instructs us to be.
The female pastor movement is an indictment in two possible ways. First possibility is that the men have neglected their faithful obedience, and thus there is none to lead. If there are no men who fit God's qualifications for leadership, what are we to do? The second possibility is that women have usurped a position that God has not given them. From the curse, we knew there was going to be leadership strife in families, and I think that strife is a reality in some church families too. One or both of these possibilities are reality in different local churches around the country (and the world).
So I think it's a bit of both, in some ways our times are like Deborah's day, but also distinctly different. Our society has walked away from God, and there are fewer and fewer places where truth is proclaimed. Many have checked out, and are withdrawing from their society, unwilling to serve their neighbour. In the midst of the faithlessness, we need voices like Deborah's that clearly share God's word and call others to submit to God's way. Yet at a guess, I would say that the current trend of diminishing sexual distinction and masculinising women was not an issue in Deborah's day!
Men and women tend toward different sins in areas related to our gender, including in the area of church leadership. For men in there is usually temptation in one of two directions: either leadership abused or leadership shirked. For women it is often leadership undermined or leadership usurped. I'm generalising of course, but I'm just pointing out that it's a collective problem.
Although female pastors in the church is an issue, it is not the biggest issue, or the source of all our ills, it is a symptom of the wider problem of being unwilling to submit to God. Idolatry is our problem. We need the LORD to soften our hearts, enable repentance and forgive us for way we have stubbornly ignored Him for so long! May he save us from ourselves before we are oppressed any more!
(*While all of the judges are called by God, their role as civil leaders, civil judges, etc came about as a secondary consequence of their divine mission).