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Judges, Seminary Deans & Deacons
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The Bible, at first glance, appears to record a history of spiritual leadership dominated by men. However upon deeper examination, examples of female leadership often appear in scripture. From Sarah, Miriam and Esther to Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan woman at the well, scripture abounds with examples of strong women exercising significant, leading roles within and outside the temple and church.
In fact in the creation of humanity recorded in Genesis 1:26,27 God says ‘let us make man in our image and let them have dominion’. Jo Ann Davidson is quick to point out that God did not say “ let Adam have dominion but let them have dominion. So Davidson believes that before the fall there was absolute equality. As the creation story expands God takes the rib from Adam’s side, which symbolizes that Eve is not to be a head over him or like the foot to be trampled under him, but to stand at his side as and equal. Professor of Old Testament Theology Richard Davidson explains it like this: “Then, in the language of the sanctuary, when God gives Adam and Eve their work, He tells them to till and to tend the garden. These are the same Hebrew words shamar and ahvad, that are used later for the priests in the sanctuary--so God is really ordaining, appointing two priests, Adam and Eve, in the garden”.
Other examples of partnership in leadership with men abound in scripture. When the children of Israel suffered under a cruel and mighty oppressor, crying out to the Lord for help, God called on the leadership of Miriam, first to save her baby brother Moses, and then to stand with Moses and Aaron in leading the children of Israel out of Egypt.
At times women are called to take the lead role in leadership. During the period of the judges Deborah is “the equivalent of the General Conference president, the Supreme Court justice and the president of the United States, all in one,” says Richard M. Davidson, an Andrews University professor who specializes in Old Testament interpretation. “She’s the only judge that doesn’t blow it somehow. All the men wipe out and somewhere go wrong, but she stays faithful, which is, to me, a powerful statement.”
Indeed, few women in history have risen to her supreme authority, says Edith Deen, who penned All the Women of the Bible, a comprehensive survey of every female biblical character. “She arose to great leadership because she trusted God implicitly and because she could inspire in others that same trust.”
Similarly, Huldah, a prophetess in Judah during the reign of King Josiah (2 Kings 22), delivered God’s message to the leading men of the day when they rediscovered the Book of Law in the temple, predicting Jerusalem’s destruction for turning to idols.
“It was very probable that she was the equivalent of a seminary dean,” says Davidson, citing the King James and New Jewish translations, which indicate she “dwelt in Jerusalem in the college.”
“That’s why I think that, when they found the Book of the Law, Josiah didn’t call Jeremiah — [even though] Jeremiah was there,” Davidson adds. “He called Huldah. She’s the authoritative interpreter of scripture that he goes to.”
There are two books in the Bible named after women. Ruth tells the story of a Moabite who leaves her people and marries into the Jewish faith and becomes an ancestor to David and then to Jesus. Esther is the story of a Jewish girl who is selected to be the queen of Persia and is instrumental in saving the Jewish people from an impending holocaust.
The New Testament is flush with female leaders starting out with Mary, who is called to give birth and disciple and raise Jesus. Then there is Anna, an 84 year old widow that according to Luke 2 announces Jesus birth in the capital city of Jerusalem.
In the gospels there are “plenty of women who worked for the Lord,” according to historic theologian Darius Jankewicz. One of his favorites is the woman who Jesus met at the well in Samaria who he “sends off and she becomes an evangelist.”
The early church also saw several women assume roles as “patrons, hosts and leaders of house churches, opening their homes as centers for hospitality, refuge, worship, nurture and missionary expansion,” says Frances Taylor Gench, a biblical interpretation professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia.
Among them is Priscilla, whom Paul identifies as one of his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” — and who, along with husband Aquila, taught the Jewish convert and preacher Apollos to better understand the way of God (in Acts 18).
Priscilla’s authority in dealing with Apollos suggests she held a high status in the Ephesian community, says religious scholar Denise Carmody in her book, Biblical Woman. “Far from being a backbencher, she took the lead and set a talented, most likely strong-willed man straight.”
Her actions speak to the significant leading roles of women in the house churches around which early Christianity was organized, Carmody says.
Lydia, a Philippian businesswoman whose home played host to the church there, was another such leader — and Europe’s first convert, Deen says.
“She was one of many to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ through Europe and then farther and farther westward,” Deen says. “She picked up that first torch from Paul at Philippi and carried it steadfastly.”
There is an apostle by the name of Junia listed in Romans 16 that has provided much discussion for biblical scholars over the years. The name is clearly in the feminine gender in the original manuscripts but was changed to the male gender in the middle ages.
In addition to these women, Jo Ann Davidson, a theology professor at Andrews, points to the last chapter of Romans, in which Paul commends a number of people in ministry — one-third of them women. Among them is Phoebe, who holds the same title and critical position in the early church as Stephen and Philip: deacon. In fact Darius Jankewicz points out that the same word that is used for the leadership of the Elder, prostatis, is used to described Phoebe.
“Deacons were preaching, baptizing and evangelists,” Davidson says, adding that the modern-day concept of a deaconess did not exist in those days.
While scripture shows many women served in leadership roles, “most people, when they read the Bible, only notice the men and forget the details they are given about women,” Davidson says. “If we have deep Bible study, we will see a golden thread of truth weaving throughout….I encourage much more Bible study.”
Suggested Video: Jo Ann Davidson
Clip: 2012-09-25 14_22_22
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