Women who are called to ministry often talk to me about the challenges they face as female leaders. Even in churches that affirm women in leadership, they frequently encounter cultural barriers related to their roles. As Kadi Cole has recently noted, “the research reveals the problem is less about theology and more about our leadership practices and church cultures.”1 While Cole highlights some of the practical difficulties of female church leaders, in this article I will approach such concerns from a slightly different vantage point. Rather than grappling directly with the challenges women face in contemporary ministry contexts, I want to draw our attention to more basic questions surrounding the biblical concept of vocation: What does it look like for women to be called and empowered by God to advance His purposes in the world? How does this type of calling intersect with their cultural contexts? How might we configure our communities in such a way that the vocations of both men and women find full expression among us?
Although the term “vocation” typically refers to a career path or occupation, the word derives from the Latin term vocacio meaning “calling,” and thus has a second possible meaning: “divine summons.” This latter definition proves helpful for our discussion because of how it corresponds closely to the scriptural idea of vocation. While the Bible does not prescribe a specific type of occupation or career for Christians, it repeatedly recounts how people are called by God to perform specific human tasks. Accordingly, as I discuss two scriptural examples of women, I will use the term “vocation” to refer to their summons, or calling, from God.
Furthermore, because God calls people to a pattern of human life that often stands at odds with how we typically exercise human power and influence, our exploration cannot simply focus on questions about leadership positions for women in the church. Since the summons of God reshapes our relationships and our ways of ordering life, we cannot always calibrate vocation with predetermined social roles. Indeed, in what follows, we will see how God’s calling upon the lives of two women challenged and reordered prevailing cultural expectations.
Sarah: Mother of a Covenant People
In Genesis 12-22, it initially appears as though only Abraham receives a summons from God. Recall how God calls Abraham to leave his father’s house and embark on a journey toward a new land where his descendants, God’s covenant people, would become part of God’s solution to the brokenness of humanity.2 Just as the disobedience of Adam and Eve led to cursing, dysfunction for the ground, and disruption of human reproduction, so the obedience of Abraham would lead to the retrieval of what Adam and Eve had lost: land, offspring, and blessing (Gen 12:1-3).3 Alongside this remarkable calling to initiate a fresh start for humanity, Sarah at first seems to function as little more than a passive traveller—without voice or agency.
Although Abraham repeatedly assumes that Sarah’s role in God’s plan is dispensable, God Himself overrides this faulty perspective by speaking and acting on her behalf. When Abraham gives Sarah to Pharaoh as a wife (Genesis 12:10-20; cf. 20:1-18), for example, God disrupts the plan by sending plagues on Pharaoh’s household (12:17-20; cf. 20:1-7). Subsequently, when speaking to Abraham, God describes Sarah’s vocation in a manner that parallels Abraham’s own calling: “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her’ ” (Genesis 17:15-16, ESV, italics mine; cf. Genesis 12:1-3). When Abraham protests this role for Sarah (17:18), God nonetheless affirms her as a central agent in His plan; she, with her husband, would bring blessing to humanity through their offspring and the eventual formation of a covenant people (17:19,21). In the ensuing narrative, moreover, God ensures that Sarah hears this calling for herself (18:9-15).
Despite cultural limitations, and even the disregard of her husband, through God’s protection, calling, and divine visitation (21:1-2), Sarah becomes the mother of a covenant people who will pave the way for God’s redemption of all humanity. God’s intervention throughout this account highlights her irreplaceable part in His purposes: Abraham and Sarah become parents to a people who will eventually participate in God’s answer for broken humanity—through the birth of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. Patriarchal cultural norms, together with Abraham’s wrongheaded intentions, cannot undo Sarah’s vocation. She has an indispensable role to play, and God will not allow for her replacement.
Deborah: A Mother in Israel
In contrast to Sarah’s lack of agency, Deborah emerges as a leader who has the latitude to take action in response to God’s summons. That she, like Sarah, lived in a patriarchal culture makes her position even more notable. Descriptions of Deborah as the one “judging Israel” to whom “the people of Israel came up . . . for judgment” (Judges 4:4-5, ESV) signal her role as governor over the nation of Israel. Her judicial wisdom and prophetic gifting (4:4) enable her to lead effectively and to provide justice, stability and safety for God’s people.4 As a successor to Moses and Joshua, Deborah functions as a covenant mediator who establishes justice and deliverance through her leadership.5
While she wields great judicial and prophetic authority, Deborah describes her actions as mothering: “The villagers ceased in Israel; they ceased to be until I arose; I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel” (5:7, ESV). Rather than using her power to domineer over others or to advance her own position, she exemplifies the protection and care a mother-leader would give: she instructs, or reminds, Barak about what God commands (4:6); 6 chides him when he wavers in faith (4:8-9); calls for the army to gather (5:12-18); goes with Barak and the army—presumably to provide support (4:10);—and offers strategic insight about the timing of the battle (4:14; cf. 4:7). Through this series of events, Deborah acts powerfully and decisively, but does so as a mother behind the scenes. She initiates activities that position Israel’s army for success and lead to the participation of Jael—a marginal figure—in a decisive part in the victory (4:9,17-22; 5:24-27).7 Consequently, Israel experiences safety and stability in their land for 40 years (5:31).
Whereas God brought Sarah forward from the margins to ensure she would play her role as mother of a nation, he gave Deborah a prophetic motherhood anointing to mobilize others. As a representative of the God of Israel, she did not advance her own position but fulfilled her vocation in a manner that showcased God’s power at work through others (4:21-23; 5:11). This posture in leadership celebrates God’s power and authority on the one hand and facilitates the success of the people on the other.
How do these stories still speak to us? What do they tell us about the vocations of women (and men)? In the case of Sarah, we learn how God’s relentless calling on her life led to the disruption of her patriarchal context and of Abraham’s expectations. While I in no way endorse Abraham’s treatment of Sarah, and I would certainly not affirm her subordination in our current cultural context, it is notable that God does not remove the entire cultural system. Rather, he effectively neutralizes its power over Sarah. In the first place, this illustrates God’s ability to subvert human agendas and contexts that prevent us from fulfilling our vocations. In the second place, Sarah’s story warns us that our unexamined cultural assumptions, like those of Abraham, can work against God’s purposes for others. We have a collective responsibility to act in concert with God’s summons for others as well as for ourselves.
Whereas God disrupts Sarah’s cultural context to ensure she fulfils her calling, Deborah partners with God to create a situation in which human agents can move with His plan. Even as she encourages and supports Barak and Israel’s armies, she sets in motion events that will make it possible for Jael to participate in God’s purposes. As one fully aligned with God’s plan, Deborah functions as a catalyst for the mobilization of the vocations of others to the end that God’s people as a whole experience stability and protection.
In my view, such stories inspire us to consider how God might be urging us to reorder ourselves and our relationships more intentionally around His vision for the women and men whom He has called. While this in no way negates the need for leadership in our churches, it does invite us to re-evaluate how we use power and influence. Of course, Jesus the Messiah has shown us the ultimate pattern. When His cruciform way of life shapes our calling and relationships, the unjust human power structures that thwart the flourishing of both women and men will give way to the coming of God’s kingdom on earth.
Susan Wendel and her husband, Bruce, live in Saskatoon, Sask., where she serves as a dean and New Testament professor at Horizon College and Seminary.
This article appeared in the January/February/March 2023 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2023 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.
- “Ed Stetzer Talks with Kadi Cole about Developing Female Leaders in the Church,” Black Christian News, accessed Sept. 25, 2022: https://blackchristiannews.com/2019/03/ed-stetzer-talks-with-kadi-cole-about-developing-female-leaders-in-the-church/; cf. Kadi Cole, Developing Female Leaders: Navigate the Minefields and Release the Potential of Women in Your Church (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2019).
- Although, Abraham, in the biblical narrative, initially has the name Abram, and Sarah initially has the name Sarai, I will refer to these figures as Abraham and Sarah.
- Michael A. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 372-373; Bill T. Arnold, Genesis, The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press, 2009), 126.
- Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 188-189.
- J. Clinton McCann, Judges: Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 4; cf. Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth, NAC 6 (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1999), 192.
- The rendering of Deborah’s initial address to Barak as “Is it not true that the LORD God of Israel is commanding you?” (Judges 4:6, NET; cf. ESV) best captures the Hebrew interrogative particle הֲ. Deborah thus reminds Barak of what he already knows in this context.
- Since Jael appears to be a Kenite woman, both her gender and her ethnic status would place her on the margins of Israelite society.