Jesus said the first would be last, the weak would be strong, and the best leaders are servants. These are part of the upside-down kingdom of God. There is another. God often chose women when human societies expected men. Indeed, a count through Acts and the epistles shows that about one-third of the leaders mentioned in the New Testament church are women – contrary to the several Mediterranean cultures in which they functioned.
It is worth mentioning before we get too far that merely holding an office does not make a person a true leader. Having a positive influence is the determining factor. Saul was a king; he held an office; but he failed as a leader. Remember how his soldiers wanted to hurry with a sacrifice when they were supposed to wait for Samuel? (1 Samuel 13:7-14) Saul made the sacrifice under pressure from his own soldiers.1 He was afraid of them and disobeyed God. The man with the office failed. The reverse shows in the life of Stephen. He was chosen to wait on tables – not a highly honoured office. Yet he became, for a while, the leading spokesperson for the early church, and was consequently chosen for the honour of being the first Christian martyr (Acts 6).
Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 12: 27-28: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.” Since it says “first… second… third,” we must expect that these are in order of importance. Some women had gifts and tasks in the paramount orders, including the first, second, and third levels – apostle, prophet, and teacher. We will focus on these three roles, through reflecting on how God equipped Deborah and Huldah, Priscilla and Mary Magdalene. With these tasks, they were top leaders.
Prophets – Deborah (Judges 4) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20)
Deborah held office as prophet and judge (national leader), and also did the task – she led. When General Barak should have gone to battle, it required Deborah’s command. She told him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”(Judges 4: 6-7). We know the rest of the story; Barak won the battle.
In a time of crisis, Deborah stepped up as the person with influence and used her experience as a prophet to tell Barak the message God gave. Why? Not because there was no man available, but because she was already a prophet and accustomed to hearing from God. But there is more here. Deborah was in fact commander to the commander. That was God’s upside-down kingdom at work.
Let us imagine God selecting Deborah. He may have thought: “My people have been ill -treated and pushed around for twenty years by Sisera, largely because Sisera has that iron technology. His army can make metal tipped spears and arrows, they can put a rim of iron on chariot wheels to make them last. Now my people are praying for help. I can use a human, but Barak is afraid to take the initiative. Okay, I’ll get someone to spur him on. The best person will already be an acknowledged leader. That is Deborah.
“They’ll think I should choose a man. Tough! She is the best person because she has already learned to listen to me and to lead. I’ll make her the one to command the military commander. The leader enabling another leader. My kingdom does not run on human stereotypes.”
Now for the Huldah narrative. She was one of three prophets during King Josiah’s reign, yet his five top advisors went to her for advice. They listened, took her message back to the king, and he acted on it. The upside-down thing was that the prophets Jeremiah and Zephaniah were also active during King Josiah’s reign. With God’s help, Huldah was a prophet ahead of the prophets.
What if you had already trained and gained experience in prophetic ministry – that is, speaking God’s message to the people – and then God wanted a big task done. Would you be ready? Would you already have the training and experience as Deborah did?
Teacher – Priscilla (Acts 18)
Along with her husband Aquila, Priscilla taught Apollos (Acts 18:24-26). Let us look carefully how this developed. In Acts 18:2 Priscilla and Aquila, newly arrived in Corinth, are introduced. Here, Aquila’s name comes first. By verses 18 and 19, some months later when they travelled with Paul to Ephesus to teach the gospel, Priscilla is spoken of first in both verses. She was a high-class, educated woman who had travelled and worked in their tent business. She came from what is now Turkey and had worked with Aquila in Rome and Corinth, possibly in manufacturing or marketing. Priscilla could obviously handle work and decisions.
In Acts 18:26 we find for the third time that Priscilla is mentioned first as the couple taught Apollos. This may indicate that she became the lead teacher. Perhaps Aquila saw her forte and encouraged her.2 What they did was akribesteron, which is Greek for teach with more exactness, more accuracy. How was that possible? Priscilla and Aquila must have already done the needed thinking and understood the theology.
Apollos was a teacher from Alexandria, a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of scriptures (v. 24). Armed with new understanding – led by Priscilla – Apollos was a more powerful teacher when he went off to Corinth.
Priscilla had neither status nor position, but she had influence as a teacher to a recognised Christian teacher. More upside-down kingdom of God.
Again, have you trained and gained experience in teaching. Would you be ready?
Apostle – Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:10-11)
An apostle is a person sent with a message, a witness. Jesus commissioned the disciples as apostles in John 17:8: “for the words that you gave to me I have given to them,” and later: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
God sent Mary Magdalene to be a witness to those who would become witnesses. Specifically, Jesus sent her to give the message to the disciples that he was alive, which she did. “She [Mary Magdalene] went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it” (Mark 16:10-11).
So what was in God’s mind this time? Perhaps it could be something like this…
God might say, “I’ve got a surprise for the disciples now. It’s part of our upside-down kingdom.” Jesus might reply, “What’s that?”
“Well, you won’t be there to organise it. You will be dead. But I’m going to have women ready as the witnesses when you rise from the dead.”
“Hey, I’d be happy about that, but tell me the thinking,” Jesus might reply.
“I made men and women both in my image, both able to take moral decisions, both intelligent. Often in society down there women don’t even get the chance.”
“True, but what about their custom that a woman’s voice does not count as a witness?” Jesus might ask.
“O, there will be several women. And the men will check it out. But I’m going to let the women show their loyalty. They’ll be last at the cross and first at the tomb.”
“Hmmm. Yes, my disciples will be more afraid than the women. They will be in more disarray and unable to organise themselves.”
“Right, and the women will organise themselves and get to the tomb on Sunday morning. They will be afraid but they will conquer their fear. They will be loyal, ready to serve, and they will find the tomb empty and you alive and walking.”
Jesus could comment, “There is a certain poetic justice about that. These women receive little status because we can’t have women travelling and overnighting with me and the men. But they have served us through thick and thin, particularly Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and John, Mary my mother, Joanna, and Salome. Though they will feel devastated, they will be in the right place at the right time, because they love me so much.”
“Well, here we continue with the upside-down kingdom. A woman as a ‘sent one,’ an apostle. Mary Magdalene, as an apostle to the apostles. I love it. The churches will have a chance to learn how we see women.”
In this 21st century, women still often do not get recognition for their gifts. We never noticed the biblical woman commander to the commander, the prophet ahead of the prophets, the teacher to the teacher and the apostle to the apostles! We grew up thinking, and often taught, that women are not commanders or prophets, apostles, or Bible teachers, so we did not ‘see’ the Bible examples.
Whether you are a man or a woman, consider what gifts God has given you? Have you taken the training and gained the experience that can lead to more responsibility? Like Deborah? Or Huldah? Or Priscilla or Mary Magdalene? You have ample Biblical support. Let Jesus the Saviour lead you.
Story: Beulah Wood
Beulah’s main Christian work in recent years was as a writer and lecturer in Preaching and Theology of Family at South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies, Bangalore, South India, supported by Interserve and Tranzsend. She continues to write for India and teaches preaching for Baptist Women New Zealand in Auckland.
1. Samson Gandhi. “Leaders not by Concession but by Conviction,” in How I Changed my Mind about Women in Leadership, Bangalore: SAIACS Press, to be published 2017.
2. John Arun Kumar. “Women are the Unsung Heroes,” in How I Changed my Mind about Women in Leadership, Bangalore: SAIACS Press, to be published 2017.
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.