Women & Leadership By: Malcolm Webber (A Book Review)

sbl10-pic2_compact  The following is a personal review on the book: Women & Leadership By: Malcolm Webber (Strategic Press, Bentham, Indiana, 2007 ).  The following views are my own taking into consideration Webber’s writing and referencing him often.  I have not been commissioned by Webber to write a review or to post any blog on his material; so any recommendation on my part is completely voluntary. 

Well, I never thought this would happen, but I have finally found a book about male headship in ministry that I thoroughly agree with, appreciate, and embrace.  Malcolm Webber is actually the senior pastor at the church I attended for young adults when I was a seminary student in Indiana.  I only met with him once, but I remember he gave me his book, “Women & Leadership”, when he heard I was studying to be a pastor…and for whatever reason I never opened it until just now (I was probably scared of it pointing me away from my studies).  Now that I’ve read it, I realize that it doesn’t invalidate my studies at all, it just proves more and more why we need more women to study the Scriptures, but also why we need more men to take up their God-given and God-ordained position as leaders within the church.  Webber’s style is both highly theological and practical.  He’s given consideration to all of the major Biblical texts about women in leadership (both from the Old and New Testament) and he’s arrived at a fair conclusion that I think we can all agree with.

Here are a few points I have taken from this excellent, easy-to-read, and yet well researched book:

  • Men and women are created different yet equal. A man’s role as head of the family and of the church is suggested to us throughout Scripture.  This does not have anything to do with inferiority, but rather with a proper structure that best employs stability.  When a husband or male pastor is doing his Godly work, it is a joy for a woman to submit, not a burden.
  • That being said, women should minister and lead to the fullest extent of their divine callings.

What exactly does this mean?  Well, it can mean a few different things depending on what God has called the woman to do:

  1. Scripture (both in the Old and New Testament) affirms women in all sorts of various roles. While it is uncommon for a woman to be in a top position of power (one example of this being the judge Deborah), women have served in a variety of other capacities including as counsellors, guides, teachers, and deacons.  Occasionally, in the Scriptures and in early church history, women have taken the lead but this is almost always the exception, not the norm.  Furthermore, even in a case like Deborah, the socio-historical context of the day shows us that this was not the ideal.  Deborah stepped in to serve because men were not taking their proper authority and rule – it was not the best case scenario, but she followed God’s will because it was either having a female leader or having no leader.  Deborah actually encouraged Barak to step up to his God ordained role, but unfortunately, he seemed to be unwilling to do so fully (by the way there are several interpretations of this.  I actually wrote a seminary paper on this story, so I know at least 4 or 5 interpretations ranging from very liberal and feminist to very conservative and male headship orientated).
  2. The idea that a woman can only lead other women or children, is often taken out of context. Most Biblical passages do not suggest this (except for a few classic examples of proof-texts).  Rather, women are affirmed in many areas of leadership except for top-level leadership.

How Do We Find the Balance?

The women in leadership issue is a diverse and extremely tricky one within the life of the church, and one often fuelled with passion and emotion on either side of the debate.  We meet “liberal” churches that discourage a distinction between men and women stating that we are all equal; some even suggesting that churches that follow male-headship are hierarchical, patriarchal, and even oppressive.  These churches may even suggest that a woman must be liberated from the command to submit to her husband perhaps even stating that this design was simply brought about because of sin and was not God’s original intention: rather God created men and women as equal and thus we are all permitted to do the same things.  Conversely, we meet “conservative” churches that proof-text 1 Timothy 2:11-15 stating that a woman has no right to preach or lead in any capacity  except to women and kids.  So who’s right?

Well, Webber has some good logic:

Churches which promote egalitarianism may rob men of the opportunity to lead the family and the church as they should and may push a woman into a leadership position she is unprepared or unqualified for…BUT churches that see only males as “worthy” of leadership can often lead down the slippery slope of male domination, authoritarianism, and female passivity.  When this happens women can easily become bitter and enraged and thus be robbed of using their God ordained skills and interests for the higher good of the church and the Kingdom (Webber, 16).  Later on, Webber follows this statement up with another helpful comment: “The Bible contains both teachings and examples of women ministering and leading to the fullest extent of their callings in God.  A church that denies women the opportunity to minister has robbed itself of at least one-half of the gifts and callings God has provided.” (32)

All this to say: we should guard against either extreme.  A church too focused on the differences misses out on all the wonderful ways women can enrich worship and church life (whether or not she is preaching).  A church too focused on the similarities, forgets that God created men and women different but equal and that diversity can be our strength rather than an oppressive driving force.

What does this mean practically?

  1. Men should be encouraged to step up and lead. Rather than denying a woman the opportunity to lead, we should seek to urge men to “fill the vacuum that had previously been left by men not fulfilling their God-given leadership roles.” (Webber, 54).
  2. Rather than solely focussing on what the role of a woman in the church is, we should ask what the role of both genders is and how both men and women can fill the needs of the church. Webber states, “Instead of worrying about ‘what I can or cannot do,’ our concern should be ‘what has God called me to do?” (51)
  3. Webber asks the question: But what if a woman is called to a top-level leadership position? His response: Well then, she better go do it! (51)  He then adds a follow-up question: what if the woman is wrong and she is not actually called to pastor?  His response: Men are just as liable to hear their calling incorrectly as women and we should apply the same standards in either case: to lovingly nurture and correct this person, gently guiding them back to the Truth and helping them find ways of discerning their actual calling.  After all, we cannot place God in a vacuum (although His original and ultimate design is for men to lead with authority and love, we cannot deny that for whatever reason in God’s good purposes He has sometimes made exceptions to further His plan within a given context).

Malcom Webber’s book is one example of a thoughtful, tactful, Scripturally and theologically sound resource; however it is only one book and one interpretation.  I’ve stated my own views on numerous blogs, but my views are constantly being formed and shaped as I become more informed and aware of the vast literature available on this topic.  I’ve recently compiled a list of books on this topic from either perspective and will likely be blogging reviews as I unfold each one.  In all things, my hope is that whether you are male or female, you are seeking to serve Christ to the best of your abilities, being faithful to His calling and guidance on your life, and ultimately asking yourself how you can best minister and evangelize to bring many other lost souls into His grace and mercy and for His good Kingdom purposes.




7 thoughts on “Women & Leadership By: Malcolm Webber (A Book Review)

  1. I’ve heard people say that Deborah was God’s last resort given the horrible, weak state of the men and the verse in Isaiah that says that a woman leader is a judgement against that nation; but I can’t find a verse that actually says that Because the men were weak, God raised up Deborah to lead them. It seems to me like it’s an interpolation based off of an educated guess made up of other verses. (i.e. Isaiah 3:12 should not be used to interpret Judges 4.5)
    It makes me wonder what sort of omniscient God would make men and women exactly equal and yet arbitrarily put men over women even though it could have just as easily gone the other way around (and might have in a matriarchal culture had one existed at the time.)

    • Hi Jamie,

      Thanks so much for your powerful, timely, and important comments. Like you, these are issues that I have wrestled with over the years (especially because as I’ve noted, I’m trained to be a pastor and often don’t get considered because of being single, a woman, and young – that’s already 3 strikes against me!).

      You’re right, God could have used a matriarchial culture just as well as a patriarchial one, and I’m sure women would have done a fantastic job. The fact is, for whatever reason, He didn’t. I don’t know why… but I’m sure He has the best plan in mind.

      You’re also right to say that there are a variety of different translations of the Judges passage (which I’ve alluded to as well). Given the context and the arguments I’ve heard on either side of the debate, I’d still say it is safe to say that Deborah was an exceptional case…not the standard norm. In her song, she praises YHWH for the prince’s being willing to take the lead and offer themselves – which I interpret to mean giving thanks for good leadership. Surprisingly she uses the male word “prince” (though a few translations might have different wording to be more gender inclusive – Judges 5:2).

      I’m definitely NOT advocating male leadership only because I will readily attest to the fact that there are many qualified women who have the gifts, calling, and personality to preach. Many of them enjoy it as well. Rather, I am sharing how much I appreciate Webber’s book for giving a fair representation of the male headship side. Almost all other arguments I have heard or read have been filled with proof-texting and male domination (even oppression of women).

      What I love the most about Webber’s work is that he puts the responsibility on both men AND women to lead responsibility according to their God given rights and identity. He also suggests that while females at a top level of leadership is very rare in both church history and Scripture (compared to the vast amount of men) that’s not to say God can’t call a woman. He still could for a variety of reasons and if a woman feels that call she should “go do it” as he says. I like that he is upholding the Biblilcal and Scriptural ideal while not negating the possibility of female leadership and even stating that churches that prohibit this often either face demise or at least many other challenges. The Gospel is not an oppressive one… so to think of women as “second best” is not the right option or approach either.

      Here are Webber’s three points you might find helpful:

      1) God has established male leadership in the family and the church.
      2) Women do minister and lead in the Bible.
      3) Women are not in the top positions of leadership as often as men.

      When I read the first chapter on male headship I was angry. I thought, “of course, a MAN is writing this kind of thing. What does he know?” When I got to the end of the book, though, I had so much respect and admiration for the author. I really liked him. We definitely need more voices like Webber in our church today 🙂

      Thanks again for your comments and feel free to write back and comment further at any time. God bless you as you discern such heavy and deep theological matters 🙂

      • I think that what we understand of as headship is modern cultural interpretation used to translate the text. In 1 Cor. 11, for example, “kephale” is often translated to “authority over” though it appears far more frequently as “head (of a body)” “source/origin” “top/prominent, head of the line” It is our English tendency to connect head with authority that makes it difficult to discern what God most likely meant in the original Greek.
        There’s also culture to consider – God, being omniscient, knowing full well that men and women are completely equal and any argument arguing for the superiority of one or the inferiority of the other would be completely wrong; arbitrarily gives men authority over women the world over until the end of time? One of my favorite shows had a character ask this: “Do we even need a leader?” Do women need to be lead by men, do men need to lead women? Perhaps that was the plan for that day and age – where women couldn’t just leave their houses, interact with others in public settings, couldn’t engage with business or have conversations – for those women, a man was the only real way they could the protection of the law, favor of two families, and provision for living. Today – our society is just so different.

      • Hi Jamie,

        Nice to hear back from you. Thanks again for raising these important aspects of female leadership. Your voice is an incredibly vital one within our current day context and culture!

        Yes, I very much agree with you that there are many cultural and socio-historical aspects at play and thus it makes it difficult not to proof-text Paul’s words one way or the other. Also, as a student of koine Greek myself, I fully appreciate your views about the some of the tricky texts. So much of the original language has been lost due to our mistranslations (and also, being translated in certain cultures and contexts more often than not, by men). One thing I found interesting in Webber’s book is his mention of his these texts have been translated into Mandarin and thus why the Chinese church often more readily affirms female leadership than many “white” evangelical churches. This is because in many cases, the Chinese translators have used more gender neutral language… whereas we generally have not. I’m not entirely sure whether this is 100% the case or not, but I think it might be likely. I have never met a Chinese church that will not affirm women in leadership (though I’m sure there must be some that exist).

        Finally, I had a brief look at your blog and I notice you’ve posted a lot of great material and done a ton of research on this topic. Thank you for making it so accessible. I can see that your writing is well laid-out and articulated clearly. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to do an in-depth reading yet, but I definitely will have a good, thorough look at where you’re coming from. I’m excited to do that because I think I might gain some invaluable insights from you.

        Once again, feel free to write back anytime. Blessings on your journey.

  2. Interesting review, and interesting discussion so far. This has been an area I’ve read widely on over the years, and have come across some very interesting books on the subject that go a bit further than Malcolm, and have the biblical scholarship to back it up (basing this on your synopsis of Malcolm’s book, since I haven’t read it yet, but I know Malcolm and enjoy his writing/teaching).

    Regarding Deborah, it would take longer than the space here to discuss fully, but there really are socio-cultural issues that must be taken into account. I don’t believe that we should dismiss things out of hand for cultural reasons (that can give us carte blache with the Bible), but God does work with what He has, and He meets people and cultures where we are. Rather than looking at Deborah as a exception because “she was less than ideal, and a good man was not available,” a far more feasible explanation was that in a centuries old patriarchal cultural, the power of God was able to transcend cultures and use someone who normally would be rejected from leadership by the people due to not “fitting the mold.” To me it’s a miracle that Deborah was raised up as a judge in the first place, given the culture she lived in, and grew up in. Also, although some translations Judges 5:2 use a masculine word, “princes,” the Hebrew is feminine (see Strongs Hebrew Concordance 6546).

    Regarding the headship issue, I too have run across the scholarship about “kephale” as “source” as opposed to “one who has authority over.” The book “Why Not Women?” by Loren Cunningham and David J. Hamilton has a fascinating chapter on this very topic, and goes back to the church fathers interpretation of 1 Cor 11:3, agreeing that “kephale” should be understood as “source.” In other words, man is the source of woman, since she was taken out of his side; Christ is the source of man, since “all things were made by Him”; and God is the source of Christ since God sends Christ into the world.

    If you haven’t read it already, I really highly recommend “Why Not Women?” Cunningham draws on his many experiences of women in leadership in YWAM, while Hamilton adds the biblical scholarship, which is FASCINATING (even though Cunningham is far better known, it is Hamilton’s work I found most compelling). I read the book about 6-7 years ago now, but just talking about it makes me want to read it again. Even though it uses quite a bit of Greek scholarship, it is very accessible . Another interesting book that looks at the cultural background of 1 Timothy 2 is “What’s with Paul and Women?” by Jon Zens. I’d recommend Cunningham/Hamilton’s book first since it covers a broader range of verses about women including 1 Timothy 2, but Zens it very interesting too.

    One final thing: I always find it helpful to look at the first reference in the Bible to a topic. Doing so can give some much needed context. If we look to the first reference of “a husband ruling over his wife” we go back to Genesis 3:16, where as a result of the fall God tells both Adam and Eve some horrible things that are now going to happen as a result. In other words “husband ruling over wife” and/or “man ruling over woman” was part of the curse! (this last part was my husband’s insight not mine, which I love about him: he is an out-of-the-box thinker). There are some folks who interpret this to mean that Eve could not be trusted to lead because she was deceived, but what about Adam who was not deceived, and still sinned (ref: 1 Tim 2:14)? Does that qualify him any more to lead? I would say “no” there are huge drawbacks to both kinds of sin in leadership (and furthermore in my experience, neither sex is exempt from either type). And if it had been the case that woman now had to be ruled by man because of her sin, why was this not instead given as a command to Adam that he now must rule his wife. Rather, it was not issued as a command, but as a description of life as it would now be in a world full of sin and death. Now man, who is physically stronger (made possible by higher amounts of testosterone in his body), because of sin, would use that strength to dominate and rule woman rather than to help her.

    Thanks for your interesting review and thanks also Jamie for your comments, both of which reminded me of some of my own research into this topic. And thanks Malcolm. Even though I don’t agree with that particular explanation for Deborah as an exception, I appreciate the general supportiveness of women in leadership. My prayer for my sisters in Christ (and my brothers too!) is that every man-made barrier would be removed, that we all would grow in our knowledge of the Truth, and the Truth would set us free!

  3. P.S. I’ve heard some teachings on Deborah as an “exception” before, so some of what I say there may be responding to some of those arguments rather than what Malcolm specifically states in his book (as I said I haven’t read the book… yet). Regardless, the main point is that, in a fallen world, the rarity of something being true in history as recorded in the Bible is not a good argument for anything, since the Bible is a long history of God reaching out his hand to an obstinate people who continually wander from his ways, and (thank God!) are continually called back.

    • Hi Maggie,

      Thanks so much for your insightful comments regarding the issue of women in leadership. Like I mentioned in my post, I’ve done a fair bit of research on Deborah (fun fact: I changed my name to Deborah when I was a teen because she is my hero), so I know there are many different explanations given by a variety of different scholars. Personally, I find Deborah exemplified a strength of character that should be honoured. I also read that in a way, Barak’s request for her to go with him was not simply a “wimp move” but rather the assertion of her authority. I think this is a tough one, and it’s great that you have done so much research in this area. I think we (as a collective church body) should strive to bring up both strong male and female leaders.

      P.S. As an aside, right now I am living in a remote rural Canadian town which is very much “in the middle of nowhere.” I think there is so much potential to do church planting and pastoring here…and it would seem a shame for me not to get involved because of my gender. That’s what I think Malcolm is getting at. That it’s very unfortunate when churches are so male dominated that they would rather see a ministry “crash and burn” or never “get off the ground” simply due to lack of men. God can (and often does) override gender barriers…however, it is always great when we can enjoy shared leadership and have men step up and be responsible as well. In Western society we very often lack those strong male leaders which I think is equally unfortunate to not letting a woman have a leading role (assuming God has called her to it and she has the natural abilities and strength).

      P.P.S. Thank you very much for your book suggestions!

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