In speaking of women as leaders, doesn’t it make more sense to choose a woman from the Bible’s impressive lineup of recognized female leaders – someone like Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Huldah, Mary, Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia (and that’s just the short list)? Not necessarily. Having delved deeply into the lives of Ruth and Naomi in [my book] The Gospel of Ruth, I can’t think of two better candidates for this discussion precisely because they were so unlikely. Had I chosen a woman known for her leadership achievements, I would be reinforcing conventional ideas of leadership, as those who rise to the top and have titles, a following, and public recognition to go with their achievements. I am certain this would cause a good number of female readers to place themselves on the edges of this discussion and assume I’m talking about someone else.
Naomi and Ruth represent the lowest common denominator when it comes to women, and to see how they evolved as leaders will challenge our assumptions about women as leaders and invite us all into the conversation. Whatever we conclude about them as leaders applies to us all. The very nature of their circumstances injects an intriguing degree of uncertainty as to where this discussion is going.
As a starting point, there’s no denying the fact that women do emerge as strong leaders in the Bible, complete with titles, recognition and high praise. At the very least, this raises the possibility that to resist thinking of ourselves as leaders is too stiff-arm something important that God is calling us to do. But there is this other undeniable fact – that being God’s image bearer, whether you are male or female, comes with significant leadership responsibilities. God created and is counting on his image bearers to be active on his behalf.
Here is the point. The Bible doesn’t merely leave the door ajar for some women to become leaders; it actually makes a rather emphatic case that God expects his daughters to be leaders. A lot is riding on our willingness to see this. It is not overstating things to say that there are dire global repercussions if half the church reluctantly backs away from something this important or imagines that this only concerns a select group of women and the male half of the church. This is not to advocate anarchy, insurrection, or disregard for the authority structures we all live within, nor does it create a scenario where we are all pulling in different directions. Rather, it is to redefine leadership in kingdom/gospel terms.
The Bible gives us leadership examples that won’t let any of us off the hook; that is where Naomi and Ruth come in. No one would imagine that God was raising up the two beleaguered souls who reentered Bethlehem to become kingdom leaders. They take us to a place where no headhunter would think of going in search of leaders, to the forgotten backroom where a widow retires from meaningful activity and others think nothing of throwing her out with the trash. Ironically, though they are counted out by everyone else (including themselves), they are counted in by God.