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December 4, 2007

Born to Follow?

At a very early age I came to understand that as a female, I was born to follow. "Men lead. Women follow." That's what I was taught. It didn't matter that I was the pastor's daughter, even though PK's are often leader-types. My three brothers each took a turn as president of the youth group at church. Not me. I knew my place. Girls aren't supposed to lead. Even being in the first class of women at Dallas Theological Seminary didn't dislodge me from the conviction that as a woman I was born to follow - follow my husband (if one showed up) and follow male leadership in the church.

Oh, sure, I knew about Deborah, Esther, and Priscilla. But their stories were always accompanied by the explanation that these women were "exceptions." Christian women weren't supposed to get any big ideas from studying their lives. Usually one or more qualifiers followed: They weren't actually doing as much as it seems; they were stepping into a male leadership vacuum and actually were a punishment on the men; this was a unique moment in time and not intended to establish any pattern. So these strong female leaders were carefully set aside as role models for women today.

What surprises me, as I think back over my life, is the fact that having the follower mentality drummed into me was actually a great way to prepare me for the day I would discover God created women to be leaders too. The first and most important lesson in leadership is not being told you were born to lead (or participating in competitive sports), but learning you were born to follow.

God's creation call for his image bearers - male and female - to rule and subdue the earth couldn't be a clearer mandate for leadership. But the only way to become the leaders God desires is first and foremost to become his followers. Jesus' first words to the men he chose as leaders was, "Follow me."

The person who finally taught me to think of myself as a leader was a woman whose first recorded act in the Bible was to establish herself irrevocably as a follower. When instructed by her mother-in-law Naomi to return to Moab and to her gods, Ruth the Moabitess dug in her heels and proved immovable. This is when Ruth binds herself to follow Yahweh.

If any woman was ever qualified to take a back seat in life, Ruth was that woman. She was a foreigner, a recent convert, a newcomer in Israel, widowed (meaning she had no voice, no legal rights, no place in society) and barren (as a woman she had nothing to contribute). All reasons to excuse herself from any thoughts of leadership. But Ruth didn't let an unpromising resume stop her. Instead of maintaining the deferential, passive, clinging image we have wrongly ascribed to her, she is gutsy, bold, and astonishingly assertive, and all because underneath her sights were set - not on securing a top spot for herself - but on doing whatever it took to live as a true follower of God in this world.

As a result, she emerges as a powerful influence in the lives of Naomi, Boaz, and the rest of the Bethlehem community. Her actions bless everyone in her path and ultimately change the world for, unbeknown to her, she is rescuing the royal line of Christ.

Ruth's example establishes a pattern that goes against common assumptions about what female leadership will do to men. When the first calling and greatest passion of a female leader is to follow Jesus, the men in her life won't suffer the fears we hear recited all the time: that they will be displaced, emasculated, or feminized. To the contrary, they become better men.

There is no male leadership vacuum in the Book of Ruth. Boaz is a true leader when he makes his entrance in the story - a man to be admired for all the right reasons. When he exits the story (after repeatedly following Ruth's lead), he has attained new and higher levels of godliness and is honored as the great-grandfather of King David and the worthy ancestor of Jesus.

Deborah's heart belongs to Yahweh, and so she calls and accompanies a reluctant Barak into battle. Barak makes the Bible's Hall of Fame (Hebrews 11:32) for great men and women of faith.

Esther overcomes her fears to answer God's call on her life. She confronts her husband (a man with the power to take her life if it suits his mood) and overthrows Haman, the second most powerful man in the world, and his genocidal plots against her people. Her ascendance to power makes King Xerxes a wiser ruler and exalts her noble cousin Mordecai to a position of great stature and world power.

In Priscilla's unbending commitment to the teachings of Jesus and Paul, she partners with her husband in setting Apollos straight in his teaching. Together they strengthen Apollos to proclaim the gospel to countless people.

I no longer believe leadership belongs exclusively to men. God calls all of his daughters to lead. But the leadership we offer to others will only be as good as our ability to follow - to follow the one who created us to lead.

So go ahead. I don't mind if you tell me I was born to follow.


Carolyn, thank you for those great reminders of women leaders in scripture. It seems that there is a surge of energy happening in the evangelical community that is revealing women for the leaders that they are. We can debate the nature of the leadership, even if its just amongst us women, but there is definitely something great going on and women are recognizing that they were also born to lead in many ways.

Men are made different from women. It is only in the West and the Muslim world that the male role as leader is emphasised and implemented with so much rigour. Feminism, human rights and democracy, gay rights are the be all and end all in their brand of Western 'Christianity'.

But in Asia, Africa and South America where Christianity is flourishing, common-sense, Spirit-led Christianity is the mainstay.

Wow. This was a truly moving post. Thank you for your inspiring words.

As always, you are so right, my Friend! Keep up the good work!

It takes courage to stand against so much tradition attempting to "keep you in your place." I have heard too many hiding behind the idea that men are supposed to be the leaders, rather than assuming their own responsibility for faithfulness to God. I am in conversation with another pastor on the issue of women in ministry, trying to help him see that his concerns are really about authority, not ministry. Jesus did not seem too concerned with issues of authority of some over others. To him, greatness was about ministry and service, not position. Blessings!

This week marks one week since my family faced the crisis on Mount Hood involving my brother-in-law, Kelly James, and his two climbing partners, Brian Hall and Nikko Cooke.

One of the lessons I took away from that triple tragedy was the fact that when someone is in trouble and a rescue effort is underway, everyone wants to do anything and everything they can to help.

Last December, men and women took to the mountain, voluntarily risking their lives to find and bring our loved ones safely home. I thank God for every one of them. Even those who weren't climbers were trying to figure out ways to contribute and aid the rescue. No one was holding back. It was an experience, I will never forget.

Jesus has launched a global rescue effort and enlists His followers to carry it out. The vastness of our mission dwarfs our resources. This vital kingdom work doesn't rest on the shoulders of a few, but on all of us. Everyone is mission critical.

I am grateful for leaders who are mobilizing all of God's people—men and women, young and old—to cultivate and use their gifts and to do all they can to build the Kingdom of Christ.

I am a leader and the first thing i learned was how to follow which is the gift that we all need men and women.This article is just a blessing and i love it!
Bless You!

Wow- what a stance...the same thing every non-christian in America believes. You must be on to something. Something that isn't Biblical- something that is rooted in pride and the wanting to be in control...something that isn't about equality in Christ, but about ego and power.

I wonder why people don't read books about submitting 'to everyone' why they don't rush to the Churches that actually calls you on your sin and tells you that things are actually wrong in your life...but we would rather say everyone is 'equal' meaning all should have the chance to lead...not that you need to be qualified or 'called' but we shouldn't keep anyone from leading.

big surprise our churches are shrinking and dying- in an age where there are tons of female pastors, pastors that have addiction to porn, drunkards, unfaithful to their spouses and abusing would think we would be growing?

whats wrong with actually doing what the Bible says- not relevant? written by a guy that doesn't like women? bad translation? taken out of context? I'm sure there are more excuses- to bad...we are doing so well.

Feminists are so pathetic. You hate the natural order of things, so you simply wish them out of existence. So now you've come to regard yourself as a leader. And how have you made that a reality? I'd like to see how many men (or women, for that matter) actually follow you in a real-world enterprise or organization.

Thank you for this powerful commentary, wise and respectful, but pulling back the curtains on what God intended for His children in terms of ministry and freedom to follow HIM.

Many women are born leaders. However, acknowledging the giant elephant in the room, are those women who are born leaders to exercise their leadership in a capacity of authority over men? Everyone wants to issue qualifications about Paul's prohibition in
1Timothy 2:12-15. Sure there are example's of a women's leadership over men implied in scriptures that preceded the pastoral epistles. But, Paul wrote those letters to Timothy late in the time line of scripture about how the church was to function in our age. There is no evidence he was addressing one specific situation regarding one church. Not all men are even qualified to hold authoritative positions. Paul detailed his qualifications for leaders (Elders/Overseers) in the pastoral epistles.

It's so interesting - and curious - that nearly every time a "strong Christian woman" dares to address the "L" word within Christendom, she's labeled a "feminist," usually from a tongue (or a pen) bubbling with battery acid. It's almost comical.

Curiously again, this post had little to do with following a person - male or female - but with following Christ first and pre-eminently. If embracing the Lordship of Christ as my Ultimate Leader makes me a "feminist," then so be it.

To those who post here who are against women in leadership positions, there are many, many good books and articles that explain the passages that deal with women in the church. I recommend that you pray for God's wisdom and read what these verses are really saying. Name calling and snide remarks, though, are un-Christian. If you truly accept Christ into your hearts, he will heal the anger that you are currently directing towards women.

I appreciate this article, and the postings that follow. There are times when I am called to follow a man, a woman, a child, times when I am called to lead all three, but always called to personal leadership and always called to follow Christ, so I know when to do what.
I am saddened by the clamoring, even in the Christian church and Christian workplace that I still experience. It seems that when I hear folks that are threatened by women, its those who are focused on the clamoring instead of the mission.

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