- The precedent for women leading in the worship of the people of God by means of music is as old as is biblical faith!
At Worship Leader, when important and somewhat divisive topics like women in the pulpit surface in our Christian culture, we’re privileged to be able to look at over 30 years of publishing and pull related articles that study historical changes. Today’s topic is a result of this:
Former Saddleback Church pastor and founder Rick Warren recently laid out three passages from the Bible that led him to conclude that it is acceptable for women to serve in the office of pastor. [source]
Given it’s International Women’s Day (last Wednesday) and Women’s History Month and we are, yet again, debating the question of women leading churches, we decided to reference a Worship Leader Magazine article from 1993 that shines some light on women as worship leaders.
There currently isn’t much debate as to whether or not women can lead worship in the church and that’s in large part because great scholars like Ron Allen published pieces like A Biblical Precedent For Women Worship Leaders in Worship Leader Magazine all the way back in 1993. Will Rick Warren’s stance be a historical moment we can point to and say, “that’s when women were given full equality in church leadership?” That remains to be seen, but understanding where we’ve been as a Church can explain how we got to where we are and even encourage us to embrace where the Holy Spirit is telling us to go.
So, with our calendars and our social channels telling us we’re supposed to be focused on women this month, which implies the sad fact that women aren’t given equal attention all months, we felt it was important to resurface this article. We’re proud to have been writing about women in church leadership for decades. – – Joshua Swanson, Editor-in-Chief
A Biblical Precedent For Women Worship Leaders
Dear Diane, I read your letter with interest; it is one of several I have received in the past few weeks dealing with the same subject. You have expressed some concern about the attitudes of some people in your congregation as they are adjusting to the new worship patterns your church is adopting.
You are particularly concerned about the role of women as worship leaders. You went on to say that your letter did not concern the issue of women as pastors. I am well aware that in your church a woman would not be received as a candidate for the role of senior pastor. Perhaps I may help you by sharing a fun discovery I have recently made. This spring, I joined the Masterworks Choir that is directed by my friend and colleague at Western Seminary, Dr. Gordon Porror. Each spring, about 100 singers from many churches in the greater Portland [Ore.] area together perform a choral “masterwork.”
This spring, the choir performed G.E. Handel Is Messiah, parts II and III (the less-often performed sections of this great work). In preparation for the performances, which followed Easter, I did an intense study of each of the Scriptures that Handel used in his majestic work. One of the lesser-known choruses that we sang was Number 37, “The Lord Cave the Word: Great Was the Company of the Preachers.” This verse is taken from Psalm 68.
When I turned to the Hebrew text of this Psalm, I was delightfully surprised. Psalm 68:11 (v. 12 in Hebrew) may be translated a bit differently today than in the King James Translation that was available to Handel over 250 years ago. The interesting thing is that the term used for “preachers” in Handel’s time in the King James (translated by the NIV, “those who proclaimed it”) is, in the Hebrew text, a feminine form of the verbal noun.
In Hebrew, as in many languages, nouns and verb forms are gender-specific. Thus, an expanded rendering of Psalm 68:11 could easily read: “The Lord gave the word; great was the company of the women who proclaimed it.” Interestingly, the verb at issue (Hebrew, basar) is one of the great terms in the psalms used to speak of spreading the “good news” of the salvation of the Lord (see another use of this same verb in Psalm 96:2b, “proclaim [the good news of] His salvation day after day”).
In Psalm 68, there is a wonderful section that is reminiscent of the great salvation the Lord enacted to deliver His people from Egypt in the time of the Exodus. Verses 7-18 center on this great event in lines of magnificent poetry.
The historical point of verse 11 (concerning women who lead in proclamation) is a reminder of the singing of the people of God when He made them free.
I refer to the magnificent song of redemption that is found in Exodus 15. This was the hymn of the redeemed that was sung by Moses and the people of Israel when God had completed His saving work of bringing them out of the control of Pharaoh. This is when the Lord who is the great warrior (v. 3) hurled horse and rider into the sea (v.1).
When we begin reading the chapter in Exodus, we read that it was sung by Moses and by the people of Israel (v. 1). But when we come to the conclusion of this poem, which I call “The Song of the Sea” (vv. 1-18), we discover something new: It was Miriam and the women who actually led in the singing!
Exodus 15:20 specifically speaks of Miriam in highly honorific titles. She is called “a prophetess” (that is, a woman prophet of Yahweh, the living God), and she is called “Aaron’s sister” (that is, she was sister not only to Moses the leader of the people, but also to Aaron who would be the high priest of the people).
The next thing the verse says is that she took her tambourine and was joined “by all the women,” and they led in the singing of “The Song of the Sea” with music and dancing (see v. 20).
David doubtless had this great event in mind when he wrote in Psalm 68:11 that the company of those women who proclaimed the good news of Yahweh’s deliverance was indeed great when “the Lord gave the word.”
So, Diane, I come back to your question. The issue of “women preachers” will not be resolved by a reference to Psalm 68:11, even though the earlier editions of the King James Translation said “great was the company of the preachers” with reference to women!
But I do think your question is answered here. The precedent for women leading in the worship of the people of God by means of music is as old as is biblical faith! It was in the Exodus that the nation Israel was created by God. And it was at the time of the Exodus that women led in the music of the praise of His name.
There is still one little matter. Exodus says that Miriam and all the women not only sang while playing their tambourines. There is also the little matter of the dance. But here we stop. I need to get back to the music. Gordon has assured me that running a marathon is nothing compared with singing in his choir!
Warmly in the Savior,
Originally published in Worship Leader Magazine • June/ July 1993
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In addition to his teaching responsibilities at DTS, Dr. Allen preaches in churches across the country, speaks at Bible conferences, regularly leads study tours in Israel, Turkey, and Greece, and has been a biblical and theological consultant for Maranatha! Music. He has written a dozen books; was on of the senior editors for The New King James Version; Old Testament; and was the Old Testament editor for both The Nelson Study Bible (also known as The New King James Study Bible) and The Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary. Aside from his academic pursuits, Dr. Allen loves to ride his bicycle—the one that fits into his suitcase—and is licensed as both, a massage therapist and instructor.