WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Arizona senator and Republican presidential nominee John McCain recently made history with the announcement that his vice presidential running mate is a woman. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is the second female to be chosen as a major party’s vice presidential candidate; Democrat Geraldine Ferraro received her party’s nomination in 1984.
Other women have run for the presidency itself, including Republican Elizabeth Dole and Democrat Hillary Clinton, but to date a woman has never been elected to the first or second highest office in the land.
Gov. Palin’s candidacy has sparked debate among some conservative Christians. While many applaud her pro-life convictions and traditional conservative policy positions, some have raised concerns about a woman occupying high office. Some complementarians — those who affirm traditional gender roles in the home and the church — are concerned that electing a woman to the vice presidency (or presidency) undermines the biblical understanding of male spiritual headship. The question is whether or not female governmental leadership is consistent with Scripture.
Complementarian views are clearly articulated in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention’s confession of faith. When speaking about local church leadership, the confession notes, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” Relevant biblical citations include 1 Timothy 2:9–14 and 3:1–15.
Citing such passages as Genesis 1:26–28 and Ephesians 5:21–33, the final article in the Baptist Faith and Message, devoted to the family, also takes a complementarian position:
“The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”
As a committed complementarian, I agree with the Baptist Faith and Message and desire to see biblical manhood and womanhood modeled in Christian homes and churches. But the Baptist Faith and Message does not address the question of women in secular leadership, only spiritual leadership.
Looking to Scripture, there are reasons we should use caution when applying biblical principles about gender roles in the home and the church to secular government. The Bible nowhere offers an unambiguous rejection of female governmental leadership as it does female spiritual leadership in the home and church.
There is one negative reference to female rulers, in Isaiah 3:12. But while this verse complains that women “rule over” the people of God, the same verse also notes that children are “their oppressors” and ends by claiming “those who guide you lead you astray and confuse the direction of your paths.” In context, Isaiah 3:12 seems to be less about a condemnation of female rulers per se and more a criticism of the quality of leadership in Judah (were children also literally oppressing adults?). Remember that the wicked (and pagan) women Jezebel and Athaliah had ruled God’s people in the not-too-distant past. Perhaps Isaiah is noting that the leaders of Judah, who were men, were using the same judgment as these wicked women or rebellious children.
There is at least one positive reference to female leadership in the example of Deborah in Judges 4–5. It was Deborah who inspired Barak and the armies of Israel to make war with the pagan general Sisera, thus playing a crucial role in redemptive history. Judges 4:4 tells us that Deborah was both a prophetess and judge. It was the judges, like Deborah, who exercised the closest thing to national leadership in the generations between Joshua’s death and the establishment of the monarchy.
Even with these two biblical examples, we should be hesitant in applying Old Testament principles about governmental leadership to our contemporary American context. Ancient Israel was a theocracy under the direct rule of Yahweh. This was true, at least in theory, even after the establishment of the monarchy. God was the True King of Israel. There was no concept of a secular government in the Old Testament, let alone freedom of religion. Therefore, we must use caution as we consider how much any specific Old Testament examples should or should not be embodied in a nation where there is no theocracy and/or state-sponsored church.
I believe it seems best to not reject the validity of female secular leadership on the basis of a complementarian view of gender roles. As Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has written, “God’s design for male headship in the home and the church does not require the exclusion of women from leadership in public life, where spiritual headship is not involved. Such extrapolation carries the biblical teaching about the role of women beyond the Bible’s own application.” This seems like wise counsel.
There may be any number of reasons why Sarah Palin — or any other female — would make a problematic candidate for high political office. But gender should not be one of those reasons. While the Bible has much to say about the qualities of a just leader, we must be ever careful to speak only where Scripture speaks. Palin’s gender should not be a decisive factor in judging whether or not she is suited to serve as the vice president (or even president) of the United States.
As we assess Gov. Palin, and future female candidates, let us focus on the candidate’s character and convictions concerning those issues we hold most dear rather than dismissing her and other candidates solely on the basis of their gender.
Nathan A. Finn is assistant professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.