Throughout this series on women open-air preachers, you may have had certain passages of Scripture come to mind to refute my position. In this blog post, I will focus on three common citations which are used to support the validity of women preaching in the open-air. The most common exegetical mistakes involve either making category errors or failing to understand context. By reviewing each passage, you will see that these examples do not strengthen the arguments of those who advocate for women open-air preachers.
1. Deborah and Barak (Judges 4:1-24)
Deborah, a prophetess and judge in Israel, summons Barak to remind him of the Lord’s orders. He is to go and destroy Sisera’s army. Barak responds by pleading for Deborah to come with him. “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” (Judges 4:8). Deborah will satisfy his request, but it will cost Barak his glory. Deborah said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” (Judges 4:9). At the end of the narrative, another woman, who is called Jael, kills Sisera with a tent peg. She receives Barak’s glory.
Those who advocate that women can open-air preach will use this passage as justification. They argue that Deborah is an example of a woman who preaches God’s Word. As a prophetess, she received divine revelation and communicated it to others. Therefore, advocates of women open-air preaches say that females can follow Deborah’s example.
There are four reasons to reject this rationale. First, the main message of the book of Judges is “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The descriptive narratives should not necessarily be taken as imperative commands on ordering the practice of preaching. Instead, we should use the principle of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. Therefore, we should start with the clear passages that instruct us on who should teach and preach (1 Tim. 2:9-14; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 2 Tim. 2:1-2; Titus 1:5-9; James 3:1) before jumping to these descriptive examples which are set in unidealistic times.
Second, we must not equate prophecy with preaching. Prophecy is receiving direct revelation from God and saying, “Thus says the Lord!” Preaching is publicly explaining the divine revelation which has been inscripturated so that the hearers will accept it. I hold the position that the gifts of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 have ceased. Dr. Sam Waldron promotes the cascade argument with which I am in agreement. He argues that since the gift of Apostles has ceased, then there are no gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, or miraculous healing. Therefore, a woman open-air preacher is not a prophetess like Deborah. She is not receiving new divine revelation. Due to this distinction, it is inappropriate to parallel Deborah’s ministry with women open-air preachers.
Third, Deborah’s ministry has a different context than open-air preaching. Verse 5 says, “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.” This verse suggests that her ministry consisted of personal counseling to individuals who would seek her out for guidance from the Lord. While she is conducting the ministry outdoors, she is not going to the city gates to preach to the people a message of repentance. Her ministry is dissimilar from preaching.
Fourth, God judges Barak for not leading as a man should. He asks Deborah to come with him to the battle. Apparently, he received comfort in having her present. This suggests passive, cowardly leadership. Because he did not embrace his responsibilities to lead as a man, God gave the glory of winning the battle to a woman. Ultimately, this main point undermines women preachers. The consistent teaching in Scripture is that men should lead God’s people into worship and into spiritual battle. As Genesis 3 teaches us, Satan keeps trying to reverse the roles. This contributed to the uncertain circumstances in the book of Judges.
2. The Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42)
In John 4, Jesus has a gospel conversation with a Samaritan woman. He turns the conversation to the gospel by offering living water which will bring eternal life. Then, Jesus demonstrates His deity by communicating the woman’s personal history with men. She quickly transitions the conversation to a dialogue on worship. Jesus responds in verse 24, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Afterwards Jesus gives a positive declaration that He is the Christ.
The woman leaves Jesus to go back to the town after the disciples arrive. She goes with haste to tell the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” Many of the townspeople go to find Jesus. The Lord provides an impromptu retreat where He teaches them the Scriptures for two days.
Advocates of women open-air preachers say that this is an example of a female preaching. She went to a public place in the community and ordered the people to come and see Jesus. Her announcement is public and regards spiritual matters. Therefore, the Samaritan woman gives female Christians an example to follow by preaching the gospel.
There are three reasons to reject this interpretation. First, the Samaritan woman’s example is descriptive and not prescriptive. John narrates the woman’s actions, but this should not be taken as a command or justification for women to preach.
Second, the Samaritan woman does not preach but testifies. She does not open the Scriptures to “rightly divide the Word of truth.” Instead, she comes back from the well excited since Jesus told her specific details about her life. Now she is telling the people to go to this same Jesus. It would be similar to a woman telling a group of people about the impact the Bible has had on her. She excitedly encourages everyone else to read it too. We certainly would not consider this testimony to be preaching since it is not an authoritative delivery of God’s Word. On the contrary, the woman is directing people to read the Word. They are to go hear Jesus’ voice in the Scriptures.
Third, Jesus is the preacher in the passage and not the woman. The townspeople go to Jesus and not the woman to receive instruction. Jesus spends two days with them to open up the Scriptures. In verse 42, the people said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” Her testimony did not bring them to saving faith. Now they believe, because they have heard directly from Jesus’ mouth.
3. Philip’s Daughters (Acts 21:7-14)
Paul and Luke find hospitality in Philip the evangelist’s house when they arrive in Caesarea. Luke mentions that Philip had four daughters. He notes that all of them prophesied. After a few days, another prophet named Agabus comes from Judea. He prophesied that the Jews in Jerusalem “‘will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” Of course, this predicts Paul’s imprisonment and relocation to Rome in order to stand trial before Caesar.
This passage illustrates the prophetic ministry. The Holy Spirit gave Agabus a message to speak to Paul. This message tells of future events which only the Lord could know. Therefore, the prophetic gift is different from preaching and teaching. It requires God to set aside a person to receive ongoing authoritative revelation from Him. Since the prophet’s message is from the Lord, then it is binding upon the recipients’ conscience.
A person cannot appeal to women prophets in Scripture to justify women open-air preachers without making category errors. The Greek word for prophesied means, “to speak under the influence of divine inspiration, with or without reference to future events” according to Louw-Nida. In contrast, preaching is not giving new special revelation. Instead, preaching publicly proclaims what God has already revealed in His Word.
This means to appeal to prophetesses in Scripture to support women preachers is poor exegesis. Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), and Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14) are not examples of women preaching. Instead, they held an office which is no longer in effect. With the completion of the canon, prophecy has ceased. The Scriptures are the sufficient revelation for any believer in Jesus Christ. Consequently, the prophetesses’ examples cannot be applied to the ongoing debate of women open-air preachers.
Pastor Brandon was born and raised near Springfield, IL. He graduated from Illinois College in 2007 with a B.A. in History, from Moody Theological Seminary in 2010 with a Master of Divinity, and a PhD in Historical Theology in 2021 from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He is also an ACBC certified Biblical counselor. He is married to Karise with whom they raise Ian, Elizabeth, and Patrick. He is interested in history, especially Charles Spurgeon, and has a heart for street preaching and evangelism.