Last Wednesday, the Pentagon announced its decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat, opening to them over 237,000 jobs in infantry units. Women have been serving on the frontlines alongside men for the past ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan, so while this is an important move, it’s also a recognition of the bravery and sacrifice women have already shown on the ground.
Naturally, such a change has prompted a slew of responses from Christians — some joyful, others appalled — and Christianity Today gathered a few in a collection titled “Given Deborah, Jael, and Judith, Why Shouldn’t Women Serve in Combat?”
On one hand, I like that this headline puts the onus on the contributors to prove wrong a decision that I believe to be fair and sensible. On the other, when you think about it, basing the morality of this debate on the actions of a handful of ancient characters from the Hebrew Scriptures is absurd.
The fact that the male-dominated Old Testament includes accounts of these three women is fascinating, no doubt. And yes, the stories are inspiring, perhaps especially to the young girl who has always wanted validation that she, too, has the power to plant tent pegs in men’s temples. But say there was no Deborah, and Barak instead rose to the occasion and won the battle for the Israelites, would that mean women shouldn’t serve in combat?
Of course not. While in this particular case Deborah kicks butt, and I think military women should be permitted to do likewise, taking cues from the lives of Biblical characters as if we’re reading from a script written to determine the right choice for this very occasion makes little sense and can even be dangerous. This is especially true when we are talking about a political and military decision, something decidedly removed from the purview of the church; it’s time to leave ancient anecdotes aside.
I’m not saying that Biblical principles have no place in the political sphere, or even that we must disregard teachings we believe to be true about, for instance, gender. I’m also not saying we should ignore the examples of Christ and others in scripture. But the important thing that we miss by focusing on the singular example of Deborah is the much larger picture; we should look, instead, at the entire trajectory of scripture and tradition, and apply the wisdom of the gospel as responsibly as we can to our present culture. Cherry picking stories to support a political point just won’t do.
That’s why out of the three articles in Christianity Today’s spread, I think the one written by Alan “Blues” Baker is the strongest. He uses logic, common sense, personal experience, and yes, even scriptural principles to make his point. As it turns out, he doesn’t appeal to the Bible for his argument except to quote Paul in Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”) and to apply the relevant overarching idea.
We spin our wheels when we try to overanalyze this or that Bible hero or verse, and we run the risk of missing the point. Fundamentalist and liberal alike should agree that the applying scripture is about more than filling roles and playing parts. It’s about sacrificial living, and it’s about Christ opening up his kingdom for all. While applying such an idea to something like the military isn’t going to be a perfect fit (I doubt the kingdom in its fullness will be at war), the spirit of scripture has much to tell us about many aspects of contemporary life.
So let’s debate this topic—by all means, and disagree on moral grounds, but don’t tell me that the reason I can serve in combat is because a lady named Deborah who lived thousands of years ago was good with a sword.
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