Leon Panetta, then U.S. secretary of defense, shocked the nation when he announced in January 2013 that he had lifted the ban on women serving in combat. While I was discussing when it’s okay for daughters and wives to fight, a friend reacted in the same way many others feel: “I can answer in one word, ‘Never!’”
Because we live in a fallen world this is not a new question. The first known Christian scholar, Clement of Alexandria (ca. AD 155–215), would have agreed wholeheartedly. “For we do not train our women like Amazons to manliness in war; since we wish the men even to be peaceable” (The Stromata, Bk IV, Ch VIII).
Concerned citizens have adopted multiple approaches to grapple with this vexing question, appealing to morality, physiology, nature, tradition, emotion, history, politics, and psychology. As a naval officer who piloted a hovercraft in the dangerous northern waterways of South Vietnam, I could also speak from personal experience. But what gives one person’s opinion greater authority than any other? God the Creator’s perspective takes precedence over all others, so I have chosen to appeal exclusively to the divine authority that resides uniquely in Scripture. Surely, the Bible has an answer to such a pressing contemporary query.
Old Testament Examples That Indicate Gender Roles as They Relate to Combat
While Christians are not under the Law (Hebrews 8:6–13), the Old Testament provides a framework for understanding God’s intentions. The military requirements for Israel set a pattern that we should consider carefully. Has God revealed any underlying principles about gender roles that reflect His higher purpose for all nations?
Only Men Were Counted to Go to War
This practice continued all the way from Moses’s time to David and Amaziah (Numbers 1:2–3; 2 Samuel 24:9; 1 Chronicles 21:5; 2 Chronicles 25:5).
Kings Chose Only Sons for War
Samuel mentioned this to Israel as the word of the Lord (1 Samuel 8:11). Israel’s first king, Saul, did exactly this (1 Samuel 14:52).
Only Men Went to War
God the Father is pictured as a warrior on behalf of Israel (Isaiah 42:13). The military bodyguard that protected Israel’s king is referred
to as the “
valiant men of Israel” (Song of Solomon 3:7–8).
When reading through the historical books (Genesis to Esther), we frequently
encounter male armies but never a mention or even veiled suggestion of women
co-combatants. Pagan armies that fought against Israel were male only (1 Samuel 4:9–10). God even foretold that the male Babylonian army
would fight without strength as though they were women (Jeremiah 51:30).
No matter what era one examines in the biblical history of Israel, fighting
units were exclusively staffed with men. When Abram gathered a quick-strike
force to rescue Lot from his kidnappers, he chose men (Genesis 14:14–15).
When Moses assembled an army to attack the Midianites, he selected “
of war” (Numbers 31:3; 31:21; 31:49). When God elaborated
on rules for temporary absences from combat duty, the excused soldiers were
men (Deuteronomy 20:5–8). When the Jews marched around
Jericho, the males marched (Joshua 6:3–9). When Joshua
attacked Ai, he did so with a male army (Joshua 8:3).
Before Gideon went to war, God reduced his fighting force to 300 men (Judges 7:7). Saul’s army proved to be only male (1 Samuel 11:8).
King David’s bodyguard was composed of mighty men (2 Samuel 23:8–37).
Jehoshaphat’s army enlisted only men (2 Chronicles 17:10–19).
Daughters Served in Domestic Roles
Samuel reported this as God’s word to Israel (1 Samuel 8:13).
Wives and Children Did Not Go to War
While men went forth to conquer (Deuteronomy 3:18), the women and children remained behind (Deuteronomy 3:19–20; Joshua 1:14–15). Additionally, Deuteronomy 24:5 says that male soldiers in their first year of marriage were to remain at home with their new brides in a domestic setting rather than go to war with their fellow-soldiers. Nehemiah urged the men to fight for their families and homes (Nehemiah 4:14).
Women Welcomed Men Back From War; Never Did They Return With Them
Such was the case when King Saul and David returned from battle (1 Samuel 18:6–7).
“What about Deborah and Jael?” many people ask. Deborah reluctantly went into battle with the Israelite warrior Barak, not as a female combatant but as a judge of Israel, possibly to shame his cowardice (Judges 4:4–9). The woman Jael killed the enemy general Sisera, not in battle but while doing her domestic chores in a tent where Sisera had retreated to hide (Judges 4:17–22).
New Testament Guidance on Using Old Testament Examples
The Bible teaches the distiction between women’s and men’s roles first established in Genesis 1–2.
While the Old Testament says much, the New Testament is virtually silent on this specific question. It does reiterate the distinction between women’s and men’s roles first established in Genesis 1–2 (Ephesians 5:22–33); and it confirms the scriptural authority of the Old Testament (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
It also speaks of unavoidable spiritual warfare for believers in Christ, whether young or old, male or female (Ephesians 6:10–17; 1 Peter 5:6–9). But it does not directly address the question at hand.
However, two texts urge the New Testament reader to consider the instructions and examples of the Old Testament: Romans 15:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:11. The Old Testament pattern speaks clearly and with divine authority. It does so both prescriptively and descriptively to provide crucial scriptural guidance on this issue.
Based on Paul’s assertions, believers should employ the historical pattern found in the Old Testament—informed by the New Testament and with the Holy Spirit’s guidance—as the pattern for all their decision-making today with respect to the possibility of women in combat.
Mothers in the Military?
Women in combat is just part of a bigger puzzle. Should our daughters, wives, and mothers be involved in military service at all—or in any other demanding career that takes them outside the home? Read the author’s insightful, Bible-based perspective on these matters.
The most celebrated early-church Bible expositor, John Chrysostom (ca. AD 344–407), apparently preached and wrote with these very same convictions in mind (Homily V; see Titus 2:11–14): “Woman was not made for this, O man, to be prostituted as common. O ye subverters of all decency, who use men, as if they were women, and lead out women to war, as if they were men! . . . You suffer women to bear arms, and are not ashamed.”
While I still cannot answer with just one word the question, “Should our daughters and wives be trained to serve in armed combat?” From my understanding, I can now do it authoritatively with three, “Never, biblically speaking!”
Take courage. We have the divinely authoritative Scripture and the testimony of Christian scholars and teachers from the early church on our side as fellow soldiers in the ongoing battle for truth.