At a very early age I came to understand that as a female, I was born to follow. "Men lead. Women follow." That's what I was taught. It didn't matter that I was the pastor's daughter, even though PK's are often leader-types. My three brothers each took a turn as president of the youth group at church. Not me. I knew my place. Girls aren't supposed to lead. Even being in the first class of women at Dallas Theological Seminary didn't dislodge me from the conviction that as a woman I was born to follow - follow my husband (if one showed up) and follow male leadership in the church.
Oh, sure, I knew about Deborah, Esther, and Priscilla. But their stories were always accompanied by the explanation that these women were "exceptions." Christian women weren't supposed to get any big ideas from studying their lives. Usually one or more qualifiers followed: They weren't actually doing as much as it seems; they were stepping into a male leadership vacuum and actually were a punishment on the men; this was a unique moment in time and not intended to establish any pattern. So these strong female leaders were carefully set aside as role models for women today.
What surprises me, as I think back over my life, is the fact that having the follower mentality drummed into me was actually a great way to prepare me for the day I would discover God created women to be leaders too. The first and most important lesson in leadership is not being told you were born to lead (or participating in competitive sports), but learning you were born to follow.
God's creation call for his image bearers - male and female - to rule and subdue the earth couldn't be a clearer mandate for leadership. But the only way to become the leaders God desires is first and foremost to become his followers. Jesus' first words to the men he chose as leaders was, "Follow me."
The person who finally taught me to think of myself as a leader was a woman whose first recorded act in the Bible was to establish herself irrevocably as a follower. When instructed by her mother-in-law Naomi to return to Moab and to her gods, Ruth the Moabitess dug in her heels and proved immovable. This is when Ruth binds herself to follow Yahweh.
If any woman was ever qualified to take a back seat in life, Ruth was that woman. She was a foreigner, a recent convert, a newcomer in Israel, widowed (meaning she had no voice, no legal rights, no place in society) and barren (as a woman she had nothing to contribute). All reasons to excuse herself from any thoughts of leadership. But Ruth didn't let an unpromising resume stop her. Instead of maintaining the deferential, passive, clinging image we have wrongly ascribed to her, she is gutsy, bold, and astonishingly assertive, and all because underneath her sights were set - not on securing a top spot for herself - but on doing whatever it took to live as a true follower of God in this world.