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This question was recently asked in a comment on my blog:
Q: I had a discussion with my pastor and his wife today about some of the issues I’ve been thinking on. They are strongly complementarian and are adamant that ‘at the end of the day’ – judgment – the males will be held accountable for decisions effecting both home and church.
Is it wishful thinking on the part of the woman to think that she isn’t accountable to God, for the direction a family takes? I can’t hear a specific answer from them, re what particular thing a husband will be responsible to for, that a wife won’t. What would you say to this– what decisions does/will God hold each Christian responsible for?
I always like to start with definitions of terms:
Responsibility: A duty or obligation to satisfactorily perform or complete a task (assigned by someone, or created by one’s own promise or circumstances) that one must fulfill, and which has a consequent penalty for failure.
Responsible: Able to make moral or rational decisions on one’s own and therefore answerable for one’s behavior.
Accountable: subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; answerable.
Accountability is related to responsibility in that we are accountable to get done what we are responsible to do. To have responsibility, one must be “responsible.” This means we must be competent adults. Children and persons who are mentally disabled are not considered legally responsible. Their parents or guardians are held responsible for them
The Spiderman comics and movies are famous for this quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” There can be no responsibility where there is no power. A child is considered to have no power to sign a legal document, and therefore incurs no responsibility if she does sign. We have no duty or obligation to perform any task which is beyond our power.
When God created humankind and gave them “dominion” over the creation in Genesis 1:26, God was giving humans power, and therefore responsibility, over their environment and over themselves. Everyone has some measure of power. Children can’t be held responsible under the law, but their parents and teachers hold them responsible to do the duties they are capable of doing. When we have power over others’ actions, we are also held responsible for the things they do. This is why bosses have the ultimate responsibility over their businesses—because they are the ones with the power to do (or cause to be done) what they are responsible to do.
James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” In Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30), the one who was given five talents was responsible for all five, while the one who had three talents was responsible only for those three. We are responsible according to the amount of power we have and the use and influence of our power over others.
So the position taken by the pastor and wife described in the question above, is a logical outgrowth of the position called “complementarianism” — that husbands have God-given authority over wives, and that church leaders have God-given authority over congregations and therefore must be male. If husbands can tell wives what to do, then husbands have power over their wives, and consequently they are accountable for what they tell their wives to do and how they use their power. I prefer to call this “male-hierarchalism,” since I think it describes the position better than the somewhat misleading term “complementarianism.” (Christian egalitarians also believe that men and women complement one another, but without hierarchy.)
Furthermore, even when Christian male-hierarchalists take responsibility away from women, our modern Western societies continue to consider them full adults and to hold them accountable as such. If a woman goes along with her coercive church and husband in denying a child medical care, for example, both parents are still held responsible if that child is harmed. The courts will not respond, “Oh, that’s ok, then,” when a woman explains that she believed she had to submit to her husband. Courts might find a mitigating circumstance if a woman could prove she was being forced into child neglect by her husband, but if she claims she was submitting of her own free will, they will not understand! Women have power in our world over their children, and therefore they are responsible for the well-being of those children.
I think women are also fully accountable to God as responsible adults. But when they are coerced or shamed or otherwise convinced to give up adult power and abdicate adult responsibility, I think God is able to consider the woman’s heart in ways that courts of law cannot. Therefore our merciful Father will hold more accountable, the ones who convinced her it was His will that she give up her self-determination.
Ultimately, we are all responsible at least for ourselves and our own actions. We also have responsibility for the way we use any additional power we may have. But in male-hierarchical Christianity I have seen some worrying things happen regarding personal responsibility and who is held accountable for what. The potential for crazy-making responsibility issues in Christian male-hierarchalism, will be the subject of next week’s post.
Comments open below
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce