In Part 1 I said, “Ultimately, we are all responsible for ourselves and our own actions.” This means we cannot be ultimately responsible for anyone but ourselves. Even with our children, our goal is to teach them self-responsibility so that they can become full adults. Responsibility for ourselves is foundational to maturity and emotional health—but feeling a burden of responsibility for things we ultimately cannot be responsible for, is foundational to dysfunction. And that includes responsibility for other people.
Galatians 6:2 (NASB) says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ.” The context is helping one another with our individual needs, temptations and stumbling blocks. Then Galatians 6:5 goes on to say, “For each one shall bear his own load.” This is in the context of our life work in the kingdom. The word “burdens” in verse 2 is the Greek word “baros,” which means difficulties, troubles. This word is usually used in the Bible to refer to daily, temporary sorts of loads, such as problems we face. But the word in verse 5 translated “load” is the Greek word “phortion,” which usually referred to the freight load of a ship or other large job-related load. Christ used this word when He said, “My yoke is easy and My burden (phortion) is light.” Matt. 11:30. I believe the juxtaposition of the two sentences, just three verses apart in Galatians 6: “Bear one another’s burdens. . . Each one shall bear his own load,” is saying that while we can help one another with our daily troubles, we are, at the end of the day, each responsible only for our own life and our own life’s work– and no one else’s.
In the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) each servant was responsible only for the sum of money he himself was given by the master. The master did not ever question a servant about money he had given to another servant. 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 also shows each person being responsible for what he or she builds on the foundation of Christ; no one else can build for her. We have duties towards others that we need to fulfill (see 1 Timothy 5:8, noting the gender-inclusive context, especially of verses 4 & 16), but those duties are part of our own life’s work. Taking another’s duties and responsibilities on ourselves as if they were our own, or making someone else’s life our own responsibility, can drive us to mental and physical exhaustion.
So let’s look at the underlying messages within some male-hierarchical Christian teachings. Do they work within this principle of self-responsibility, or not?
I’ll start with the men. Men are taught that to be a man is to be born a leader. They are given final power to make all the decisions for the marriage and the family. Here’s one way this message works out in practice. The purpose of the recently released movie Courageous is, according to its own website, to encourage men to be “bold and intentional leaders of their homes, marriages and children.” But part of the text of the “Resolution” male movie-goers are encouraged to sign after seeing the movie says, “I do solemnly resolve before God to take full responsibility for myself, my wife and my children.”
“Full” responsibility for his wife and children. This is more than simply being a “bold and intentional leader.” A man who signs this Resolution will certainly want to teach his children to love God with all their hearts, minds and strength, as the text goes on to say—but what if he does teach them, but they choose otherwise? Whose responsibility is it? The responsibility of the man who has signed the Resolution. Or what if it’s only that the way his children love God with ”all their minds” doesn’t look like what their father thinks it should look like? Suppose, for instance, they decide to be theistic evolutionists instead of young-earth Creationists? Whose responsibility is it to decide just how they should love God with “all their minds”? You guessed it—their father’s. The Resolution’s text says he promises to train his children to “live responsibly.” But it never asks him to promise to teach them to become responsible for themselves. And what about his wife, who as an adult should already be fully responsible for herself? The man takes full responsibility for her also. This is a recipe for dysfunction. The only way to be able to take full responsibility for someone else is to control them. Men who follow this Resolution as it is worded, must become micromanagers and authoritarians—to do otherwise would be to abdicate “full responsibility” for some of their family’s actions.
I want to emphasize that not all complementarian families fall into these kinds of dysfunctional responsibility issues. I hope that many men who sign this Resolution will acknowledge the impossibility of fulfilling it, give themselves and their loved ones over to Christ, and let Him bring them peace and freedom. But the text of the Resolution actually says one human being can and should take “full responsibility” for others. This is the idea that is being spread as part of the gender-roles doctrines being taught in the movie Courageous.
Here’s another teaching I have heard: that in a Christian marriage the man is to his wife as Christ is to the church. Ephesians 5:26-27 says that Christ sanctifies the church, washing her with the water of the word, and presents her to Himself. Therefore, according to this teaching, it is the husband’s job to sanctify the wife, washing her with the water of the word, to present her to Christ. This is the idea behind the teaching that the husband is the “prophet, priest and king” of the home, even as Christ is the Prophet, Priest and King of the church. Gone is the Protestant understanding of the priesthood of all believers. The husband steps between the wife and Christ as intermediary. Her spiritual cleansing and growth becomes her husband’s responsibility, rather than her own before Christ. Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge no one has yet taken this passage to mean that the husband is his wife’s Savior, even though the passage directly says in verse 23 that Christ is the Savior of the church who is His body. To apply this “man is to wife as Christ is to church” teaching consistently, would mean to make the husband savior of the wife! But even though these teachings do not actually go that far, is a human man really capable even of being his wife’s sanctifier? Is she not to trust Christ for this? Can she not walk with her Lord as men do? Is this not giving a finite human being responsibility to bear another’s load, contrary to Galatians 6:5?
Going on, then, to the woman. Men are called to be husbands and fathers—but in addition to these callings, God also has individual callings for men. Men relate to God with this understanding, knowing that they are valuable to God not just for their roles in other’s lives, but for the work they themselves are called to do. But what happens to a human being, made in the image of God, when you tell her that her true purpose and calling is as a wife and mother? What happens when you tell a woman that her true purpose in life is to support a man in his calling, raise her sons to their callings, and teach her daughters to support their own man in his calling someday? What happens when she feels she has no right to seek God for an individual calling of her own?
I used to believe that as a woman, I was born to dedicate myself to the fulfillment of a man’s responsibility to his calling, to dedicate myself to his life’s work and his well-being in that life-work, and to give myself to my children. Though I worked outside the home, I considered that job of no real importance other than to help with the family finances. Though I aspired to write books, I considered that to be a sideline that I might get to follow someday, but of no great importance in the scheme of things. In other words, contrary to 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, I did not build on my own foundation in Christ , but gave myself to building on my family’s foundations, even to the neglect of my own. Contrary to Galatians 6:2-5, rather than just helping with family burdens, their life-loads were just as much mine to carry as theirs.
Did this bless my husband? No. It drove him crazy! If he ever felt less than completely happy and fulfilled, I felt that I had failed. His emotions, his well-being, were my responsibility. He was not free to have ups and downs, or to get upset at life’s troubles. If he did, I blamed myself.
If a woman’s life is entirely subsumed in the life’s work of other people, she comes to feel herself responsible, not for herself, but for one or more others. If her man is not uniformly strong and confident—guess who feels responsible? She does. If her children are not perfectly obedient, content and focused on God, guess who feels responsible? She does. Even if her man has taken the Resolution and pledged full responsibility for her and the kids—the only one whose well-being and happiness the wife does not feel responsible for, is her own. In fact, she is often given the subtle message that to think about herself at all is selfishness and sin.
Check out this light-hearted story at No Longer Quivering about a wife whose marriage is now free from these expectations. One morning recently, her husband poured himself a bowl of cereal, not realizing that in the Southern spring weather, sugar ants had invaded the cupboard:
Outraged my darling was, scowling and frowning, showing me the bowl and complaining he might have eaten a few ants. He was upset. I looked at the bowl, looked at him and laughed before telling him that it was okay, the ants would just add a little needed protein to his breakfast. Plus they are organic.
But back in my old submitting like crazy fundamentalist days I would have apologized, whipped that bowl from his hands, washed it, sterilized it, rushed to the store to get fresh cereal, apologized again for not being a proper enough wife to keep ants out of his cereal and served him a fresh bowl. And I would have done it meekly and humbly.
The wife and husband are now both able to relax and joke about the situation. But think about what she’s saying about her “submitting like crazy fundamentalist days” – it is a perfect illustration of dysfunctional shifting of adult responsibility. The husband is the one who likes this cereal; he eats it; he opens and closes the box. Under the husband-authority paradigm, it is nevertheless the wife’s responsibility that the box gets closed properly so that the ants don’t get in. She has to constantly be checking up on him, following up on his actions as if he were a child. She has to be upset that he didn’t look at his cereal before pouring it (or even before taking a spoonful!), so that he didn’t notice the ants.
While being told that all responsibility in the home is the husband’s, the wife assumes responsibility for her husband so that he is absolved from being a functioning adult in the realm of eating breakfast.
Isn’t it wonderful and refreshing for a wife to be able to place the responsibility for eating ants squarely on the shoulders of the person who actually was careless enough to eat them?
I don’t believe it is God’s plan that the responsibility for a man’s happiness rests not on himself but on his wife, while the responsibility for a woman’s walk with God rests not on her but on her husband. And as for the children—what sometimes happens is that their parents come to feel personally responsible to the extent that it is up to the parents that the children come to Christ. Rather than showing them the love of Christ and trusting them to Him, the parents fear that any tiny slip-up in discipline, or any input into their children’s lives from a non-believer, or any deviation from devotions and churchgoing, will result in their children’s path straight to hell. It’s fear-based parenting.
Fear like this is often based on feeling responsibility we know in our hearts we are incapable of handling. Only Christ can save. Only Christ can sanctify. Only Christ can bring fulfillment and well-being. To try to take responsibilities that we cannot fulfill, is to tie ourselves into knots inside. And that can make us very unpleasant people on the outside.
Again, I’m not saying that all non-egalitarian marriages fall into these traps. But I am saying that the potential is there, whenever we give too much power to one human being and relegate all others to a lesser status. Romans 12:3 says, “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought, but think of yourselves with sober judgment.” We need to recognize the extent and the limits of human responsibility, and of human power. Not to do so hurts everyone– men, women and children alike.
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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