Gender Roles & Responsibility: Part 1

Gender Roles & Responsibility: Part 1 January 21, 2013

by Kristen Rosser

[Editorial Note: This article is intended for those readers who have chosen to accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on the assumptions on which it is based. Please refrain from this pertains to all Christians everywhere and show some respect for the writer please. For more info on the site please visit – Is NLQ an Atheist Website?]

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.)

Because male-hierarchalists believe husbands are the ones with final authority to make decisions affecting the home, and male church leaders are the ones with final authority to make decisions affecting the church, they believe God will hold males more accountable than females for these decisions.  However, nowhere in the Bible does it say that women, because they are women, are less responsible before God than men— it is, as I said, only a logical outgrowth of the position that God denies women decision-making powers in the church and home.  At the creation God gave the man and the woman both “dominion,’ and with it responsibility—and God never said He was giving the man more dominion (or more responsibility) than the woman.   If the proof-texts that are used to support male hierarchy in the church and home are being misread (which many of my posts on this blog attempt to prove), then there is no reason to conclude that God, purely on the basis of gender, holds males more accountable than females in this life or in the next.

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

Read everything by Kristen Rosser!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Kristen Rosser (aka KR Wordgazer) blogs at Wordgazer’s Words

The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

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


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “Christian egalitarians” believe that men and women complement one another without hierarchy. If all men are good at something that all women are bad at (and need a man to look after for them), wouldn’t a hierarchy make sense — at least in that area?

    I happen to know people who are Christian *and* who do not believe that individuals’ contributions to society are primarily defined by their sexual organs.

  • Allison, I’m really not sure how you get from “complement one another without hierarchy” to “contributions to society are primarily defined by their sexual organs.” Christian egalitarians do not believe that individuals’ contributions to society are primarily defined by their sexual organs. All that “complement without hierarchy” means is that there are differences between men and women, centered around the biological differences between their bodies, and these differences complement one another (in a heterosexual marriage with kids, the man will be the father and the woman the mother, and there are differences based in biology between how mothers and fathers relate to their kids). Christian egalitarians do focus primarily on the differences between individuals, however– and that each relationship will look different based on the individuals in it.

  • There’s alot of talk in the Christian world, gender roles aside, about who’s accountable and who’s going to be blamed. Can’t you see that your worship is just fearful appeasement to a bully that is all too willing and able to smash you like a bug against a windshield? Suppression of that basic fact, redirection, and transference to others takes place in arguments such as this. What lies behind them all is fear of God. Who’s gonna get the blame?
    It is not about who is accountable, who is responsible, who’s got power or dominion, but about avoiding the ultimate wrath, or as you say greater accountability of a “merciful Father” who is in reality, a monster.
    If any wife talked about her husband the way the way you act towards your God, most normal people would quickly conclude that it is a severely dysfunctional abusive relationship. I know you are just trying to give oppressed Christian women some power but I hope that one day you could critically view what you are saying through that perspective.

  • “A child is considered to have no power to sign a legal document”

    OT: Children are legally allowed to give up their own children for adoption without any oversight from adults yet are still considered minors in all other things.

  • Jaimie, your assumption that all Christians are the same– and your one-dimensional picture of my religion is offensive to me.
    Suzanne, may I ask that you begin attaching once more to my posts the disclaimer that used to be here– that the issues in my post should be addressed but that the disparagement of the beliefs of all Christians everywhere (and the lumping of us all under the patriarchal-fundamentalist mindset) should be dispensed with?
    I would request that commenters here respect the blog owner’s words (from her post “Is NLQ an Atheist Website? – found here: ):
    “[T]he majority of the guest writers here are Christians specifically because I want this decidedly anti-Quiverfull website to be Christian-friendly and welcoming to Believers whether they are practicing QF/P, questioning that worldview, or seeking to escape from the legalistic, demanding, impossible-to-live-consistently lifestyle.”

  • I’ve read this several times and still have no idea what you are trying to say.

  • Kristen,

    Many Christians do not view men and women as a class as any more essentially different or complementary than any two individuals. In any effective household. the members cooperate as a team with some common goals, which may or may not mean dividing tasks and areas of responsibility. (For instance, one person might cook supper while the other washes the dishes, or perhaps everyone takes turns cooking supper and washing dishes.) This is true whether the members of the household are related or not, having sexual relations with one another or not, have similar or different genitalia, and whether or not the household contains children.

    You say: “In a heterosexual marriage with kids, the man will be the father and the woman the mother, and there are differences based in biology between how mothers and fathers relate to their kids.”

    The fact that you need to specify that the marriage is heterosexual shows that you are aware of the problem.

    The differences based in biology have to do with childbirth and breastfeeding. If the child is not breastfeeding for whatever reason — a biological child was never breastfed or is no longer breastfeeding; perhaps the child is adopted or fostered; perhaps the child is old enough to eat solid food with the family — then differences in parenting styles between parents have more to do with experience and personality than genitalia. In lesbian or gay families with children, parents may to divide up parenting roles the same way they do other responsibilities — this has nothing to do with complementary genitalia.

    A father who stays home to care for his infants full-time will be more attunded to their needs than a mother who works long hours as a lawyer. This is not because the father has acquired a vagina but because he spends all his time with them.

    There are various reasons that people divide up household responsibilities the way that they do. If they happen to be heterosexual couples who don’t get out much they may feel that their personal division is inevitable, biologically coded and universal. This is not because they are Christian.

    Not all Christians are heterosexuals or biological determinists. They are egalitarian without worrying about who has the correct genitals to complement who. Your contributions to this blog complement those of other contributors and it’s got nothing to do with whether you have the correct genitals to do so.

    So it’s incorrect to say that Christian egalitarians all accept that all men and all women complement one anther in any predetermined way that goes beyond conception and gestation. You might be a Christian egalitarian who believes that all men complement you and that you are complementary to all men even if you are not pregnant with all their children, but not all Christian egalitarians do.

  • Alison, I appreciate your thoughts on this. I am always interested in other perspectives and you make some good points. I do have an informational question. One accusation that I as a Christian egalitarian have often had to address is that Christian egalitarians believe men and women are exactly the same; that our goal is to erase all gender differences and create a sort of androngynous society. If you identify as a Christian egalitarian, would you simply agree that this is indeed part of your beliefs and goals? Or am I misunderstanding you?

  • I should add that I use the word “accusation” because this is how this issue has been addressed to me.

  • I think I probably should add that I too have been through spiritual abuse, and it is somewhat triggering to me having someone tell me what I believe. The impression I get is that no matter what I say, you have already decided what I believe and there’s nothing that will change your mind.

  • There should not be accusations hurled at any of the writers here.

  • I’m sorry you were offended. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. But reward, punishment, and the final judgment are a very real one-dimensional picture of Christianity. It is part of the tenets of your faith and I used your term “merciful Father” as you used it in conjunction with that judgment. Personally I found that offensive.
    People are going to question your beliefs. I’m sorry but it’s true. I did expect a person who blogs in a public forum to be able to calmly defend their position instead of trying to silence the opposition. Oh well.

  • I have no problem with people questioning my beliefs on blogs which are designed to discuss religion in general. This is not that place, according to the rules set out not by myself, but by the blog owner. Did you read the link I posted?
    For the record, I don’t believe in hell or punishment as defined by fundamentalism or evangelicalism, and as far as judgment is concerned, I believe it is always redemptive and merciful. You may find my use of “merciful Father” offensive, but I wasn’t telling you what you believe– I was telling you what I believe. You, on the other hand, were telling me what I believe. That would be out of line if I were an atheist and you were a Christian, too.
    Please take your judgments of my faith elsewhere. If we meet on a forum designed to debate them, I will be happy to engage you.

  • Kristen,
    I’m not a Christian, so I don’t use the word “egalitarian” to describe myself.

    As a middle-aged secular woman who came of age in the clash between the second and third waves of feminism I believe everyone has equal rights to access the rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. In practice, “equal access” doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone because not everyone faces the same obstacles.

    For instance: When one looks at the obstacles that many women face, there are commonalities: girls may be taken out of school early to care for family members; women may drop out of school or the workforce in order to care for infants; women who lack education and work experience may be financially dependent on a parther who exploits her dependency; women may be used as currency in political negociations, where men are granted power over women in exchange for ceding power in other areas (the backdrop to much of the current misogyny in the Middle East); men may protect their jobs by using the threat of sexual violence to keep women out of public space. If we take these concerns seriously, we take them seriously for all people. We don’t treat women specially. If something is a problem, then it’s a problem.

    > If we accept that being taken out of school young is a problem for young people and the society they live in because it reduces their ability to participate fully in society, how do we address it? Enforcement of truancy laws? Access to adult education? Loans and bursaries for adults? Home support and social workers so that families can get the help they need without taking their children out of school? Welfare and disability payments so that families can get by financially without taking their children out of school?

    > If we accept that most adults do not want to be forced to choose between having families and being able to earn a living, and that society as a whole pays a price if half of all adults disappear from the workforce and become financially dependent once they reach reproductive age, what do we do about it? Extended parental leave that allows parents to care for a child brought into a family then return to the workforce? Enough vacation days that adults have time to care for family? Subsidised daycare? Safe cities so that children can walk to school with their friends instead of needing to be dropped off in cars by a parent? (None of these would prevent someone from choosing to stay home to dedicate themselves to full-time homemaking, but they could mean that someone would not be forced to choose.)

    > If we accept that an adult who has given up paid work in order to raise children in partnership with a dedicated breadwinner is vulnerable to exploitation, what do we do about it? Alimony? (What about people who were never legally married but had children anyway? Pregnancy motivates many couples to marry, but both have to be willing; what if one partner turns out to be unwilling?) Welfare? Pension reform? Workforce reintegration programs? Birth control education and access? Access to abortion?

    > If we accept that adults should not be kept out of the workforce by threats of violence, what do we do about it? Policing? Public transit security? Streetlights? Requiring all adults to carry guns?

    And so on. The problems may be raised by women but the solutions are gender-neutral. People can make their own choices according to their own circumstances and preferences; there is no need to have a goal for other people to express their gender or sexuality in any particular way. That’s actually *irrelevant.* In this particular analysis, the tension is between the need for children to be adequately cared for (a goal for society as a whole and for parents) and for adults to have the ability to leave a bad situation and to decide for themselves what a bad situation is. One way of caring for children is to remove an adult from the paid workforce and dedicate them exclusively to childcare. There are risks to this. One that is felt keenly by many adults removed from the workforce in order to care for others is that they are unable to leave their family situations and are vulnerable to exploitation. If your partner can leave you, then you are motivated to treat them with respect. If they can’t leave you, then… there is a temptation to take them for granted. If I can’t leave my partner there aren’t a lot of ultimatums I can give. I can try to coax my partner to be nice to me but they don’t have to if they don’t want to. This is true whether I am a man or a woman, whether I care about housework or really enjoy sales.

    Most adults feel that they prefer the security of knowing they can earn a living (most adults would also like someone else to pay the bills, at least sometimes). If someone chooses to give up that security, as a society do we owe them a safety net if that risk doesn’t work out? What if that “choice” was constrained by lack of education, lack of opportunty, lack of access to birth control — in that case was it really a choice?

    I don’t have a goal for anyone else to be a particular way (third-wave feminism in particular is all about variety). What I do have as a goal is for nobody to be trapped in a bad situation they can’t fix and can’t leave. Everyone needs access to the rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizenship, though different people will access them in different ways. As a society, we need all our members to be as full participants as they can be. If some members of our society are trapped in bad situations that they can’t fix and can’t leave, that’s a loss for all of us. There are different ways of avoiding traps or helping people get themselves out of them and none of them are dependent on how anyone cuts their hair or how they pitch their voice to talk to little kids.

    Similar analyses can be used with respect to race and class. Feminist analysis doesn’t distinguish. A trap is a trap and feminists are concerned about all of them. Any given trapped person is likely in that spot because of a mix of reasons, their sex or the sexual politics of their society only being part of it. Any individual belongs not just to a sexual group but also a racial and class group and you can’t really separate the strands.

    Does this help?

  • I agree with all of this but am not sure how it answers the question. I think maybe we are defining “gender differences” completely differently. Do I think society should be “androgynous” in the way it extends justice and opportunity? Sure. Do I think society should be “androgynous” in that all differences between men and women should be erased or suppressed? I find that just as erasing of individuality as the mentality that says all women should fill one set of roles and all men another.
    (Note: I also think that the differences between the cisgendered and the transgendered, for instance, should also not be erased or suppressed).
    I think actually we may be more in agreement with one another than otherwise. We’re just talking about these things in different ways.

  • You said that Christian egalitarians believe that men and women complement one another. I replied that many Christians do not view men and women as a class as any more essentially different or complementary than any two individuals.

    You explained that yes they are because in the special case of a married heterosexual couple, men and women parent differently. I said not always and even when it’s so, it’s not primarily because of their different genitalia.

    You said you were often accused of wanting men and women to be exactly the same and asked me if I wanted to erase all gender differences. I tried to make clear that biological sex differences are irrelevant to what I want. It doesn’t matter if they exist or not.

    For any given trait, maybe biological sex differences exist, maybe they don’t. The fact that it’s usually so hard to prove suggests that they aren’t the primary source of individual difference. Even when there’s an obvious physical trait difference there are exceptions: not every newborn baby can be easily classified as either a girl or a boy. Saying of-course-girls-____-they’re-just-born-that-way and of-course-boys-____-they’re-just-born-that-way stops people thinking about all the dfferent reasons that girls might ____ and boys might ____, and stops people noticing confimation bias. (“Girls just don’t want to go to school. Well, I did and my daughters say they do, but I was an exception and my daughters are wrong so just ignore that.”) (“Women just like taking care of babies. Well, my mother didn’t but she should have because she had a lot of us and we all suffered so just ignore that.”)

    Thinking in terms of just-born-that-way is rarely helpful. Many people — including some Christians — believe that any statement or plan that depends on either all men or all women just being “like that” to be useless at best.

    Can you define “men and women complementing one another” in any way that doesn’t mean that any man can complement any woman? Unless you can, you are stating that all men are a particular way to a significant degree and that all women are another way to a signifcant degree. That you can know something important about how any individual relates to ____ by feeling around in their underwear: you don’t need to listen to them or watch them behave.

    You may believe that there are important, relevant, signifcant things beyond conception and gestation and bathing habits that you can know for sure and in absolute terms about anyone on this planet by feeling around in their underwear, but there *are* Christians who do not believe that and you aren’t speaking for them.

  • Shorter: It’s possible to be egalitarian without believing that all men and all women necessarily complement one another.

  • Alison, I think you have revealed that my own thinking and definitions are a little fuzzy when it comes to what I mean by “complement.” I do think that variations within the sexes are possibly greater than the variations between the sexes, when taken as a whole.
    I’d like to point out, though that I’m not just talking about someone who is “egalitarian” who might also say they are Christian. To the best of my knowledge, “Christian egalitarian” is actually a description of a specific group , and that every person I have ever interacted with who identifies as part of this group, has agreed not only that men and women complement one another in some way (however fuzzily defined), but that this is a defining belief that they understand as held in common with other members of this group. In short, perhaps not every Christian who is an egalitarian is also a “Christian egalitarian.”

    As far as defining what I myself mean– is it possible for me to say that generally, the male sex and the female sex complement one another? Is it possible for me to add the detail that in Christian egalitarian marriage, men and women who find themselves compatible as marriage partners do also self-identify as complementing one another in their sexuality?

    If this is not completely incoherent, it may be closer to what I actually mean by “complementary.”

  • Sheena

    So, for those making the “men will be held accountable for their wives/children” argument…Why isn’t Rusty Yates serving a prison sentence right now? I mean, he and his wife (Andrea) believed that the husband is the head, and that judgement for any of the wife’s or children’s misdeeds are meant to fall on the husband and father. So, why is SHE in prison (and completely abandoned by her church and likely most of her family), and HE was able to remarry and start a new family?

  • SAO

    First, I think “the direction a family takes” is not something you can be judged on. A person can only accountable for his or her own actions. I’m not an expert in the bible, but it seems to me that nowhere is it assumed that men an infallible, but the bible is very clear that God comes first. Further, doing what He claims is right, clearly comes above personal, even the most powerful, feelings and the story of Abraham shows.

    Put this together and I am sure that a woman has a duty to do what she knows is right, especially when her husband is wrong. To put a husband’s authority above all is to put him above God, and that has to be breaking one of the commandments. God gave women both a moral sense and intelligence. Obviously, he expected women to use both in his Service.

  • Rae

    Yes, also OT – film companies are often extremely strict when it comes to NDA’s. I’ve met people who’ve taken small children to visit sets that the adults worked on, yet the children weren’t allowed in until *they* had signed NDA’s. I don’t know how legally binding a document signed by a six-year-old with a crayon is, but hey, welcome to Hollywood, we do stuff like that here!

  • Tori

    Suggestion, go. somewhere.else.