Is this approach to complementarianism just dressed up egalitarianism?

A while ago, I wrote this post in response to some questions posed online by Beth Moore. Whilst the questions were quite specific, the article aims at laying out how complementarianism works in practice, at least in my home. And seemingly, from the response of the majority of British pastors and their wives who engaged with it, the overwhelming majority of complementarians who interact with whatever I write seemed to think it characterised their approach too.

Two challenges thrown up against that post – that as far as I can judge amount to the same criticism differently framed were these. One claimed that there didn’t really seem to be any distinction between male and female roles in the home. The argument was that I was suggesting when the man takes a lead the woman is submitting and when she does he is delegating responsibility. The other argument – that I think was tantamount to the same criticism – was that, as far as the person saying it was concerned, I appeared to work out my complementarianism rather like an egalitarian.

I suspect the latter challenge reflected engagement with a poorer form of cultural complementarianism to which I don’t subscribe. My view would only appear egalitarian if you are convinced that complementarianism insists on certain genedered activities in the home or if you take a particular view of what leadership ought to look like i.e. making final rulings and telling people what to do. As you will note from my earlier post, I don’t accept that definition or description as fundamental to complementarianism. You might well be complementarian and take that approach, but it is not the essence of complementarianism. That is to say, complementarianism does not demand that approach, rather that is an application (in my view, a misapplication or, perhaps more charitably, and over-application) of the teaching.

The earlier challenge strikes closer to the heart of the matter. How can a man be head when he is happy to delegate responsibility to his wife? I, for example, ask my wife to oversee our finances because she is better at that than me. But for a certain brand of complementarian, that is me shirking my responsibilities as head of the home and giving my wife a position of authority in the home that she shouldn’t have. Let me press into that for a moment.

I won’t rehash everything I said in my original post. I would encourage you to read that first before you read what is written here. But underlying it – and I think I said this in that original post – the Lord holds husbands and fathers uniquely responsible for their houses. That is, the Lord will holds husbands and fathers accountable for how they have led their families, particularly in respect to their spiritual state.

Those who want to insist on particular activities in the home, or who insist that all final decisions must be made by the man, are saying so because of a particular view of what it means to lead. But of course, that is not the only way to lead. Leadership can be authoritarian, but it can also be consensual. Leadership can be about making specific decisions or it can be about delegating decision-making where appropriate (which, of course, is a decision of itself). Good leadership – and in the specific case, good household management (a qualification necessary to be an elder – is far more than just making good decisions and insisting everyone else carry out our orders. In my view, if your wife is an accountant and you never so much as passed your maths GCSE, it is good household management to delegate the role of looking after your cash to your wife and decidedly bad leadership to insist on a gendered view of activities that the Bible doesn’t such that you undertake that role and mess up your finances.

The point I am making – and that underlay the original post – is that headship is about responsibility and accountability. The Lord will hold husbands accountable for how their led their homes and how they managed their households. The Lord does not, anywhere, insist therefore that the man must make all the decisions and do certain tasks, while the cooking and cleaning and whatnot is left to his wife. That simply is not in the Bible.

If the Lord holds me accountable for how I manage my household and how I lead my family, I want to lead in such a way as it causes my family to flourish. If that means my wife does all sorts of jobs that might have been seen as traditionally male things to do – like managing the finances (though, in the working class culture I come from, it was almost always the woman who oversaw the finances. As far back as my Grandparents I remember the women sorting out the budgets) – that is fine. I might be best at that job and serve my family best by doing it. So, the decision I make is that I do that and know the Lord will hold me accountable. If my wife is better placed to do it, I delegate that responsibility and accept that the Lord will hold me accountable for that decision. If I am making those decisions because I am arrogant and think I always know best, the Lord is going to hold me accountable. If I am ducking out of responsibilities I should be taking on because I’m lazy or uninvested in my family, the Lord will hold me accountable for that. But if I am genuinely seeking the good of my family – and seeking my wife’s help in leading my family to flourish to its fullest (as she has been given to me by the Lord to do) – then the specific roles and activities we end up doing in the end seems something of a moot point.

That is really just a re-statement of the principle I outlined in my original post:

We have instructions for how elders ought to behave and conduct themselves. We also have some instructions for husbands and fathers. Jesus’ sacrificial love for his church is essentially the model in these instances (with a few bits of colour added beyond that bare statement). So, in the ordinary run of things, husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives. They are to love them as Christ loved the church. They are to set aside their own wants, needs and desires and lead in such a way that allows their wives to willingly submit to their leadership because it is a loving, sacrificial leadership that allows their spouse to flourish. That’s the kind of leadership – wherever it’s coming from – most of us would gladly submit ourselves to.

In the marriage there is mutual submission whereby both are called to serve in their God-given roles as head and helper respectively such that they complement each other so that their family may flourish to its fullest degree. As I previously noted: ‘That will often mean the husband delegates decision-making authority to his wife in the areas where her abilities and gifts far outstrip his. That is, as I said before, just sensible leadership. To insist on making all the decisions in matters where your spouse is eminently more qualified than you to make them is, frankly, obtuse.’ That is why I was able to say:

My wife once said, in 12 years of marriage (which I appreciate, really isn’t that long), never once has there been an issue in which I had to ‘lead’ in such a way that she had to ‘submit’ to in some sort of pointed way. In practice, we just talk about things and have a discussion. She provides her insights and I provide mine. When we recognise she is better placed to make a decision on something, I lead by backing her. When I am better placed to make a decision, she submits by backing me. More often than not, it doesn’t feel like ‘leading’ and ‘submitting’, we just have a discussion and agree what to do by the end of it one way or the other. That’s all it has ever really been.

The point is that the Lord holds husbands and fathers ultimately accountable. But he will hold us accountable for the decisions we take – whether we insisted on doing everything or we delegate things to our spouses – and he will hold us responsible for whether we utilised our spouse’s God-given gifts for the good our our family and to God’s glory. He will hold us accountable for whether we were making decisions and doing things because we are arrogant or whether we were delegating responsibilities because we are feckless and lazy. In the end, he calls us to lead our families so they flourish, so they can best glorify God through the gifts and personalities he has given them, and to manage our households well (which necessarily includes those things).

I do not think it is failing to take headship seriously, nor acting like an egalitarian, to let those who are better placed to decide certain matters do so. That is good leadership, good household management. The Lord will still hold husbands accountable. He will hold us to account for how well our families flourish. He will hold us to account for how well we shepherded our families to glorify God with their gifting. He will hold us to account for the arrogance or laziness of our decision-making and taking upon ourselves, or giving away, of responsibilities. When we realise this, the specific jobs we do or the person whose voice ought to be most clearly heeded on any given issue is not really the point at issue. The issue is how well did the head whom the Lord holds accountable manage those things for the good of his family.