The other day I heard a Christian author say that men and women are assigned different roles in Scripture. “For example,” she said, “men are responsible for their family. That’s in the Bible and I believe the Bible.” She didn’t directly state that women are not responsible for their family, but that was the implication. Nor did she mention where in Scripture she finds this idea.
Her comment reminded me of the many times and various ways I’ve heard people claim that although women are accountable to God in some sense, men are more accountable. God may call women to account for their personal actions and responsibilities, but men will answer for the overall picture, the larger narrative. A woman may be answerable for her “domain,” but a man is “lord of the earth,” responsible for everything that happens under the sun.
If a wife does anything outside her husband’s preferences she has not only sinned in her own right but has also caused her husband to sin (since he didn’t stop her). The discipline her husband will undoubtedly face is therefore her fault. If the wife submits even when her husband is in error, she will not face judgment because she did the one thing required of her. And if the family endures hardship or even ruin due to her husband’s mistake, a wife can find solace in the fact that by submitting to her husband she was fully obedient to God.
At the same time, although a wife is not accountable for her husband’s behavior, since that would make it necessary for her to exercise some measure of control over him, she may be the cause of it. Why? Because it is likely her bad attitude that is driving him to sin. As soon as she becomes more submissive and respectful her husband will stop being so irresponsible, selfish, and mean.
Another version of the concept argues that men are particularly accountable for the condition of their marriage: Is it happy? Mutually satisfying? Dysfunctional? In this scenario a husband is more answerable for the happiness and satisfaction of his wife than is a wife for the state of her husband. When a wife is sexually unresponsive, lazy, or harsh, it is the husband’s fault. If this man would just do a better job at loving his wife like Christ loved the church, helping out more with the housework and becoming more sensitive to his wife’s emotional needs, she would change.
The Problems this View Engenders
One of the main problems I see with this philosophy is that it implies women get a pass, that somehow when they stand before Jesus all he will consider is how they responded to their man or, perhaps, to men in general. They may believe that as long as they go along with their husband (excepting heinous sin, of course) they need not reflect upon how Jesus may be challenging them in ways that may, in fact, make their husband’s life a bit less comfortable and that he therefore might, at least initially, resist.
Or a wife may think she carries less responsibility for her marriage and family, that she is not accountable to take some initiative to improve her relationship with her husband or to develop the children. If the marriage and family are the man’s job a woman can be passive, selfish, and even demanding, expecting her husband to solve all their problems. After all, he’s the leader, right?
Another issue might be a husband who responds to the man-is-more-accountable teaching with either domineering control or slavish sacrifice. Since he believes he alone is responsible for the wellbeing and godliness of his family, he assumes all that goes wrong is his fault in one way or another.
In one scenario a husband does whatever it takes to make his wife and family happy, denying his own needs to an unhealthy extreme. In the other he may become dismissive toward his wife and her suggestions since only he will be held responsible for any missteps. The threat of being disciplined for someone else’s error combined with the idea that God works primarily through men can make it difficult to treat his wife as a co-heir of Christ.
Do these Ideas Originate in the Bible?
From what I’ve seen, biblical support for these teachings comes principally from the Genesis creation narratives in the Old Testament and the description of the man/husband as the “head” of the woman/wife in the New Testament.
As far as Genesis goes, what is not stated (the man is more accountable) replaces what is stated (both are held accountable for their sin). From this assumption of greater male accountability all sorts of things are asserted that are nowhere stated. For example, I’ve heard it said that the command was particularly for the man but for the woman only by extension; that the man was supposed to teach and protect the woman yet he allowed her to be deceived; and that the fall was chiefly the fall of the man.
However, if we look at the text God never confronts Adam regarding Eve’s behavior or why Adam didn’t protect her from deception. God doesn’t rebuke Adam for failing to keep Eve from sinning, failing to control what happened in the garden, or for not doing a better job leading Eve or teaching her God’s will. In fact, the text never says that Adam taught Eve the command or even mentions how Eve learned it. God never says the command was primarily for Adam and for the woman only by extension. God never tells Adam that the fall was chiefly his fall.
But God did confront Eve for her sin and Adam for his. God did hold them each accountable for what they did, no matter how they got there or to what extent they tried to place the blame on some other entity.
Yes, the man was created first; yes, he was given the command before the woman came on the scene; and yes, in the fall of humanity the man retains a representative function as the first human, which Paul later insightfully contrasts with the sinless human Jesus. As a result of the sin of the first human being we all struggle to get by and ultimately die. As a result of the perfection and sacrifice of the “last human being,” we receive forgiveness of sin and new life.
Yet the idea that the man is more accountable is simply not found in the text.
Nevertheless, a full-blown system composed of false dichotomies is envisioned and developed that makes wild claims that are nowhere stated in Scripture: men and women are created for different primary purposes; men are made for naming, taming, dividing and ruling; women are formed for filling, glorifying, generating, establishing communion, and bringing forth new life. According to this view:
The woman has to submit to the man’s leadership, not so much because he is given direct authority over her, but because his vocation is the primary and foundational one, relating to the forming that necessarily precedes the filling in God’s own creation activity. She is primarily called to fill and to glorify the structures he establishes and the world he subdues. It’s less a matter of the man having authority over the woman as the woman following the man’s lead. As the man forms, names, tames, establishes the foundations, and guards the boundaries, the woman brings life, communion, glory and completion.
Men lead, women follow; men subdue, women beautify; men protect, women reproduce; man’s calling is primary and foundational, woman’s calling is secondary and supplemental.
If all of this were true, then yes, men would be more accountable.
But it’s not. Not only is there no evidence of this inventive arrangement anywhere else in the Bible, it also directly contradicts Gen. 1:26-28, where the image of God that fully resides in every human being is inextricably linked to ruling and subduing the earth.
Moving on to the New Testament, the same exegetical weakness is evident: what is not stated replaces what is stated. Based on a reading that presumes the metaphorical meaning of the Greek word for “head” (kephale) is the same as for the English term, the assumption that headship means leadership in Ephesians 5 supplants what the text itself asserts: headship means self-sacrificial love. The passage neither states nor implies that husbands are to lead, instruct, correct, or direct their wives, or that men are accountable for the actions of their wives, or even that a man is the leader of the home.
Rather, it simply says love.
In 1 Corinthians 11 the same assumption about kephale leads to the fabrication of a chain of command in which Jesus answers to God, men answer to Jesus, and women answer to men that is out of step with a passage that nowhere commands women to obey men but instead assumes that women (and men) will speak the word of the Lord to the gathered assembly (vv. 4-5). It is at odds with a text that presumes a woman’s authority over her own words, actions, and attire (v. 10), her accountability to God for how she employs this authority (vv. 5-6), and the reciprocity of woman and man (vv. 8-12).
What we have to remember about the word kephale is that it doesn’t mean “leader” or “authority” or “boss.” Literally, it refers to that part of the body that sits atop the neck. Every other usage is metaphorical, and for understanding the non-literal sense of a word context is primary. In other words, you can’t argue for a figurative meaning that is not indicated by, or runs counter to, the passage itself.
What Did Jesus Say?
If presuming greater male accountability from these passages goes beyond a careful reading of the text, is there anywhere we can look for insight into possible levels or types of responsibility? Yes. I believe all our theorizing about accountability needs to be grounded in the words of the very One who will one day hold us accountable. That is, in Jesus.
Curiously, one thing Jesus never did was imply a gender-based double standard of accountability. The Son of God never commanded, “men, do this” and “women, do that” or even “you married men, do this” and “you married women, do that.”
Nothing in the Sermon on the Mount indicates that men are more accountable or women less (Matt. 5-7). When Jesus told us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, he didn’t suggest that men should be wise while women remain gullible (Matt. 10:16). When the Son of Man made the terrifying statement that one day each of us will give account for our every word, he didn’t amend it by adding that, well, husbands will also be held responsible for their wife’s words (Matt. 12:36).
When we consider the parables, there is likewise no evidence of gender-based levels or categories of accountability, not even in those that specifically address the topic. The parable of the bags of gold (Matt. 25:14-30), which concerns not only our accountability but also our authority, does not represent our responsibility to Jesus hierarchically. We don’t see the servant with five bags responsible for controlling how the one with two makes use of his bags, who in turn is accountable for the irresponsibility of the individual given only one bag of gold.
We don’t see any of them being called to task for what the others did with their bags and, importantly, neither do we see anyone rewarded by being granted authority over the others. Instead, the reward for faithfulness consists of increased authority over “things,” which henceforth will be “many” rather than few. The servants neither begin with authority over or accountability for the others, nor do they end with it. The same is true of the parable of the ten minas (Luke 19:11-27). Each individual is responsible for what they do with their mina, and the reward for faithfulness is greater authority.
Similarly, there is no indication that the wicked manager who beats the other servants instead of feeding and caring for them is in any way responsible for the actions of the others (Luke 12:42-26). The point, hard-hitting though it may be, is that he is accountable for the task assigned specifically to him.
On the other hand, Jesus is clear that:
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked (Luke 12:48b).
So yes, there do seem to be levels of accountability: the more you are given, the more accountable you are. And what does it mean to be given much? Being born male? Being a husband?
Well, no. Jesus defines it for us himself: it is the blessing of knowing God’s will (Luke 12:47-48a).
But perhaps that is the crux of the matter for the men-are-more-responsible crew; maybe deep down they believe that men are more accountable than women because men have been granted a greater knowledge of God’s will.
What if this teaching leads a woman to behave like one of the wicked servants? What if she stands before Jesus one day making her excuses, explaining that she kept her mina hidden away because her husband didn’t understand it, that he was happier if she focused on hearth and home and him, that he was afraid of being held accountable if she took a wrong turn and therefore discouraged her from pursuing what she believed Jesus was asking her to do?
What if she explains to Jesus that she believed her primary responsibility was to support her husband, to submit to him and affirm his leadership, to not press a matter if her husband displayed any resistance and to trust that he knew better than she? That this was the only biblical way to live?
Or what if it causes her to become lazy and passive, constantly criticizing her husband for not “stepping up,” for not being the “spiritual leader” she thinks he ought to be? What if it leads her down a path where she takes very little if any initiative to solve their common problems and instead places all the blame upon her man?
What if this teaching leads a husband to behave like the servant who beat those he was to care for? What if he takes advantage of his family, forcing his will and his way upon them, simply because he believes this is his role?
Or what if it causes a man to hide his mina in the dirt because his wife and children are happier with their life the way it is? What if his wife digs in her heels and, since he is responsible for her happiness, he pushes aside the conviction of the Holy Spirit? What if he disqualifies himself from ministry because he never manages to create that “perfect” family, that “godly” home he alone is responsible to “build”?
What if this teaching causes men and women to stumble in their commitment to follow Christ?
Woe to the world because of things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! (Matt. 18:7)
Please don’t get me wrong. I believe men will be held accountable for their marriage and family and how they impacted the world at large. But so will women. My discussion here is not to take anything away from men, but rather to consider the validity of claiming different levels or types of accountability based on gender.
Jesus said that each of us will answer for what we do with our mina, with our single or multiple bags of gold, with the knowledge of God’s will that we have been privileged enough to possess. We will answer for how we rule and subdue our domain, for the way in which we manage that arena of responsibility that so often overlaps with that of others, and how we cooperate with these others to cause God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done in those spheres where we have some measure of influence.
And, perhaps unremarkably, Jesus never qualified this accountability according to gender.
 See the case study in Gary Thomas, When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom From Toxic People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 88. It is important to realize that in some Christian circles this teaching may lead to unfairly blaming men for every marital issue, while in others it places blame upon women. In both cases the myth that one spouse’s behavior is the root cause of the other’s actions is assumed. This is the fundamental fallacy here and one reason the teaching that men are more accountable than women is harmful.
 Note Paul’s consistent use of anthropos (human being, person) in Rom. 5:12-21. The apostle is focused on the humanity of Adam and Jesus and how that enables them to represent all people, male or female. In the original Greek Paul is neither emphasizing nor even mentioning the maleness of Christ and Adam.
 I am not saying that men and women are exactly the same for I do, in fact, believe that general differences in our perspectives and motivations can be identified. Rather, I am simply arguing that such false dichotomies and oversimplifications do not accurately describe those differences. Both men and women reproduce, both subdue the earth, both beautify, both lead, both follow, both protect, etc., though perhaps with different emphases and approaches. In my opinion the gender paradigm as stated above is a construct that arises mainly out of one’s personal experiences that are then grafted into a particular worldview.
 Note the addition of the words “a sign of,” as in “a sign of authority,” to many English translations of 1 Cor. 11:10. These words were added because the idea that a woman retained authority over her own head, as the text asserts, did not fit the worldview of the translators. They therefore added words to “clarify” the meaning. The updated NIV is more faithful to the original: “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head.”