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Why One-Way Submission Between Co-Heirs Is Dangerous
The Co-Inheritance of Women
John 15:9 affirms that God’s love for human beings is identical to God’s love for Jesus. Every child of God inherits the throne of God, the Spirit of God, holiness, and eternal life. Anyone who believes, including women, will receive equal authority with Christ. Jesus said, “As for those who emerge victorious, I will allow them to sit with me on my throne” (Revelation 3:21 CEB).
Some complementarians agree that women will receive the same inheritance in heaven as men, but argue that on earth, men are to have greater authority.
And yet, does not the Lord’s Prayer instruct us to pray for the kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven now? So, whatever will be true in heaven is what we should strive for on earth. If women are equal in authority to men in heaven, co-heirs to the throne of God, we should strive to live that out on earth now.
My God or My Husband?
Now, consider the man who believes he has authority over women, simply because he is a man. He believes that it is his God-ordained duty to lead women—as a servant, of course, but to lead them nonetheless. Why?
Is God not capable of leading women directly? Most would agree that God is capable. Well then, is God not willing to lead women directly? Does God position men in the place of Jesus? Is Christ the mediator of every believer, or does a woman also need a man to mediate between her and Christ? And does putting God’s interests first, for a wife, mean putting her husband’s interests first?
What God-loving woman, under this scheme, would not consider marriage itself to be a curse? If being married means that she must submit to her husband’s understanding of God’s will, then she no longer has full freedom to obey God’s will as she interprets it. She had better remain single.
Perhaps you will say that a husband who exerts such authority over his wife is not following the model of servant leadership prescribed by many complementarians. But do you also believe that the husband should make the “final decision”?
I believe that if you consistently follow complementarian theology to its natural end, the husband takes the place of God in his wife’s life. That is, the man’s relationship with God is a direct one—he makes ultimate decisions for his wife and family based on what he perceives to be the will of God.
But in the complementarian model, is the same true of the woman? Does God not guide her as an individual too? Is she accountable for her actions, or is she only accountable for how well she submits to her husband? What about her ability to hear and interpret God’s will?
The first women’s right’s convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, tackled this question head-on in their Declaration of Sentiments. Speaking of men, the authors wrote: “He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.”
Follow the Leader
In many fundamentalist religious cults, members are accused of rebelling against God if they do not obey church authorities. Gospel for Asia (GFA), a missionary organization, saw the consequences of this ideology when a number of its former members spoke out about the behind-the-scenes.
Identifying GFA with the Shepherding Movement of the 1970s, the GFA Diaspora website writes, “It is commonly taught that K.P. and GFA leadership speak for God… they [members] are taught to unquestioningly obey all requests apart from very obvious sin…They [leadership] teach that God will not hold a staff member accountable if they sin in following GFA leadership. They teach that only GFA leadership would be accountable in the event that leadership steered them wrong.”
In a church that my husband and I used to attend, the head pastor taught that Sarah did the right thing when she agreed to lie about being Abraham’s wife, and allow herself to be taken by Abimelech. Because she submitted to her husband, the pastor taught, God was able to step in and correct the situation.
If Sarah had refused to lie and be taken by Abimelech, she would have been usurping her husband’s authority, thereby getting in the way of God’s direct line to her husband. When I questioned this message, I was told, “You need to give up your spiritual authority and trust God.”
Thus, we see that complementarian teaching puts women, who must submit to their husbands in order to submit to God, in the position of ignoring the Spirit’s revelation to them in favor of their husbands' will. It reduces trusting God to trusting husbands. And it undermines women's accountability for their own choices before God.
When I stopped attending that church, I was told by my husband that I was rebelling against God and that I was in danger of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Again, obedience to the leader is conflated with obedience to God.
This is not to say that complementarian Christians are members of a religious cult, of course. The purpose of this comparison is to highlight that authoritative leadership is often about following another person instead of God, even when that’s not the intention of the leader.
Now, some will counter that women are permitted to disobey their husbands when men lead them into sin. And yet, complementarian teaching creates an environment where women always trust men’s will to line up with God’s will, and doubt the leading of the Spirit in their own lives.
Because, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” the consequences of doubting the Spirit are far-reaching (Romans 8:14 NLT). Women risk not only disapproval from their husbands and broken familial relationships, but many learn to doubt the leading of the Spirit so much that they lose faith.
Followers of One Teacher
Jesus said, “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters” (Matthew 23:8 NLT).
Imagine that a man turns to his wife, his co-heir in Christ, and says, “You must submit to me, because that is the will of God and his established order. I have a responsibility as the spiritual authority of our home to lead you according to my understanding of God’s will.”
The wife responds, “Are we not followers of only one Teacher? Are we not equal as brother and sister? Do we not have the same authority as believers and the same inheritance as co-heirs in Christ? Do we not both hear and respond to the revelation of the Spirit?”
Scripture makes it clear that believers, women included, are to be followers of one teacher, Jesus. As co-heirs, men and women equally share in the authority and inheritance of Christ. They are equally responsible for correctly interpreting and following the will of God.
The sum of it is: either women are in rebellion against God, or men are oppressing women. If the latter is true, these men are fighting against God. For example, if your wife is called to be a pastor, and you do everything in your power to block her, one of three things will happen:
1. She will give in to you, and you will both be guilty before God.
2. God will bring about circumstances to separate her from you in order to fulfill her calling.
3. God will bring about circumstances to humble your heart and bring you to repentance.
The question that men must ask themselves is, “If I would not want to utterly submit my will and my conscience to the will and conscience of my wife, then how can I demand that my wife utterly submit her will and her conscience to me? If I would not want to be hindered, or torn in two directions between the will of God and the will of my spouse, then why am I inflicting this potential distress on my wife, whom I am to love, honor, and cherish?”
Gender equality is not a side issue. It is part of the gospel and mandated by men and women’s shared inheritance as heirs to the throne of God. It is dangerous and inherently abusive for one human being to expect another human being, their co-heir in Christ, to always submit to their will.
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