Recently I was reading an article that was teaching about “secrets” of family life.1 The author was making the point that the husband is to be the “manager” of the family. Thus only one person can be the ultimate leader.2 I am sure that this is no new “secret.” It has been pushed on us for a long time. But his examples of “only one in the lead” juxtapostioned two vastly different ways of seeing things, as well as stating bluntly as “truth” an idea that I would seriously call into question. In fact, in American Christian culture it is the myth upon which a large part of the castle of teaching on male dominance as normative is built.
His illustration was of a woman, who apparently had a successful egalitarian arrangement going with her husband, who heard this teaching probably for the first time. She said, “I thought we both were in charge—not one of us over the other.” The author concedes that both have “decision-making power” but he adds, “but the buck had to stop with someone.” This couple did not seem to be thinking this way before! Oddly, the illustration that immediately follows is not from marriage — but from a ministry trip he made with a male colleague. They were equals in every way, but seemed to falter in decision-making because they had a “two-headed leadership monster slowing (them) down.” So they designated one as responsible. One voluntarily backed off in favor of the other. Next statement: “…dual leadership won’t work, even if you are equally qualified. Someone has to make the final decision” (emphasis mine).
But herein lies the lie — or the myth, or the false assumption. Who says dual leadership won’t work?? Who says some one person has to make the ultimate decision? This is not a “truth” that I find explicitly stated in Scripture, nor is it one that has panned out in real life in every case. I would suggest that it is in the category of “old-husbands’ tales” that have been taken as gospel truth for far too long.
Of course, if you don’t believe something will work— you will not be particularly looking for proof that it does, or creative ways to make it happen. So too the practicality and effectiveness of equal partnership has not been objectively or fairly explored by persons teaching male dominance.
However, if we think for a few minutes, we would readily see that there are many ways to approach leadership. Does one person really have to make the final decision? In our own larger community, decision-making rests on the will of the majority (which can cause problems if the vote is close, or a small minority is very opposed). In matters of state the Congress can override a presidential veto and the Supreme Court can override Congress. Even in church life, the pastor is not the absolute or final authority. The board, the congregation, presbytery, synod or convention hold that power. In many parts of the world consensus is the mode of operation. A subject is discussed until consensus is reached, even if it takes much longer than would be desired by people who want everything done yesterday. And in the end, it seems to be a very suitable way to do things because there is less chance of a minority causing problems for implementation of the decision. Consensus works especially well in smaller groupings of people who have a relationship with each other that is more than superficial.
Over the course of my ministry experience I have noticed a couple of things. When I sat on new committees it seemed that sometimes the men seemed to have to know where they stood in the “pecking order” before they could really work on the agenda. And the position of “head” of the committee seemed to be a very important thing — though personally the flak one could get seemed to outweigh any glory that might accrue!!. When I served on committees with women only, we elected a head because someone had to call the meetings and represent the committee elsewhere. Otherwise, we worked as equals, and viewed our decisions as originating with all of us. So praise and flak alike redounded to everyone. I never noticed that the equality that we shared “didn’t work” or that we had a “multi-headed leadership monster.” What I found was open discussion, and an ability to move along in the agenda and division of labor based on abilities, gifts, time available and home situations. The programs went forward quite well and only stalled out when certain male leadership “above” us objected that the buck stopped with him. (Details of the pain that ensued are omitted here!). I have also sat on mixed committees that were very egalitarian with no problems.
So from personal experience, I know that there is more than one way to view things. And the illustrations the author on family life “secrets” used seemed to point this out. The woman he cited had no comprehension that equal partnership couldn’t work. In her experience it seems to have been working OK (and her husband too must have believed it could work). But the two men in the ministry illustration had no idea it could work!! They operated on the belief it couldn’t and acted accordingly. But the difference between their case and marriage was that one of the men voluntarily stepped down from equality; there was no compulsion that he do it. In the teaching about marriage the woman must always be the one to shift, forcing the conclusion that she is not quite an equal partner.
As I puzzled about why these things might be happening, I wondered if either of these men had ever really been in a true peer situation before? Or had every situation been so hierarchically structured, that when they found themselves in an equal situation it was something entirely foreign to them? Having been told forever that equal partnership wouldn’t work, they didn’t know how to make it work without one making the final decision. How sad! I know a number of husbands and wives who have dared to challenge this myth that is more cultural than scriptural, and who would testify that their marriage is strong for having made the change. For one thing, shared responsibility reduces finger-pointing after failure and increases the sense of ownership when things work out well. Decision-making becomes less power related and more us/team/in this together related. It also reduces the necessity for the man to play God. We seem to forget the family is first and foremost a set of relationships, not a government or corporation.
Another of the author’s statements that I would question is: “It simply means (1 Tim. 3:4) that as manager, a husband is the one who will answer to the Lord for the home he and his wife have created.”3 Will all the rewards (as well as punishments) be his alone? T’would be nice, but I don’t find that in Scripture! I believe each will answer fully and equally to the Lord for her or his part. Furthermore, “my husband decided” may not hold much water before the eternal judge! I wouldn’t stake my crown on it! Whenever we base our life on assumptions that can be found to be in error, we are putting ourselves in a dangerous situation. If we can see only one model or possibility, we cut ourselves off from creative involvement and intimacy with the people we say we love the most. All suffer for it. What happened in the lives of that couple who questioned the author? I don’t know and I tremble to ask.
- All quotes are taken from “The Best Kept Secrets of Family Life: How You and Your Family Can Build a Healthy and Enjoyable Home Life” Part 2, by Scott Morton in Discipleship Journal, Sept/Oct 1993, Issue 77, p. 103. He has some excellent suggestions in both parts of the article. My contention is with his view of the husband-wife relationship.
- The context of 1 Tim. 3:4 is of choosing overseers who would “manage” the church of God, not as individuals but as a group. No note is made of the cultural aspects of family life in the first century. The nuclear family (which was an anomaly in the ancient world) is simply assumed by the author. Thus our situation is projected back onto the text and the ancient situation is imposed on our own, without due process in between.
- The context is about choosing church overseers — not about judgment!