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male headship Margaret Mowczko

The Accountability of Eve and Sapphira

The Old Testament Law contains a few regulations where husbands can be liable for the actions of their wives (e.g., Numbers chapter 30, esp. Num. 30:15 NIV). Conversely, there are Old Testament narratives where whole families are punished for the sins of their fathers (e.g., Achan’s and Korah’s families). These laws and narratives reflect the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel. God’s prediction in Genesis 3:16, that man would rule woman, was being fulfilled, but patriarchy was not God’s original or best intention for his people.

In Genesis 1 we read that God gave men and women the same status, authority, and responsibilities (Gen. 1:26ff). In Genesis 2 we see that the first man and woman experienced a profound mutuality and affinity in their relationship. This mutuality, however, would deteriorate after the Fall.

However, immediately after the Fall and before patriarchy took hold, God spoke to the man and to the woman individually and held each accountable for their own disobedient actions of eating the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:9-19). The text nowhere indicates that the man was held responsible for his wife’s actions. Rather, Adam and Eve would experience the consequences of their own sins: each would die and each would experience “painful, sorrowful toil” (itstsavon עִצָּבוֹן) in life (Gen. 3:16, 17).

Fast forward to the days after Pentecost. Jesus had paid the penalty for all sin—including Eve’s and Adam’s sins—with his death on the cross. Jesus had risen from death and returned to his glorious place with the Father, and they had sent the Holy Spirit as Jesus’ powerful replacement on earth. A new era had begun and a new Spirit-led community formed. This community, the church, endeavoured to embody a new culture of equality and mutuality, irrespective of the ethnicity, gender, or social status of individuals (Gal. 3:28).

Patriarchy had no place in the ethos of Jesus’ followers, and husbands were no longer answerable or liable for the conduct or misdeeds of their wives, and vice versa.[1] The accountability of women is demonstrated in the example of Ananias and Sapphira. You can read their story in Acts 5:1-11 here.

Rachael Starke discusses the text in Acts 5:1-11 in a blog post entitled When Submission Becomes Sinful.

The decision to sell the property was Ananias’ and Sapphira’s together [Acts 5:1]. But the decision to keep back some of the profit was his, albeit a decision Sapphira knew he had made [Acts 5:2]. Ananias chose his course, and Sapphira submitted to his choice.

Had Peter viewed Sapphira as simply a woman under her husband’s authority, he may not have felt it even necessary to ask after her involvement in her husband’s decision. But instead, in an interesting moment of pastoral acuity, after Ananias’ duplicity has been exposed, Peter actively inquires after Sapphira’s role in the matter. When Sapphira hides behind her husband’s lie, she discovers that, rather than being covered by her husband, she has become complicit with him.

Both Ananias and Sapphira were individually held accountable and responsible for their own parts in the deception, and they each received an equally severe punishment.[2]

While we all have a responsibility for the welfare of others, especially of our families, capable men and women are answerable and liable for their own actions, actions that should reflect and promote the values and principles of Jesus’ kingdom.[3]

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[1] Part of a mistaken understanding of “male headship” is that husbands are held to a higher degree of accountability than wives, despite no mention of this accountability in the New Testament.

[2] The biblical text tells us that Ananias sold the property with Sapphira (Acts 5:1). They sold it together. And it tells us that she knew her husband had held back some of the profit (Acts 5:2). Then in Acts 5:8-9, when she is questioned by Peter, she tested the Holy Spirit by lying. Her actions were the same as her husband’s and she received an equal punishment which, admittedly, sounds harsh to modern ears.

[3] The New Testament indicates that one day each of us will give an account to God for our own actions about how we lived our lives and used the talents he has given us (Rom. 14:12; 1 Pet. 4:5-6; and Matt. 25:19; Luke 19:15). Hopefully we will be rewarded and hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

Image Credit

Excerpt of The Death of Sapphira painted by Sebastien Leclerc (1676–1763)

Explore more

The Responsibilities of Husbands in Ephesians 5
A Suitable Helper (in Hebrew)
Kenegdo: Is the woman subordinate, suitable or similar to the man?
The Holy Spirit and Equality in the Book of Acts
Galatians 3:28: Our Identity in Christ and in the Church
Jesus’ Teaching on Leadership and Community in Matthew’s Gospel

23 thoughts on “Are Men Accountable for their Wives’ Actions?

  1. Very well written. Fascinating stuff. I think it’s vitally important to see that patriarchy is NOT part of the New Covenant. I’m learning so much.

    1. I’m having a couple of online discussions on facebook at the moment with Christian men and women who are insistent that men have an authority and rule over women.

      They think I am twisting the biblical texts. I’m not. I am trying to straighten out the kinks of their convoluted and baseless interpretations.

  2. Keeping all this in mind and that it is Peter God used, we need to reread 1 Peter 3. Too many read into 1 Peter 3 the idea that women are being admonished to fall under this kind of husbandly rule. But actually that is not the point of 1 Peter 3. And Peter could not have been involved in what happened in Acts and turn around to teach the opposite in his epistle.

    1. That is an interesting connection. Peter did see husband and wife – in Christian marriages – as being equal partners, rather than one having more authority or accountability that the other (1 Peter 3:7 NLT).

  3. I am always perplexed with people that try to show that God went to the man first because he was being held responsible for what the woman did. There is no evidence of that at all, it has to be read into the text from the assumption that the man was responsible. I find it just as likely that it is yet another chiasm. God simply traces the sin from its end point to its beginning. Everyone blames the one before them. When will others see that there it is not good to place blame. We need to admit to our own responsibilities.

    1. Dear Marg thank you so much for the thorough work you’ ve been doing so far about the woman and her position in the ministry society and the family. I had never seen this case of this couple in the book of Acts in the way that each one paid the penalty according their individual decision. I will share it to my prayer group. There is a prophesy that there will be a day that each one would give an account to
      God for their sins and not that the fathers would be accountable for the sins of the of the members of their family. I think the prophecy is in the O.T. and has started taking place with this first event in the book of Acts with Ananias and Sapphira. You have helped me in my ministry a lot. God bless you.

      1. Yes, “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them” (Ezekiel 18:20 NIV)


    2. The obsession that some Christians have with who has and who hasn’t got authority is so misguided and the antithesis of what Jesus taught.

      I wish we could all just get on with using our gifts and talents for the kingdom, and living in mutual submission. So much easier and more practical.

  4. I agree with you that husband’s are not accountable for their wives actions but I don’t see how the story of Sapphira shows this. It could be used to show women aren’t responsible for the sinful actions of their husbands unless they go along with them, but I think most believers would agree with that. I guess I was hoping for a stronger argument from the New Testament because I hear this argument all the time.

    1. Yes, you’re quite right, it doesn’t show that Ananias was not held accountable for Sapphira’s sin, but it does show us that we are each answerable for our own actions. Your concern is valid and is the reason I included as part of the main heading “The Accountability of Eve and Sapphira”.

      I have just now changed the blurb, and tweaked a couple of lines, to more closely focus on what I was intending to say: that men and women are answerable for their own actions.

      I appreciate your constructive feedback.

      1. You’re welcome. 🙂

  5. Unfortunately, some ultra conservative Christians actually hold on to the mentality that the man is responsible for his wife’s behavior and actions as part of his headship and that he would be held accountable under God. I always thought this was not only patronizing and stifling to women, but it also puts unfair burdens on men. I agree we’re all responsible for our actions under God and He would hold us all accountable.

    1. I don’t think it’s just ultra conservative Christians who think this way.

      But I agree, it puts an unnecessary burden on men, and it stifles capable women whom God will hold responsible and accountable for their own actions, as he did with Eve and Sapphira.

  6. Each person in their own relationship with God and responsible to him as a beloved child? It’s crazy talk to those who insist on hierarchy, but blessedly true to the gospel.

  7. Excuse me, but I believe that Adam was responsible for listening to his wife, which implies that he never tried to halt or correct her when she was tempted!

    1. Hi JLK2707,

      God said to the first man, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’ Cursed is the ground because of you . . .” (Gen. 3:17a)

      This shows that Adam listened to his wife and complied with what she wanted without apparently stopping or correcting her, as you suggest, but Adam was still responsible and held accountable for his own actions.

      Likewise, Eve was responsible and held accountable for her own actions which included listening to the snake.

  8. Hi Marg,
    I have really been encouraged reading your posts. I am thinking about the mention of Saphira submitting to her husband’s decision. It seems to me they made the decision together, and Peter confirms that in vs. 9. It is an interesting thing, too, that he calls them out specifically for putting the Spirit to the test intentionally. I am sure the reality of the authority of the Spirit really sank in for the rest of the congregation, and we would do well to respect that.

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      I’m not sure how involved Sapphira was in Ananias’ decision or his actions. And you may well be correct that “submitting” is not the most accurate word.

      Sapphira certainly was “aware” (v. 2) of what Ananias was doing. And she went along with it and “agreed” (v. 9) to it.

      The verbs in Acts 5:1-2, that are equivalent to “sold” and “kept back”, are singular; and the participle, that is equivalent to “having brought”, is masculine singular. It seems Ananias was the one actively involved. The only phrase that says anything about making a decision is in verse 4, and this is also about Ananias. The NIV translates the phrase as: “What made you (singular) think of doing such a thing?” The NRSV has “How is it that you (singular) have contrived this deed in your heart?”

      Whatever the case, Sapphira was complicit and she suffers for it.

      This event certainly did establish the authority of the Holy Spirit. 🙂

  9. Hi been pastor for years . God thought are not like our and his ways is not like our. I believe God never changes. He is not like we are changing our thoughts every second. So God has allow his word to be right . man and woman
    Say I do in marriage. They become one flesh
    And as long as they obey God word . Then God look on them as one flesh not two. In New Testament God still said Adam was made first eve was made second . Adam disobey God Eve was deceived. 1timothy 2 verse 11thru14. So at judgment day God word will stand as The I Am said that . I all way told my sheep .I didn’t write this Bible . But so I don’t have to proof it. And if they that don,t like what it said take it up with the Author of the Bible. Which is Guarded by Holy Ghost And all his angels . That just my thoughts love you all I did love everyone input on subject. It is good to here what other think on this subject. God love you and so do I.

    1. Hi Larry,

      I’m glad your church has a loving pastor. 🙂

      I agree with you that God’s word is right, and it will stand. This website is about what the Bible says.

      No one disputes that in Genesis 2 Adam was made first, and that in Genesis 3 Eve was deceived and became a transgressor. This is clearly what the Bible says. The question is, why did Paul mention these events?

      And why stop at 1 Timothy 2:14, Larry? Why not include 1 Timothy 2:15, which is part of the passage? Any interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-14 must also make sense of verse 15.

      The Bible contains several accounts where God bypassed husbands and male guardians and spoke to women directly with messages of vital significance. Where God did not speak personally, he sent angels. And other godly women acted without the permission or protection of men, and are praised for it.

      Husband and wife are, ideally, one flesh in marriage, but they don’t do everything together. And we are each responsible and accountable for our own actions.

  10. The Bible has given enough authority to a man to take care of his beautiful creation. However, a woman is supposed to be obedient and to his husband. Men are already carrying a huge burden… Women, kindly be submissive and helpful to your husbands.

    1. Hi Tony,

      ~ At creation, both men and women were authorised to care for the world, the animals in particular. In Genesis 1:26ff, men and women have the same status, the same authority and the same purpose.

      ~ In Genesis 2, God made Eve as an equal and compatible partner so that the man would not carry a huge burden alone. It is not good for men to do things on their own, alone, without the insights, gifts, and abilities that women can bring. More about the first woman as an ezer kenegdo (Gen. 2) here.

      ~ The New Testament never uses a Greek word that means “obedience” for wives. It does say for wives to be submissive to their own husbands. However, submission, like humility and meekness, is an ordinary character trait of a mature Christian (Eph. 5:21; 1 Peter 5:5 NKJV). Mutual love, submission, consideration, and respect are the hallmarks of godly relationships. More about Eph. 5 and the apostle Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives here.

      Good husbands are kind, submissive and helpful to their wives, and vice versa.

  11. […] Are men accountable for their wives’ actions? […]

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