Authority is a sticking point in our culture, but the Bible is unapologetic about authority in marriage and other everyday relationships. I struggle to think of a Christian idea that’s more counter-cultural than a husband as the head of his family, and a wife gladly submitting to him. That’s because our culture sees submission as restrictive, oppressive and degrading to an oppressed group. And a man’s exercise of authority is viewed as a tool of the oppressor to hold onto power and maximise privilege. But last week we saw that as children of God, Christians are no longer to view each other through the worldly lens of status and power, but through the example and teaching of Christ. Jesus redeems our marriage roles, so that for a husband, authority is God’s gift for the purpose of expressing love to his wife and accepting Christ as his Lord. His headship is about service, not a thirst for control nor a means to his own comfort. And a wife’s respect for her husband is a way of entrusting herself to Christ’s care and Lordship. This is the way the divine Choreographer leads us in the dance of marriage. It is a picture that was as revolutionary in the first century as it is today, but for different reasons.
Today we look at the practical implications of a godly husband’s role in his marriage. What does male headship look like in the messiness of our homes, east of Eden? Let’s turn to Ephesians 5:
“1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God….
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband (Eph 5:1-2; 21; 25-33).
First a disclaimer— I’m a woman! So, what do I know about the unique responsibilities and temptations of male headship? Nothing firsthand I must confess, but I have been the recipient of Pete’s loving headship for over 26 years. I know what it is to be built up, protected, served and spiritually-led by a husband who has encouraged me to flourish as a wife, mother and sister-in-Christ. And together we’ve counselled many couples who are serious about living out their redeemed roles in practice. But ultimately, it’s not our lived experience or personal assumptions about gender that should inform us in marriage. It’s God’s Word to us. Scripture is our plumb-line to show us what it means to be a godly husband and wife, regardless of who we are. And so, let’s get back to our passage and focus on how a Christian husband is to lead his wife:
The way of love (Eph 5:1-2, 21).
Whoever we are, whatever we do, wherever we find ourselves, our roles as Christians should always be shaped by love. Love for God and love for our neighbour. After all, if our redeemer is the God of John 3:16, it makes logical sense that His beloved children should imitate Him in every role we play (Eph 5:1). Both men and women are bound by the rule of love.
So, on the stage of marriage, both husbands and wives are to sacrificially love and submit to one another out of reverence for what Christ has done for us on the cross (Eph 5:1, 21). Love is our grateful response to Christ’s grace. So the Gospel of grace is the ‘root’ that should naturally produce the ‘fruit’ of love. But it’s not just an amorphous love as the world defines it. It is the persistent, consistent, unselfish love that Christ exemplified (Gal 5:22-25). Love is the fruit of our sanctification as Christians. And for a redeemed husband and wife, there’s no better soil for sanctification than marriage! Not just in spite of the thorns and thistles, but in and through the thorns and thistles of marriage, Christ is making us more like Himself. He is leading us along the way of love.
A husband’s unique responsibilities and temptations.
But in the Ephesians passage, Paul tells husbands to love their wives, not just once, but four times over! There seems to be a special duty for a husband to love and lead his wife in the way of love. His God-given role as leader is to actively pursue his wife and meet her need for love.
At the same time, this passage (and many other similar texts) point to a unique temptation faced by a husband: He may sinfully choose to use his authority to serve himself instead of his wife and family. This temptation may manifest in being overly passive or harsh, or having unfair expectations of his wife, or failing to be present emotionally, to name but a few.
From the text, here are two practical ways for a husband to meet his unique responsibilities and resist his inborn sinful instincts:
# 1. Help your wife grow as a Christian.
Your nearest and dearest ministry is your wife! Your specific goal in loving your wife is to help her grow in holiness, love and wisdom, and to develop godly character as Scripture defines it (Gal 5:22-23; Rom 5:3-5; Rom 12:2; 1 Peter 1:5-7). No, you are not her Saviour, Jesus is! And you’re not responsible for your wife’s virtue. But you are responsible to help your wife see the winsome character of Jesus in you, and to encourage her to take one step closer to Him.
Amazingly, Paul likens a husband’s relationship with his wife, to Christ and His Church. This is a daunting parallel, but Jesus himself will equip you in this task of presenting your own bride holy before the Lord (Eph 5:27). It is a unique ministry of discipleship that you’ve been given as a husband. It’s one of the good works He has custom-made for you to do, not in your own strength, but by His Spirit who lives in you (Eph 2:10). And his grace is always sufficient for you.
But a warning is apt here: Husband, please get rid of any hint of a patronising, self-righteous or forceful attitude in this role! There’s nothing worse than a scolding husband or father, who is forever reminding his family that they aren’t up to scratch, that they should be serving more or doing better, or worst of all, that they’re an embarrassment to him. You’ll never scold, browbeat or shame your wife into co-operating with you. Nor will you ever successfully guilt-trip your kids into obeying you. Your role is more like a good sports coach than a headmaster. You are there to encourage and cheer on the team, with Christ’s attitude of humility, meekness and patience (Col 3:12-15). Come alongside your wife as your co-equal heir and beloved sister in Christ, affirming her as the delegated leader of the home when you’re not there.
Give your wife the freedom to exercise her gifts and strengths for God’s kingdom. Pete has always been my greatest fan whenever I’ve seen a Gospel opportunity, and I would have given up ministry long ago if it weren’t for his support. Be enthusiastic and faithful in gathering the family together for devotions, special meals and blessings. You’ll never regret the effort. I still remember my father’s attempts to get the family to sing choruses during our morning devotions on holiday! It was a cacophony from which we’ve never recovered!
Suggest ways to serve together with your wife in your local church or life group. Join her in being hospitable in your home. Encourage your wife to be steadfast when her emotions get the better of her. Remind her often of Christ’s love when she feels unworthy or sad. When the world is full of strife all around her, steer her mind to things that are true, noble and right, pure, lovely and admirable, excellent and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). Offer to pray with her often, especially when she’s anxious. Help her to process her thoughts and renew her mind in Scripture, rather than leaving her to bathe in the culture’s false ideas. Respect her mind and her heart, and help her to bridge the gap between them. Let your behaviour towards your wife always be guided by the question, “What can I do right now to love her in a Christlike way, so that she becomes more like him?”
# 2. Serve your wife sacrificially.
Apart from the general framework of headship and submission, the Bible doesn’t prescribe rigid roles in or outside the home. In fact, if you read the description of the wife of ‘noble character’ in Proverbs 31, you’ll see the picture of a woman whose role doesn’t restrict her in the slightest, but rather enables her to flourish both in her family and in the community (Prov 31:20-21; 28; 31). ‘Who should do what’ is a wisdom issue for you and your wife to decide together, depending on your circumstances. But lately I’ve noticed many husbands buying the feminist lie that their wives are Superwoman, a machine built to do anything and everything, both inside and outside the home.
While it is true that women are strong and capable of amazing feats, especially when men abandon their responsibilities, this is a dangerous half truth that has harmed many women. (Actually, the myth of Superwoman is a lie straight from the pit of hell and it smells of smoke!) No Christian husband should expect his wife to be a powerful career woman with a big salary, AND the perfect mother and wife, AND the perfect cook, AND the perfect member of the PTA, AND the rock of the community, AND the social justice activist, all at the same time! As the saying goes, something’s gotta give!
Burnout is all too common among women today, partly because women are generally agreeable and will take on as much as they’re given. One of the ways that Pete has always loved me as a wife, is to expressly affirm and thank me for my contribution at home and with our kids, even though this contribution lacks monetary value and status. But if a husband believes the unrealistic lie of feminism, his expectations of his wife will become overly demanding and harsh. He will be swayed by the world’s values and place burdens on his wife that she was not designed to bear. That is not loving nor liberating. It is burdensome.
The Bible however, does put expectations on the husband as head of the home. A Christian husband is to be like Christ, who gave himself up for the Church. He is to nurture and feed and care for his wife as if she were his own precious body (Eph 5:25; 29; 33). He is to honour his wife as his one-flesh partner (Eph 5:31), flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. A blow to his wife is a blow to himself.
That’s a tall order, I know, but Christ only commands us to do what He empowers us to do with the help of His Spirit. Everyday life is filled with practical ways to show your wife Christ’s sacrificial love: Pick up after yourself; clear the table after dinner; get out of bed five minutes earlier to unpack the dishwasher; give her a night off from her usual chores; run her a bath; take her on a cycle or a walk even if she’s much slower than you! Keep her company while she’s folding the washing or finishing a project late at night. Stand in the breach when she can’t manage her tasks. Do those small, considerate things that the older generation considered good manners: Offer to carry in the grocery bags, make her tea or a drink without being asked, open the door for her. Carry a hanky in your pocket for those unexpected spills and tears. I’m perfectly aware that these acts wouldn’t get past the culture police, but chivalry is actually a Biblical idea. Whatever your cultural norms and whatever your previous experiences, you’re a new creature in Christ. So cultivate those habits which nourish, protect and care for women in general, and your wife in particular.
At the very least, sacrificial service entails listening long enough to really know your wife as your one-flesh partner (Eph 5:31). One-flesh is not just about sex. Do you know your wife’s hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations, disappointments and doubts? Do you know what they are today, not twenty years ago?! You’ll never know unless you ask her, and take the time and effort to listen to her response. The Apostle Peter urges husbands to “live with your wives in a considerate way, showing honour to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). Yes, God won’t hear a husband’s prayers if he won’t show honour to his wife. That’s because sacrificial love to his wife shows that he has bowed the knee to Christ as Lord.
Culturally correct or Biblical truth?
Loving male headship is definitely not culturally correct. But culture hasn’t exactly spawned a generation of flourishing marriages either. Once again we’re reminded that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov 14:12). But hear Jesus say to Christian husbands, “As for you, I have appointed you as the head of your wife and your home, whether you decide to step up to the plate or not. You will either look to me and take your place as a loving leader, or you will be a poor leader with massive repercussions for your wife and children after you. You will lead, one way or the other. My way, or the world’s way. The choice is yours.”
I’m sorry that men have taken all the heat today! God’s command for husbands to love their wives is definitely a burden of headship which no man can bear without the power of Christ in his heart. But as Paul says, “Act like men, be strong. Let all you do be done in love” (1 Cor 16:13-14).
Join us next week as we allow the apostle Paul to put wives in the spotlight. After all, we must each do our own verse!