The New Testament contains a set of instructions for husbands and wives which, if followed, are guaranteed to produce a happy marriage. But I have to warn you, it isn’t easy.
I bought a new car a few months ago. Well, not exactly a new car, but new to me, anyway. I like it very much, and I want it to last a lot longer than it already has, so I did what any responsible owner should do. The first night I had my car home I took the owner’s manual out of the glove box and read it through. Do you know, an owner’s manual has quite a bit of interesting information in it? It tells you what all the dials and switches are for. It shows you how to change a flat tire. It contains a great deal of technical data about the engine (far more than I care to know). Perhaps most important of all, the owner’s manual details for you all the operating procedures and recommended maintenance for the life of your automobile.
Now this is all voluntary information. I’m not really obliged to follow any of it. I can obey the guidelines and instructions of my owner’s manual, or I can modify them, or obey some and disregard others, or even ignore them altogether. After all, it’s my car. If I want to run the engine without any oil, or put water in the fuel tank instead of gasoline (after all, that would be much cheaper!), or drive with the emergency brake on, I’m free to try it. But if I do those kinds of things, I have to be prepared for the consequences. My car is going to break down, and it won’t be anyone’s fault but my own.
God’s law is just like my car’s owner’s manual. It is a set of instructions and guidelines for the proper operation of human life and society. (It’s even published by the manufacturer!) God has given us a number of rules which, if we follow them, will help us to live life the way he designed us to enjoy it. You don’t have to obey God’s law. You can change it or modify it, you can choose bits and pieces, accepting the things you like and rejecting the things you don’t. You can even disregard it altogether. But if you do that, you mustn’t be surprised when your life breaks down, nor should you complain or try to blame the Maker.
A MANUAL FOR HEALTHY MARRIAGES
I think this analogy is especially helpful when we seek to understand what is happening to families today. We are confronted everywhere with the fact of broken relationships. Marriages, including many Christian marriages, are falling to pieces and leaving pain and suffering in their wake, especially for children. Obviously there are many reasons for this (it’s a complex issue), but surely among the crucial reasons is the fact that people have begun increasingly to ignore the instructions God has given for how marriages and families should operate. We have, in a word, thrown out the owner’s manual. Maybe it’s time we took another look at it.
Here are the rules for Christian wives and husbands: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them” (Col. 3:18-19, niv). Those brief instructions are repeated in expanded form in the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
A wife should put her husband first, as she does the Lord. A husband is the head of his wife, as Christ is the head . . . of the church, which is his own body . . .
A husband should love his wife as much as Christ loved the church and gave his life for it . . .
In the same way, a husband should love his wife as much as he loves himself . . . None of us hate our own bodies . . . So each husband should love his wife as much as he loves himself, and each wife should respect her husband.
(Ephesians 5:22-33, cev)
That passage contains Paul’s most extensive treatment of the mutual responsibilities of husbands and wives within the covenant of marriage. Let me begin with three general observations about this teaching.
One, Paul is addressing wives and husbands, not women and men in general. Thus we have instructions here for a special relationship, voluntarily entered into by committed individuals. This passage does not lay down a blanket principle to govern all relationships between the sexes. We cannot argue from it that women are inferior to men or that they should be subordinate to men in society at large. Paul is not talking about the intrinsic value or importance of women and men, but about their roles in marriage.
Two, Paul is addressing Christian wives and husbands. If you look at the context of the New Testament teaching on the roles and relationship of husbands and wives, you will see that it is set in the midst of sections that deal with the common life of Christians. In Ephesians the context is the Christian duty of mutual submission; in Colossians it is mutual forbearance, forgiveness and encouragement. The fact that Paul is speaking to Christian wives and husbands places the whole discussion of their respective responsibilities within the boundaries of their overall devotion to Christ. A wife’s submission to her husband is not total surrender or unconditional obedience: she reserves that only for Christ. A husband’s love for his wife is not worship or adoration: he reserves that only for Christ. The ultimate allegiance of each partner to the Lord will keep their relationship with one another in proper perspective.
Three, what Paul says here to Christian wives and husbands is not a simplistic formula for marriage. He does not offer us an easy, two-part model into which we just plug ourselves and automatically smooth out all the difficulties in our relationships. There is an element of reciprocity here: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” Paul says by way of introduction in Ephesians 5:21. A wife is not the only one who has to submit in a marriage, any more than the husband is the only one who has to love. There is a delicate balance between submission and love in every marriage, and that takes a lot of hard work to achieve. It doesn’t come easily.
“WIVES, SUBMIT TO YOUR HUSBANDS”
So now, what about the apostle’s word to Christian wives: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18). “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:23). There is so much confusion on this whole question of submission and headship that it is necessary to clear away misunderstanding before attempting to apply this teaching positively.
So let me first say what this text does not mean. A wife’s submission to her husband’s headship does not mean she is degrading herself. In the ancient world, a woman had no status. She was simply her husband’s possession. But in the New Testament she is addressed as man’s equal by right, a free and responsible agent under Christ, who nevertheless is asked voluntarily to submit herself to her husband’s leadership. This is not degrading; it is, rather, ennobling to women.
Nor does submission by the wife establish cultural stereotypes of proper male and female roles. Cultures traditionally assign particular tasks to men and women. For example, in western culture it used to be that the woman’s work was in the home and the man’s work was out of the home. But those divisions of labor are arbitrary, not biblical. In other cultures you would find quite different arrangements. So a wife’s submission does not mean she can’t have a career or that she is automatically confined to a life of changing diapers and feeding babies.
Nor does the fact that a wife is to submit to her husband mean that the husband’s will becomes supreme in the family. How could that possibly be? In a Christian family the husband is not enthroned as sovereign; so how could his will be supreme? For Christians Christ’s will is always supreme. He is the sovereign, not the husband. His word is law, not the husband’s word.
Finally, a wife’s submission does not mean that her life will be impoverished, or that her personality is stifled, or her growth stunted. The Christian wife who submits to her husband out of love for Christ and for him discovers the paradox of the gospel – that Christ’s service is perfect freedom. Elizabeth Elliott, herself a Christian wife and mother, a heroic missionary, and a gifted author, says on this point: “Submission for the Lord’s sake does not amount to servility. It does not lead to self-destruction, a stifling of gifts, personhood, intelligence or spirit. . . . God is not asking anybody to become a zero.”
If submission does not mean that the wife is degraded, that stereotypes are entrenched, that the husband becomes the supreme ruler, or that she is personally diminished, then what does it mean? Headship in the Bible means responsibility. When the husband is called the head of the wife, what is chiefly being said is that he is the one who is charged with the responsibility for his family’s welfare. He must answer for what happens in the family. He must bear ultimate responsibility before God. And for the wife to submit to that headship means that she acknowledges this responsibility of her husband. She accepts it gladly, and she places herself in his care.
“HUSBANDS, LOVE YOUR WIVES”
Now what about the husband? “Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” How could a husband possibly be harsh or severe with a wife he truly loved? Such behavior has no place whatsoever in any marriage. Notice that the command the Bible gives to the husband is to love, not to rule. The authority the husband has been given is the authority to love his wife, not to dominate or order her about. In Ephesians 5 Christian husbands are enjoined to love in two particular ways. They are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” A husband’s love for his wife is to be sacrificial, self-giving love. This is how Christ’s love is defined. Jesus, Paul wrote, was the one “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). All Christians, he said in another place, are commanded to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2). The primary way a husband should love his wife is by sacrificing himself for her, by putting her welfare ahead of his own, even to the point of laying down his life for her. Husband, would you die for your wife? Not just figuratively, not just in a symbolic way, but literally. Would you lay down your life for her? If you wouldn’t, then you don’t know how to love as Christ has loved us, his church. And if you would do that, if you would be willing to die for your wife, then it shouldn’t be too much to begin living for her benefit and serving her well-being.
The second way in which husbands are told to love their wives is this: “as their own bodies.” That is, with a nourishing and cherishing kind of love by which he cares for his wife and wants to see her grow. That’s the way we are with respect to our own bodies. That’s the way Christ is with respect to his body, the church. When the head is doing its job, the body grows, because the purpose of the head is to promote the health and well-being of the whole body. So, husband, do you know your wife? Do you understand her needs? Do you try to meet them? It is your responsibility to see that your wife is flourishing in every way.
Maybe these instructions for Christian husbands and wives seem too hard, or too antiquated, or too threatening to you. If you think they’re impossible, well, all I can say is don’t blame me. I didn’t write the book. They’re part of the owner’s manual, written by the Maker himself. But I would ask you this: have you seriously tried following them? Have you made Christ the Lord of your marriage? Have you tried it his way? If you do, you just might find that it works!