Monday, April 21, 2014

THE GOSPEL MARRIAGE: Headship, Submission and Marriage Roles

Happy 13th Anniversary to the love of my life! In honor of this, I'm posting on the controversial topic of marriage roles and what the Oscar’s, Dancing with the Stars, and Homer Simpson have to do with marriage, the gospel and the glory of God. This is a continuation of a series on marriage and the gospel and how God created both for our good and for His glory. Please see previous entries here
With three young children I don’t have a lot of time to watch movies so I often use the Oscars as a litmus test to deem what might be worthy of my time and money.  When a film wins Best Picture and Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor/Actress I feel confident it’s worth watching not only because I know it tells a great story but those chosen to tell the story tell it well.  That said, one of my all-time favorite movies is Glory. Not only is the historical narrative of a black Civil War regiment so powerful but Matthew Broderick and supporting actors Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington give incredible performances and complement each other so well. I’ve realized in every good film each actor has a distinct role whether it is the lead, supporting or other, and the story is best told when each actor/actress embraces their unique role with excellence to propel the story which is the biggest star. In short, the glory is the story.

So what does all this have to do with marriage? Well, just as in every great film or story a director or author chooses different characters to play a unique role I believe the same is true of God and marriage. It may have little to do with who is better fitted or who deserves a certain role and more to do with honoring the role the Producer/Director (God Himself) has given. At the end of the day, it’s not about the actors – it’s about the story and no one loves telling stories more than God (author of best-selling book of all time) and just as He has chosen certain men and women in the Bible to display his glory by telling His story I believe He has also given every husband and wife that same privilege through His creation of marriage. So what are our God-given roles and what is the God-given story? Ephesians 5 tells us:  

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. -Ephesians 5:22-25

These verses usually trigger a visceral reaction from people and are often criticized as old-fashioned at best and misogynistic at worst but embracing these roles has nothing to do with preserving a tradition and everything to do with proclaiming a truth. When the husband assumes his role of Christ in the marriage serving his wife through humble leadership and sacrifice and when the wife assumes her role of the Church volitionally supporting her husband’s leadership the world witnesses the wisdom and beauty of God’s design.  These verses are far more than Paul dispensing practical marriage advice.  He is describing God-given roles for a God-given purpose to tell a God-given story -- the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  As difficult as it may be there are practical implications when marriage is done God’s way. I am convinced that the added benefit is that when each embraces their respective role marriages are generally happier and healthier. Husbands feel honored and respected and wives feel loved and cherished. God has done this both for His glory and for our good.

Unfortunately, we now live in a world that mocks our differences and unique roles and sadly much of this criticism is well-deserved. With more fatherless homes than ever, men have often failed miserably (myself included) to love and lead their wives and families as Christ loves the Church and so what we now have as cultural symbols for husbands are bumbling idiots like Al Bundy, Peter Griffin, Homer Simpson, etc.  Sadly, sometimes “Christian” husbands are the worst. Kent Hughes says it well:

“God’s Word in the hands of a religious fool can do immense harm. I have seen “couch potatoes” who order their wives and children around like the grand sultan of Morocco – adulterous misogynists with the domestic ethics of “Jabba the Hut” who cow their wives around with Bible verses about submission – insecure men whose wives do not dare go to the grocery without permission, who even tell their wives how to dress. But the fact that evil, disordered men have perverted God’s Word is no reason to throw it out.” –Kent Hughes in Ephesians

Let’s face it – men have a sinful bent for being selfish and proud and have generally failed to love and lead. Look no further than the Garden of Eden and notice Adam’s conspicuous absence in Eve’s encounter with the serpent.  Perhaps in response to this failure, women are now encouraged to live a life completely independent of a man with little desire to respect or yield to anyone else as a leader of the household. Couple this with a wives sinful bent to rule over her husband (which also originated at the Garden of Eden (Gen  3:16b) and it’s no wonder why it’s so difficult to find a gospel picture in marriages the way God intended.

However, imagine a gentle husband who loves his wife so much that he constantly puts her needs before his own – even his very life; a man who leads her, not by invoking his sacred authority for his own selfish gain or to stroke his fragile ego, but by serving and protecting her with humility, strength and courage. Now imagine a beautiful bride who willingly sets aside her own selfish desires to control or manipulate and volitionally yields herself to this loving husband by choosing to respect and honor him and by yielding to his humble servant leadership. While the controversial topic tends to generate more heat than light in the Church, I am convinced that this type of union and dynamic between a husband and the wife is one of the most profound real-life pictures of the gospel.  

What is Biblical Submission?
These are hard words. So how are we to understand submission in the context of Scripture and within the context of my life? The apostle Paul tells us:
But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. -1 Corinthians 11:3
The first thing one should notice from this verse is that no one escapes the calling to submit. Not women (who are to submit to their husbands). Not men (who are to submit to Christ). Not even Christ himself (who submits to God the Father).  And so the moment a Christian (man or woman) claims they are above “submission” they imply they are above Christ Himself who joyfully submitted to the will and authority of the Father.  The beauty of all this is that in Christ we see perfect examples for both the husband and wife to follow.  

The word “submission” admittedly has become an ugly term in today’s vernacular but as defined and demonstrated by God it is a beautiful thing. Because our culture has so distorted its biblical definition in some ways it’s easier to define by describing what it is not: submission is not a blind obedience to power. It does not forfeit your God-given personality or marginalize a voice or an opinion. It does not excuse or tolerate abuse of power nor is it a sign of inferiority or weakness. Rather, it is quite the opposite because it takes great strength to submit –supernatural strength at times.  

NOT...biblical submission.
Biblical submission is not about one member forcing their will upon the other like a wrestler executing a crippling hold. The beauty and power of biblical submission is that the one who submits does it completely on their own volition and by their own will.  Jesus modeled this in His own prayers when he taught the disciples to pray “thy [the Fathers’s] will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And perhaps the greatest test of this prayer and it's most seminal moment came in the crush of Gethsemane (Mt 26:39) where with blood, sweat and tears Jesus prayed, “…not my will, but your will.” His arm was not twisted by the Father. His was a unilateral yielding of his own volition by faith. We are all called to this type of biblical submission; just as Christ submitted to the Father - husbands are called to submit to Christ and wives to their husbands as they submit to Christ. In obeying this command by faith we are being like Christ….for Christ. We are modeling Jesus’ beautiful submission to the Father to our spouse, our children, and to a watching world for the glory of Jesus.  

What is Biblical Love?
This one is much easier to define and yet much harder to execute. Biblical love is not a touchy-feely, uncommitted whimsical selfish love. It is a self-sacrificing (1 Jn 3:16), life-long, covenant-bound love. It is a love as pictured by the life and death of Jesus and as defined by His Word. As 1 Corinthians 13 states it is a love that is “patient and kind – not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude”. Husbands are called to lead with this kind of love, and in the same way his leadership should not “insist on his on his own way” or be “irritable or resentful” if or when the wife disagrees with him. This is the love and leadership Jesus himself modeled.  

I saw a recent video of Bubba Watson after he won this year's Masters. Two minutes into the interview Bubba begins to talk about life, his faith and the Christ-like role model he tries to play for his family which I found so refreshing and which I believe captures the spirit of the role God calls fathers and husbands to assume.

With that said, I have intentionally refrained from providing specific examples of what these marriage roles might look like in more narrow terms because I believe it may look different for every marriage as every man and woman is unique (although I will attempt to flesh out what this dynamic might look like in future posts). Ultimately these roles are not about determining who plays the family breadwinner, or who wins unilateral decision-making authority. It’s so much bigger than this. It’s about believing by faith that God has a design for marriage because His desire is to project a picture in and through it - the picture of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His love for the Church (His bride).   

So what happens when a couple follows God’s order and design? One of my wife’s favorite shows is “Dancing with the Stars” and although there are many other ways I’d prefer to spend an hour, I must admit seeing each aspiring couple rise to the challenge of performing their routine in front of a live audience is exciting. But the truth is it only works when three things happen:  when the man knows how to lead, when the woman follows his lead and when both dance in rhythm to the music. When these three things come together even an old curmudgeon like myself can find something inherently beautiful in it. In the same way, when the wife supports her husband’s leadership, when the husband leads as a servant as Jesus modeled, and when both are in rhythm with God’s word and in sync with the Spirit – the world is witnessing a powerful picture of Christ and the Church and God receives glory.

Many of us vastly underestimate the power we possess in our marriage relationship to model this Gospel picture and communicate this Gospel story. I mean how much of a difference can two people make in a world that is so broken? Looking back at my own spiritual journey I realized that although I had grown up in a loving Christian home it wasn’t until I was in high school and met my youth pastor and his wife that I saw this dynamic in play. I saw the way he treated his wife and kids – humble, gentle and sacrificial in the way he led. And I saw the way she treated him – respectful and honoring in the way she trusted his leadership of the home and I was inexplicably drawn to that. I was only a young teenager and at the time I didn’t really understand what I was seeing but I knew I wanted it in my own life and in my own marriage someday [though admittedly still a work in progress]. Only now do I realize that I was actually witnessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ embodied in the union between a husband and wife – the way God intended it to be. I am convinced that this, more than anything else, is ultimately what drew me into a relationship with Christ and a saving faith.

I understand that this post can be a frustrating read for some married couples. What if my husband cannot or will not lead our home? What if my wife won’t support my leadership or is a more capable leader? What if feeling loved or respected matters little to my wife or husband?  What is this really supposed to look like in the 21st century?

These are good questions and I won’t pretend to have all the answers. It will require great faith in God’s word – and faith that at the end of every difficult command is a promised blessing. The truth is neither role is easy. Who wants to support a leader that doesn’t lead well? Who among us are qualified to love and lead like Christ loves the Church? But by faith we obey these commands we are being “like Christ…for Christ”. He is our model and our motive – not our spouse. That said, God has given each spouse great power. Even when only one party plays his/her role, by faith, I believe it has the power to transform the heart of the other by “sanctifying them “ (Eph 5:25-26) or even “winning them over” (1Pet 3:1) to Christ.

Only with a gospel model in marriage, can we fully understand and appreciate that the biblical headship model was not just an arbitrary decision or a practical “tie-breaker” but was created to project a physical picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church, and this is most profoundly pictured when both husband and wife play their parts. When this happens God, the master story-teller, uses the marriage to re-enact the drama of the Gospel.  What a privilege to participate in the most compelling drama and redemptive story ever told. May we tell His story and may we tell it well. 


  1. Great post, Peter! I've been reading Howard Zinn's "People's History of America" (yes, I'm a nerd). I've noticed a lot of similar questions have been raised by the book. One of the book's chapters detail how white men in the US's early inception used the Bible to oppress women and stifle them. Though the author did not explicitly state it, it feels like his conclusion is: See? Look how terrible it is to believe in such a backward dogma. Only bad can come out of it.

    The church has to answer to these past sins and even own up to them. I feel like this is why there is so much confusion in the secular world about what the Bible says about gender roles.

    Thanks for this post and for clarifying questions that have been floating around in my big head.

    1. Dan, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree -- much of the backlash we are seeing against any idea of “submission” today is driven by the utter failure of men (“Christian” men in particular) to lead like Christ (as per Kent Hughes quote). But the answer is not to throw out the biblical model which the world has summarily rejected but to help the world see the gospel in and through it. To your point, this has to begin with repentance of our “past sins”, and committing ourselves to the standard Christ set through the way we lead and love. Our children’s view of the gospel and the fate of many communities (of which a family is the basic unit) will hinge upon whether we answer the call.