Where the world comes to study the Bible

Clarifying Our Roles

Headship means I can bark the orders and
Mary must snap to it. Right? Not on your life!

Some people would rather not hear about the roles of husbands and wives in marriage. They have been conditioned to think that there should be no distinction between men and women. But God made husbands and wives to be different, and He assigned them different functions in the marital relationship. We have found that our marriage works best when we understand our respective roles and fulfill them. Let us begin with the wife's role.

The Wife's Role

"While speaking at a women's retreat I was asked if I considered myself to be a submissive wife. Without a moment's hesitation, I said 'Yes.' After I heard myself say it, however, I thought it best to add, 'But that is something my husband could answer better than I. When I get home I'll ask him.' I remember thinking, Of course Richard will say that I am a submissive wife. But he didn't. And I didn't like that. So I decided to do a little study on the subject.

"I found that God called me to be a helper suitable to my husband (Genesis 2:18). Evidently he is not able to carry out God's plan for his life fully, nor become all that God wants him to be, without my help. And that puts me in a very important and strategic position. I have heard it likened to a golf caddy. He gives advice to the pro, carries the bag for him, and generally does all he can to enhance his game.

"And that's what I want to do for Richard. As a helpmeet I can give advice (so long as I do it in a courteous and considerate way). I can help to lighten his load by doing things for him--like taking the car for repairs, screening telephone calls when he is studying, running errands that will save him time, listening to someone's problem whom I can assist as capably as he, and doing other little jobs that will release him for his primary responsibilities of preaching and teaching God's Word.

"After the Lord I consider him to be my first priority. If I have a choice between two things, one which will benefit me and the other Richard, God wants me to do what will be most beneficial to him. I know what some of you are thinking--'But what about my needs?' I have thought that same thing at times. In fact, I still do. But the Scripture clearly instructs me to look out for the best interests of others as much as my own (Philippians 2:4), and that certainly includes my husband's.

"When my highest goal is to have my own needs met, I usually turn out to be a hindrance to him rather than a help. But when I choose to be a helper, God usually sees to it that my needs are adequately met. As his helper, I want to build him up and to encourage him, let him know that even when I don't agree with him, I will still love him, respect him and support him.

"But there is something else I learned about being a helper. Helpers are not in charge. And most wives need to be reminded of that. Maybe that's why there are so many references in the New Testament to wives developing a submissive spirit. Helpers will express opinions, offer advice, contribute insights, encourage, support, and lend a hand by using their unique gifts and abilities. But in the end they will submit to the will of the people they help.

"The more I thought about that, the more I liked what it involved, and the more I wanted to become a submissive wife. You see, that doesn't mean I have to be a doormat. Scripture does not degrade women; it elevates them. Scripture assures me that I am special and valuable. A true helper is not someone to be stepped on, but someone who willingly commits himself/herself to another. Submission is listening to him share his heart with me and seeking to feel what he is feeling.

"But after we have heard and understood each other, submission for me is willingly going along with his decision-- not grudgingly, but willingly and agreeably--if for no other reason than that God has commanded me to do it, and I want to obey Him. That doesn't make me feel as though I have been destroyed as a person. On the contrary, it makes me feel valuable because I have been listened to and understood, because my opinions have been prayerfully and carefully considered, and because Richard has taken the time to explain clearly the reasons for his decision.

"There is a sense of security and satisfaction in knowing that, before God, Richard has the final responsibility for the decision. The buck stops with him. He must answer to God for what we do. And that is by far the more demanding role. As I have learned to surrender to God's role for my life, I find that I am happier and more content. I experience joy in knowing that I am pleasing my husband and pleasing my God."

The Husband's Role

Well, if the buck stops with me, it looks as though I'm in charge here. Although that can be a frightening thought at times, that is what the Scripture says. The apostle Paul taught that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23). That means I can bark the orders and Mary must snap to it, that what I say goes regardless of what she thinks. Right? NOT ON YOUR LIFE! When we study the life of Christ we learn that headship for Him meant unselfish service. Jesus practiced servant leadership, and in that He is our example (cf. Matthew 20:25-28).

True headship in a biblical sense is not so much the right to rule as it is the responsibility to serve. Men usually think of serving as the wife's role, but God says it is the husband's. It is my obligation to look out for the well-being of my wife, to do what is best for her (whatever sacrifice that requires of me personally), to see that her needs are met and that things generally are taken care of for her.

I hear husbands using the concept of headship to get their own way: "You know what the Bible says--I'm supposed to be the head of this house and you're supposed to submit to me. And it's about time you learned it. So we'll do it my way whether you like it or not." That is the exact opposite of biblical headship. True servant leadership would sound more like, "Please tell me how you feel about this decision. I value your opinion and advice. What would be best for you? How will your needs best be met? Let's talk about it and pray about it together. I would rather not make a decision until we can agree."

I failed to grasp that truth for many years. But I find now that when I practice headship in this biblical sense, Mary finds it much easier to be submissive. She finds herself wanting to give of herself to me, to consider my desires and minister to my needs.

The one word that best sums up the biblical function of the head is love. "Husbands, love your wives as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25). In other words, He sacrificed Himself for our good, even while we were sinners. Many of us men are willing to make some sacrifices while we are courting, but once we have made the trip to the altar and completed the conquest, we have little reason to make any more. We're willing to show love to our wives as long as it isn't too inconvenient, or doesn't cost us too much in terms of money or time, or as long as they are being nice to us. We're willing to show love on our terms. But please, no sacrifices!

I'm learning slowly that true Christ-like love means being willing to give of myself sacrificially to Mary. Giving to her may mean expressing my love for her in the ways that she wants to be loved, not necessarily as I think she should be loved. For instance, she would rather have me do something nice for her for no apparent reason than just on the expected special occasions. Or when we are lying in bed at night, she often wants me simply to hold her without always trying to make love. That says “I love you” in a language she can understand. She may want me to listen to her when I would rather read the newspaper or watch some sporting event on TV. God doesn't want her to be testing my love by making those kinds of demands on me. But He wants me to be ready and willing to give to her in those areas. They are small sacrifices to make compared to the volumes of love they communicate.

Love that gives for her good goes the extra mile to show her that she is the most important person in my life, a precious and valuable treasure given to me by God. That may mean listening with interest when she tells me about the events of her day. It may mean telling her how much I appreciate all the ways she tries to help me, or making sure she has some money she can spend on herself without giving any account of it, or not begrudging her time to spend with her friends.

Love that gives for her good is unconditional. I must admit that it is extremely difficult for me to express my love when Mary is irritable or critical. I want to show her by my non-verbal communication that she is making life unpleasant for me at the moment. But those are the very moments that she needs the reassurance of my love, so those are the moments I must turn to the Lord for wisdom and strength to love, as difficult as that is for me (and sometimes I actually do it!). That's how Christ loves the church. He keeps on expressing that love even when we are at our worst. And that's the model for husbands.

Love that gives is also willing to learn and grow. Some of us men feel as though we have nothing to learn, particularly from women. There have been times when I have implied that to Mary and she has said, "Why did you ever marry me if you don't have enough confidence in me to listen to my opinion?" It stopped me short. She would point out to me that I had accepted advice from some man, but when she had suggested the same thing months before I had ignored it. She was right, and I had no acceptable defense. True love will motivate us to listen eagerly to advice, accept it willingly and act accordingly.

Wait a minute! There's a hand on my shoulder. I think my wife wants to say something at this point.

"Let me interrupt here, please. What Richard has been saying is true, but he has grown. I cannot tell you exactly when it happened, but over the years he has made a complete 180-degree turn-around in this area. I would consider his teachable spirit to be one of his most outstanding attributes today. It is one of the things I love and admire most about him. He is willing to listen to me and learn from me. He asks me my opinions and seeks my advice. When he is preparing a message, he often will come out of his study and ask me if I have any thoughts to contribute on the subject.

"Do you have any idea what that does for me? I feel ten feet tall (and that's going some, since I am only four feet eleven inches). I feel valuable. I feel loved. I feel like I complete him. It makes me want to meet his needs. It's amazing to me to see how his love for me increases my love for him. That is a scriptural principle: 'We love, because He first loved us' (1 John 4:19)."

Love is a choice. I may not always be feeling it, but I can still choose to act in loving ways. I don't even need to have the desire to do loving things. All I need to do is choose to obey the Lord, to depend on Him to help me demonstrate unconditional love in understandable and tangible ways. That is to be my major role in our marriage.

How It Works

One particular incident from our lives may help you understand how this submissive spirit and loving leadership works in a marriage. In early 1972, while pastoring in Huntsville, Alabama, I received a telephone call from the associate pastor of Emmanuel Faith Community Church in Escondido, California. He explained how the Lord had taken their pastor home to be with Himself and asked if I would be willing to come and preach for them some Sunday, with a view to becoming a candidate for the pastorate. They had received my name from several different sources and wanted to meet me.

The Lord made it possible for me to get away for a weekend, with the result that the church voted overwhelmingly to call us. And now we were faced with a very difficult decision, particularly since we were happy with our ministry in Huntsville and content to stay indefinitely. Although we began to talk and pray about the decision together, I set a day aside for prayer and fasting alone in a secluded cabin, and through my time of communion with God became convinced that He wanted us in Escondido. In one of the most dramatic experiences of my Christian life, God gave me specific answers to specific questions through a consecutive reading of the book of Isaiah, and I knew that we had to go.

As I made the forty-five-minute drive home that night, I remember praying, "Lord, it would be kind of you to seal this decision by having brought Mary to the same conclusion through the course of her day at home." I cared about her opinions and feelings, and wanted desperately for her to be one with me in this decision. I was anxious to get home and find out how God had answered my prayer. But I was in for an unpleasant surprise.

It was bedtime when I arrived, and as we got ready to turn in I asked, "Do you have any thoughts about our decision? What do you think we should do?"

Mary hesitated, then answered, "You're the one who has been fasting and praying all day. Maybe you should first tell me what you think."

I was insistent: "It's very important for me to hear what you have been thinking."

Finally she gave in. "Well, I was working around the kitchen today, thinking about the huge problem of moving all our belongings to California, and the thought came to me, Forget it, Mary; you 're not going."

As you can imagine, my heart sank. I felt as though God had let me down. Mary asked me what had happened in the cabin during the day, so I sat down on the bed and went through the sections from Isaiah with her. She was visibly moved, but non-committal. There was no resistance, nor argument--just silence.

We kissed goodnight, and she rolled over and dropped off to sleep. I laid awake for quite awhile, fussing with God for not answering my prayer as I had wanted Him to. And when I awoke the next morning, I was still out of sorts with Him.

I spent the morning in my study, finishing up some things I had wanted to do in the cabin the day before. At noon some of the men from Escondido called to find out if we had made a decision yet. I said, "No, not yet," and then I suggested the name of a friend of mine whom they might consider for the pastorate of their church.

During the afternoon I sat in our living room, reading the Bible, praying some more, seeking further light from God, and thinking that quite possibly my experience the day before might not have been of God at all.

Mary had chores to attend to during the afternoon--errands to run, chauffeuring of our boys around town for various activities, and so forth. But she would join me in the living room periodically to talk about the decision and to pray with me. My prayers seemed to go no farther than the ceiling. The Word seemed dry and meaningless.

It was nearly 5 P.M. when the thought came to me: God showed you His will without question yesterday and now you are resisting Him and second-guessing Him. You must go. Be gentle and considerate as you tell Mary. But you must tell her. There is no other way.

The next time she came into the room, I said, "Honey, please sit down with me. There is something I must say to you."

Her answer surprised me. "Before you do," she said, "let me tell you what the Lord has been doing in my heart this afternoon. As I've worked around the house and driven around town I've been praying, 'Lord, show me Your will. Lord, show me Your will.'

"Suddenly, a short while ago, it occurred to me that this was a different prayer from the one I had been praying for the last three months since the church in Escondido contacted us. All that time I had been praying, 'Lord, show Richard Your will.' But today I found myself praying, 'Lord, show me Your will.' It was then that I realized that the Lord had answered my prayer. He has shown you His will. And I'm ready to go with you."

The way has not always been perfectly smooth for us through these years. But neither of us has ever had a tinge of doubt about the place God wants us to serve Him. From the moment she expressed her willingness to support me in that decision, we have enjoyed perfect harmony over it, perfect peace in our hearts about it, and genuine joy serving Christ in the place of His choosing.

Your experience may never parallel ours exactly, but one thing is certain--where there is loving leadership from a husband and a submissive spirit in his wife, there will be harmony and peace and joy.

Walking Together

Decide now that, by God's grace, you are going to do His will. Husband, choose to love your wife as Christ loves the church. Wife, choose to cultivate a submissive and respectful spirit toward your husband.

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Christian Home