A Basics Sidebar – Of Married Life

What is the Biblical understanding of the relationship between men and women in marriage? A question that is fraught with trouble and strong opinion. But let’s see if we can’t discover God’s intent and desire for this relationship.

Let’s first lay down a few observations. In general, men and women are different physically, mentally, and emotionally. This is not to say that one is stronger or weaker or better or worse than the other, only different. What roles nature and nurture play in some of these differences is open for debate.   

Another observation is that every person has their own unique set of abilities, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, and other characteristics. Not all men are great mechanics, neither are all women fantastic cooks. So, within this discussion, there are wide-ranging individual differences to be accounted for as well.

There are also some commonalities to be observed. Men, in general, struggle with the need for significance; that their labor and their lives matter in some practical or cosmic way. Rich or poor, powerful or weak, that need for approval and significance often drives their priorities. Women, in general, desire safety and security which likewise drives their priorities. Both of these needs are expressed in positive and negative ways.

Before the fall in the Garden of Eden, there existed easy equality between Adam and Eve. Both were created in the image and likeness of God. An image made more complete together than separately.  With the fall came the curse, “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children; Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.’” (Genesis 3:16, NASB95) The man’s curse was directed at his labor and the struggles to grow food.

We also know that in Christ we are redeemed from the curse. Consider, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—” (Galatians 3:13, NASB95) But there is an “already but not yet” to this. The curse has been redeemed in Christ but the effects have not been pulled back. There are still thorns and thistles, there is still pain in childbirth. There is, however, movement towards the restoration of God’s original design for men and women.

Over the years I’ve heard many sermons on Ephesians 5:22-23 to answer this question of relationship. Paul wrote, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.” (Ephesians 5:22–23, NASB95) These verses, however, must be placed into their broader context for proper understanding. Pulling Ephesians 5:22-23 out of its setting leads to an unhealthy and unrealistic and unbiblical ideal of King Husband Slave Wife.

Speaking to all believers, Paul says in the preceding verse, “and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21, NASB95) To be subject means to humbly submit to one another. Christ-followers are not to rule over each other but to walk and work side by side with open hearts to speak and receive words of encouragement and correction. I like to call this a harmony of humility. Each person has their own abilities, likes, dislikes, and character. Yet in that diversity, Christ-followers are growing in unity with each other towards Christ. That includes the husband and wife of Ephesians 5:22-23.

Following Ephesians 5:22-23 is a much larger section detailing the role of the husband. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her,” (Ephesians 5:25, NASB95)  And, “So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself;” (Ephesians 5:28, NASB95)  Paul’s revealed picture is not one of a perfect home with cookie cutter roles but a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church. Christ gave up everything out of love; husbands are called to the same kind of love for their wives. In fact, Paul spends more ink encouraging husbands to love their wives than for wives to follow the husband’s lead.  

Paul concludes, “Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.” (Ephesians 5:33, NASB95) In this Paul speaks to the generalized needs of women to feel safe and for men to feel significant.  Paul’s teaching for men to sacrificially love their wives as Christ loves the church answers the woman’s need to feel safe. Paul’s call for wives to respect their husbands answers the man’s need for significance. Each one giving out of love to fulfill the weaknesses in the other – a complementary unity and a harmony of humility.  

In the end, we must neither abuse Ephesians 5:22-23 nor refuse it. But when we place it back into its context a beautiful picture of real love and complementary unity is revealed for husbands and wives.   

In practical terms. Each couple God joins together must work towards their own complementary place of side by side equality and unity. There are some things which Betty is better at than me, in those areas she takes the lead. And there are some areas I’m better equipped to carry then she is. We are subject to each other and complete each other and fulfill each other. Both of us encouraging and correcting each other as we grow in unity towards Christ. You see, headship in marriage is not lording over or making every decision but it is a call to serve, sacrifice, care, and love – even as Christ loves the church.

Essentially. Husband, your wife needs your love, your time, and your attention. Wife, your husband needs your loving encouragement. There is joy-filled pain in working this out as wife and husband learn to do life together in the humility of harmony.

Dale Heinold
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