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Why Husbands Should Serve Their Wives (According to the Bible)

Many of the roles in marriage have changed.

Today it’s not always the man who works outside the home. And it’s not always the woman who cooks and cleans.

Plus, the picture of the nuclear family is just not the one-size-fits-all norm it used to be:

finger family

Okay, you’re not a face drawing on a finger, but you get the idea.

When people wonder what the biblical writers have to say about the role of husbands and wives in marriage, what do they find?

With the help of Bibles, blogs, gossip and Google, they often first stumble upon statements about women submitting to their husbands like this one from Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (NIV)

People have approached me multiple times about that one!

In this passage, an influential and well-educated leader in the early church named Paul is laying out the order of households in the first century. And I’m sorry to say that passages like these have been used to justify abuse against women by their husbands. As if they are supposed to just do what the man says even in the context of abuse.

But, as in many cases of lets-find-a-passage-to-justify-what-we-want-to-do, that’s taking it out of context. (Remember what Peter said in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than human beings!”)

Never does Paul mean that the man just decides everything or always gets his way. Why? You’ll see very soon…

Critics of Paul say he just adopts marriage roles that were already happening in the 1st century and applies them to Christian households.

But that’s where they’re wrong. Paul revolutionizes the roles in marriage.

Let me highlight two things:

1. “Mutual Submission”

Paul stresses something that would have been game-changing in the 1st century, and yes, even today: that husband and wife should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

The thought that men should also submit to their wives, because of the reverential honor they have for Jesus, was absolutely new.

We have to pause for a moment here.

Some people in the 1st century thought that women were born as women because they were born prematurely and had not yet fully developed. The idea was that if a woman had stayed in the womb longer she would have come out as a man. This helped perpetuate and explain the thinking that women were “weaker” or less intelligent than men! They just hadn’t cooked long enough!

That’s the context in which Paul advocates mutual submission.

2. Servant Husbands

Then he goes on to say this, which is my second point:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

healthy husband and wife

“In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies…” (Ephesians 5: 25-28)

If you’re new to Paul and his rich imagery, that passage may be hard to decipher.

But here, this is what I want to highlight: We are quick to cherry pick passages that suit us. But when it comes to a more complete picture of the roles of husbands and wives, Paul is arguing that

Husbands should serve their wives.

Why? Because he models their behaviour on how “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”

Jesus was (and is) a servant King. He built up the church. He loved the church. He served the church. He taught the church. He pursued the church. He went the distance for the church. He prayed for the church. He was patient with the church. He was loyal to the church. He put the church first. He died for the church.

That’s what a servant King does.

And that’s supposed to be the same mindset that men have toward their wives!

Talk about a game-changer.

I wonder why people don’t talk about that so much? Hmm.

  • Side Note: To Dads with Daughters: Do you stress about who your daughter might marry? Well, the biggest thing you can probably do to ensure she marries a man of integrity is to be that man yourself. Set the standard. How blessed would our kids be if they saw us treat our marriage as an incredible gift and priority?

Higher…

There’s this scene in the movie Toy Story toward the end when two talking toys, a cowboy named Woody and a space ranger named Buzz Lightyear, are tied to a rocket while being propelled forward. You think they’re aiming for the truck in front of them so they can be reunited with their owners.

But as they approach, buzz leans back and directs them higher. Woody yells out: “Buzz, we missed the truck!” To which Buzz replies: “We’re not aiming for the truck!”

When it comes to our marriages, I think we need to aim higher. Just because you pay the bills and usually get along doesn’t mean things are ‘fine.’

Men, why not aim higher? “We’re not aiming for the truck!”

I truly believe the strongest marriages aren’t the ones where husbands and wives are focused only on their health, happiness, or even children.

The biblical writers don’t ever say that the point of marriage is to “put the kids first” or “have fun” or “have a perfect companion.”

So what, then?

In my view, the strongest marriages are the ones where husband and wife are focused not on themselves, but God; are focused on glorifying God and getting on board with the joy of advancing his mission in the world.

As Francis Chan writes in a book he penned with his wife Lisa called You and Me Forever, most marriage problems aren’t marriage problems, they’re God problems.

When you’re moving forward together in God’s purposes, the sideways issues of family, work and life are put in their proper place. Here’s  how they say it: “Being in war together is what keeps us from being at war with each other.”

If you’re new to this way of thinking, it might seem overwhelming. But don’t get discouraged. Simply take the next best step.

Here’s the closing word: Husbands, serve your wives with the same honor and enthusiastic integrity you have when you serve God.

Without that kind of care, any other marital advice is a gamble. With it, you can’t lose.

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8 Comments »

  1. Very, very good, Matthew. You have God’s Word for this generation. Wish you were an applicant for the vacancy at Richmond Presbyterian Church, my former pastorate.

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  2. Thanks Matthew. That was a good reflection. One small point, however. What is most radical about Paul’s view of marriage is the growing importance of mutuality. You pick that up in your point about mutual submission. However, when you write about husbands serving their wives, suddenly the mutuality seems to disappear. I think we need to take Paul’s lead and keep growing towards full mutuality in contemporary Christian marriage. I am called to serve my husband just as he is called to serve me. At different times, stages, and circumstances of our marriage the balance of that service will shift and change, but we won’t be keeping track because we love one another as Christ loves the Church.

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    • Hi Amanda, thanks for your thoughtful comment! I think what Paul is suggesting is that husband and wife engage in loving, mutual submission. He still preserves that the headship of the man, modeled on the headship of Christ over the church. But it’s all interpreted through the lens of Christian love. I’m not sure Paul would say anything different today; but then again, he isn’t here for us to ask him!

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  3. It’s also important to note that Paul’s command for husbands to love their wives and for wives to submit to their husband specifically addresses the consequences of the Fall for marriage in Gen 3 when God tells Eve that as a part of the curse she will want to posses her husband and in response he will dominate her. Paul’s command specifically counters the possessive with submission and the domination with love and shows that for husbands and wives who are now part of the body of Christ the effects of the curse on creation can be overcome.

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    • Hi Grant, that’s a really helpful point. I intentionally didn’t bring in Genesis 3 because I wanted to keep the blog somewhat brief (! — haha), but I think you draw attention to something that’s key. Genesis 3 is a foundational passage—evidenced not only because, as a part of the creation story, it outlines God’s intent for creation, but because of how often it’s referred to by other writers, including, of course, Jesus himself when asked about divorce. So many of the big themes of Genesis are raised again in the New Testament, so thanks for highlighting that.

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  4. I agree wholeheartedly that a one size fits all definition of “nuclear family” is not relevant, If it ever was. Many possibilities exist, each fulfillling the important qualities of marriage.

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    • Hi Errol, thanks for the comment. I’m not sure I totally understand what you’re saying. If you’re saying that the “nuclear family” is not relevant, then I’ll have to disagree with you. Families with that configuration are perfectly relevant. But if you mean that families today take different shapes and forms and are also relevant (which I think you ARE probably saying) then I would agree! Hope you’re having a good day 🙂

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