Marriage was created to be a beautiful, sacred covenant made between a man and a women, and unfortunately many believers today may not understand the biblical roles they are called to within it. The world continues to offer many opinions and perspectives on what marriage should look like. These opinions are often derived from fleshly, unbiblical desires, which can affect the Christian’s expectations of marriage. The only way to truly understand how God intended marriage is by faithfully studying and submitting to Scripture. The Bible outlines for us what marriage is, what it is signifies, and what our roles are in it as men and women.
Biblical marriage exemplifies the gospel itself. The relationship between a husband and his wife is intended to glorify Christ by symbolizing the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church. A married couple can reflect this glorious relationship by taking on the roles that they have been purposefully commanded to obey. In Scripture, the roles of a man and a woman in this covenantal relationship are outlined in quite a few passages.
Our society in America has been immersed with the ideals of the modern feminist movement, which makes us come to this issue with many biases and assumptions. While cultures never stop changing, God’s Word never changes. Since creation, wives have been under their husbands’ authority, and since the fall, women have tried to overstep that authority. After Eve coerced her husband into eating the forbidden fruit, God spoke to the her, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16) The curse described here shows the sinful dynamic between man and woman. Because of it, in her sin she would desire all her life to step outside of her gender role to be dominant over man, while the male in his sin would desire to subdue her and rule over her in a sinful manner. The desire to exploit weaknesses in the other sex is a product of our sinful nature, that we are called to kill and turn from (Romans 8:13, Acts 3:19). A woman in her sinful flesh makes her inherently desire usurping the authority of her husband in marriage, producing quarrelsomeness, which Scripture warns against (Proverbs 21:9). In the man’s case, his sinful flesh can cause abuse of his headship or not take on the headship role at all. Before the fall, Eve lived in humility and perfect, joyful submission to her husband, and Adam lived in perfect servant leadership to his wife.
As a woman in 21st century America, this can at first easily seem unsettling and unfair. It can be painful to be called to a role of submission in a country where so many men have been conditioned to be feminine, weak, cowardly, and irresponsible. But when we look closer into the unique divine callings of men and women within marriage, we see that the way the Lord designed it is beautiful as it reflects Christ and the church. As we take a look into Ephesians chapter 5, we can truly see what marriage represents and a more descriptive role each gender is to take on.
The terms submission and headship can rattle some ears in our generation. The current political climate we live in makes it seem like the biblical roles within marriage are oppressive and unequal. The biblical meaning behind these terms couldn’t be farther from that! In Paul’s letter to the saints in Ephesus, he outlines each role. He uses the terms “submit” and “head” to describe their distinct positions. Wives are commanded:
…submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (21-24)
Wives are commanded to submit because the husband is the head of the family, and, most importantly, to model the relationship between Christ and His church. As a wife, your role is not to assume authority, but to submit to the one who has been divinely called to headship over you. The rest of the passage goes on from verses 25-27 commanding husbands to
love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
The husband is commanded to love his wife as Christ loves the Church. We know as believers that Christ has been gracious, kind, and selfless toward His Church, humbling himself to the point of dying for her. Here in Ephesians 5, husbands are commanded to do the same for their wives. As Christ died for His church, so husbands are to selflessly and joyfully lay down their own pride, ambition, and selfish desires for the sake of building up his wife and marriage. If it comes down to it, husbands are to even die to protect their wives.
Marriage is a glorious representation of the gospel. It represents the love Christ has for His church, and the church who submits to His authority. Marriage can paint a beautiful picture of the relationship between the Creator and His elect. The terms “submission” and “headship” are not used as a means of oppressive authority towards a helpless slave, but are used to describe the true roles each gender has been commanded to take on inside of marriage. We shouldn’t complain that we have to follow these rules, but we should thank God that we get to glorify Him through such a beautiful picture of our relationship with Jesus. Once again, it is not about us, but about how much glory can be brought to Christ through obeying his perfect design for the roles in marriage.
The most prominent perversion the world has given to the definition of the word ‘submission’ is seen when it is associated with having inferior value. Women are not worth less than men and men are not worth less than women. Submitting does not make someone of lesser value. Take, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity, with an emphasis on the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ. Both of them, fully and equally God in being, but differing in personhood and role, display a relationship of submission and leadership. In the Incarnation of Christ, Christ fully submitted to the will of the Father (Philippians 2:5-11; John 8:28, 29). Does Christ’s submission deem His lesser in value and worth to the Father? Since Christ submitted to the Father, does that make the Son any less God? No! In fact, it was because of Christ’s perfect submission to the Father that He finished His great work of atonement for the church (Romans 3:21-26; Galatians 1:3-4). The same principle applies to marriage; a wife’s submission to her husband does not mean that she is of little or no value compared to that of her husband. As Christ’s joyful and willful submission was pleasing to the Father, so a wife’s joyful and willful submission to her husband is pleasing to the Father as well.
The same way Christ is a gracious and selfless leader to his church, a husband is to be gracious and selfless. This is a high standard that leaves no room for oppression, abuse, or cowardice. Submission is not a call to be a slave, catering to every need of her husband; rather, submission is the divine calling for women to support, love, and respect the leadership the Lord willed for her husband to have. Wives submitting to their husbands in love and trust is how the Lord commanded the relationship to be, for it represents the submission of the church to Christ. It’s much bigger than how we may feel about it; it is about exalting Christ and his perfect design for marriage. Women are called to submit, for their husband is the head. The husband accepting his divine calling as the head of the family leads, protects, and loves his wife the way Christ loves the Church. It is not about how he feels or how his flesh may seemingly want to not take on this position, it is about displaying the Gospel by denying himself and taking on the role commanded of him.
A common argument frequently brought up on this subject of marital roles is that of cultural differences; marital roles outlined in the Bible are simply the product of ancient, misogynistic cultural influences. This argument is debunked in 1 Timothy 2:12-14 with Paul who states in the context of church:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
Because Paul references the creation story, we know that the purpose of women not assuming spiritual authority over men is rooted in creation itself, not some ancient cultural norm. Wives taking on the role of submission rather than headship is not meant to demean or belittle them, and it definitely is not meant to promote husbands taking advantage of their wives’ role. It is meant to be a balance, as the two become one in marriage (Mark 10:8). As stated above, Husbands are called to love how Christ loves the church, which is never a condescending love, but a love that offers a never ending amount of grace,forgiveness, and understanding.
During a time where every movie, song, instagram post, and every media outlet can make it seem like biblical gender roles are oppressive and unfair, may we go back to the Scriptures to be reminded of Christ’s divine calling to men and women in marriage. May we remember that this is about the glory of Christ, and not the glory of ourselves, and that we are not the ones with the right to define marriage, but God is. May we honor him either nor or in the future in marriage by accepting where we have been called and what we have each been designed for. If it seems illogical or harsh to you, wrestle with those emotions and wrestle with the text. Let us keep in mind that throughout the Bible, God has called His people to do things that they find very uncomfortable and may even find irrational. Being a believer has always been countercultural and we were always meant to live in contrast to the world. Joshua had to trust God when he was told to march around Jericho. Abraham had to trust God when he was told to sacrifice his precious son. Do not avoid studying this out of fear, and definitely do not twist Scripture, but trust God’s heart and submit your beliefs and your very life to Him, knowing that His commands are for your greatest good and His glory. The Lord has graciously gifted us with earthly marriage to reflect his great work that He will bring to completion one day (Philippians 1:6). So when we struggle with the concepts associated with biblical marriage, we must look to Christ who has never let His church down and will never cease to bring us into clarification and by association, sactivication no matter how much we mess up and let him down. Grace must abound, because the Lord’s cup of grace that pours out onto His Church never runs dry.