This article is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of marital roles and issues. It is simply meant to be a short primer that may be used by biblical counselors who are helping couples understand their roles and the seriousness before God of their submission to him. The thoughts and ideas here are not original to me. I am grateful for the good work of others over many years in helping my understanding in this area. I have adapted many of their ideas for this primer.
We must start our discussion in the beginning. That beginning being Genesis 1 – 3. God created the man and the woman both in his image. And, they were created in his image to rule the earth for God. This means they were both stewards of God’s earth. This is clear from Psalm 8. When speaking of human beings, David writes, “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.” (Psalm 8:6-8). Here, God is not referring to the male when he uses them term “him” but is referring to human beings. It is clear then that both the man and the woman have representative rule over God’s creation. This rule is the joint function of the man and the woman (note the plural pronouns in Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them. And God said to them…”). Andreas Kostenberger writes, “Moreover, this stewardship is a joint stewardship shared by the man and the woman. Together they are to exercise it according to the will and for the glory of God. Together they are to multiply and be stewards of the children given to them by God. And together they are to subdue the earth by a division of labor that assigns, to the man the primary responsibility to provide for his wife and children, and to the woman the care for and nurture of her family.”
But while they were created in the image of God and share the stewardship of ruling over God’s creation, man and woman have been given distinct roles in God’s economy. Before we examined those roles, let’s look briefly at one reason that men and women have such a difficult time fulfilling those roles in a righteous and godly manner.
Mankind’s fall into sin resulted in serious consequences, not simply for all of creation, but specifically for the man and woman in their marriage relationship. While the original “normal” roles of man and woman as his helpmate were clear, the consequences of sin created specific problems. The original “normal” where God was in charge, with the man, assisted by his wife, ruling creation together is now tense and passionately selfish under the new “normal” following the Fall. The curse upon the woman is in the realm of childbearing and the relationship with her husband. In childbearing the woman will experience physical pain. In the marriage relationship where her husband is concerned, the harmony of the original “normal” has been replaced by a pattern of struggle in which the woman sinfully seeks to exert control over her husband. The husband then, in turn, responds by asserting his authority – often in an ungodly sinful manner by either passively forcing her into action or actively dominating her. And so, because of sin, God re-specifies those roles in detail following the fall. We will not take time to examine those roles under the old covenant but will look briefly at what God has designed under the new covenant.
Specific biblical roles of husband and wife fall under the general umbrella of Christian attitudes, servant hood, forgiveness, and patience. Colossians 3 makes this abundantly clear.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:12-19)
Earlier in Colossians we read how God has provided a basis for the forgiveness of our sins, “By canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside nailing it to the cross.” This is the heart of our attitudes based on the preceding text. This is how marital roles are to be carried out.
We will begin with the husband. John Piper refers to the Christian husband as both lionhearted and lamblike. ‘The Christian husband as head of his wife is called to lead like Jesus who is the lion of Judah (Revelation 5:5) and the Lamb of God (Revelation 5:6) – he was lionhearted and lamblike, strong and meek, tough and tender, aggressive and responsive, bold and brokenhearted. He sets the pattern for manhood.” This is the main point of Ephesians 5 regarding the responsibilities of the husband. The husband’s headship is not a right to control or to abuse or to neglect. (Jesus sacrifice is the pattern for the man’s headship.) A godly leader is not a dictator (Matthew 20-25-28), is not a dominator, and is not demanding. It is not the role of the husband to force his wife to submit.
Rather than be a right, it is the responsibility of the husband to love like Christ in his protecting, providing, and leading his wife and children. This responsibility includes focusing on her needs and the needs of the children, being an example of self-control in every area of life, leading her in the Word, and being a joy to live with.
Husbands are required to love their wives. This is pictured in Ephesians 5:25 as, loving as Christ loved, and in Ephesians 5:28 as, loving their wives as they love their own bodies. That is the vow most husbands made when they married their bride. I don’t know what specific vows they spoke, but I can guess they were like most that we have all heard. Chances are he did not vow to receive companionship, but to provide it to his wife. That means when a husband (or wife) complains that he isn’t getting what he wants out of his marriage, his statement is senseless. Why? Because he did not enter into his marriage to get something for himself. Both of their vows were probably pretty clear – they vowed to give something to their partner. Possibly to, “love honor and cherish’, “all the days of our lives”. Their vows were filled with “I will…” statements, not, “You will…” statements. They vowed to give all that is necessary to meet the other’s needs, regardless of whether they received anything in return. Therefore, the only question we need ask is, “Are you fulfilling your vow?”
The Christian husband is a learner. (1 Peter 3:7) The biblical implication from 1 Peter 3:7 is that the husband can and must understand his wife. It requires time. The husband cannot know his wife without spending time with her. This biblical implication also requires study. How did God create women? What is unique and special about your wife? What is unique and special about women in general? What are the struggles that your wife faces that are specific to her? The husband is to honor and cherish her, respecting her as he would his most prized possession. We often speak of treating the wife like fine china. The husband is treat his wife with incredible value. Peter also infers, as does Paul in Ephesians 5, that her problems become his problems because of the role of the husband’s headship of the home. I heard Dr. John Street once say, “Godly husbands do not say, “She made the mess. She’ll just have to take care of it herself.”
Many wives in the church are discontent and unhappy, not because they cannot find happiness and contentment, but because they have not known how or tried to do things God’s way.
The Christian wife practices submission (Ephesians 5:22-24, 1 Peter 3:1). Submission has become such a bad word, that we really have no idea what it includes and implies.
Let’s look at what biblical submission is not. It does not mean inequality. It does not mean that the husband is always right or infallible. It does not mean that the wife may not articulate her opinion and desires. It does not mean that the wife is in any way inferior to the husband, either intellectually, or in her value to God. It is not mean that she has no influence in the home. It does not mean that she may sinfully manipulate to get her way or be a doormat for her husband’s sinful manipulation. It does not mean that she obeys her husband if he asks her to sin. It does not mean she disobeys the commands of Scripture should her husband require it.
So, what is submission? Submission is God’s divine plan of order in the home. Submission is a way of life for all believers. (Ephesians 5:21) Submission is an attitude (as unto the Lord). It is an act of the will, not based on feelings. And submission is proof of her love for Christ. Submission is an all-inclusive command from God. The wife is submitting to her husband because she is submitting to God. Her submission is a picture of how the church submits to and obeys Christ.
In addition to submission, the Christian wife must understand that she is designed by God to be her husband’s helpmate. She’s been created by God and given the role to be the perfect complement to her husband. Her husband is her primary ministry and she will find her greatest joy and contentment in that role if done with the attitude with which God expects in Ephesians 5 and first Peter 3.
What does this look like? It means she is to honor, prefer, love, and respect her husband. Not always because he deserves it, but because this behavior toward her husband directly honors and glorifies God. It is God who has placed her husband in this role and so she respects the role itself. For many reasons, including the effects of the Fall, this can be difficult for the wife. Her desire is to control or change him. Is easy for her to focus on his negative behaviors and qualities as an excuse not to obey. But failure to do so will destroy her love for her husband. “A failure to actively pursue a high degree of respect for your husband will result in – growing tension in your marriage, increasing anger, discouragement, depression and a general hindering of God’s work in your home.”
And so, the wife is to be a submissive helper, respecting her husband if for no other reason because of his authoritative role given by God, and the wife is to be obedient to her husband in all things (that meaning all things over which God has granted husband’s authority). The wife always remembers however that when the state forbade the church to preach in Christ’s name, the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:28-29) She must be careful, however, not to assume her priorities, preferences, and opinions are God’s.
The husband is to be one who exhibits loving leadership, loving headship (because it is like Christ’s), and gentleness with his wife and children. The husband’s loving leadership and gentleness in caring for his wife are ways in which he is to be Christlike in the marriage.
 I’m grateful for Pastor Russ Kennedy’s work in this area along with,”Solving Marriage Problems” by Jay Adams, “This Momentary marriage” by John Piper, and “God, Marriage, and Family” by Andreas Kostenberger.
 Dr. John Street, quoted October 2016.