Inconvenient Headship

Four Questions for Christian Husbands

He died one year ago this month, at the age of 93. For almost a century, he gave himself in service to the needs of others. He was one of the most manifestly unselfish people I have ever known.

My grandfather gave himself for his country, serving in World World II. He was wounded in combat and received two bronze stars for heroic valor. When he came home from the war, he taught ROTC, studied poultry husbandry at Clemson, and then completed forty years in the South Carolina poultry industry. He served as a deacon in his church, often as chairman. And when he “retired” from work in the late 1980s, he did not retire from serving others. In fact, his serving became all the more demanding and selfless.

In his golden years, he gave himself for his children and grandchildren. He and Grandmommy didn’t move to Boca Raton, but leveraged their retirement years to serve family and church in new and fresh ways. They tirelessly sacrificed for the good of others. As the oldest child, I had a front-row seat for how Granddaddy in particular made life workable for our family of six in those unusually demanding little years (with four kids age 9 and under).

Then, not long after I graduated from college and moved across the country, Grandmommy developed severe dementia and was no longer able to function as normal. It all happened so fast. Without much warning, everything fell to him. A lifetime of private instincts and habits came quickly into full view. Would he care for her when it cost him most? When it meant surrendering the idyllic retirement he’d anticipated for decades? Would he trade golf for going to a litany of doctors, friendship for pressing needs, and vacations for daily vigilance?

Soon they were together in assisted living, and eventually she needed professional care and attention, but all along, Granddaddy was there, with remarkable faithfulness, concern, and service. For ten years, he cared for her daily until she died in late 2014.

He was a true husband. He gave himself for her.

He Gave Himself

Six times the apostle Paul says that Jesus “gave himself” for his people. He “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). He “gave himself as a ransom” (1 Timothy 2:6). He “gave himself for us to redeem us” (Titus 2:14). “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2). And for Paul (and us), Jesus’s self-giving love is not only corporate but personal: he “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). In Jesus’s giving of his own self for us, God demonstrates his love (Romans 5:8). And Ephesians 5:25 makes the connection to earthly husbands:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

In modern times, the word submit turns heads in Ephesians 5:22–33, but that’s not the heart of the matter for Paul. Rather, what he lingers over, and gives more space and attention to explaining (in more than three times as many words), is his radical charge to husbands to give yourself up for her — as Jesus did for his church.

But in the ups and downs, and endless shades and ambiguities, of everyday domestic life, what does it mean for a Christian husband to give himself up for her?

Giving In vs. Giving Yourself

It’s an important question for Christian husbands to ask themselves because weak and selfish giving in to wifely whims may appear on the surface to be strong and selfless giving himself. And there is all the difference in the world between a husband giving in and giving himself for her.

God doesn’t call husbands to “be the head.” He simply says the husband is head (Ephesians 5:23). The question is not whether the man will be head, but what kind of head will he be? An absent one? A lazy one? An evil, abusive one? Or will he be a true husband, the kind Jesus is to his church? The husband’s calling is to be a head like Christ — which is the sort of headship provided by one who is also Savior. “The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Ephesians 5:23).

Jesus made it plain what headship means in Christian terms: not lording it over, but serving.

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42–45)

But every husband needs help with that kind of serving. Is any old semblance of service adequate? How do we know when we’re serving as one who selflessly gives himself, rather than as one who selfishly gives in? Consider four questions we husbands can ask of our patterns and individual acts of service to discern whether we’re simply giving in, or giving of ourselves like Christ.

Loving Self or Her?

First, am I loving myself or loving her? Or maybe a better way to put it: Am I being sinfully selfish, or admirably self-interested, in serving my wife?

Three times Ephesians 5:28–33 says husbands should love their wives as they love themselves — an understated application of Jesus’s affirmation of Leviticus 19:18: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). If such with every neighbor, how much more with my wife?

In the course of marriage, we make hundreds of small, intuitive decisions on a daily basis that affect our wives. We don’t stop to ponder and reflect on all these. But when we do, perhaps even multiple times a day, we come to moments of decision, emotional forks in the road. What is the loving choice and action here? Before taking action, I find it helpful to ask myself, Am I loving her or self? Is this selfish or self-interested?

Selfishness seeks my own private good at her expense. Self-interest finds my good in hers. Giving in is a lazy, selfish kind of “sacrifice.” Giving of myself is typically demanding and depleting, but it is gloriously rewarding to find my good in hers.

Dutifully or Joyfully?

Second, am I serving my wife dutifully or joyfully?

Begrudging service, perhaps surprisingly, is often a form of giving in. Something is not right when we grit our teeth and just get it done. We may indeed be doing what we sense is required externally in that moment, but if we’re not doing it gladly, we may be just giving in instead of truly giving of ourselves.

True masculinity is “the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility.” Jesus gives himself up for his bride not dutifully but “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). God calls heads to serve “with joy and not with groaning” (Hebrews 13:17), “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2). He expects no less of husbands. And his Spirit stands ready to help to those who ask.

Her Sin or Her Sanctity?

Third, am I catering to sin or pursuing holiness? First, it’s a question for me. In undertaking this “sacrifice,” am I giving in to my own sinful proclivities, or am I pursuing real holiness (which is typically the harder, not easier, option)? Then, turning to consider my wife, will this sacrifice cater to her sin, or contribute to her holiness?

Ephesians 5:25–27 addresses the motivation that drives true husbandly sacrifice: her sanctity. “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.” Our sacrifices and service will not prove neutral. They will contribute, in the end, to sin or sanctity. Which leads to a final question — and the one I’ve found most helpful.

Convenient or Costly?

Lastly, is my supposed sacrifice for my wife convenient for me or costly? Is it the easy action to take or the tough one? Is it a form of laziness in disguise, or does it require physical or emotional energy? Will this be personally convenient, or have some real, personal cost?

Jesus’s giving himself for his church was not convenient. It was not accomplished by his choosing the easiest, laziest path. And not just at the cross, but throughout his life. So also today as he works by his Spirit in the church. And in marriage, this is a vital way in which our unions point to his gospel. Not just by our being Christians, but by the husband in particular caring for his wife in such a surprising way that the world sees the surprising care of Christ for his church. The world expects husbands to serve when it’s convenient. What catches eyes, and reveals genuine love, is serving when it’s costly.

When to Make Momma Happy

It may indeed be true that when momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. But true husbandly sacrifice doesn’t just seek to make momma happy now, but for endless ages to come.

Such a husband knows that simply giving in to wifely whims is not just easy, convenient, and weak, but will destroy both her joy and his in the long run. And such a husband knows that gladly giving himself for her, as my grandfather did, is not only costly, and the heart of real sacrificial service, but what builds her joy, and his, forever.