Marriage: Is It Only Forgive and Forbear, or Also Confront?

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Last Sunday’s sermon was originally misnamed “Marriage: Confronting, Forgiving, Forbearing.” In the end, I struck the word confronting—not because it shouldn’t happen, but because I had no time. So this is what I would have said if I there had been time. This will anticipate what is coming, Lord willing, this Sunday (2-25-07).

Focusing on forgiving and forbearing might give the impression that none of our sinful traits or annoying idiosyncrasies ever changes. So all we can do is forgive and forbear. What I plan to show from the Bible this coming weekend is that God gives grace not only to forgive and to forbear, but also to change so that less forgiving and forbearing are needed. That too is a gift of grace. Grace is not just power to return good for evil, but also power to do less evil. Even power to be less bothersome.

But I have approached this in a very intentionally roundabout way. The emphasis on forgiveness and forbearance has come first, because I believe it is the essential rock-solid foundation on which the call for change can be heard with hope and security rather than fear and a sense of being threatened. Only when a wife or husband feels that the other is totally committed to them—even if he or she doesn’t change—can the call for change feel like grace rather than an ultimatum.

But now I am emphasizing that marriage should not be—and, God willing, need not be—a static stretch of time inhabited by changeless personalities in durable conflict. Even that is better than divorce in God’s eyes, and has a glory of its own. But it is not the best picture of Christ and the church. The durability tells the truth about Christ and the church. The unwillingness to change does not.

In Christ’s relationship to the church, he is clearly seeking the transformation of his bride into something morally and spiritually beautiful. We will see this on Sunday from Ephesians 5:26-27. This implies that the husband, who is to love like Christ, bears a unique responsibility for the moral and spiritual growth of his wife—which means that over time she will change.

If a husband is loving and wise, this will feel to a humble wife like she is being served, not humiliated. Christ died to purify his bride. Moreover, Christ not only died to sanctify his bride, he goes on speaking to her in his word with a view to applying his sacrifice to her for her transformation. Similarly, the wise and loving husband seeks to speak in a way that brings his wife more and more into conformity to Christ. (More on this when we talk about headship).

Submission, I will argue later, does not mean that a wife cannot seek the transformation of her husband, even while respecting him as her head—her leader, protector, and provider. There are several reasons I say this. One is that prayer is something that the church does toward God through Christ with a view to asking him to do things a certain way. If we are sick, we ask him for healing. If we are hungry, we ask for our daily bread. If we are lost, we ask for direction. And so on. Since we believe in the absolute sovereignty of Christ to govern all things, this means that we look at the present situation that he has ordained, and we ask him to change it.

This is only an analogy to what the wife does toward her husband. We never “confront” Jesus with his imperfection and seek his change. He has no imperfections. But we do seek from him changes in the situation he has brought about. That is what petitionary prayer is. So wives, on this analogy, will ask their husbands that some things be changed in the way he is doing things.

But the main reason we can say that wives, as well as husbands, should seek their husbands’ transformation is that husbands are only similar to Christ in the relationship with their wives. They are not Christ. And one of the main differences is that husbands need to change and Christ doesn’t. When Paul says, “The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church” (Ephesians 5:23), the word as does not mean that husbands are identical to Christ in authority or perfection or wisdom or grace or any other way. They are not “equal to” Christ; They are “as” Christ. They are, unlike Christ, sinful and finite and fallible. They need to change.

Wives are not only submissive wives. They are also loving sisters. There is a unique way for a submissive wife to be a caring sister toward her imperfect brother-husband. She will, from time to time, follow Galatians 6:1 in his case: “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” She will do that for him.

Both of them will obey Matthew 18:15 as necessary, and will do so in the unique demeanor and context called for by headship and submission: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”

So from these and other observations that could be made from the New Testament, I hope it is clear that marriage is not merely forgiving and forbearing. It is also confronting—in loving and wise ways formed by the calling of headship and submission. This is what we will be dealing with in the coming message. I plead for your prayers.