Submitting yourself to the leadership of another sinner is no easy task. As much as we may recognize the necessity of submission — Christians to Christ, citizens to government leaders, church members to pastors, and wives to husbands — our pride can chafe at the thought, and our fears can play images of the worst possible outcomes.
Yet I have often encountered a different kind of submission problem, one that sometimes can feel even more painful: a wife desires to submit, but her husband continually fails to lead. Her soul is crushed from two directions. On one side is a culture that sees submission as a holdover from the paleolithic era and an assault on her basic dignity. On the other side is her husband, who fails to give her the leadership, protection, and sacrifice that her soul longs for.
So, how does a wife respond when her husband fails to lead?
If you are a wife struggling with this situation, my sympathies are with you. It is a terrible sort of ache to long to submit to good, biblical leadership and yet find yourself yoked to one who appears uninterested in exercising that authority. Nonetheless, because Christ calls us to remove any logs or specks from our own eyes before removing someone else’s (Matthew 7:1–5), I want to start by asking you to examine your own heart.
How Do You Pray?
First, have you been regularly taking this to God? James 4:2–3 gives us two key lessons about prayer and our desires. The first is that we have not because we ask not. If your husband’s leadership (or lack thereof) has caused you frustration and hurt, have you been taking that hurt to the throne of grace? So often, we are quicker to write about it, think about it, and talk about it than we are to spend time swept up in prayer about it.
James’s second lesson is that, when we pray, we often do so with the wrong intentions. We might struggle to discern what could be wrong about our motivations when praying for biblical leadership, but when we dive deep into our expectations, we may find that what we are longing for is not merely Christian leadership but something more complicated.
What Do You Expect?
So then, what are your expectations about your husband’s leadership? Do you expect (perhaps subconsciously) that having a good, biblical leader in the home will fix all your marital problems?
“Sometimes, a husband needs to know that you genuinely long for his leadership.”
Frequently when relationships become difficult, we can fixate on one aspect and think, “If this were just different, all would be well.” A wife may imagine that, if her husband would only lead, then maybe he would understand her better, maybe he would be more attentive, maybe God would convict him about spending more time at home or about being more responsible in his decision-making. She can lay the burden of a perfectly satisfied marital life at the threshold of imagined biblical leadership.
Next, what do you expect his leadership to look like? Regularly when we desire to be led better — be it at home, at work, or in the church — we imagine those in leadership making the same decisions that we would make. But that’s not actually a desire to be led; it’s a desire to lead — just by proxy. How you would handle a situation and how your husband would handle a situation will commonly look different, even within the confines of a right, biblical worldview.
How Teachable Are You?
Now comes a more difficult question of examination: How teachable are you? Pride can have various expressions, but one common expression is the resistance to be taught or guided. Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). Have you shown your husband that you are willing to be taught, reproved, corrected, and trained — as distasteful as that may feel to our pride — in order to have a more biblically faithful marriage? Or have you allowed your wounded pride to speak for you, declaring that genuine biblical leadership is distasteful?
On the other hand, if your husband uses a verse like 2 Timothy 3:16 in a way that does not lead to the cross, exude the gentle spirit of Christ, or produce the fruit of the Spirit, then he may be using “leadership” only for personal gain. In which case you would be wise to humbly challenge him — and if that fails, to ask those in your church family for wisdom and, if needed, intervention.
Sympathize with His Struggles
Let’s assume that you’ve examined your heart and, though you are not without sin, you are eager to be led appropriately. Now what? Sympathize. According to B.B. Warfield, the number one emotion the Gospel writers attribute to Christ is compassion. And compassion means entering another’s world, without losing your tether to truth.
Why is your husband so tentative about exercising leadership? Have you asked him — not in a condescending way or in a moment of frustration or desperation, but simply out of loving curiosity? Here are some common reasons.
First, one of the greatest fears men have is incompetency. Perceived incompetence on any level can shut a man down. This response isn’t righteous; it’s the result of pride. But it holds true that men want to be viewed as competent. Additionally, the more a man values a person, the more that person’s opinion of his competence matters to him. And especially if you sit regularly under the preaching of gifted men, your husband — knowing that he cannot live up to the preaching, teaching, praying prowess of your pastors — may feel hopeless that he could ever come across as competent in front of you and your children.
Second, men who want to lead often lack the assurance, skills, and knowledge about how to do so. In a culture awash with submission-phobia, leading in the home can feel incredibly foreign, if not outright wrong. Sometimes, a husband needs to know that it is okay for him to lead in the home, and that you genuinely long for his leadership. But even then, there is a vast amount of information to sort through on what it looks like to lead well in the home — and many different opinions. I’m grateful for resources that help to cut through the din of voices with biblical clarity and consistency; finding those voices, however, can be wearisome and intimidating.
Third, leading biblically means knowing what God has said about himself and his world in the Bible. Yet we live in a day of incredible biblical illiteracy. Combating it means taking more time out of your day to make sure that whatever you are about to do or say at home — especially in a leadership role — is genuinely biblical. A man who loves Jesus and his family doesn’t want to unintentionally lead his wife and children along an unbiblical (or even heretical) path. Many resources are available to help men (and women) learn the Bible, but making the time to ingest those resources can feel overwhelming.
Explain Your Desires
But feeling is only the first part of compassion. Once you have a sense of some of the reasons your husband may be hesitant to lead, you now have the ability to explain your earnest desire to be led. You can speak directly to the heart of some of those fears or frustrations that he may have.
Explain that you are willing to submit to him — that, regardless of the cultural pressure, you want a man who leads with the spirit and humility of Christ. Explain that you are willing to hear his feedback — grounded in Scripture — even when it is hard, and that you will honestly try to respond as a Christian wife is called to do. Explain that you would prefer to hear his earnest prayers leading the family, no matter how simple, than to hear the eloquent oratories of any other Christian leader. Let him know that he need not have a Bible degree to open up God’s word to the family. Simply placing it regularly before you binds your heart to his, as it binds both of your hearts to Christ. Explain that you will not judge him based on style, length, or charisma.
It’s not just what you say, though; it’s how you say it. Delivering a request for more leadership to a man who already feels ashamed for not leading can easily go awry. While you are not responsible for how he takes this request, you want to balance honesty with the love of a respectful wife (1 Peter 3:2). If you primarily communicate the hurt and frustration that you may understandably feel, the likelihood that such a request will lead to heartfelt action is small. Balance the truth with love (Ephesians 4:15).
Encourage His Leadership
Once you have examined your situation honestly, understood your husband’s hesitancies genuinely, and explained your heart for leadership earnestly, consider how you might encourage him effectively.
Our expectations for change are important. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and there may not be any more painful or obvious examples for husbands than their lack of leadership at home. And unfortunately, sin has its patterns. If leadership has been a struggle for your husband in the past, then the likelihood of a radical reformation without any future struggles is low. His biblical leadership may wax and wane. Hopefully the general trajectory is an increase in leadership over time, but there may come seasons of stress, worry, exhaustion, or distraction when his leadership begins to falter.
It will be important to know how your husband receives encouragement. When he leads well, does he respond positively to compliments, or does he receive them as patronizing? When he leads poorly, does he respond to critique with humility, or with defensiveness? How can you show your appreciation for his attempts at leadership so that he truly feels appreciated and respected? How can you show your concern when he fails to show leadership so that he truly feels understood while also welcoming your feedback? Knowing the answer to these questions requires knowing much about your husband’s heart. It requires shaping your encouragement to meet his God-given personality rather than responding in the way that meets yours.
“The desire to have a faithful Christian leader as a husband is a righteous desire.”
Let me repeat myself here, however: you are not responsible for how he responds. Whether your husband ultimately takes up his responsibility to lead your family biblically is between him and the Lord. You are simply hoping to remove reasonable stumbling blocks, no matter how much effort it takes. In the end, whether he walks, runs, stumbles, or simply lies down and gives up depends on his responsiveness to God’s call.
Help Him Lead
The desire to have a faithful Christian leader as a husband is a righteous desire (Ephesians 5:23). Unfortunately, in this fallen world righteous desires are often thwarted by sin — our sins as well as the sins of others. If you are struggling with a husband who refuses to lead biblically, then you may be wise to take some time to examine yourself, sympathize with his fears and frustrations, explain your longings and commitments, and learn to encourage with love and respect.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to creating biblical leadership in the home, this Scripture-shaped plan to care for the heart while communicating concern may help to create an environment where leadership can flourish.