Today we have a marriage question on the table, and it’s from a listener named Mary. “Hello, Pastor John! I know that submission is the requirement of the wife, and I have been working hard lately to hold my tongue and agree with my husband even when I have a different opinion. Recently, he bought a new car. I felt in my gut this was unwise. I made one comment to him about it, but could see his mind was already made up. So, I went along with his decision. Now it turns out my gut instinct was right. The car purchase was unwise. We both know that now. And now I feel especially responsible for not trying harder to convince him in the first place. Am I at fault for not speaking up? I’d like to hear you address the concerns of a disagreeing wife who also wants to submit.”
I think it’s really crucial to step back with a question like this from the immediate question, “Am I at fault for not speaking up more when my husband was about to make a foolish choice?” That’s the question. I’ll get to it shortly.
Three Parameters for Complementarianism
Step back and put the question against the backdrop of three larger perspectives. I’m always wanting to do this so that the discussion of complementarianism, manhood and womanhood, male and female, sexuality, relationships, roles, are kept in the bigger biblical picture, out of which flow a kind of ethos and spirit — which is always more important than a particular list of dos and don’ts.
1. Men and women are equal in folly.
The first larger perspective would be to remind ourselves that all women and all men, all husbands and all wives, are fallen and sinful and selfish and foolish. And where these things are not being put to death by the Spirit, men are fools and women are fools (Romans 8:13). And I think it’s accurate and helpful to be reminded that men and women are equally sinful, equally corrupt, equally prone to selfishness and foolishness.
“Our identity is in being the blood-bought, universe-inheriting children of God.”
Now, to be sure, there are different ways that manhood expresses its sinfulness. I mean, a person should give a good deal of thought to why it is that 93 percent of all incarcerated people in America are men. Let that sink in: 156,000 compared to 11,000. That has something to do, not with greater levels of sinfulness, but with greater levels of peculiar, manlike sinfulness, which somebody should really think hard about. And there are different ways that womanhood expresses its sinfulness.
But selfishness and foolishness are no respecters of sexuality, which means that this woman’s question is not unusual. This is an everyday struggle, I dare say — at times, in every marriage: a husband who does not seek or welcome or concede to his wife’s wisdom, like a fool; a wife who will not heed her husband’s wise counsel about some of her ways, like a fool.
2. Scripture calls everyone to humility, servanthood, and submission.
The second larger perspective in which the question needs to be framed is the breadth and depth of the biblical teaching on submission. The Bible portrays godly children as submissive to parents (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20), godly citizens as submissive to government (Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13), godly church members as submissive to their leaders (Hebrews 13:17), godly slaves as submissive to their masters (Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18), godly wives as submissive to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22–24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1).
And lest we think that’s the extent of it — like “We’ve got to figure out every role, and how everybody does the dance in these roles” — Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). Whoever would be great must be the servant of everyone. Okay, go add that to the submission mix. And he said,
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. (Luke 6:28–29)
And Paul said, “In humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4).
In other words, humility, servanthood, submission are not a sidebar — oh my goodness, they’re not a sidebar — in the New Testament; they are pervasive and foundational. It is, Paul says in Philippians 2:5–8, the mind of Christ. This entire emphasis of the New Testament is as prominent as it is, I believe, because God intends for Christ to be exalted, usually and normatively (I’m choosing my words carefully here) by attitudes and actions that show others that we are so content and so secure in Christ that we don’t need to be vengeful or dominating or self-exalting. That’s what’s behind that whole motif: our security, our contentment, our identity is in being the blood-bought, universe-inheriting children of God — and what a freedom that brings into all relationships.
And that bigger perspective has two effects, at least, on the unique ways of existence called male and female, manhood and womanhood.
1. One effect is to keep in front of our eyes that the point of humility and servanthood and submission is the display of the universal lordship of Jesus Christ over all his people, all the time, in every way, so that every dimension of our relational behavior makes him look glorious and all-satisfying, and makes ourselves look dependent on him. That’s the point of every relationship.
2. The other effect of this perspective is to remind us that the universal servanthood and humility and submission of all Christians does not nullify the God-given creational differences between male and female, but rather sets us on a quest to discern the peculiar ways, the special ways, in which a man’s headship and leadership displays his humility and servanthood, and the peculiar ways in which a woman responds to that leadership: humbly, submissively, servant-like.
3. Marriage is meant to display Christ and the church.
Here’s the third perspective that we need to keep in view — namely, that in marriage, the aim is to dramatize the covenant-keeping relationship between Christ and the church. That’s the main purpose of marriage as God created it, with the husband taking his cues primarily from Christ, and the wife taking her cues primarily from the church, as Paul describes it in Ephesians 5.
And this parable of Christ and the church does not become meaningless even though husbands — unlike Christ — are sinful, selfish, finite, and foolish. Christ is none of those things. So, just as manhood and womanhood, in their creaturely natural reality, remain relevant for how humility and servanthood express themselves, so also Christ and the church as models of the marriage drama remain relevant, even though the husband is so unlike Christ in significant ways.
Spirit-Shaped Mindset for Marriage
Now, those are the three larger perspectives that need to be kept in view and meditated on, I think, as we ask this wife’s particular question. And what she asked was, Am I at fault for not speaking up when my husband was about to make a decision I thought was foolish? Or at least not speaking up more persistently.
And my answer to this question is, in her particular case, I don’t know. And a brief explanation for why I don’t know will, I think, help her answer the question for herself biblically. The reason I don’t know is not because it’s always right or always wrong for a woman to share her wisdom with her husband about actions he’s about to take. It’s not always wrong and it’s not always right.
It’s not always wrong because, even in the church’s relationship to Christ, we, the church, let our will, our desires, our wants be known. We let what we think is wise be known in prayer. That’s what prayer is: telling God what we would like him to do. And since Christ, being perfect, does not need our counsel at all — thank you very much — he doesn’t need our prayers to tell him how to run the world, but welcomes it, how much more is it fitting for a wife to let her requests be made known concerning what’s about to happen in the marriage? And there are numerous other reasons why it would not always be wrong for a wife to register her concern and her wisdom about the decision the husband is about to make.
“In a healthy, biblical marriage, a husband would quite ordinarily seek and welcome his wife’s wisdom.”
But I say it’s not always right either because the rightness of it depends on, in part, timing, demeanor, tone of voice, choice of language, a history of the husband’s chronic stupidity or a wife’s chronic nagging. There are just way, way too many factors that I don’t know about in this case to say whether her mentioning it once was exactly right, or whether she should have leaned in more. I just would have to know so much more in order to make any judgment call about whether she did exactly the right thing, or maybe she should have done more.
But in general, I would say that in a healthy, biblical marriage, a husband would quite ordinarily seek — very normally seek — and welcome his wife’s wisdom. And the wife would have the maturity and wisdom and grace to give that wisdom without dishonoring her husband or communicating that he’s an unworthy leader of the home.
What I hope is obvious in all of this is that biblical manhood and womanhood in the relationship of marriage does not consist in a mere list of things you may or may not say, things you may or may not do, but rather in a biblically informed, Spirit-shaped disposition and demeanor that reflects a man’s unique calling to be the head of the home, and a woman’s unique calling to gladly support that calling of the man by coming alongside him with her unique, indispensable womanly gifts.