I gave the overarching title to these five talks as Manhood, Womanhood, and God. And I put God in there because I want the dominant sense to be that there’s no point in just talking about what people think about manhood and what people think about womanhood because there are a thousand thoughts and a thousand opinions in the world. What really matters is what God thinks about manhood and womanhood, and what God appointed for maleness and femaleness. That’s the only thing that matters in the end. Other things may seem attractive in the short run, but they will leave you in pain in the end if they are not of God. And so when I focus this morning on marriage, I want us to think about it especially in relationship with God. I love the title of Geoffrey Bromiley’s book on marriage, it’s called God and Marriage. I like titles like that.
The Biblical Precedent for Male and Female Roles
Let me begin with a quote from the most recent book that I have been dipping into on the other side of the issue from where I am, the Christian feminist side, as opposed to what I like to call the complementarian side. The book is called After Eden, edited and partly written by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen at Calvin college. She said, “Jesus insisted on monogamy and assigned the same rights and responsibilities to both husbands and wives.” Now I think that’s profoundly wrong — profoundly misleading at least. It may be technically accurate, but it gives the impression, first, that Jesus addressed the issue of whether men, husbands, bear the responsibility for a unique kind of leadership that a woman does not bear in the family.
She gives the impression Jesus addressed that issue and secondly, she gives the impression he answered it, “No,” as if he thought about the question, “Should husbands have a unique and special responsibility for leadership in the home?” and answered it, “No.” That’s what the statement says. Now that’s wrong. The problem is Jesus didn’t address that question, at least as far as I know, and I’ve read the Gospels hundreds of times. He did not ask the question, “Should husbands bear a unique and special responsibility for leadership and provision and protection that’s different from the responsibility that the wife has?” He didn’t ask the question, and therefore he didn’t answer the question. To answer that question, where do you go? You go to the parts of the Bible that do address the question and the part of the Bible that addresses the question most clearly is Ephesians 5.
If you brought a Bible along this morning, I invite you to turn to Ephesians 5:21–33. We’ll read it and then try to unpack the unique and different responsibilities. They’re not the same roles that husbands and wives have. I’ll start reading at Ephesians 5:21.
. . . submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as 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. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Ephesians 5:21–33).
The Mystery of Marriage
Now, the place I want to jump in here with you is Ephesians 5:31. It’s a quote from Genesis 2:24, which says, “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Then the next verse is Paul’s comment about that quotation from Genesis 2:24, and what he says about it is, “This mystery is profound.” Now, don’t miss what this is. He just quoted Genesis 2:24. Man and woman come away from their parents, cleave to one another, and become one flesh. And he says, “This mystery is profound.” And then he says, “And I am saying it — the coming of a wife and husband together to form one flesh in marriage — refers to Christ and the church.”
Now here’s a question: why is marriage called a mystery here? He quotes Genesis 2:24, and he stands back and he looks at it and says, “This mystery of a man and a woman coming together to form one flesh, leaving and cleaving, is great. This is a great mystery.” Now, if you’ve studied biblical studies, you might have learned that mystery in Paul’s usage does not mean something you can’t understand. Mystery means something that has been concealed for an age and is now revealed. Mysteries are things revealed in the New Testament that for long years (decades, centuries) have been concealed so that their full import and meaning is not known.
And so, what I think he’s saying is that when people read Genesis 2:24, they saw a meaning that was a true meaning, but there’s a mystery here that is now being revealed since Christ has come and he’s embracing his church, his wife, like a husband, that you can know about Genesis 2:24 that you didn’t know before — namely, Genesis 2:24 says marriage is about Christ. Marriage is about the union of Christ and the church.
Now there were hints of that in the Old Testament. God is portrayed as the husband of Israel, and the separation when she went into exile was like a kind of legal separation. But then in Hosea, you learn he will not divorce his wife, and he brings her back from exile. So there were hints that the people of God were the wife of God and God was the husband of the people, but you didn’t know anything about the Messiah and the body of Christ yet, and the way he would die for her. Those kinds of things were only pointed at and hinted at in the Old Testament. But now in Ephesians 5:32, Paul is saying, “This mystery of what marriage is really all about from the beginning, the way God designed it, I am opening up to you so that you can see. And the essence and bottom line meaning of marriage is to be a witness, a revelation, a parable, a drama for the world to see the way Jesus loves his body and the body loves Jesus.” That’s the meaning of marriage. And that’s why I entitled this whole session Manhood, Womanhood, and God.
Roles for Husband and Wife
Marriage is about God. This isn’t about divorce this morning, but I can’t help but insert here that the bottom line tragedy of divorce is not the children, not the man, and not the woman; it’s about God. When a divorce happens, a lie happens about God. God does not divorce his people. Marriage is meant to tell people about God and his people. When a divorce happens, a lie happens in the world about God. It’s a God issue every time there’s a divorce, whether it’s a Christian couple or a non-Christian and that’s why it’s a tragedy, ultimately. Of course, it ruins people’s lives, often kids, but God is the issue. It’s a God thing. The deepest meaning of marriage is the glory of Christ in the way he loves his church and the glory of the church in the way she finds fulfillment in her husband, Jesus Christ.
Now, once you see that (Ephesians 5:31–32), then as you go back up and reread the passage, the issue of roles becomes tremendously important. When I say roles — roles for husband and roles for wife — please don’t misunderstand me. If you were here last night, you’ll know better. If you weren’t, when I say roles here, I don’t mean a script to follow in detail as though once you learn what a Christian husband is then you know all about dishes, vacuuming, checkbooks, car repair, lawn cutting, and diaper changing. That is not true, okay? The variety of forms that these roles work themselves out into is almost infinite. When I talk about roles, I’m talking about an essential way of relating to each other that is not the same for wife and husband. And I think when you key in now on the roles assigned here you’ll see that. It’s not a detailed script; it’s a fundamental conviction about how you key off of Jesus and his church.
In Ephesians 5:23–25, what you get is a description of how husbands relate to wives in keying off of Christ and wives relate to husbands in keying off of the church. Let’s look at this. For wives, it says your distinctive role as a wife is to key off of the way the church should relate to Christ (Ephesians 5:24). Let’s read that.
Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
So in this parable, in this image of Christ and the church, the wife zeroes in on the church, and she says, “That’s my calling to be the church to Christ in this drama.” Husbands are called to key off of Christ, as Ephesians 5:23 says:
The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.
Then Ephesians 5:25 says:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . .
Understanding Headship and Submission
Now, we can say some negative things right off the bat about headship here. Headship is not the right to command or control; it is the responsibility to love like Jesus. Let me say that again. Headship here is not a right to command and control a wife; it’s a command to love like Jesus, to lay down your life for your wife in servant leadership.
And we can say something about submission here. Submission is not a slavish, coerced, cowering. That’s not the way Christ wants the church to relate to him at all. Christ did not come to save a daughter; he came to save a wife for himself. He wants the church to be free, willing, glad, refining, and strengthened.
So the key here of Christ and the church becomes very crucial in understanding these sometimes explosive and controversial words — headship and submission. Ephesians 5 guards against the abuses of headship and guards against the debasing of submission. Now, let me give you a definition. I think so far, just like last night in the church, I can now give you a definition of headship and submission that flows out of what we’ve seen so far.
Headship: the divine calling of a husband to take primary responsibility for Christ-like, servant-leadership, protection, and provision in the home.
Now, if you say, “Where are you getting those three words — leadership, protection, and provision? Let me just point this out to you. We won’t go into detail here but let me just point you. I’m getting the word leadership from the word head and its counterpart submission. I’m getting the word protection from the verse that says, “He loved her and gave himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). When Christ died for the church, he saved the church. He protected the church from sin and Satan. He defeated the enemy Satan when he died on the cross. So I’m getting this whole idea of a protective element from the protecting work of the cross that was done for the bride of Christ.
And I’m getting the word provision from Ephesians 5:29, where it says that Christ nourishes and cherishes the church, his own body. He nourishes her and provides for her. And so, headship is the divine calling of a husband to take primary responsibility. Please underline the word primary because there are ways in which the woman feels tremendous responsibility as a partner for the husband to make all these things happen. It could be things like leadership for the children, sharing in the provision for the family when she works, and protective dimensions when it falls to her to be protective of the children and sometimes to her husband. But the husband has a primary responsibility.
When God comes and knocks on the door when there’s dysfunction in the house and the door is opened, he’s going to say, “Is the man of the house home?” He will call the man to account just like he did in the garden. He said, “Adam, where are you? (Genesis 3:9). What has happened in this collapse of my order in the garden?” He says, “Adam, where are you,” not, “Eve, where are you?” She comes second when God calls them to account and holds them responsible for the collapse of the garden. So there’s a primary responsibility here for leadership, protection, and provision.
Here’s the meaning of submission as I see it in this text. Submission: the divine calling of a wife to honor, affirm, and nourish that husband’s leadership and to help him carry it through according to her gifts. This will differ from family to family. If she can’t do the math, she won’t do the checkbook. If he can’t do math, she will do the checkbook. That’s what I mean by carrying it through together in terms of gifts. Now, let me see spell out some practical implications that I see here.
Practical Implications of Headship and Submission
The first implication would be in Ephesians 5:25, which says that husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loved the church. That simply revolutionizes leadership, men. If you came to Bryan College and you are contemplating coming to marriage with a certain view of headship and leadership that you saw in your father, an uncle, or a grandfather, it could be very wrong and very harmful. You better put that on the shelf and go to the Bible and ask Jesus, “What do you mean? How did you lead the disciples? How do you lead the church?” And his answer will be, “I died for her. I laid my life down for her. I bound myself with a towel and I washed her feet.” You may not have seen that in your father, your uncle, or your grandfather, and therefore you may have some deeply ingrained habits in relation to women that need to be profoundly changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, in order to be the kind of husband God would call you to be.
Let me say a word about submission. Submission is out of reverence to Christ (Ephesians 5:21), which means it never puts the husband in the place of Christ. Get this really clear in your head, both men and women, because men could exalt themselves in a way that is totally inappropriate here, and wives could tend to exalt their husbands in a way that would inappropriately jeopardize the unique standing of Christ over both husband and wife. The wife submits to her husband out of reverence for Christ, who is over her husband. So a wife has an allegiance to Christ that is prior to and superior to and governing her relationship with her husband, which qualifies this submission profoundly.
For example, she will never ever follow this husband into sin because her primary allegiance to Jesus will keep her from sinning, and if the husband says, “Let’s go do group sex,” or, “Let’s steal,” or, “Let’s drink,” or, “Let’s lie on our tax forms,” she will say, “I can’t be part of that. I love you. I want to honor you as our leader, but I can’t. I have another leader.”
All calls to submission — whether it’s children to parents, wives to husbands, citizens to governments, or churches to elders — are qualified and not absolute by the Lordship of Jesus Christ over children, wives, church members, and citizens. Peter said to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). That qualification runs right through every subordinate relationship in the Christian community. So make that clear. When I talk about submission, I do not mean putting the husband in the place of God almighty to whom the wife owes her allegiance utterly and absolutely.
The Ultimate Allegiance of a Wife
Submission does not mean surrendering independent thought. I wish we had time to talk about 1 Peter 3:1–6. The whole premise is that you have a Christian wife and a non-Christian husband. If submission meant surrendering thought, then the wife would say, “Honey, what do you think about who the true God is?” And he’d say, “The true God is Moloch,” or, “The true God is Caesar,” and she’d say, “Oh okay, you must be right because you’re my husband.” The whole text is premised on the fact that she doesn’t do that. She says, “Who do you think the true God is?” And he says, “Aphrodite,” and she says, “I think you’re wrong. I think it’s Jesus. I love you and I want to be a faithful wife to you, but you’re wrong.”
Submission does not mean there is no influence over the husband. The whole premise of 1 Peter 3:1–6 is that she’s trying to win her husband. She’s trying to change her husband to be a believer, but there is a way to do it that is governed by the whole concept of submission and leadership. If you read 1 Peter 3:1–6 you’ll hear about that. And I would say again, submission doesn’t follow from incompetence. I’ll come back to this in a minute. A lot of people raised the question, saying, “Well, wait a minute, how can you say that he has a special responsibility for leadership when in fact she may be more competent in all kinds of ways that relate to leadership?” I’ll come to that in a minute. Let me say another word about submission.
Complementarian Decision Making
I call it an inclination of the will to endorse her husband’s leadership and a disposition of spirit to affirm his leading. The reason I say disposition of spirit and inclination of will is simply because there are instances when the husband’s leadership may be very foolish. What does the wife do when the lead that the husband is taking seems to her manifestly stupid? Maybe it’s something he wants to buy, somewhere he wants to travel, some use of money, or some treatment of the children, what should she do?
Let’s use Noël and me for an example here. Noël is sitting right here in the front, my wife, and so you can check out all these things with her to see. I have a control on my teaching here so that I can’t just mouth off and say things that I’m not held accountable for. Suppose I’m about to make a decision that she feels to be profoundly misguided. I’m just going bonkers or whatever, and what should she do?
Here’s the way I would put these words into her mouth. She would say, “Johnny, I know you’ve thought a lot about this and I love it when you take the initiative to lead us and take the responsibility for these things, but I really don’t have peace about what we’re about to do as a family. And I really think we need to talk some more. Could we do that maybe tonight?” Now, I don’t regard that kind of conversation as insubordinate. If you were to say to me, “Do you ever do that with Jesus? Does the church ever do that with Jesus?” I would say, “Be really careful here. There is a huge difference between a husband and Jesus, and the main one is fallibility, all right? Jesus never ever makes a mistake.”
The church therefore never has to use language like that to Jesus and say, “I think you’re wrong about money,” or, “I think you’re wrong about lust. Can I suggest another way?” But you know what? Jesus does invite prayer. Did you ever think about that? Prayer is the involvement of you in getting him to do things, and if the almighty, who is infallible, invites prayer from his bride — “Tell me things you’d like me to do” — how much more should a husband who is fallible invite prayer? That is, a wife saying, “Could we do this? Could we talk? You might be wrong.” There is a spirit about that. If you buy into what I’m saying, that the husband’s role is the primary responsibility, there’s a spirit that will endorse him in that even while you’re asking him to reconsider some decision that he’s about to make.
Maintaining the Mystery
When a man senses a special God-given responsibility for spiritual life in the family — “Let’s have devotions,” or, “Let’s get to church on time,” or, “Let’s pray at meals,” — or when he senses a special responsibility to make that happen; or when a man senses a special responsibility to steward the money of the family well — “Let’s talk about how we spend our money” — or when he senses a special responsibility to provide for the family and keep the family safe, he is not doing that in an authoritarian, autocratic, domineering, bossy, oppressive, or abusive way.
Headship is not that; it is loving leadership. And when people press us towards gender-blind sex-leveling ways of relating, what they’re really doing — this is the bottom line issue for me — is that they’re calling into question the way that God has appointed for Christ and his church to be presented to the world.
If the husband is to be like Christ, and if the wife is to be like the church in the way they relate, and people come along and say, “No, they should be blind to their differences. There shouldn’t be any sense of primary responsibility for leadership and any sense of unique calling to endorse and affirm and follow and nurture and say yes to that leadership,” then the whole picture of Christ and the church collapses. Christ and the church are not parallel. It’s a God issue.
Now, let me turn to answer just a few objections here. Tonight, by the way, what I’ll do is try to answer the questions that you have. So if you had questions this morning, yesterday morning, or last night you had questions, I’ll just stand down here tonight and I’ll let you dictate the agenda. So if I miss yours, then you bring it back tonight. But here are three objections that I get most often to what I’ve just taught.
Objection 1: Competency Trumps Roles
These come right out of my experience. A husband comes to me — and I have one in mind right now in my church — and he says, “Look, John, I hear all this talk about me being the leader. Look, I graduated from eighth grade. I do not have a high school diploma. I’m working on my GED. She’s a graduate of high school and has a little bit of college. She’s so good with words, and I’m terrible with words. You’re telling me I’m supposed to be the leader? I don’t think I can do it. You tell me I’m supposed to lead in devotions, but I try to read the passage and my tongue gets so tied up that the children snicker.”
Now, what would you say to a husband like that? Would you say, “Oh yeah, you really can’t be a leader because you’re incompetent. She’s got more competency, and leadership is a competency issue, so take it woman and leave it, man”? You know what I said to him? Let’s call him Jim. Jim is my pseudonym here. I said, “Jim, look, I do not mean that you have to be better than Mary — a better reader, better with math, better with language; that’s not what I mean when I call you to leadership. Here’s what I mean. They have three kids. Tonight, at about eight o’clock just before the youngest one’s bedtime, get the family together. Just say, ‘Hey kids, Mary, come on in, it’s time for devotions.’ And then you all sit down, and then take your Bible and you say, ‘We’re going to just read a little bit of Scripture here and then pray. Mary, I want you to read a paragraph for us,’ and you’re done.”
That’s leadership. Leadership is, “Let’s do it. Let’s do it.” This woman, who’s very competent and a leader in our church — she’s articulate and she’s more intelligent than he is — wants that from him. She doesn’t want to be, because she’s competent, the one who always has to say, “Can we read the Bible? Can we pray at meals? Can we get to church on time?” She wants him to take that leadership, and an eighth-grade education can do it for a college graduate. It can. It’s a, “Let’s do it, kids. Read. She’s good at it. I’m not good at it, so let her read.”
And if he’s humble and he’s secure in Christ, he can even say to his kids, “I’m a lousy reader, but mom’s a great reader. Let’s let mom read.” And then as the kids get better, they can read, and maybe he’ll get better. So that’s objection number one. I don’t buy that leadership is a competency-based issue; it’s a personhood issue, and men in their gut feel they ought to do it, and women in their gut want it done in loving, humble, non-coercive, non-abusive, and non-manipulative ways.
Objection 2: Mutual Submission
What about this issue of mutual subjection? Ephesians 5:21 says, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Usually, what I hear feminists preach about this passage is that they read that verse and they slide over the rest of the passage and preach mutuality. Now, just ask yourself, “Is Christ and the church a mutual relationship of submission?” Got your answer in your head now? I think it is.
Christ submitted to the church in that he died for her. He lowered himself underneath her and was crushed by her sin that she might be exalted. That’s a kind of submission of the most profound and wonderful nature. The church also submits to Jesus, how? By endorsing his lordship and leadership and saying yes to it and getting behind him and joining him in his enterprise in the world. But now I ask you this, “Are those the same way of submitting? Can you parallel those and say that just because there is a mutuality of submission it is the same kind of submission? No way — not in a million years. Jesus and the church are not interchangeable roles.
The kind of submission that Jesus exercised was real and loving and profound, and the kind of submission that the church exercises is real and loving and profound, but they’re not the same. Therefore, you can’t take Ephesians 5:21 and make it wipe out the meaning of Ephesians 5:22–33. What it does is shape the meaning and guards the meaning against misinterpretation, and puts borders around the meaning.
There’s a professor who wrote a very significant book on the feminist side of things, and he said that mutual submission is totally incompatible with hierarchical relations of leadership and submission. But then a few pages later in his book, he wrote this: “The church thrives on mutual submission. In a Spirit-led church, the elders must submit to the congregation in being accountable for their watch care, and the congregation submits to the elders in accepting their guidance.”
So in the first place, he is saying that in marriage mutual submission cannot be compatible if you have a leader and a follower, and then he turns around and says that in the church, which thrives on mutual submission, you do have leaders and followers. That won’t work. You can’t have it both ways. You’ve got to either say it’ll work in marriage because it works in the church, or it won’t work in the church because it doesn’t work in marriage. Well, the Bible says it works in the church and it can work in marriage when a husband loves like Christ and a wife loves like the church.
Objection 3: Source, Not Leader
Here’s the last objection. Today, there are high-powered exegetical studies about whether kephalē (head) means leader, or if it means something like “the source of a river,” “the fountainhead,” or “the head of a river” as the source and the authority — the life of the valley flows from the head of the river. And so the effort is made to diffuse the leadership dimension of this text by saying head means head of a river source.
Now, these technical articles are so technical that I know 99 percent of you will never read them. So how are you going to settle that issue? That’s a big thing. How do lay people, who don’t spend 10 years in a Ph.D. program trying to figure out the meaning of kephalē, decide the meaning of the Bible so they can obey it? I really believe that everything God wants you to obey is plain enough for you to understand from the English text of the Bible, believe it or not. So let me just point you to how I think if I were in your place and I hadn’t read any of these technical articles, I would try to solve that problem.
I would go to the text and I would say, “Okay, let’s suppose that they’re right that head means ‘source.’” I would then look at Ephesians 5:29–30 here, where Christ is pictured as having a body, the church (his wife), and he’s pictured as the head. And then I would ask, “Okay, if he’s the head and he’s the source, what does the body get from the head? What does it get from the head?” And I would notice in Ephesians 5:29 that it gets nourishment. He nourishes and cherishes the church, why? Because the mouth is in the head. So when the mouth eats, the body gets food. So Christ is the source of nourishment. I can handle that. What else does the body get from the head?
Well, the eyes are in the head and so there’s guidance and leadership, and the ears are in the head, so there’s alertness and protection. You can hear danger coming. I’ll say, “Okay, contextually, and if you don’t import something from outside the context, even if head means source, it’s the source of what? Leadership from the eyes, nourishment from the mouth, and alertness from the ears.” And then you are back where I am. Now, you may see a way to do it differently, to somehow make head mean something different than implying leadership. I have not been able to see it even when I try to give the benefit of the doubt to those who make head mean something different than authority or leadership.
So let me close now by simply reaffirming what I started with — namely, marriage has to do with God. Marriage is a mystery. Please, if you take away nothing else this morning, take this away: when you marry someday, if you marry, what God is calling you to is to live out a parable for the world of the kind of love that Christ has for his body and the kind of allegiance and love that the body has to Christ. And therefore, your calling in marriage is so high, it is so great. The world knows nothing of this. The world doesn’t know why they’re married in God’s economy. God created marriage to tell something about God, something about his Son, something about his church, and something about his covenant between the church and the Son. And I just call you to live that out for your good and for God’s glory.