Marriage Series: 5) The Responsibilities of Marriage

5) The Responsibilities of Marriage

Text: Ephesians 5:22-25


Today we’re going to deal with one of the most controversial issues in marriage, the idea that men and women have different roles and responsibilities. This morning I want to look at the responsibilities of marriage, specifically the idea that wives are to submit to their husbands and that the husband is the head of the wife. Now three things before we start. Firstly, this is not my idea, it comes straight out of Scripture. Paul writes, ‘22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church… (Eph 5:22-23a)’ You and I don’t have to like it, but somehow we have to wrestle with it – that’s what we’re going to do this morning. Secondly, because of our natural human sinfulness, every human culture has found a way to interpret male headship in a way that has marginalized and oppressed women. So right at the outset I want to recognize how these concepts have been abused and misapplied. My goal today is to look at how Scripture applies these concepts, not how you have seen them applied. Thirdly, whether you identify yourself as an egalitarian, a feminist, a traditionalist, a complementarian, or any other variety on the interpretative spectrum, the differences between men and women are an unavoidable issue in every marriage. Everyone comes into marriage with ideas about how a husband should behave to his wife, a wife to her husband, and children to their parents. These ideas come from our family or origin, current cultural norms, your observations of your friends’ marriages, and even what you read or watch on television. But this morning we’re going to look at what the Bible says about the responsibilities of husbands and wives. So if you’re not comfortable with the idea of distinct, divinely ordained gender roles within marriage, I want to ask that you suspend judgment for the next 30 minutes and consider how God may have intended them for our good.


1) The Original Plan

So let’s start with God’s original plan for men and women in the context of marriage.

a) We were created different

Firstly, men and women were created different. I know that sound pretty obvious, but it wasn’t all that long ago that sociologists where trying to convince us that gender is a social construct, that it’s imposed on us by society. I always remember the scene in Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life,’ where a father comes in to his new born baby and asks if it’s a boy or a girl and the doctor replies, ‘It’s a little early to start imposing preconceived gender distinctions isn’t it?’ But it’s interesting that the first mention of gender in the Bible occurs with the very first mention of humanity itself. Genesis 1:27, ‘27 So God created man in his own image… male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)’ Our maleness or our femaleness isn’t incidental to our humanity but constitutes its very essence. God doesn’t make a generic humanity that is later differentiated, rather from the start we are male or female. Every cell in our body is stamped XX or XY. That means that we cannot understand ourselves apart from our gender. And you don’t have to look very hard to notice that men and women are different. But our differences are more than just skin deep. Men and women think, feel, behave, work and conduct relationships differently. While it wasn’t that long ago that sociology emphasized the superficiality of gender differences, recent scientific studies now show just how different men and women are. Generally men are more independent, they look outward, they initiate things, while woman are more interdependent, they are inwardly perceptive, they nurture. The point is: we were created different.

b) We were created equal

Secondly, we were created equal. Difference doesn’t imply inequality. Just because we are different doesn’t mean one is better than the other. And the creation account talks about the equality of men and women in a number of ways.

i) Both image bearers

Firstly, men and women together bear the image of God. It’s not just men who were created in God’s image, rather it’s both men and women. As we saw a few weeks back, Adam on his own was ‘not good,’ he was incomplete.

ii) Both are blessed

Secondly, both the man and woman are equally blessed by God. Right after God created them ‘male and female,’ we read, ‘28 God blessed them… (Gen 1:28a)’ God didn’t just bless the man, or the woman, he blessed them both. God cares about then both equally, and he shows his love towards them equally.

iii) Both are given dominion

Thirdly, they are both given dominion. In verse 26 God says, ‘26 …let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth… (Gen 1:26a)’ This means that men and women together, in full participation, must carry out God’s mandate to build civilization and culture.

iv) Both are to be fruitful

Fourthly, both are to be fruitful. Verse 28 continues, ‘28 …God said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number…” (Gen 1:28b)’ God gives humanity the mandate to procreate, but obviously, creating new life is something that we can only carry out together. Neither gender has all the characteristics necessary, only in complementary union is it possible.

v) Both complement the other

While we are different, men and women are equal in dignity and worth, in fact we complement each other. When Adam is alone and incomplete, God says, ‘18 …I will make a helper suitable for him. (Gen 2:18b)’ The word ‘helper’ isn’t actually very helpful. It suggests assisting someone who could do the task almost as well without help. But in Hebrew the word ‘ezer describes the sort of help that is needed when someone isn’t capable on their own. It’s the help that God gives when we are unable to help ourselves. In the context of marriage a woman helps her husband by making up for what is lacking in him with her strength. A men doesn’t need a woman to wash his clothes, he needs a woman to complete the aspects of himself that are lacking. A wife complements her husband. And again the word ‘suitable,’ isn’t very suitable. Suitable actually translates a compound phrase that literally means ‘like opposite him.’ Male and female are ‘like opposite’ to one another. They are like two pieces of a puzzle that fit together because they are not exactly alike nor randomly different. They are different, but in such a way that together they make a complete whole.

c) We became sinners

It sounds so good, it sounds like it should just work, so why doesn’t it? The answer is that both men and women became sinners. Genesis 3 recounts the fall, in which both man and woman sin against God and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. And not only is our relationship with God ruined by our rebellion, we also see the catastrophic effects in our relationships with other people, particularly between men and women. Suddenly instead of two people who complement one another we see two people who blame each other. Instead of their differences completing one another, those differences result in oppression and exploitation. The truth is that sin has made a complete mess of God’s original plan for men and women. Instead of our differences being celebrated and enjoyed, they are lamented or idolized. Sin creates a wedge, not only between us and God, but between male and female. Loving someone of the other gender is hard because we no longer complement each other perfectly. Because of sin there are rough edges and deep wounds and missing pieces. There are misunderstandings, and angry explosions and bitter tears. Men look down on women as inferior, and women criticize male pretensions and weaknesses. I’m sure everyone has had some reason to say ‘men!’ or ‘women!’ with that roll of the eyes and that condescending tone. So what hope is there for us as males and females?


2) The Plan of Redemption

The answer is that God doesn’t just leave us in our brokenness, rather he puts a plan in place to redeem us. God sends Jesus, his own Son, into the world not only to restore our broken relationship with God, but also the broken relationship between one another. In Jesus’ person and work we begin to see the restoration of the original unity and love between the sexes. Jesus both elevates and underlines the equality of woman as co-bearers of God’s image, and he redeems the roles given to man and woman in the beginning. In our text Paul calls men and women to imitate Jesus in their roles at husband and wife. So let’s take a look at Jesus, and how he redeems our responsibilities towards one another as husbands and wives.

a) Jesus as Servant

Firstly, Jesus shows wives what it’s like to be submissive. Jesus is our example of what it looks like to be a servant. In Philippians 2 it tells us that even though Jesus was equal with God, he emptied himself of his glory and took on the role of a servant. Jesus shed his divine privileges without becoming any less divine. Philippians 2teaches us both the essential equality that Jesus shares with the Father, as well as Jesus’ voluntary submission to the Father. That idea, that Jesus voluntarily gave up his rights and submitted himself to His Father’s will, is the key to understanding how wives are to submit to their husbands. Submission in marriage is a gift, not a duty. A husband cannot demand their wife be submissive, it has to be something she chooses to do for her husband. If Jesus’ submission didn’t affect his divinity, the same is true for wives, their submission doesn’t detract from their essential equality with their husbands. What Paul is saying is that wives are called to play our Jesus’ role in their marriage. Jesus defers to his Father, he takes the subordinate role. And the interesting thing is that the Father accepts Jesus’ gift and then exalts him to the highest place. Each wishes to please the other, and each wishes to exalt the other. Jesus humbles himself and exalts the Father, and the Father in turn exalts His Son. It’s almost a competition in declaring how awesome the other is. And what’s more, the fact that Jesus chooses to humble himself and take on the role of a servant, doesn’t show his weakness, but his greatness. It’s all upside down, ‘35 …If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all. (Mk 9:35)’ It’s in submitting to others that we become great. A wife shows her greatness in God’s eyes by choosing to submit to her husband as Jesus submitted to His Heavenly Father.

b) Jesus as Head

Next Jesus shows husbands what it’s like to be the head of their wives. Paul says, just as Jesus is the head of the church so the husband is the head of the wife. So what does it mean for a husband to be the head of his wife? In our world we are accustomed to seeing the perks and privileges of those who have authority and power. VIPs get preferential treatment, they get the best seats, they get free upgrades, they get to go to the front of the line. But in God’s economy the greatest are those who are the most self-effacing, the most sacrificial, the most devoted to the good of others. Jesus actually redefined, or it would be more truthful to say he properly defined, headship and authority. According to John 13 ‘3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power… 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 …he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet… (Jn 13:3-5)’ And when he was finished he said, ‘14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. (Jn 13:14-15)’ What does it mean to have authority and power, it means becoming a servant. Jesus redefined all authority as servant-authority. Any exercise of power can only be done in service to others. Te use of power to please yourself, your own needs, is an abuse of power. Jesus is crystal clear when it comes to the definition of authority and headship. He says, ‘43 …whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mk 10:43-45)’ Jesus exercised his authority by laying down his life for others, and that’s how husbands are to exercise their authority within the context of marriage. A husband is called to submit to the role of a servant, who uses their authority and power to express a love that lays down their life for the sake of their wife.

In Jesus we see all the authoritarianism or authority laid to rest, and all the humility of submission glorified. I just want to put that up on the screen so you can see it. Headship means humble service, and submission leads to greatness in God’s eyes. According to Paul that’s what it looks like to live out your responsibilities as husband and wife in the context of marriage. Both women and men get to play the ‘Jesus role’ in marriage, Jesus in his sacrificial authority, and his sacrificial submission. In a sense, marriage is a re-enactment of the gospel. In a husband’s sacrificial exercise of his responsibility as the head of his wife, and a wife’s sacrificial submission to her husband we see Jesus, laying down his power in order to serve his bride, and choosing to submit himself in order to serve the needs of the church.

The truth is that it is hard to love someone who is so different from you. Within marriage there will be conflicts rooted in gender differences that create a chasm between husband and wife. But the cross reminds us just how far God was willing to go to cross the infinitely greater chasm between us and himself. Jesus shows us just how much he is willing to do in order to embrace people who are infinitely different from himself. He is God, Almighty, All-present, All-knowing, Eternal, Holy, and Righteous. And we are finite, limited, sinful and broken. And yet Jesus crossed that chasm in order to embrace us. Jesus faced betrayal and rejection and opposition. The easiest thing is to give up and leave, but Jesus didn’t do that. He embraced us and loved us and brought us into a new unity with himself. And that’s what marriage is meant to be, two people of different genders making the commitment and the sacrifice to embrace the other.


3) The Plan in Practise

So what does it look like to put God’s plan into practise? How does this stuff work itself out in the actual life of a marriage?

a) Practise the plan in a safe place

Firstly, you need to practise the plan in a safe place. If you’ve ever watched Myth Busters, you will be familiar with the disclaimer, ‘don’t try this at home!’ Well, when it comes to gender roles the exact opposite is true, ‘only try this at home!’ You have to find a safe place to practice headship and submission. The truth is that sin will lead men to try and dominate women. In our broken world love and cherish becomes desire and domineer. It is crucial, particularly for women to find a husband who will truly be a servant leader to match her as a strong-helper. It is only safe for sinners to practice God’s plan for marriage where resources such as forgiveness and repentance are available.

b) There are no details, just a principle

Secondly, while the principle of headship and submission are clear in Scripture, the Bible doesn’t give us any details. Should wives work outside the home? Should husbands wash clothes and clean the house? Should women take primary responsibility for the care of children while men oversee the finances? The truth is the Bible gives us no specific direction at all. There’s no list in Scripture of things men and women must and must not do. In fact, if you read Proverbs 31, it pretty much blows our traditional idea of women staying in the home raising the kids out of the water. The point: rigid cultural gender roles have no Biblical warrant. You can’t make a case for masculine and feminine stereo types. While men and women express their emotions, conduct their relationships, and make decisions differently, the fact is different individual personalities and different cultures will express those distinctions in different ways. While we must find ways to honour and express our gender roles, the Bible allows for freedom in the particulars. The fact that the Bible doesn’t give us details means that we can’t just fall into the pattern of simply saying, ‘Well, in my family, this is how it was done.’ The basic roles of leader and helper are binding, but every couple needs to work out how they will be expressed within their marriage.

c) Practising the Plan brings growth

Thirdly, practicing your different responsibilities within marriage actually brings growth. Not only does submitting yourself to God’s role for you within marriage help you get in touch with your essential maleness or femaleness, doing so also balances and broadens you. The amazing thing about doing life with someone of the opposite sex is that their unique qualities rub off on you. I always thought that differences between men and women were the result of a cruel joke, but those differences are part of the process in making us holy, or more whole. The universe is held together at the atomic level by the attraction of positive and negative forces. And the same is true in marriage, while our differences make things difficult, those differences are the very things that complement us and make us more than we were without them. Being married to Alice as helped me think about issues not just from my inherently male perspective, but also from her perspective. I’d like to think that I’m growing in my appreciation for how women think through issues, but I could just be kidding myself about that.

d) Practising Decision-making

Fourthly, how do these gender roles work themselves out in decision-making?

i) Husbands

Firstly, what does this look like for husbands? The husband’s authority, like Jesus’ authority, is never used to please himself, but only to serve the interests of his wife. Like we saw earlier, headship equals service. Headship doesn’t mean the husband simply makes all the decisions, nor does it mean that he gets his way in every disagreement. Why, because Jesus never did anything to please himself, but only his father in heaven. The Bible says, ‘2 Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For even Christ did not please himself… (Rom 15:2-3a)’ A servant-leader must sacrifice their wants and needs to please and build up their spouse. Headship means laying down your life for the sake of your wife. Exercising authority is only done for the purposes of ministering to your wife and family. A husband can only overrule his wife if he is sure her choice would be destructive to her or the family. If you’re exercising your headship to get the colour car you want, or who gets the remote control, or to get a night out with the boys, I think you’ve missed the point. A husband can only exercise his God-given authority in order to serve his wife. If you’re using the headship principle to serve your own needs, or your personal preferences, you are abusing your authority. Husbands use their authority to make god-honouring decisions for the sake of their wife and family.

ii) Wives

So what does this look like for wives? Firstly, submission does not equal compliance. As a wife you are never to be merely compliant, rather you are to use your resources to empower your husband. Like we saw last week, you are meant to be your husbands most trusted friend and counsellor as he is mean to be your most trusted friend and counsellor. To complement each other you need to hear each other out. As a strong helper you are called to sharpen and enrich and enhance your husband. A submissive wife, isn’t a silent wife. She expresses her opinions in order to help her husband. Secondly, submission doesn’t mean you give your husband unconditional obedience. No person should give any other person unconditional obedience. As Peter told the religious authorities, ‘29 …We must obey God rather than men! (Acts 5:29b)’ Submission doesn’t mean that you should help or even allow your husband to something that God forbids. For example, if your husband is doing something illegal the way you provide strong help is to confront him and if he ignores you, report him to the authorities. Wives help their husbands make godly decisions.

The truth is that if a husband is using his authority to serve his wife and lay down his life for her sake, and if a wife chooses to submit to her husbands loving leadership, in the course of a biblical marriage a husband will rarely have to exercise his headship when it comes to making a decision. But in the rare cases when husband and wife can’t agree the husband must submit himself to his role and take the responsibility of making that decision for the sake of his wife and family.


The truth is we don’t know why God chose the husband to be the head of the wife, or why he calls women to submit to their husbands, just like we don’t know why it was Jesus who chose to submit himself to His heavenly Father. But what we do know is that is how God has called us to function in the context of marriage. And we do know that authority is exercised in the service of others and not in order to get what we want. And we do know that submission isn’t a sign of inequality or weakness, but a sign of greatness. So I want to encourage you this morning: ‘25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Eph 5:25)’ And ‘22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. (Eph 5:22)’ Amen.

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