Men, Women and Gender Roles in Marriage


Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt

When two people join their lives together, how do they decide on direction? What if one has habits or tastes that annoy the other? What if their priorities are different? Secular marriages have no clear answer to these questions. Generally, counselors suggest couples should compromise or take turns in decision making. But these solutions don't always work. Spouses wind up saying, "We decided your way last time," and we open a new source of conflict. Then there's this one: "I think this would be a good compromise." "No, this would be a compromise!" Similarly, consider how you would feel in this scenario: "We decided my way about which movie to see last night, but now we have to decide your way on which house to buy!"

Both trading-off and compromising may be useful in some situations, but are often problematic. Some decisions won't allow for compromise. Suppose a couple does not agree in which area of town to live. If they compromise, they may end up living in an area they both hate. This is why, in real life we find that the more powerful partner usually compels the weaker to comply with his or her agenda. Powerless partners have to decide how much they are prepared to take. The choice seems to be either slavery, perpetual power struggles or flight. Other couples don't have a clearly more powerful spouse, and may engage in constant wrangling over even the smallest things.

In this illustration, we see two different people, each with their own frame of reference which determines their views, their values, their appetites, etc. Since the frame of references, or life experiences are completely different from one another, they have no basis for resolving differences.

When other people's actions hurt or annoy us, what can we do? When we simply can't get someone close to us to be reasonable, where do we turn? We either try to make the other person change through force or manipulation, or we learn to keep our distance. No wonder modern people have trouble attaining intimacy in relationships!

With Christ, we have an alternative way of life. We are no longer two people trying to get our own way. In a Christian relationship, both partners are concerned with discovering and following God's way.

Here is a basis for closeness.

On one hand, we have a reason for calling on the other person to change based on the will of God. On the other hand, we have an obligation to be willing to change ourselves in accordance with the will of God. Although we could still disagree about what God wants at times, at least we have some basis for agreement other than who has the most power. Finally, in Christ we also have a basis for grace in relationships, which means we can forgive negatives in our spouse-something we may do in secular relationships if we judge it to be expedient, but without any other reason.

The paradigm of Christian couples living under the authority of God includes benefits and sacrifices for both partners. Most of the sacrifices are in the area of ego and selfishness. The benefits are in the areas of closeness, the gratification of being used by God, and the joy of loving deeply.

Marriage Roles and Gender

In addition to the general idea of basing a marriage on the will of God, Scripture teaches that the husband should be the spiritual "head" in marriage. What does this mean? Headship is a troubling concept in our day, and we need to understand it in context.

Being the "head" in the biblical sense means the husband is responsible to initiate love and self-sacrifice for the well-being of his wife.1 It does not mean the husband must be spiritually older than his wife, nor does it give the husband a license to insist on his own way. He is only to call for God's way. However, faithful exegesis of the relevant passages will show that God affirms male leadership in the home.

Remember, leadership in the biblical context is servant leadership. Paul said husbands should "love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." (Ephesians 5:25) This is the kind of leadership Christ demonstrated when he let himself be nailed on a cross for us. Jesus could be very authoritative, but he did not come to selfishly boss people around. He said, "Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45) When Jesus gives us a directive, it is not because he enjoys controlling us, but because he is concerned for our welfare. He also extends an amazing level of freedom to his followers, allowing us to defy his will and still continue our relationship without rejection. He will discipline us for our good, but he will never reject us. (Hebrews 13:5)

Coming under such self-denying leadership poses no threat to our happiness. A woman who submits to the servant leadership of a mature Christian man should be letting herself in for a life where her husband devotes himself to providing for her needs, protecting her and (yes) directing her at times. A servant leader will not insist on his way in areas where it is not possible to know objectively what God wants. He will call for his wife to follow Christ along with himself, but will graciously allow her to refuse his suggestions often. Like Jesus, he will not compel obedience, but will seek to win it through persuasion and love. The Lord doesn't force us to follow him; he wants us to follow willingly.

Any man who is eager to assume such a role of leadership has probably not grasped what the Lord is saying in this passage. To be responsible for initiating love--for initiating self giving--is a daunting role. Properly understood, no husband would object if his wife offered to lead the way in self-sacrifice for awhile. The role of head in a marriage is not a role of privilege but of responsibility and self-sacrifice.

Our postmodern aversion to authority is incompatible with Christianity, not only because it flies in the face of biblical teaching, but because it is based on our fear of corrupt and self-serving authority figures.

Servant Leadership In Action

Christian men should be spiritually mature enough to secure their wives' respect and basic willingness to follow their leadership, contingent, of course, on the higher authority of God.2 When the Bible refers to wives submitting to their husbands, it essentially means wives should cultivate an attitude of respect for their husbands.3 "Respect" in this context includes recognition of her husband as a legitimate leader--an inclination to go along with her husband's direction when possible. A wife who submits to her husband is free to suggest directions or to question and challenge his direction. She is obligated to point out when she believes he is violating God's will. But she would turn away from self-willed resistance or manipulation.

Headship does not mean that only wives should be willing to defer to their spouses. In fact, willingness to defer to others for Christ's sake is the foundation of all relationships in the Body of Christ. The verb "submit" in Ephesians 5:22 is really borrowed from verse 21: "submitting to one another in the fear of (out of respect for) Christ. . . " Therefore, the wife's submission to the husband within Christian marriage is grounded in both spouses' willingness to defer to each other in love as well as to other Christian friends in their church.4 We are all to submit to Christ's moral leadership whenever it is expressed through others.

All of this means we should emphatically reject the view that submissive wives let their husbands do all the thinking in the marriage. Neither does it mean that Christian husbands can be bossy and controlling. Biblical headship does not mean that the husband must decide on every matter or even most matters pertaining to the household. Husbands and wives should negotiate and agree on who will take responsibility for bill paying, grocery shopping, car maintenance and other like matters. Creative and critical discussion between spouses about major decisions is also fully compatible with the idea of headship. Such discussion is necessary for a healthy marriage. If both spouses are committed to God and to the good of the other, most decisions can and should be mutual, and only the weakest husband would fear such discussions.

In the rare cases in which husband and wife cannot agree on an important decision, the husband who has proven himself as a servant leader will usually be able to make a mature decision--either to hold for his view if necessary, or to sacrificially let his wife have her way.

Like Christ, the Christian husband is to lead the way in demonstrating a humble commitment to God's will rather than insisting on his own will.

Jesus' authority was valid because he did "not seek his own will, but the will of him who sent" him. (John 5:30) He also explained that he was willing to "lay down his life for the sheep." (John 10:15) In the same way, the Christian husband is to lead the way in demonstrating a humble commitment to God's will rather than insisting on his own will. He should take the initiative to practice sacrificial service to meet his wife's needs, even at his own personal expense. Such husbands are usually able to secure their wives' trust and respect.

Both partners in a marriage should understand and agree on their concept of headship before getting married. Christians differ on how they interpret these passages, but however a couple understands them, they need agreement. Those already married may also need to rethink this area. If you are a married woman, are you comfortable responding to the spiritual leadership of your husband? Or is the idea of following your husband unrealistic or distasteful? Recognizing leadership in the home may be especially difficult for women who have experienced evil male authority figures, or who have adopted an ideology that opposes the concept of gender roles.5 At other times, the husband's way of life makes it difficult for the wife to take his leadership seriously.

Whatever the causes, resolving these issues are important for Christian marriage. Additional reading on the subject of headship may help.6


1. See Ephesians 5:22-29.

2. Christian wife should never follow morally wrong directives from her husband. The principle of contingent, or conditional obedience is well understood when it comes to secular authorities as in Daniel 2:1-18; Acts 4:19,20; 5:29. Strangely however, some commentators argue that wives should obey their husbands in an uncontingent and unqualified way! The text often used to justify this position is 1 Peter 3:5,6 which refers to Sarah's obedience to Abraham with approval. Based on this passage, it is argued that even when Sarah lied to Pharaoh by saying she was Abraham's sister (and nearly had to commit adultery as a result) she was doing the right thing. However, the passage does not condone this incident, but only commends her attitude. In fact, God will hold individuals responsible for wrong they do, even if they were ordered to do it, as the incident in Acts 4:19,20 demonstrates. Notice also that the incident to which 1 Peter 3 refers involves a sin of omission, not one of commission. The statement in vs. 1 that wives should obey husbands even if they are disobedient to the faith means that the husband himself is disobedient, not that his directives are morally wrong.

3. Note that in summing up the spouses' respective roles in Ephesians 5:33, Paul uses the word "respect" to describe the wife's role.

4. The New American Standard Bible has chosen to indicate not only a new sentence in verse 22, but a new paragraph. This, in spite of the fact that verse 22 is a dependent clause sharing the participle "submitting" of verse 21. The New American Standard Bible, Referenced Version (Lockman Foundation, 1963) p. 300. See correctly the paragraph division in New International Version of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1973). However, in our opinion, they still fail to bring home sufficiently the force of the shared action.

5. Scholars have demonstrated that exploitation of women is a dominant theme in church history. However, to respond by holding that submission to anyone is a betrayal of one's own personhood, is throwing out the baby with the bath water. Just because some have abused the concept of male leadership in the home doesn't mean there is no such thing as a sacrificial servant leader.

6. For example, Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics For Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), pp. 70-93.