I have to admit that the subjects of complementarianism and patriarchy are quite daunting. I am no expert on either one, and so far, feel like there isn’t an expert on either one. But while listening to Mortification of Spin on my drive into east Texas for an interview, I did realize that the focus needs to be on headship, not complementarianism or patriarchy. This is how Paul, in Ephesians 5, frames the relationship that husbands have towards their wives, and the safest course of action we can take is to look to Scripture to see what it says.
Therefore, for now, I will call the position I am taking biblical headship. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the LORD. For the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:22-23).
When we look at what the Bible says about our relationships in marriage, we are safe in saying what it says. It clearly says that I am the head of my wonderful wife, Heidi, and that she is to submit to me as to the LORD. This is not an act of dominion, but an act of grace and kindness. When it goes from grace and kindness to dominion (something that is out of accord with the creation mandate), then we are sinning against our wives and the LORD, for the LORD never acts in a manner of dominion over those who are His children. He will return in dominion over those who are not His children, and all those who refused the offer of the gospel, will be dominated by Christ when they are made into His footstool. That is not, however, something that Christ does with those who are His.
OK, I’m getting ahead of myself. But let’s look at what it says so far. Wives are to align themselves under their husbands. This is not a plurality of marriage partners, but separate marriages with each wife submitting to her own individual husband. Husbands are to be their heads. This means, from what we have seen from Genesis 2, that the husband is to lead and shepherd his own family.
Because of the fall, our tendency is for the husband to act out and dominate and control his wife, while she is going to try and control and dominate him. This is our fallen nature, from which we have been redeemed in Christ, but which we still struggle with. In Christ we are to have mutual submission to one another.
Next, the husbands, are to love their wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her (Ephesians 5:25). Here, we see just the opposite of the curse upon us in Genesis 3. There it says that men will rule their wives, but we don’t see rule here. This is because Paul is speaking to the redeemed, and being redeemed, we have been given a new set of parameters (or better yet, the restored parameters that were lost in the Garden of Eden so many years ago) by which we are to live.
Husbands are to serve their wives as Christ served the church. This is a monumental task because it means husbands are to know Christ so well, that they know how it is that Christ served and loved His bride. I have already mentioned one way that Christ served His bride. Christ doesn’t dominate the Bride. In Genesis, the creation mandate, which is to have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth, was not given so mankind could dominate one another. Man was to simply dominate the world he had been given. Yet, after the fall, it seems that much of mankind has spent a great deal of time and energy trying to dominate the rest of mankind.
I point this out because it does helps us see the difference between serving and ruling with the intent to dominate. Christ actually fulfills the mandate to exercise dominion over creation during His earthly ministry. Not by dominating the nations, in a manner that the Jews wanted Him to, but by conquering those things that needed to be conquered on our behalf: sin and death. He even demonstrates His dominion over nature by healing, walking on water, providing fish for the catch, calming the seas, etc. But the domination is never exercised over mankind, especially His bride.
Christ cherishes His bride, instructs Her, provides for Her, admonishes Her, loves Her, and gives His life for Her. And here is something that really needs to be stressed. The text in Ephesians makes it very clear who it was that Christ went to the cross for: His bride, not the world. I know this may not seem like it is pertinent to the conversation, but it is. The Bible never says that Christ died for the world. We must quit saying that it does. It says that God so loved the world…meaning the world beyond the Jews, not each and every person on the planet, that Christ was given so that those who did believe, would have eternal life (John 3:16). Those who did believe, and do believe, are the elect from before the foundations of the world (Ephesians 1:3ff).
In Paul’s illustration for marriage, we find that Christ’s death was very specific: it was for the church, His bride. He did not go to the cross to die for those who were not His. He is not pursuing some other bride. He is not sacrificing His life for some other people. He is dying on the cross for His specific, elect, called-out bride, and her alone. He is dying and sanctifying the one that the Father has given to Him. His focus is very clear. His purpose is very clear.
Husbands need to understand this because they need to take the same view towards their wives that Christ took toward the church. As Christ served, admonished, instructed and provided for His bride, so too are we to serve, admonish, instruct, and provide for our brides. As He gave His life for her, so too are we to give our lives for our brides. Being a husband, or a leader at any level in the church, is a call to service. Yes, our brides are to serve us as well, but the key is that we are to take the lead in that service: for physical, financial, and spiritual provisions.
Paul goes on and gives us the purpose for our service: that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of the water by the word. Christ’s purpose with His bride is to make us spotless and without blemish. It is beyond the husband’s ability to make his wife spotless, but we are still called to work with God’s word in our lives so the greater takes place in the lessor. In other words, as we are being sanctified by God’s word in our own marriages (the lessor) and lives, so also is the Bride herself (the greater) being sanctified. The process of being in and under the word is the way in which the LORD cleanses us as His body. This is why it is so important for men to be the spiritual leaders of the family, and ensuring that the entire family is part of a church where God’s word is preached faithfully. This is the primary way that God has chosen to mature believers, as they sit week after week under the preached word of God. One of the most compassionate ways a man can shepherd his wife is by making sure they are in a true church. This is the best way to shepherd with the word of God as a priority. This forces us to remember our humble estate, pointing us to Christ, reminding us that since He was a servant, we to are to have a servant’s attitude.
There is much more to be said. But for now, we have an idea of what headship looks like when it comes to marriages.