Wives Be Gracious to Your Husbands (Jessalyn Hutto)
“Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
The most popular month of the year to get married has come and gone. Many newlyweds are settling into their new homes, new roles, and dare I say it, new sin struggles as we speak. Yes it is true, along with the blissful uniting of two lives into one, there also comes a profound realization that your spouse and—amazingly enough—you, are both desperate sinners in need of a powerful savior to keep your marriage from spiraling into a never ending battle between two self-worshippers. For some the realization comes earlier than others, but ultimately every couple is confronted with the reality of sin’s desire to control their relationship—to keep it from being a beautiful image of Christ and his church.
In Ephesians 5 we are given this ultimate purpose for marriage—to reflect the Savior and his redeemed people—as well as a particular way in which a husband and wife were meant to fulfill this calling. We are told that the relationship between a man and woman who are united by God is unique in that a husband is called to sacrificially lead his wife, while his wife is meant to joyfully respond by submitting herself to his leadership. It is a “mystery” Paul says that has been planned from the very beginning of creation: these equal, yet distinct roles that husbands and wives are called to live out in marriage have always been pointing to the relationship between Christ and his beloved church.
The Goal and the Daily Struggle
Many Christian couples come into marriage longing to bring glory to God through their union in this way. We devote a great amount of time in pre-marital counseling and in marriage books explaining the different ways we can faithfully live out these complementary roles found in Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11:3. And yet, the daily obedience to God necessary to do so, can often allude us as we give in to our more selfish tendencies. What results is a disillusionment of the highest order: what a couple once thought would be as simple as getting dressed in the morning—putting on the new roles God has assigned to them as husband and wife—proves to be an exercise in daily sacrifice and self-denial.
I have spoken to many women on this topic who all echo the same sentiment: Marriage is harder than I ever thought it was going to be! The reality and weight of the sin struggle we face in the pursuit of unity within our marriages is always far greater than expected. For wives in particular, alongside the realization that submission is more than a 10 letter word, there is also a growing realization that our husbands are not the perfect, Christ-like, sacrificial leaders we imagined they would be. Unfortunately, our desire for our husbands’ leadership is often merciless and graceless; we expect perfection from the get-go and become frustrated when it isn’t produced. We all-too easily forget that our husbands—like us—are waging a war against their flesh to live out their unique calling.
His High Calling and Sinful Propensities
Typically, as pastors preach on Ephesians 5:22-24 they seek to lighten the thorny command of a wife’s submission by assuring the ladies in their congregations that the men are going to get it much worse when they arrive at verses 25-29. Wholehearted submission to a God-ordained authority may seem like a slow and brutal death to a modern American women’s ears, but husbands are actually commanded to die for their wives, daily laying down their lives as Christ, himself, sacrificed his life for the church!
Now, the wife’s call to submit to her husband isn’t by any means “easier” than her husband’s call to sacrificial love. Both are a form of self-denial and both are at complete odds with our natural, self-serving tendencies. The husband’s role, however, carries with it a responsibility that the wife’s does not. As the God-ordained head of their relationship, he is responsible for the spiritual (as well as physical) well-being of his wife in a way that she is not responsible for his. It is no little thing to be told to emulate Christ in his perfectly sanctifying love toward one’s wife. This call is all-encompassing in a relationship and takes on many different facets as it is daily lived out.
Just as submission to one’s husband is a difficult concept for a modern woman to assent to, so too, the modern man finds this type of leadership, responsibility, and dedication difficult to practice. Not many young Christian men have had this kind of sacrificial leadership modeled for them in the home. They haven’t had the privilege of seeing the tender, yet strong headship of a godly man lived out before them and thus find themselves learning by trial and error what it means to lead their wives. Often they can become overwhelmed with feelings of failure and guilt as they realize that the leadership they have been called to isn’t as easy as they once thought it would be. They can become paralyzed by their inadequacies.
We wives, on the other hand find ourselves struggling with feelings of disappointment and even bitterness as our husbands fail to live up the very high standard set for them in Scripture. We were expecting Christ’s love after all—his gentleness, his strength, his washing of the Word, his leadership, and his level of sacrifice. Instead what we often get are husbands who are struggling in their own relationship with the Lord, hardly knowing how to take on the added weight of their wives’ spiritual growth! A great lack of grace can develop as a wife mercilessly compares her poor husband to the striking picture of the holy Savior presented in Ephesians 5.
In order for a wife to maintain a submissive and respectful attitude toward her husband in this type of situation, she must first and foremost learn to view him as a brother in the faith. Though he has been called to take on an image of Christ in their husband-wife relationship, he is not Christ! He is a sinner, struggling with his inner man all day, every day. He—just like his wife—is the church of Christ, straining by God’s grace to obey and honor the Savior in all he does. He is no less of a sinner than the wife is. His calling to lead his wife is not an indication of his superior spirituality. In fact, many men marry wives who are leagues ahead of them in biblical knowledge and spiritual discipline. This does not negate their call to be the shepherds of their families or the wife’s call to humbly submit to his leadership.
When I say that we must “first and foremost learn to view our husbands as brothers in the faith,” I am seeking to impress three things upon our hearts as wives:
1) First, the need to dispense the grace of God to our husbands. In Christ, our husband’s sins are completely forgiven (Col. 2:14). Our Savior lived a perfect life, died a bloody, sinners death, and then rose powerfully from the grave so that our husbands could stand blameless before the throne of God, clothed in Christ’s righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). Our holy God has lavished grace upon them, and yet we ourselves, find it difficult to forgive them for their failures in leadership? This cannot be so. We must seek to show the same grace to our husbands that they have already been shown through the cross of Christ—the same grace that we ourselves partake of.
2) I am also seeking to demolish the perception that only a husband is allowed to help his wife along spiritually. While a husband bears the responsibility for his wife’s spiritual growth in a unique way, his wife also bears the responsibility as a co-heir of grace to help her husband along spiritually in whatever way she can (1 Pet. 3:7). Part of our role as sisters-in-Christ to our husbands is to encourage them in their pursuit of Christ-likeness, not the least of which applies to their leadership within our families.
This must be done with great care and humility, so as not to turn into nagging or a usurpation of authority. The objective is not to change our husbands into the men we want them to be, but to come alongside them as partners in the pursuit of Christ-likeness. As those closest to our husbands, we have the unique privilege of joining with them in the pursuit of holiness as we journey toward heaven together. Timothy Keller encourages couples to look at all of marriage in this light:
“Within this Christian view for marriage, here’s what it means to fall in love. It is to look at another person and get a glimpse of the person God is creating, and to say, “I see who God is making you, and it excites me! I want to be part of that. I want to partner with you and God in the journey you are taking to his throne. And when we get there, I will look at your magnificence and say, ‘I always knew you could be like this. I got glimpses of it on earth, but now look at you.’” Each spouse should see the great thing that Jesus is doing in the life of their mate through the Word, the gospel. Each spouse then should give him-or herself to be the vehicle for that work and envision the day that you will stand together before God, seeing each other presented in spotless beauty and glory.”
3) I would like to impress upon women the truth that their husbands are not Christ. Expecting Christ’s perfection from them is not only debilitating to their leadership, but detrimental to a wife’s own personal growth. Wives often allow their own spiritual lives and relationships with the Lord to be affected by the way their husbands are, or are not, living up to their biblical calling. While a husband who enthusiastically seeks to teach and lead his wife is a tremendous blessing from the Lord, he is not the ultimate shepherd of her soul. He is merely a tool in the hands of her Shepherd God who loves her perfectly and without change. Our pursuit of Christ should not be dependent upon our husband’s good or bad leadership, but rather it is to be based solely upon the grace of our loving Savior. It is in this relationship—between the Heavenly Bridegroom and his bride—where true contentment and satisfaction are found, and it is out of the overflow of this relationship that love can flow freely to our husbands, who like us, are sinners in need of the continual grace of God.
We must labor to be able to speak to, think of, pray for, serve, and love our husbands as fellow blood-bought sinners who God has chosen to lavish his love and grace upon. We must seek to extend the same mercy to our husbands as we are called to show to every brother and sister in Christ:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgive you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:12-14).
Who is Your Marriage For?
Most importantly, wives must remember that our marriages are not primarily about us. The entire purpose of God creating marriage roles in the way he did was to display the glory of the gospel—not so that we can experience the joy of being perfectly shepherded by perfect husbands! If our happiness and ability to dispense grace to other sinners is dependent upon having perfect marriages, then we have missed the point altogether. Our joy and contentment within our marriages should be governed solely by the love we are continually being shown by our great Savior, Jesus Christ. It is only in experiencing his perfect leadership in our lives that we will be able to pursue and enjoy gospel-glorifying marriages made up of imperfect sinners.
Jessalyn Hutto is a regular contributor to Credo Magazine. Her passion for theology led her to create the blog DesiringVirtue.com which encourages women to study, treasure, and apply the Word of God to their daily lives. She is blessed to be the wife of Richard Hutto (a Pastoral Resident with Acts29) and the mother of three little boys: Elliot, Hudson, and Owen. She is also a regular contributor to The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s women’s channel: Karis.