The Marital Relationship
Marriage is passing out of the property age and into the personal era. Formerly man protected woman because she was his chattel and she obeyed for the same reason. This was true under the ancient Jewish arrangement where the husband purchased a wife with a bride price. (Genesis 29:18-27; 34:11, 12; Exodus 22:16; 1 Samuel 18:23, 25) As a result, laws and rules were established for the fair treatment of the ‘property.’ Regardless of its merits, it did provide stability. But now, woman is no longer regarded as property and new mores are emerging designed to stabilize marriage and the marriage-home institution. Today, in many lands, a wife is not considered property. She is a freewill individual who elects to join in union with a man. Thus, we can see one example of how rules established for an earlier time are insufficient for our day.
Jesus elevated a woman’s status by bringing his message of sonship and spiritual freedom to all mankind equally:
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
– Galatians 3:26-28
Yet, certain mores of the Jewish culture continued to be promoted, especially by the Jewish Christians, fore mostly the Apostle Paul, “a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Philippians 3:5-6) And Paul was wise to continue many of these customs because of the loose morals and debase culture of the Gentile population that was joining itself to Christianity.
Nevertheless, Paul was able to go beyond the ‘letter of the law’ to the ‘way of the spirit’ when he counseled the Christians in Ephesus on marriage:
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
– Ephesians 5:21-24
We note first that while wives are counseled to be in subjection to their husbands, husbands are also to be in subjection to their wives – yes, to one another. That counsel carries the theme of mutual respect, common concern, corresponding dignity, and Christian equality. As a wife should be mindful of what her husband needs to carry out his responsibilities, a husband is to likewise be mindful of what his wife needs to carry out hers.
Next, Paul emphasized the ‘spirit’ of the subjection that the wife is to demonstrate by saying it should be conducted ‘as to the Lord.’ So we see that underlying a wife’s subjection is a husband’s responsibility to deal with his wife as the Christ deals with the congregation. When a husband does this, he is setting the parameters for a successful marriage. But if he fails, a domino effect results where the wife cannot properly be in subjection, nor can the children.
When husbands do not live up to their Christian responsibilities, many unappreciated and disrespected wives have seen, as their only option, the need to step forward to maintain family order and stability. Such a wife is often characterized as ‘usurping her husband’s headship’ when in many cases, the husband has abdicated the position and she is only steadying the ship. Yet all of this can be avoided if a husband looks to the example of the Christ and models his behavior accordingly. And, of course, a wife who is involuntarily thrust into a headship-type position must still conduct herself ‘in fear of Christ,’ that is, with a view to pleasing the Christ.
Paul continues his counsel:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.”
– Ephesians 5:25-30
This counsel reminds us of the practice of agricultural husbandry. If a farmer wants a tree to produce fine fruit, he first must cultivate the land around it, feed and water it, keep it clear of pests, shield it from adverse weather conditions and occasionally prune it. Only then will the tree produce the kind of fruit the farmer seeks. And if the farmer wants the tree to produce fine fruit year after year, he must continue his ‘husbandry’ year after year, for in the season that he fails to do so, the tree will also fail. Similarly, a husband must care for his wife in a manner that would allow her, even impel her, to produce the fruitage of the spirit. If he does so, he is the beneficiary! Like Christ, such a husband is presenting his wife as a gift ‘to himself!’
And Paul continues:
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
– Ephesians 5:31-33
Here, Paul reveals that the spirit of his counsel is based on the example of our Lord. So rather than establishing laws about what a wife can and cannot do, or what a husband should and should not do, each of them can look at the loving care of the Christ in determining how to behave toward one another. Applying the counsel in this fashion allows for the unique ‘personality’ of each marriage to flourish. Few fleshly laws and rules of behavior can uniformly apply to all marriages. This is an opportunity for spiritual men and women to have their perceptive powers trained ‘by constant use’ (Hebrews 5:14) so that they do not need to look to laws and rules of behavior. Instead they will be motivated from the ‘law written in their hearts.’
“This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”
– Hebrews 8:10-11
Finally, we should remember that man has no rightful authority over woman unless the woman has willingly and voluntarily given him such authority. A wife has engaged to go through life with her husband to help him fight life’s battles, and to assume the far greater share of the burden of bearing and rearing children. In return for this special service, it is only fair that she receives from her husband that special protection which man can give to woman as the partner who must carry, bear, and nurture the children. As Peter counseled:
“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”
– 1 Peter 3:7
The loving care and consideration which a man is willing to bestow upon his wife and their children are the measure of that man's attainment of the higher levels of spirituality. Truly, men and women are partners with God in that they co-operate to give birth to children who grow up to possess the Spirit of God and to be its temples. It is therefore Godlike for a husband to share his life and all that relates thereto on equal terms with his wife who so fully shares with him that divine experience of reproducing themselves in the lives of their children.