SPEAKING OF MARRIAGE, SALT MAGAZINE, FAREWELL ISSUE (2013) JAMES MCDERMOTT
What makes for a good or successful marriage? And what can we do to make our marriage better and more successful?
If we don’t think too hard, we might say that if two married people get along well they have a good marriage. But when we consider the matter from a Christian perspective, we quickly realize that there is much more to a good marriage than harmony. To be sure, a good, biblical marriage will be characterized by harmony, but harmony does not necessarily indicate that the marriage is good or biblical.
In the “enlightened” times in which we live, a man and a woman (or a man and a man, or a woman and a woman) could live agreeably with each other, but live in mutual hostility towards God. (The purpose of this article isn’t to discuss homosexual marriage, but I will say just this: that unrepentant homosexuals live in a state of hostility towards God and God’s wrath remains on them whether they remain faithful in sinning with only one other person or not.) If two people live peaceably with one another, if they commit for a lifetime to one another, and if they encourage one another and spur one another forward as they travel down the path of destruction that leads to the eternal lake of fire prepared for the devil and his angels, how can we say their marriage is something good?
A good and successful marriage, then, first of all achieves harmony between a man, a woman, and God. And the only way we can achieve harmony with God is through faith in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ to wash away our sins.
MARRYING AN UNBELIEVER:
That is why we must never knowingly marry an unbeliever. Paul writes, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor. 6:14-15) Granted, Christians who are already married to unbelievers are commanded to remain with their spouses so long as they are willing (1 Cor. 7:12-14). But in a marriage where only one spouse believes, only a limited and superficial amount of unity can ever be achieved. If you are unequally yoked in a marriage with an unbeliever, we all need to pray earnestly for the salvation of your spouse.
But despite the fact that the quality of your marriage is limited, as a believer you are called to be the best spouse you can be whether your unbelieving spouse reciprocates or not. Indeed, your unbelieving spouse cannot fully reciprocate because he does not live by the Spirit but by his sinful nature. And the fruit of the sinful nature is scary: hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, drunkenness, debauchery, impurity, sexual immorality, orgies, idolatry, and witchcraft. (Gal. 5:19-21)
We know it is hard to be married to an unbeliever. We understand if your unbelieving spouse doesn’t treat you with respect or honor. We wish you didn’t have to suffer a mean-spirited or verbally abusive spouse. But as long as you don’t have biblical grounds for divorce (abandonment or marital unfaithfulness), the cross you are called to bear is to love and honor one who is unlovable. Indeed, it is your privilege and honor to follow the example of Christ, who loved and died for countless unlovable people, of whom you and I are excellent examples.
BIBLICAL STRUCTURE VS. FEMINISM
A truly good marriage, then, starts out with a man and a woman who have faith in Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t end there. As we all know, not all marriages between believers could be considered good marriages. The next step to a good marriage is biblical structure.
Marriage is the foundation for biblical organization of the family. A man and woman become one when they get married, yet the Scriptures still give the man and woman separate roles. The Word of God says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is 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.” (Eph. 5:22-24) “Teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the Word of God.” (Titus 2:3-5)
But the wisdom of this age says the Word of God is foolish and destructive, for it codifies the oppression of women. The world has rejected the Word of God in favor of feminism, which says women are equal to men and, therefore, no woman should be subject to a man in the home. Feminism also teaches that a woman should be just as likely as a man to have authority over others outside the home. Indeed, feminism is preoccupied with getting women out of the home. It believes children should be few, for children are a hindrance to a woman’s fulfillment – meaning her career. Because children are such a threat to a woman’s career, the feminist is passionate about contraception and abortion. Career is so important in the feminist’s eyes that a woman should have the right to murder her unborn child if it gets in the way of a woman’s ambitions. Feminists are so zealous about this that they advocate the government and the insurance companies be compelled to pay for contraception and abortion. I guess the thinking is that a poor woman’s happiness shouldn’t be taken away by a child she can’t afford to prevent or kill. And if a feminist does have a wanted child – please, two at most, but preferably one – she wants government funded daycare and schools to get the children out of the house as soon as possible. Again, the compassionate feminist couldn’t abide that a poor woman who would feel compelled to stay at home with her child because she didn’t have the money to pawn her child off on someone else.
The almost unanimous acceptance of feminism in our culture has been truly astounding, to the point that those who publicly speak against it are mocked and persecuted. But amongst the people of God one would hope that feminism would be rejected. Surely it should be clear to us that the feminist vision contradicts the teaching of Scripture!
Yet somehow, the tenets of feminism have been largely accepted by the believers of our day. Even among Christians it is controversial to say that the man is to be the head of his home and that the woman should be subject to him and submit to his headship. Perhaps this why we hear so few sermons on this topic, though the teaching is so practical that nearly every Christian must live it out on a daily basis. (We wouldn’t want to rock the boat, would we?)
And despite the elevation of childbearing in the Scripture, very few Christian women want to be fruitful vines with their sons like olive shoots around their tables. Very few Christians truly believe children are a blessing, a reward, and a heritage. That is why Christian women are trying so hard not to have children. Almost all Christian married women spend most of their fertile years trying not to have children. And sadly, many unmarried Christian women are trying not to have children because they, too, are sexually active. And the means by which millions of Christian women achieve their goal of not having children is the abortifacient birth control pill.
Christian parents are increasingly using daycare and preschool. And the vast majority of Christians put their children in spiritually hostile government schools. Many Christians don’t want their children home with them. The thought intimidates them.
Christian girls are trained and educated to make their careers their highest priority. I suspect most Christian parents would be far more excited were their daughter to be accepted into medical school – even if the daughter achieved this through many years of abortifacient birth control pill use – than they would be were she to find a godly husband and have children.
And even in the church, where the Scriptures say, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man,” one church denomination after another is allowing women to become elders, pastors, and bishops.
JUDGING MYSELF BY SCRIPTURE:
Yes, Christians have accepted the poison of feminism. And not surprisingly, Christian marriages are struggling. Marital unhappiness, sexual immorality, and divorce are scandalously rampant among Christians. But instead of turning to Scripture for the cure, we have instead turned to “counseling,” which too often undermines the headship of the man – which is why unhappy women are so keen on the idea. Women appeal to a third party rather than submit to the headship of their less than stellar husbands.
From a Scriptural point of view, how we handle our marital problems is really quite simple – though we may have to fight valiantly against our flesh to implement the teaching. Which is why we must come back to biblical structure. The man is to be the head of his home (whether he is inclined to take that responsibility or not) and love his wife (whether she is loveable or not) the way Christ loved the church. The woman, meanwhile, is to respect her husband (whether he is worthy of respect or not) and submit to him (whether he is the more capable leader or not) as to the Lord. She is to be her husband’s helpmeet, for she was created for him.
Each of us is responsible to God to perform our duties without worrying about our spouse. He, too, is responsible to God and will give an account of his life at the final judgment. God will deal with him. I must worry primarily about fulfilling the role God gave me in marriage and leave my spouse to prayer. And although nothing is guaranteed, I do believe our chances of effecting a positive change in our spouse are better if we set an example of godliness and hold our spouse up in prayer, than if we make a habit of complaining to our spouse about his shortcomings.
Physical intimacy, meanwhile, is not to be denied. Paul says, “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other.” (1 Cor. 7: 3-5a) Physical intimacy, therefore, is not to be neglected and it must never be withheld as a weapon of punishment or as a means of getting one’s way. And again, obeying the biblical command in this area irrespective of my spouse’s performance in other areas is much more likely to lead to a better marriage than trying to show my displeasure with my spouse’s behavior by depriving him sexually.
Feminism, then, is antithetical to the biblical standard. Yet Christians, after having been immersed in feminist culture their whole lives, have unwittingly accepted feminism’s unbiblical principles – to the detriment of our marriages. We need to get back to the simple biblical standard, which will yield peace with God, with our spouse, and even with our children.
THE BIBLICAL STANDARD FOR WIVES:
How does the biblical model play out in practical terms for the wife? Submitting one’s own will to the will of another is much more difficult in practice than it is in theory. It is all too common for a woman who says she accepts her husband as head to argue and dig in her heels every time there is a difference of opinion. In other words, she will submit to her husband only when she thinks he is right or wants to do things the best way, which, in extreme cases, means she doesn’t submit to her husband at all. Many husbands cannot make a decision on the most trivial matter without being thwarted by their aggressive, insubordinate wives. Often, these are the very same women who complain that their husbands don’t lead. It can’t be called biblical submission when a woman only submits to her husband’s headship when they are in agreement.
The Lord Jesus prayed in the garden, “Not my will but Thine be done.” Jesus submitted Himself to the Father, though He was capable and equal to the Father in His divinity. This, then, is our model of submission. Though the woman is capable and equal to her husband in her humanity, she ought to be saying to herself, “Not my will but thine be done.”
This is a very difficult calling, indeed – especially when a woman has strong opinions and believes she is more capable of making good decisions than her husband. The Scriptures say the man wasn’t created for the woman, but the woman for man. (1 Cor. 11:9) The woman was created to be the man’s helper. (Gen. 2) This is contrary and offensive to our modern ears, but it is the Word of God.
Yes, there are times when the husband needs his wife’s wisdom. Yes, there are times when the wife has a better idea. I think my wife is generally a more capable decision-maker than I am. It is appropriate for the woman to advise her husband in order to help him. An intelligent, capable woman can truly be a blessing to her husband.
But there is a fine line between a woman who helps her husband make better decisions and a woman who won’t accept the decisions the husband makes that are disagreeable to her. If every time a husband says, “yellow,” the wife says, “no, red is better;” if every time the husband says, “tomorrow,” the wife says, “no, today is better;” if every time the husband says, “It’s OK for the children to play in the mud,” the wife says, “No, we can’t track the dirt into the house;” if this is the way the relationship works, the wife is not helping her head but tearing him down.
A prudent wife will build her husband up, not tear him down. She will truly help him – perhaps even to make better decisions – but her attitude will be positive and encouraging to the point that her husband will accept her good advice without feeling threatened. A prudent wife understands that most household decisions are trivial and not worth being unhappy about. It really will be OK if the walls are yellow instead of red. It really will be OK if the kids play in the mud. Yes, there may be a mess to clean up afterwards, but in the context of eternity the mess is a very, very tiny thing and not worth worrying about.
And even when the decisions being made are more consequential: Should I go back to school and train for a new career? Should we take this job offer out of state? Should we buy this house or continue to rent? In these cases the godly husband may do well to seek the advice of his wife of noble character, but once the decision is made the wife should help her husband make the best of it, whether she agreed with the decision or not.
Submitting to the will of her husband puts the wife in a vulnerable position. The wife and children will suffer when her husband decides poorly. But God is watching over the godly, submissive wife regardless of her husband’s competence to lead and make decisions. Peter writes, “For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.” (1 Pet. 3:5-6)
In our day when the word “obey” has been taken out of marital vows, many cringe at the thought of commending a woman for being submissive and obedient to her husband to the point that she calls him her master. Nevertheless, the biblical standard remains. Women, do what is right and do not give way to fear. Ultimately, your provision and protection come from the Lord and not your husband. A woman may be vulnerable submitting her will to her imperfect husband, but in doing so she is also submitting to her God, who is perfect in wisdom and perfect in love. A capable woman who resists submitting to her less than perfect husband is in rebellion against her husband, but she is also in rebellion against God. She is much more vulnerable in her rebellion – even if she prevails in getting her way – than she is in her submission.
THE BIBLICAL STANDARD FOR HUSBANDS:
When we first began writing SALT Magazine, submission was a hot topic – and most women cannot abide it. But I will say with sadness that most men cannot abide the man’s biblical role either. There is more involved in achieving a happy, biblical marriage than simply eliminating feminist principles. There is more involved in achieving a happy, biblical marriage than merely teaching wives to submit to their husbands. Feminists bash husbands who cling to biblical principles, while those who hold biblical principles have reacted by bashing women who cling to feminist principles. The thing both have in common is a lack of balance – and we should know better. I have heard much in our circles about the need for women to submit to their husbands as to the Lord, but how rare to hear about the need for husbands to love their wives the way Christ loved the church.
The head of any organization has the greatest impact on the organization as a whole. The CEO of the restaurant chain will have much more influence – for good or for harm – within that chain than I will as a waiter in one of those restaurants. Likewise, the head of the family has the greatest opportunity for influence – for good or for harm – within the family, and he, therefore, bears the greater responsibility for how the family performs as a whole.
If we were going to focus our attention on one spouse, then, one would think it should be the husband. Even so, those who follow the biblical standard have focused primarily on the need for the wife to respect and to submit to her husband. We husbands need to hear the commands to love our wives, to provide for them, to protect them, and to give ourselves up for them as Christ did for the church. We need to hear that God calls us to Christ-like headship and that God will hold us responsible if we are negligent.
If we men truly want to transform our families, we need to begin by transforming ourselves. When we fulfill our role, it becomes much easier for our wives and children to fulfill theirs. Many Christian women are willing in spirit but weak in flesh. They want to submit, but they are fearful. They are fearful because if they let go and let the husband lead, it is unclear whether he will, in fact, lead. Or, if he does lead it is unclear whether he will, in fact, lead capably and unselfishly. When men won’t lead or won’t lead diligently, we have a negative impact not only on ourselves – for in doing so we despise God’s calling for our lives – but we also put a spiritual stumbling block in the path of our wives and children. We make it difficult for them to fulfill their biblical role and tempt them to rebellion.
Sadly, the men of today are irresponsible, lazy, and averse to fulfilling their God-given calling to be heads of their homes. In the world it is increasingly common for men to father children out of wedlock and be supported by the woman they happen to be living with at the time. To call these deadbeat dads the dead weight of society is too kind, for they are destructive and often violent. They leave in their wake a trail of the shattered lives of women and children. For the unbelieving men of the lower middle class, the working poor, and the welfare class, irresponsibility, foolishness, and laziness are the norm and not the exception.
But it must be admitted that the quality of Christian men has fallen as well. It is all too common for Christian husbands to refuse to lead in their homes. As the head, men are responsible for overseeing the physical and spiritual welfare of the household. But when Christian men are young, many will not take their work seriously enough to prepare for a career that will provide well for their families. Not surprisingly then, when the day comes when wife and children require a man to have a much larger income, he struggles to survive. And it is not uncommon for Christian men who struggle for a time in the work world to simply give up – letting their wives support them while they stay at home with the children.
A man mustn’t give up the fight no matter how low circumstances have kicked him. A man who falls or fails must lick his wounds, learn his lessons and immediately get up and work to provide for his family. A wife can respect a husband who works hard and continually does his best, even if they are poor. God doesn’t call every man to be wealthy or even comfortable, but He does call every husband to work hard and to sacrifice himself for his family. The wife of an able-bodied man must not have cause to believe her husband expects her to work harder than he does.
But hard work is only the beginning to being a successful head of the home. Many poor managers in the business world work long hours, and many hard-working men do not lead their families well. The head of the family must oversee the entire operation to make sure everyone in the family is well and doing his part. It is not enough for the husband to oversee only himself. He must look beyond himself far enough to see that the family finances are as sound as current circumstances will allow and reflect godly priorities. The husband is God’s steward and will give an account for how the financial and spiritual resources in the family are managed. To the extent that he can, a husband must ensure that his family’s physical needs are met, that everyone’s work is being done, that children are disciplined properly, and that they are loved. And he must oversee the process of helping dependent children to become independent and productive adults.
But most of all, he must see that the Gospel is being preached and lived in his household. The husband oversees the spiritual development of all, seeing to it that – as far as it depends on him – everyone believes the Gospel and is growing in grace. As God’s steward, he should help all to find and develop their God-given abilities, spiritual gifts, and unique callings. How is everyone in the family faring physically and spiritually? Is there a plan to see that the children know and understand the Word of God? Does everyone read the Scriptures and pray on a regular basis? Do they regularly attend the meetings of the saints? Oversight is the key and many men neglect or even abdicate their responsibility.
Granted, the husband and father can’t do everything himself. As his household grows, so does the work required to run it. Indeed, if the family is run properly everyone should be as productive as their age and ability will allow. The hard-working head may only do a fraction of the work in a large household.
How the physical and spiritual needs of the household are met will differ from family to family, for each family has a unique set of people who experience a unique set of circumstances. Some men are more hands-on in their management style – though they mustn’t be tyrannical micromanagers. Some men delegate more – though they shouldn’t be negligent in their oversight. Some men have very capable wives, and some men do not. Some men have more academic and teaching abilities than their wives. Some men have wives who are more intelligent and more able to teach. Some men have jobs that require many more hours away from home than others. A military man who is away from his household for months at a time must run his house differently than a school teacher who sleeps at home every night and has two months off every summer.
God gave husbands and fathers an incredibly challenging calling, which cannot be set aside. There is no detailed operations manual for how to oversee your family. You are called to think for yourself, having been given only a few broad biblical principles as your guide. You are to be enterprising, flexible, and diligent. And in the face of the difficulties and tragedies of life, which are inevitable, you are to be strong, courageous, gentle, and loving. No matter who you are or what you do for a living, it should be clear to everyone in your household that you have taken your calling seriously and have done your duty to the best of your ability.
The calling of husband and father is so great and high that no man should believe he is up to the task, except in that he falls down before God and begs for strength, wisdom, and love that only God can give. No man should believe he can truly love his wife as Christ loves the church apart from the grace of God. No man can avoid exasperating his children and instead raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord apart from the grace of God. No man can provide for and protect His family apart from the grace of God. “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” (Psalm 127) Every man, then, should be humble because his calling is above him and he can only succeed with God’s help.
Indeed, we men need to take the planks out of our own eyes before we start taking the specks out of our wives’ eyes. In any case, we should be hearing at least as much about husbands loving their wives as we do about wives submitting to their husbands. The Scriptures are simple and balanced on these issues, so we should be, too.
Christian marriage should be a powerful witness to the world regarding the power of the Holy Spirit to radically change people for the better. Christian marriage is a persuasive advertisement for the Gospel. The Bible says a Christian wife can win her husband for Christ without words as he observes her exemplary behavior. Likewise, a world in which marriage is often turbulent and unhappy will be drawn to a couple in whom the love of Christ is the glue that holds them together.
And ultimately, the love of Christ is what Christian marriage is all about. It is not love as the world defines it. It is not a mutually self-serving love. It is not merely mutual attraction or chemistry. It is the selfless love we have for each other only because Christ loved us first and softened our hardened hearts. Christian structure is not enough. It is not enough that the man is head and the wife submits. Without love, the Christian marital structure is cold if not tyrannical. But the love of Christ compels us to embrace the role God gave us in marriage – whether man or woman. The love of Christ allows us to love our spouse in spite of his flaws, for Christ loves us in spite of our flaws. At the heart of Christian marriage, then, is true love that endures even through the most difficult of circumstances.
A beautiful Christian marriage begins with me. I can’t force my spouse to love me with the love of Christ, but through the Holy Spirit I can voluntarily love my spouse (even my unlovable spouse) with the love of Christ. If my spouse accepts my love and responds by loving me in return, I am truly blessed. But even if my unselfish, Christian love for my spouse were to be unrequited love, I am still blessed. Peter writes, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’ [Is. 8:12] … It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” (1 Pet. 3: 14,17)
So then, my calling to love my spouse and fulfill my role in marriage remains. I may be blessed in love and I may be blessed in suffering. I’ll probably be blessed in both. So no matter what my spouse is like I am blessed. God is good.
It is not good for the man to be alone. (Gen. 2:18) But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. (1 Cor. 7: 2) He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD. (Prov. 18:22) For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate. (Matt. 19:5-6)