The Different Roles of Husband and Wife in Marriage
By Pastor Ron Jones, D.D., © Titus Institute, 2010
The Misconception of Authority and Submission
The most common misconception about Biblical authority and submission is that “authority” means absolute authority over all of life. If the husband has authority over his wife, it is thought that he must have absolute authority over all of her life. He makes all the decisions in their marriage. No woman (or man) would want to submit to that kind of authority of another fallible human being. However, this view of authority is not Biblically accurate or true.
God is the only being in the universe that has absolute authority over all of life. When God gives authority to human beings, he always gives limited authority. The authority is limited by the responsibility and nature of the relationship. God gives authority to a person or persons to accomplish their responsibility and that’s all. They can exercise authority to carry out their responsibility, but not in areas outside their responsibility.
The Biblical Explanation of Authority and Submission
The principle of authority and submission define the roles of the marriage relationship in terms of the spiritual foundation and direction of the marriage. God chooses the husband to lead his wife and family spiritually into following the Lord’s will for their lives according to the Scriptures. This is how God makes sure that the wife and family are spiritually supported, loved, and cared for as God desires.
The husband is given the responsibility to lead his wife (and family) in following the Lord’s will as revealed in the Scriptures. This will involve sacrifice, caring for and nourishing her (and them). The wife is given the responsibility to follow her husband in following the Lord’s will as revealed in the Scriptures.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church and he is the savior of the body. Therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for her that he might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord does the church because we are members of his body.”
When Paul says that the husband is the head of the wife, he is referring to the spiritual authority God has given to the husband to lead his wife in following the Lord and to protect and care for her. This is the same kind of authority Christ has over the church in that it is a spiritual authority. However, Christ has absolute spiritual authority over the church and each individual in it. The husband has spiritual authority over him and his wife as a couple and their children as a family, not over his wife in her individual relationship with Christ. When Paul says “in everything” he means “in everything that pertains to the husband’s spiritual authority.”
Thus, as a husband he does not have the authority to do what he wants when he wants or to tell his wife to do what he wants when he wants. That is God’s authority alone. He does have authority to lead her in following Christ not individually, but in his relationship with her. His wife has the responsibility to follow him as he leads the family spiritually.
The Leadership of the Husband
According to Ephesians 5:22-29, the husband is to first love and care for his wife on a daily basis. True leadership always begins with the proper motive. Paul begins with that motive, love. All that he does must be from love for his wife, from a desire for what is best for her. Caring for her is the first priority.
Second, a husband is to lead his wife in following Christ and His Word in all they do as a couple and family. Her relationship with Christ is hers alone to determine, but in their relationship with Christ, he is to lead and make sure they follow Christ and His Word together.
This is done practically in several ways:
1) He leads them to live a life of faith and bear the fruit of the Spirit in their lives.
2) He leads them to stay within the moral boundaries that God gives in the Scriptures.
3) He leads them to participate in the life of the body of Christ in a local church.
4) He leads them to study the Word and pray together.
5) He leads them to raise their children in the ways of the Lord.
6) He leads them to wisely follow the Scriptures in their use of money and material possessions.
In each of these ways above, the wife follows her husband in practicing these Biblical principles in their lives.
This is a general leadership where the husband sets the pace and example of following the Lord and makes sure they are as a couple and family. How they specifically follow the Lord is a decision they make together, but he leads them to make sure they make a decision and not just do nothing or be weak in this vital matter.
For example, the husband would lead his wife and family in following the Lord to participate in the life of the body of Christ in a local church. He would not wait until his wife suggested they go to church. He will speak with his wife about making a decision on what church to attend. He will also lead his wife by asking her to discuss with him what specific church they will attend. They will make this decision together taking into consideration, doctrine, worship, programs, etc. They both will agree on a particular church to attend and then go. After that, it is not up to the wife to use her energy and encouragement to make sure that they attend church every Sunday. It is up to the husband to take the responsibility to do this.
If either of them has concerns about a church they are attending, the husband leads in resolving the concerns or changing churches using the same process as he did when they first decided. During this process, the wife willingly follows and actively participates in sharing her discernment and judgments on the kind of church they should attend and her concerns and the needs of the children. She doesn’t resist his efforts to lead the family.
The same process is used in all the areas a husband has responsibility for as mentioned above. As the husband leads in this way, his wife is to willingly follow his lead and actively participate.
Here is another example. The Bible has several principles about handling money such as being wise with it, but the Bible does not say what to buy or not to buy specifically. Therefore, the husband is to lead his wife and family in using money according to the Biblical principles revealed. However, in terms of exact purchases, that is a decision that he and his wife must make together. He is to lead his wife in making a decision that reflects both of their desires, values, and concerns within the Biblical boundaries and responsibilities God has set. In the areas that God does not give specific instruction, he is to make decisions together with his wife as a life partner. These areas parallel the areas of personal choice in our lives. That means compromise.
Third, he leads his wife to make sure they make all their family decisions together. This means that he leads to make sure that they listen to each other, take in each other’s views and concerns as equal life partners and makes sure that the decision made is mutually agreed upon. He does not make the decision; he leads to make sure the decision is made together and reflects both of their concerns. If they cannot make a decision at one point, he leads them to wait for a time when they can. He also leads to make sure that they always discuss their views in love and gentleness.
This decision-making involves submitting to one another’s concerns, needs and interests as they make a decision together. This is how to apply what Paul is says in Eph.5:21 where he tells Christians in general “to submit to one another,” then moves immediately into talking about the husband and wife in 5:22.
Fourth, he leads his wife in fulfilling their marriage vows and staying far away from any possibility of divorce. God wants both the husband and wife to fulfill their marriage vows and stay together for life. Both are responsible not to let conflict or disagreements they have drive an emotional wedge between them. Because God knows it is very easy for two people to polarize in a relationship and blame the other, God gives the husband the responsibility to make sure this does not happen. That means that he makes sure that whatever can be done to prevent their marriage from going down the wrong path is done as far as he is able. He is the final safety valve for the marriage.
That does not mean he is the one who apologizes when his wife is clearly wrong, but it does mean that he apologizes when he is wrong and that he forgives when his wife apologizes. His wife is responsible before God to do the same, but God wants at least one person to be ultimately responsible to do that as a safety valve for the longevity of their relationship.
The Limit of the Authority of the Husband
What happens if a husband asks his wife to do something that is not within his authority? The wife is to only submit to her husband as he carries out his Biblical responsibility because he has the authority to accomplish his responsibility. However, if he asks her to do something that is not within his responsibility as a husband she may refuse. This is not a lack of submission because he has no authority to ask her to do it.
1) If a husband asks his wife to disobey the Lord’s command, she may refuse because he does not have authority to do that. She is still in submission to his God-given authority even when she refuses.
2) If he asks her to do something that she knows is injurious to the relationship, she may refuse because he does not have authority to do that. She is still in submission to his God-given authority even when she refuses.
3) If he asks her to do something that the Lord does not require her to do (in the areas of freedom where there should be compromise), she may refuse because he does not have authority to do that. She is still in submission to his God-given authority even when she refuses.
4) If he asks her to do something that is his personal preference such as go to a particular restaurant or the like, she may refuse if she wishes since he has not been given authority to lead her toward that.
The Heart Attitudes of the Husband and Wife
Paul and Peter also talk about the heart attitudes of the husband and wife as they live together.
1. The husband is to love his wife, that is, sacrifice himself to care for her
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for her that he might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself.
Ephesians 5:25 says that a husband is to love his wife. Loving his wife refers to valuing her as his wife and making sacrifices for her because she is his wife. It refers to loving her as he leads her in following the revealed will of God for them as a married couple.
2. The husband is to be considerate of her and respectful of her
1 Peter 3:7 “Likewise, you husbands, dwell with them [your wives] according to knowledge, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”
Peter says that a husband is to be considerate and respectful toward his wife. “Considerate” refers to showing understanding to her as his wife. “Respect” refers to “respecting her important role” as his wife in his life.
3. The wife is be devoted to her husband and children
Titus 2:4 “…that they [the older women] may teach the young women [wives] to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children…”
Titus 2:7 says that a wife is to submit to her husband. Again, “submit” refers to “submitting to him in his role as husband” as he fulfills his responsibility to lead her in following the Lord’s revealed will for them as a married couple.
4. The wife is to respect her husband
“Nevertheless let every one of you in particular love his wife even as himself and the wife see that she respect her husband.”
Ephesians 5:33 says that she, as a wife, is to respect her husband. “Respect” refers to “respecting his important role” as her husband in her life. It does not refer to respecting his personality, career goals, ability to provide for the family financially and the like.
Notice that both of them are to “respect” each other. This is so important. Each of them is to respect the other because of their roles as husband and wife in the lives.
The Husband and Wife and their Careers
What about working and careers for the husband and wife? The answer to the question regarding working and careers follows the roles of the husband and the wife, which God has established.
In Gen. 1:28, God gave to Adam and Eve the responsibility to begin a family and to create civilization. It says,
“And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”
The husband and the wife (and children if there are any) are, as a family, to participate in civilization and society. They are to live together in communities where all the families work together to benefit each other.
God has divided this participation in communities into two principal roles in regards to the family. The husband is to be the principle worker in the community and the wife is to be the principle manager of the home.
In Exod.21:10-11, Moses, as he regulates various issues, speaks of the role of the husband when he takes a wife. He is make sure that she has food, clothing, and regular sexual relations. If he does not do this, the wife is free to leave. It says,
“If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”
This shows that the primary responsibility of the husband is to be the primary worker and provide for the housing, food, and clothing for his family.
In Titus 2:3-5, Paul describes the primary role of the wife as he explains what the older married women are to be teaching the younger married women.
“Older women likewise are to be reverent in the way they live, not malicious gossips nor addicted to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, busy at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.”
Paul says that these young wives are to be pure and love their husbands, love their children, and be workers or busy at home. To be “workers or busy at home” means to be busy managing the home rather than neglect it.
The Proverbs 31:10-31 shows a model wife was a home manager in ancient terms. If you translate her various activities into modern culture you will see a woman who has made the home the center of her life and was very industrious for the good of her family and even earned income in a home-based business.
In modern terms regarding careers, these Scriptures mean that the husband’s career is his job that supports the family and the wife’s career is taking care of the home and kids.
A career is what a person focuses on as the main “work” of his life. A person can have a job, but it doesn’t become a career unless it is his main occupation on which he focuses. A person can have a career and a part-time job which he has to help pay the bills. So a job is not always a career.
The husband is responsible to have a career that supports the financial needs of his family to the best of his ability. The wife is responsible to manage the home and take care of the children as her main career. With this focus, either of them can have a part-time job as long as it doesn’t interfere with their main responsibility.
Because of the modern conveniences that homes have in dishwashers and washers, and dryers, etc. a woman today has more time on her hands. She can have a part-time job as long as she can take care of the home and the children. It is important to realize that her children are her priority to raise and develop. Others may help, but she has the primary responsibility while the husband works. As long as someone else (even a relative) is not raising her children, then she is free to work. I do not believe that it is possible for a mom to fulfil her responsibilities when she works full-time or in a high stress part-time job. When both parents are working full-time, the children are not raised by the wife and mom as God intended. That may not be popular today, but it is God’s way and it has not changed since the beginning.
Jesus’ Example of the Leader and Follower Roles
Jesus himself demonstrated the inherent dignity of each role of the husband and wife. He was both leader and follower. He had both an authority role and a submitter role. He had authority over all mankind as the Son of God. Yet he exercised his authority in submission to God the Father to fulfil his role in redemption. He exercised his role of leadership by doing it to meet the needs of others. He was a true servant leader. A servant leader leads with the goal of serving others, but he still leads. This is what Jesus refers to when he says the Son of Man came to serve (Mark 10:45). Jesus also submitted to the Father’s will. His Father had authority over him and he submitted to the will of the Father (John 6:38).