Every husband would agree with the Reformer, Martin Luther, that marriage is the school of character. There are not many daily crucibles like it in which God purifies and sanctifies in such needed, blessed ways.
One of those areas in particular for husbands is learning how to lead a wife biblically. Besides his own imperfections, husbands can struggle with how to lead a wife who struggles to embrace God’s good design of submission. Few things in marriage present a greater challenge than biblical submission. As such, it is one of the more common marital struggles.
But most wives in these situations do not embark on a journey with the goal of, “I do not want God’s kind of leadership.” I’ve found that just about every wife wants to be led. In fact, it’s not uncommon for unconverted wives to respond favorably to a converted husband’s biblical leadership. That makes sense because leading is about humility, serving, self-denial, and love.
Now, compassion and patience is needed from husbands in this area for a few reasons. First, God in Christ is so radically compassionate and patient with us husbands. Second, wives are born in Adam. A resistance to biblical submission is natural. Third, our leadership, as husbands, is not as good as Christ’s. Flaws exist. If we were our wives, it would be a battle for us to submit to us.
But some of us husbands find ourselves in the often humbling, deflating situation where our wives persist in struggling to follow our lead. It’s probably not a stretch to say that the majority of the time, the husband is not the innocent party here. There are exceptions. But for the most part, if his wife struggles to follow him, it behooves the husband to consider a few questions.
Here are seven questions a husband could ask himself if his wife struggles to follow him:
- Is my goal that she submits to me?
If so, I have the wrong goal as a husband. In everything we do, the goal of husband-ing is not the submission of my wife but the glorification of my Lord.
“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).
“Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Cor 5:9).
As a husband, I operate, not with the target of getting my wife to do this or that, but to be God’s kind of husband; a husband pleasing to Christ. The fruit of that may or may not be a wife that follows. In either case, the husband’s aim does not change: God’s glory from my calling as a husband.
- What do I mean, “She will not follow me”? Or, “She will not submit to me”?
Do we understand what biblical submission is? A wife’s hesitation to implement the Abrahamic address (i.e. calling her husband “lord,” 1 Pet 3:6) is not submission failure. If a wife does not do everything a husband asks, confronts her husband’s sin, or gives him feedback on his parenting, for example, she is not necessarily unsubmissive.
Martha Peace has written that submission is not: inequality, recognizing the husband as infallible, immobility (the wife is not a slave or doormat), inarticulate (submission does not mean silence or failure to speak), or intellectual stagnation (The Excellent Wife).
Instead, submission is rooted in God’s role for wives as a picture, in part, of the glorious relationship of the church as she submits to Jesus Christ. In light of his substitutionary atoning work for her, she gets to submit. So, since it is rooted in the gospel of Christ, biblical submission is intrinsically glorious and something of great dignity.
Additionally, submission is a way of life for all believers, a protection for wives, an attitude, an act of the will (not feeling), and a demonstration of one’s love and respect for the Lord (Martha Peace, The Excellent Wife).
- Am I promoting an atmosphere which is followable and conducive to submission?
Christ is the example here. His sacrificial love and servant leadership is something that is conducive to the church’s submission (Mark 10:42-45, Eph 5:25-27). That’s key for leadership in any realm, especially in marriage. Am I the kind of guy to whom it’s safe to submit? Would anyone want to follow me? If I were not me, would I want to follow and submit to me?
What is our leadership approach? Is it biblical and aiming to imitate something of Christ in his saving work for the church?
Also, husbands can glean something about our leadership by asking, “To whom does God consider it safe to submit, generally speaking?” Biblical elders is one example (Heb 13:17). This means that a guy with a measure of elder qualifications will be promoting an atmosphere conducive to others’ submission. So, as a husband pursues Christ, he can make the elder qualifications his character goal in order to help his wife in this area.
- Am I regularly praying for my wife?
If I am, what am I praying? How often? Am I only praying that she’ll submit to me?
We ought to be praying other things, for example, that she will love Christ, see Christ, desire to submit to and obey Christ, that she’ll love the word, and for the Spirit to transform her into the image of Christ.
Even more, am I pleading with God for my own holiness, and more so than I’m praying for her submission? Am I asking God to make me a husband to whom it is joyful to submit?
- Am I actively repenting of my own sin?
Before focusing exclusively and extensively on her struggles, we need to carefully, biblically, and prayerfully examine ourselves to see if there is a leadership log in our eye (Matt 7:3-5).
We might consider doing something like taking time to prayerfully write down 10-20 ways we can think of where we have failed to lead biblically in the home, had an ungodly attitude towards her, and ungodly actions. After we confess and ask God’s forgiveness, then we can do the same with our wife. This can be powerful for an unsubmissive or unregenerate wife.
Regular repentance in a man’s life is often the doorway into greater spheres of faithful and fruitful influence and leadership, especially in the home.
- Am I actively inviting and receiving my wife’s reproof?
This is important for effective leadership in general.
We might ask our wives something like, “Honey, in this and that area of life, it seems like you struggle to follow me. Is that accurate? And if so, why might that be? How can I grow to lead more like Christ?”
One of my heroes of the faith, Alex Montoya, once said, “The secret to eating crow is to eat it quickly.” Many of us husbands need regular servings of crow to stay spiritually healthy. We can do that by inviting our wife’s reproof. Then listen. Take it. And change.
“He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding. The fear of the Lord is the instruction for wisdom, and before honor comes humility” (Prov 15:31-33).
Notice a few things from this passage:
First, the path to wisdom is traveled by inviting and listening to reproof. Second, there is something which precedes the man being honored in that verse: humility. So, if a husband wants the honor of his wife’s submission, he ought to implement his own humility. Inviting, and sincerely receiving, her reproof is one way to do so.
- What kind of shepherding-care does she need?
Does she understand what biblical submission means? Is she regenerate? Has she been hurt by me, or others, in this area in the past? How might that be complicating things? Does she have access to sound scriptural teaching and discipleship in the area of dignified biblical womanhood? Husbands are responsible to lead their wives in the way of sitting under a sound ministry that will help them together in the exalted calling as husbands and wives.
As tough and humbling as it is sometimes, leading a wife is a great joy. God will powerfully transform us in many ways within his school of character, by his grace and for his glory. One of those ways will be through progressively becoming the type of person to whom submission is a joy.