So what does it look like for Christians to be counter-culture in the area of marriage? Surely personal, not political, action is the primary starting point. To be sure, none of us (including me) have the perfect marriage, and all of us have distorted God’s design in some way, whether in past or present marriages or sin amid singleness. But the gospel is good news for all.
Examples of Counter-Cultural Marriages
I think of Bob and Margaret, who each married early, divorced quickly, and then found themselves together in a second marriage that was on the verge of collapse. Yet by God’s grace, they came to understand the gospel, and they realized the role of marriage in illustrating the gospel. Forty long, hard, good years later, they’re still illustrating it. I think of Andre, who loved his wife Emily even when she committed adultery; through his Christ-like forgiveness and patience, they (and their children) now enjoy one another in a resentment-free family that testifies to God’s glory. Though our culture neither cultivates nor encourages such grace-saturated, gospel-centered approaches to marriage, these men and women know (and show) that God is able to redeem and reconcile this most important of relationships, and he is willing to strengthen and sustain all who will trust in his ways and love according to his Word.
How to be a Christian Husband
We have seen God’s clear command to husbands: “Love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). This is the first of four times in a matter of nine verses that husbands are commanded to love their wives in Ephesians 5. Love them unselfishly, the Bible says. Our culture tells us to defend ourselves, assert ourselves, and draw attention to ourselves, yet Christ compels us to sacrifice ourselves for our wives. Headship is not an opportunity for us to control our wives; it is a responsibility to die for them.
This means, husbands, that you and I don’t love our wives based upon what we get from them. That’s how the world defines love in marriage. The world says that you love your wife because of all her attractive attributes and compelling characteristics, but this is a dangerously fickle love. For as soon as some attribute or characteristic fades, then love fails. Husbands, love your wives not because of who they are, but because of who Christ is. He loves them deeply, and our responsibility is to reflect his love.
Now obviously we don’t do all that Christ has done—namely, we don’t die for the sins of our wives. Yet we do live to serve them and to see them grow in Christlikeness. We are accountable for loving our wives in such a way that they grow in loveliness. Just as Christ takes responsibility for the spiritual health of his church, we have responsibility for the spiritual health of both our wives and our marriages.
An Example: The Captain and His Ship
Imagine the captain of a navy ship falling asleep on his watch. As he sleeps, a rebellious sailor runs that ship into the ground. Is the sailor guilty? Absolutely. Is the captain responsible? Without question. In a similar way, the Bible is not saying a wife is not guilty for sin in her own life. The Bible is saying a husband is responsible for the spiritual care of his wife. When she struggles with sin, or when they struggle in marriage, he is ultimately responsible.
Biblical Commands for Husbands
For this reason, God calls a man to “nourish” and “cherish” his wife, “just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29). The language of Scripture here is evocative. A husband is to treasure, encourage, build up, and comfort his wife. He is to take the initiative in tending to his wife, not waiting for her to approach him and say, “There are some problems in our marriage that we need to talk about,” but going to her and saying, “How can I love you and lead our marriage better?”
I regularly ask my wife that question, and she is usually able to answer without any hesitation! I share that to make clear that in all this talk about marriage, I have so much room to grow. Yet I want to grow, not only because I love my wife, but also because I want to show an accurate picture of Christ in our culture.
Husbands, realize what is at stake here: you and I are representing Christ to a watching world in the way we love our wives. If we are harsh with our wives, we will show the world that Christ is cruel with his people. By ignoring our wives, we will show the world that Christ wants nothing to do with his people. If we leave our wives, we will show the world that Christ deserts his people. What pictures are our marriages giving to our culture about Christ’s relationship with his church?
How to be a Christian Wife
Similarly, wives, revere Christ through respect for your husband. Hear God’s wisdom in the final verse of Ephesians 5: “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (verse 33). Notice how the husband is commanded to love his wife, yet the wife is commanded to respect her husband. Now obviously that doesn’t mean that love and respect should not both be expressed by a husband and a wife, but God’s Word is subtly yet clearly pointing out that God has created women with a unique need to be loved and men with a unique need to be respected.
The Subtle Differences Between Love and Respect
Women often find it easier to love their husbands than to respect them. A woman can sit with other women and speak about her husband disrespectfully but then quietly go home and care for his needs. Why? Because she loves him. But the more important question is, does she respect him? So also when a wife is trying to work on a troubled marriage, she may tell her husband that she loves him, which is what she would like to hear. But again, the more important question is, does she respect her husband, and does she tell him that she respects him?
A wife may think, Well, my husband doesn’t work hard enough or do enough to earn my respect. Might such a wife be buying into the unbiblical lie that respect is based purely upon performance? In the same way that a husband’s selfless love for his wife is based upon God’s charge to him, isn’t a wife’s selfless respect for her husband based upon God’s charge to her?
So wives, see yourselves in a complementary, not competitive, relationship with your husband. Yield to leadership in love, knowing that you are representing the church’s relationship to Christ. If you disrespect your husband, you show the world that the church has no respect for Christ. By not pursuing your husband, you show the world that Christ is not worth following. If you sleep around on your husband, you show the world that Christ is not satisfying enough for his people. . . .
The Big Picture
All of this is good for us. It is good for husbands to lay down their lives for their wives, and in losing their lives, to find them, just as Jesus promised (see Matthew 10:38-39). Moreover, it is good for wives to receive this love and respect their husbands. I have yet to meet a wife who didn’t want to follow a husband who was sacrificially loving and serving her. . . .
Ultimately, all of this is glorifying to God. He has sent His Son to die for sinners, and he has set up marriage to reflect that reality. When we understand this, we realize that marriage exists even more for God than it does for us. God has ultimately designed marriage not to satisfy our needs but to display his glory in the gospel. When we realize this, we recognize that if we want to declare the gospel, we must defend marriage.