Selflessness

Individual Roles, Mutual Subjection, and Equal Respect in Marriage

My husband and I are two exceptionally different people. I love chocolate; he likes vanilla. I could spend entire days reading; he gets bored after a few pages. He enjoys hunting (for food, not sport); I can barely carve raw meat without cringing. He finds peace in woodworking; I relax while I write.

Every relationship is like this in one way or another. Each of us is a one-of-a-kind blend of nature, nurture, opinions, and habits. For that reason, no two people are the same—and wedding rings don’t turn husband and wife into a single-minded, tunnel-visioned creature. Two become one, but that happens because they complete, support, and accept each other without question.

Given our differences, practically speaking, one component of a healthy marriage is settling into a mutually satisfying set of responsibilities, checks, and balances. In our case, that means Erik pays bills while I go grocery shopping; he shovels the driveway while I do the laundry; he cleans out clogged drains while I toss the expired stuff out of the fridge. We have a pretty traditional approach to household tasks, but not every marriage does. Some men love cooking, like cleaning, and know nothing about home repair. Some women love yardwork, enjoy changing their oil, and have no clue how to patch a pair of jeans. There’s nothing wrong with that. Any combination of shared tasks will do.

The point is finding a balance in which both husband and wife contribute to home and happiness. No one likes chores. But when spouses compromise based on what’s more agreeable for each, they can define their roles easily. Of course, we all trade tasks here and there, when the mood strikes. Again, the point is a shared balance—not formality or normality. You fulfill your responsibilities not because you like it, but because it must be done and you love your spouse enough to share the load. This applies to small stuff like cleaning and setting up dentist appointments, and to larger things like career paths and home defense. That’s family. That’s the partnership that a strong marriage requires.

So, given that well-rounded approach to sharing individual but mutually necessary marital responsibilities, what does the following passage tell us about the roles of husbands and wives?

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 5:22-24

Let me begin by saying it does not tell us to be slaves. We are not the unthinking, helpless creatures that pop culture has misinterpreted and twisted this verse into implying. We are capable, beautiful women—wives, mothers, sisters, daughters—and we are strong, so don’t get that wrong.

I recently read a wonderful article that sums up what this passage means. You can read it here. I believe it’s clearly and beautifully voiced the truth behind these verses, so I’d like to share it with you. The following analysis largely mirrors and learns from that article.

Ephesians 5 tells us to accept our husband’s role in our marriage. The Greek word for ‘head’ in this reading is kephale. It doesn’t, literally or figuratively, mean ‘boss’ or ‘king.’ It literally means that thing that sits on your shoulders. Figuratively, the Greek word kephale means ‘source or beginning or completion,’ or ‘one who brings fullness.’ From that perspective, if a wife cannot accept her husband as the one who completes her or brings fullness to her life, she isn’t looking at marriage the right way.

The family unit is where the Church begins, so each family is called to be a mirror of the perfect love exemplified by Christ and the Church, his bridegroom. Husbands fill the role of “head” for a number of reasons. His job is to be a deliberate, logical, and emotive leader. He is a provider and a caregiver, and he takes responsibility for his family’s health, happiness, and safety.

You might still argue that that’s an outdated, hyper-traditionalist way to look at the role of the husband. But being a provider doesn’t mean his sole task is to bring home a paycheck while his wife keeps house. It means doing what he can to make his wife and his children comfortable and happy, and accepting his responsibility for their success. That role can take many forms, and Ephesians calls all wives to be humble and loving enough to accept that role for their husbands.

The rest of this letter’s passage on marriage adds more color to the role of the husband:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the water of the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his own body loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes it tenderly and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ Ephesians 5:25-31

The added emphases are mine; they’re meant to call out the depth of humility husbands are called to offer for their wives. The love Paul asks from them here is not erotic or domineering—it is profound, selfless, and sweet. Nowhere in this passage does Paul tell husbands to dominate their wives, give orders, or put themselves first. Instead, Paul is calling for men to offer themselves as servants to their wives: love her, cleanse her, make her holy. Put her first so that she may be without blemish; nourish and care for her tenderly so that you may live your fullest life.

Given the practices of Paul’s time, this message is a radically humbling one for men in the Church. He calls each husband not to be a property owner or a monarch, but a loving, kind, and humble husband whose life’s work is to meet the needs of and support his wife. I don’t see anything misogynistic in that.

Women are blessed with the sublime and completely unique gift of femininity. Naturally, her heart is uniquely open to nurturing love, and that’s true even if she struggles with fertility. In that way, a woman’s role is biologically and spiritually unique to her: she is ordained to be a sister to her family, a wife to her husband, a daughter of God, and a mother to all children. There is no greater blessing than the outpouring and influx of love in a mother’s heart.

Husbands, though biologically separate from the birth of children, are ordained as fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands. Their role, though different, is no less and no more important.

To call men and women the same is an insult to both their geniuses. They look, love, serve, and behave differently. They were created differently, so that each might have their own characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. They were made to balance one another, to complement each other’s unique needs, and to serve one another.

So masculine and feminine roles in marriage aren’t defined by 1950s standards of social acceptability. It’s not about who cooks, who works, who cleans, and who decides. It is about the two of them becoming one cohesive, loving body—one union to live and share life as beautifully and fully as they can. The day-to-day breakdown of responsibilities isn’t what’s important; the love, selflessness, and balance of their relationship are. And where those priorities are in place, mutual respect will inherently dwell.

Marriage is not 50/50 or 70/30—it is 100/100. It is an equal partnership in which both spouses give everything they’ve got. What they each have is unique to them—that’s why it works. And that’s why we love one another.