Though It Might Seem Adversarial

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Dear Rod,

Thanks for your note, and congratulations on your engagement. I have only met Kate a couple of times, but I knew her folks well, back when she was just a toddler. They are wonderful people, and it seems evident from your attachment to Kate that she is following in their footsteps. They are a great family. I am sure many blessings are in store for you.

Which brings me to your question, which I hope to answer in a roundabout way. What one thing—at a practical level—would I advise you to remember going into your marriage? I suppose by your emphasis on the word practical you mean that you have already been taught well on the theology of marriage, on role relationships, on the need to keep short accounts with God and with one another, and so on.

So I will say the hard thing first, then qualify it, and then explain it. You need to understand that there will be times, a number of them in your first year of marriage, when your interactions with Kate will seem adversarial, both to her and to you. This is an optical illusion, and you should pay no mind to it. But at the same time, you must understand it.

And here is the qualification. Of course she is not your adversary. And marriage is not a contest, or a competition. Neither one of you should be keeping score. God assigned to you the role of leading her, protecting her, and providing for her. You are the husband. God gave her to you in order to help and support you, in order to complete you, and in order to become your glory and crown. When you come together in marriage, you will have become one flesh, and your responsibility and duty together is to function in complete harmony, in line with reality of that one flesh union. You are one; you are not adversaries.

So why might it sometimes seem that you are?

Both of you are convinced of the biblical teaching of headship and submission in marriage. It is repeated in our circles often, and I know you have heard it taught growing up, and I know that your parents, on both sides, have modeled it beautifully for you.

I therefore take it as a given that you both believe in the biblical order of things. You will be the breadwinner, called to be a husband. And she will assume the role of wife, and in the kindness of God, of mother. And so when God gives you children, you will be the father who comes home at the end of the day, and she will be the mother. Both offices are crucial to the health of the marriage and family. This is a framework that both of you believe in, and both of you intend to follow. You have no expectation that once you are married, she will suddenly announce her feminism, and tell you that she has put out a number of job applications, and when are you going to schedule your vasectomy? Nothing like that. You are both conservative Christians, and so you are both expecting to operate within a biblical framework.

Because this doctrinal understanding is down in your bones, you also have to understand that part of your “self-image,” and part of hers, will be to think you are doing better at this than perhaps you actually are. You will be tempted to think you are being a better leader than you actually are, and she will be tempted to think she is being more submissive than she actually is. This will sometimes result in differences between you that are a surprise to both of you, and during which your interactions might seem adversarial.

But as you settle down in your life together, there will still be a scripturally undefined border between you. You have the big decisions made, but as you move into your daily routines, you will be making little decisions about how things are done, and who does what. You love one another dearly, and yet there will be moments and times when the boundaries are established through being tested. Kate will not be consciously thinking to herself, “What is Rod going to let me get away with?” but there will be times when it might seem to you as though this is what she is thinking. And in those moments, you have to remember what you seem like to her. And in the midst of those two perspectives, you still have to provide leadership.

I may have you completely fogged by this point, so let me make up an illustrative example. In all that the Bible teaches about role relationships in marriage, we have not a word about who keeps the checkbook and who pays the bills. Scripture says nothing about whether the books are kept by the husband or by the wife. That is something that the two of you will have to decide, and you have the complete right to decide it either way. Now for the purposes of my illustration here, let us suppose that both of you are equally good at it, and let us further suppose that both of you want to be the one who does it. Now what?

She wants to keep the books, and she would be very good at it. Further, she has every right to want to keep the books. There is no sin in what she wants. But you want to do it too, and this is why it can become a testing point. As the head of the home, you have every right to give way to her desire, and make the decision that she will keep the books. But if there are twenty situations like this in a row, and you give way to her on all twenty of them, then, even though you are the head, you are not making decisions with that headship in view. This will not be lost on her. She is getting to do all the various things that she wants to do, but she is also having a sickening feeling rise within her that is whispering in her ear that she may have gone and married herself a milquetoast. If you always give way as a matter of principle, you need to remember that a man who always gives his woman what she wants is not giving her what she wants. Or what she needs. Do your level best not to remind her of her old college friend, the one who later came out as a lesbian.

But I am not talking about you creating artificial test cases, where you say no just for the heck of it. What I am saying is that if you married the kind of spirited woman you should have, and if you have a backbone, you will have plenty of opportunities to consider these things. The state of Hawaii does not need to build a salt water production plant.

You don’t want your version of headship theology to be the idea that you should say no only if your wife ever proposes to you that you should conspire together to break one of the Ten Commandments. You need to be the final voice of authority in your home, and both you and your wife need to be able to point to instances when you exercised that authority, and exercised it on workaday matters. If submission comes up every single day, then you may depend upon it, you are doing something wrong. But if it never ever comes up, if you never make a decision that is hard for your wife to swallow, if you are always accommodating because you heard one too many sermons on servant leadership, then you are also doing it wrong.

Whenever people are thrown together—as in the military, or roommates in a dorm, or a bunch of new hires at a company—there will usually be a formal hierarchy already established, and in the days that follow the introductions, there will also be a shaking out that will establish an informal hierarchy. The informal hierarchy might function well within the formal hierarchy, or it may even grow to contradict it. Regardless, somebody is going to be manifested as the alpha. Someone will say let’s do this particular thing, and somebody else will say (someone who has the same formal rank) no, let’s not. And so then, which way does it go? These two people may be great friends, but in that moment they were functioning in a way that seemed adversarial. There is a “challenge,” and there is a “response” (of some kind) to that challenge.

Now Scripture assigns the formal hierarchy of marriage. Wives are supposed to be submissive to their husbands “in everything” (Eph. 5:24). A great deal of teaching in the evangelical world, however, with its wrong-headed emphasis on servant leadership, is interfering with the shaking out that establishes the informal hierarchy. Husbands are taught that if it is not a clear moral issue, or a matter of high principle, then they should simply give way. This is dangerous, pernicious, and false. It can lead, and in many cases has led, to a situation where Christian marriages have the formal and informal hierarchies functioning in direct opposition to one another.

Another way of saying this is that if the only place where you are the head of your home is in the pages of Scripture, you are not actually being a servant leader. A servant wimp is more like it.

But I am not saying that a husband is required by God to be a blustering bossy-pants, insisting on his own way one hundred percent of the time. When a husband and a wife have a difference of opinion on something, there will be times when he decides to go her way, and he can decide this for various good and honorable reasons. It might be that he considered her arguments, and decided she was right. It might be that he just wants to give her a gift. It might be that he can see that his wife cares about the issue far more than he does. Their differences are on opposite sides, but they don’t weigh the same. The fact the husband has authority over the final decision does not mean that he always decides it his way. It simply means that he has the final authority in the decision. But if it always goes the same way, which is to say, hers, then he is building an informal hierarchy that he should not be building. Or rather, he is standing by while his wife is building an informal hierarchy that she genuinely wishes he would not let her build.

When you are first married, the two of you are sizing each other up. You are carving out a functional and functioning relationship. It is in this arena that I am saying you should sometimes act in a way that will seem, in the moment, adversarial.

In the relationship you are forming, there is obviously give and take. There is obviously the kind of discussion where authority and submission ought not to come up at all. But there will also be times when a husband and wife differ with one another, and when the difference matters. In those times, it is not possible to simply take a vote because the vote total would always be a tie. So if the husband loves his wife, there will be times when he makes the decision in her favor. And if he continues to loves her he will also make sure that there are times when that does not happen.

When a marriage goes to pieces, the husband and wife have the grave misfortune of actually becoming genuine adversaries, and that is one of the worst things on earth. I am not commending that at all. What I am urging here is one of the great barriers that will prevent a true adversarial relationship from developing.

If I had to sum it up in a phrase, I would simply say this. Be her husband.

Cordially in Christ,


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