An interesting discussion arose on Facebook a couple weekends back surrounding the following status update posted by Patrick Watts.
In context, Watts was blurbing comments made at a Lifeway event by another speaker. After some criticism, he went on to expound:
This was in the middle of talking about loving your wife as Christ loved the church. He was pointing out how husbands have ignored their responsibility for spiritual leadership in their household. While it is true that the relationship between your wife and Christ is solely hers, most men assume that the only choices are to oppose it or support it, but we tend to forget that the other option is to abdicate it and assume that it is someone else’s responsibility, when it should be an essential part of the lifelong commitment that you make in marriage.
I understood what he was getting at the first time and interpreted the sound bite how it was initially intended. Nevertheless, Watts was banged on pretty good, both in that thread and elsewhere. His challengers’ main beef went something like this:
A wife can handle her own spiritual development and doesn’t need her husband to do so. Thank you very much.
For the record, I’m not a huge fan of Lifeway and believe their ultra-conservative approach to art, culture, and religion has a stranglehold of sorts on the evangelical community. One only need revisit the Blindside debacle to catch a glimpse of the “militant isolationism” inherent in much of evangelical culture, which Lifeway enables. Part of that, from my perspective, consists of a fairly staunch patriarchy (i.e., men are the “prophet, priest, and king” of their home). Watts’ FB update, whether intended, evoked some of that sentiment. And thus the pushback.
Despite feeling outside the Lifeway target audience and denouncing the heavy-handed, even heretical, patriarchy wielded by some Fundamentalist-type groups, I find myself stuck in the middle of this discussion. So I wanted to share some of the reasons I think both sides have a point.
For over a decade as a pastor, I was privileged to counsel married couples at various stages of growth and togetherness and/or separation. I quickly learned that one party’s spirituality did not always guarantee the spirituality of the other. In some cases, it even made it worse! I can recite dozens of examples of men who, in an attempt to lead spiritually (whether that effort was tactful, clumsy, or totally forced), did not always see the “results” they expected. Of course, some of that came from wrong expectations of what “spiritual growth” was supposed to look like. I mean, if baking bread and making babies was a husband’s idea of a “godly wife”, then it was his expectations which needed changed, not his wife’s spirituality. The opposite was also true: some of the most godly women I knew were married to spiritual doofuses. Point being, there was just way too many different personalities, scenarios, and factors in a marriage to be able to corroborate the following formula:
- Spiritually deficient husband = spiritually deficient wife
- Spiritually healthy husband = spiritually healthy wife
Another takeaway from my pastoral years: Men DO tend to abdicate spiritual leadership to their wives. Some trace this all the way back to the Garden of Eden and Adam’s “following” Eve into sin. As a result, they suggest, men have inherited a tendency to cede spiritual leadership (and women have a tendency to take it). Of course, this all assumes that men have spiritual leadership TO abdicate, which I’ll get to in a sec. Whatever the case, if my experience was any gauge,
- Women were usually more spiritually involved in the life of their families than were their husbands, and
- They wanted their husbands to join in and assume the reins of leadership.
What inevitably resulted was a large contingent of “spiritually single wives and moms.” As a result, praying for spiritually AWOL husbands and fathers became a regular occurrence in the life of our church, far more than the reverse (praying for AWOL wives and moms). Again, this was my experience. My relationship with other pastors and churches seemed to confirm these observations.
So I’m definitely approaching this with preconceived ideas based off anecdotal evidence. There simply isn’t a formula for spiritual growth, especially as it relates to the role spouses play in each others’ growth. Secondly, husbands generally DO need to step up their spiritual leadership of the home and/or relationship with their wife.
All that said, I agree with the GENERAL PRINCIPLE that husbands are responsible for their wife’s spirituality. Here’s some things that DOESN’T mean:
- This doesn’t mean that a wife does not have a totally unique, independent relationship with God.
- This doesn’t mean that a husband usurps or supplants Christ’s relationship with his wife.
- This doesn’t mean that the husband (or men in general) are superior to the wife (or women in general).
- This doesn’t mean that the wife has less of the Holy Spirit than her husband.
- This doesn’t mean that a wife is responsible FIRST to her husband, and THEN to Christ.
I’ve found that most people who hedge at the above assertion often conflate it to include one of these misconceptions. By saying that the husband is responsible for his wife’s spirituality, I’m simply appealing to the more traditional interpretation of gender roles in marriage and that God has called the man into a role of “headship.” I am NOT inferring that a wife requires her husband to have a healthy spiritual life, that she can’t hear the Holy Spirit without her husband’s cooperation, or that she is somehow stymied by a spiritually delinquent spouse.
While this position grates against much contemporary thought, it has significant biblical precedent. In the context of discussing head coverings during worship, the apostle Paul wrote,
“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:3).
Paul appeals to a clear order or hierarchy. Which he does a second time:
“For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (I Cor. 11:8-9).
In Paul’s day, veils were used to signify the woman’s subordinate relationship to men, particularly of wives to husbands. Apparently, some of the women in the Corinthian church were praying without veils, and Paul’s corrective is a reminder about the created order. It was the principle of women’s subordination to men, not necessarily the symbol of that particular subordination, that Paul appears to be addressing. Anyway, there’s lots of interpretative juggling used in attempt to get around what it seems obvious these verses are saying. Taken at face value, they build on a concept that goes all the way back to the Book of Genesis, that of “Federal Headship.” So when the apostle Paul addresses husbands thus –
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless.” (Eph. 5:25-27).
– he is in fact appealing to something that is not just a cultural construct (hierarchy appeared pre-Fall in the created order), but a spiritual reality. Ultimately, the Bible tells us that sin came through “one man,” Adam (Rom. 5:12) — “man” as in “male/husband.” Even though Eve also sinned and was cursed, Adam appears the fountainhead (or leaky faucet) through which sin came. This is an example of Federal Headship.
Not only did the buck stop with Adam, Eve was the first victim of Adam’s failed headship.
Which is why Christ is portrayed as “the Last Adam” (I Cor. 15:45) whose sacrificial living and dying resulted in the sanctification of His Bride. This is the same imagery the apostle Paul is invoking in his marriage analogy.
- The First Adam defiled his bride through his sin.
- The Last Adam sanctified His Bride through obedience.
In this sense, I’d say that the husband is responsible for his wife’s spirituality in the same way Adam was responsible for his wife’s. In the end, she suffered because he did not lead and/or obey.
Please note, I’m simply extrapolating what I believe flows naturally from a Federal Headship idea. Many good Christians see it otherwise. What I find fascinating is that people’s opinions on this subject tend to divide along complementarian / egalitarian lines.
- Complementarian: The husband is ultimately responsible for his wife’s spirituality.
- Egalitarian: Spouses are entirely responsible for their OWN spirituality.
Perhaps there’s a third level in there, something along the lines of
- Spouses are responsible for their partner’s spirituality AS NEEDED.
I tend to think of this as “Joint Sanctification.” Let me give you an example. Scripture teaches that the wife can “sanctify” her husband. In addressing the subject of “unequally yoked” marriages (where a believer is married to an unbeliever), the apostle Paul writes,
“And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (I Cor. 7:13-14 NIV bold mine).
Here, the Bible says the wife can sometimes act as the Federal Head, incurring blessing upon others in the family who don’t deserve it (in this case, the unbelieving husband). I’m not sure all this means, if it just applies to unequally yoked marriages or has broader application. The idea is that in various situations, the husband OR the wife can be a sanctifying agent upon their spouse and household. In other words, gender is not the issue as much as spirituality.
Throughout our 30+ years of marriage, my wife Lisa has often been the primary spiritual leader of our family. Whether it was because of my stubbornness, blindness, laziness, or spiritual density, she has acted as the Federal Head, praying down blessing where none was deserved. I have been sanctified by her many, many times. My guess is that many husbands would admit the same thing.
All that to say, I sort of find myself in the middle of this issue, seeing something along the lines of Joint Sanctification. Generally speaking, I believe that men are called into spiritual headship over their families and households, and that God will hold them to greater account than their spouse. However, there appears to be lots of room in Scripture. There’s many biblical accounts of God using women to lead men and, in the case of marriage, there’s even evidence that the wife may be the primary spiritual leader, or at least co-leaders (see: Priscilla and Aquila). I know this position is a bit squishy. But I’d like to know your thoughts, where you think I might be getting it wrong or right.