The Holy Spirit gives us broad principles and examples to follow–thus admitting a measure of subjectivity and necessitating that we seek to proceed with the wisdom that is needed commensurate to the particular situations that may arise. The idea that the Scriptures give us general principles rather than detailed prescriptions for marital situations also tends to be true of our other relations in the home, the church and the world.
Our little corner of the internet has been ablaze over the past several months with posts and articles about the Trinity and complementarianism. A number of individuals have rightly raised concerns about certain segments of the church allowing chauvinism and abuse in marriage to fester under the cloak of complementarian commitment (e.g. sanctified testosterone, soap bubble submission and Black and Blue complementarianism). However, what seems to be surprisingly absent in these discussions is a treatment of what complementarianism in the marital relationship should look like in a biblically faithful and nuanced fashion. As some of our colleagues have been reminding us–words and definitions matter. I suspect that the lack of positive treatment is due, in large part, to the fact that the Scriptures do not give us a detailed list of the specifics of every interaction within the marital relationship. Rather, the Holy Spirit gives us broad principles and examples to follow–thus admitting a measure of subjectivity and necessitating that we seek to proceed with the wisdom that is needed commensurate to the particular situations that may arise. The idea that the Scriptures give us general principles rather than detailed prescriptions for marital situations also tends to be true of our other relations in the home, the church and the world.
More than anything, it seems to me that we need to approach the complementarian issue by first learning the biblical principles and then by seeking out the wisdom to know how to best carry out these principles in our marital relations. The Scriptures are clear that “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church” and that “as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Eph. 5:23-24). Additionally, Scripture teaches us that wives are to “submit their husbands as to the Lord,” and that “husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church” (Eph. 5:22-25). The Apostle Paul explains that the Christian wife is to “respect her husband” (Eph. 5:33) and the Christian husband is to “nourish and cherish” his wife (Eph. 5:29). These are some of the clearest statements in all of the Scripture from which we glean principles of complentarianism.
There are, of course, other general principles in Scripture that govern how these role relations work out in the day in and day out circumstances of marriage. For instance, the Apostle Peter tells Christian wives that they are to be submissive to their own husbands–“that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives” (1 Peter 3:1, 4). In like manner, husbands are to dwell with their wives with “understanding” (1 Peter 3:7) and not to be “bitter” toward them (Col. 3:19). Here, the Scriptures speak to the matter of one member in the marriage fulfilling his or her responsibility even–and especially–when his or her spouse is not. In short, we must always ask ourselves the question, “What is my responsibility in fulfilling my role in marriage in light of the disobedience of my spouse?” The Apostle Peter unequivocally states that wives may win their husbands “without a word” when the disobedient husband witnesses his wife’s godly character. Likewise, husbands are to dwell with their wives with “understanding” and without “bitterness.” Surely, these qualifications have to do with the husband’s response to his wife’s sinful reactions to things in the home. No matter what the wife’s reactions, husbands are to lead their wives in the same the way that Christ leads the church–by means of servant-leadership that seeks to benefit and not by demanding to be served (Matt. 10:45; 20:16). In keeping with this teaching, Tim Challies has helpfully set out four marks of a godly husband’s love from Rick Phillip’s commentary on Ephesians.