Last week we laid the foundation, the why, of family discipleship. This week we are moving into the how to shepherd your family. And this begins, as we will see, in our marriages as our marriages are a reflection of the reality of the gospel and (ideally) the genesis of our families. There is a primacy of our marriages in the economy of our families that cannot be understated or ignored. To do so will ultimately lead our families astray. We will be unable to shepherd our families in the gospel if we neglect that relationship that uniquely pictures the gospel itself. Therefore, we must attend, maybe for some of us anew, to the marriage of our youth.
MARRIAGE IS A SHADOW OF THE GOSPEL
The way we think about our marriages will inform the way we shepherd our wives. And the way we shepherd our wives will inform the way we shepherd our children. Therefore, the bedrock purpose for our marriages must ultimately be biblical—it must accord with God’s design and purpose for marriage. This is the beginning of shepherding our families in the gospel—to continually cultivate a marriage that puts off the aroma of Christ and his gospel.
“‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Ephesians 5.31-32
What do these verses tell us about marriage? Marriage is a looking glass. It serves as a portal to view something beyond itself—namely the covenant relationship Christ has established with His bride, the church.
How does marriage reflect the gospel? Let’s jump back and look at the whole context of these verses because there are some important qualifiers of the way Christ relates to His church and how that is to be mirrored in marriage.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ 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, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Ephesians 5.22-33
LOVE THAT SERVES & BRINGS FLOURISHING
What role is the husband given to play in marriage? One way is in the order of marriage. The husband “is the head of the wife.” Headship is often a touchy subject, certainly in large part because its abuse has led to a misunderstanding of its creational design.
From where do husbands derive their headship? The husband is head of the wife “even as Christ is the head of the church, his body.” Ultimately, the headship of the husband is a picture of the headship of Christ. This is not a New Testament paradigm. It has been so from the beginning. Paul quotes Genesis 1 in verse 31 affirming that the marriage of a husband and wife belongs to the good and blessed created order and, he explains in verse 32, it points to Christ, the head, and the church. So headship of Christ, and consequently of the husband, are creational norms that are a part of the life-giving design of God.
What has gone wrong with headship and submission? Genesis 3 gives the answer. Remember that God, the Creator, formed Adam, the creature out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Then Eve was formed out of Adam as a helper, one fit for Adam, the head (according to Paul in Ephesians 5). It was Adam then who was responsible for ensuring he and his bride exercised dominion over all that God had given them—including “every living thing that moves on the earth.” So the creational order was God—Adam—Eve—creation. Enter the serpent. The serpent over whom Adam is to exercise dominion. And yet the serpent approaches Eve—a deliberate attack on the created order. What ensues is a complete disordering of the created order. Eve assumes the role of head (which is as much Adam’s fault as anyone’s) and the serpent, who belongs to those creatures Adam is to have dominion over, wins mastery and dominion over man. What is worst, Adam and Eve, in their disobedience, not only became subjects under the serpent, they also willingly displaced God as their Sovereign. The whole created order falls into disorder and distress.
One consequence particularly disruptive to God’s design for the family is the curse is given to Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband, but he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3.16).
What are we to make of this? What does this mean for our shepherding of our wives? Chiefly, we must recognize the created, life-giving order of our family is constantly being challenged by sin’s sway and that we, as husbands, must look to Christ who, as head of the his still-sinful bride, patterns our own still-sinful marriages.
What does the headship of Christ look like? How does Christ, the head, behave towards His bride, the church? The headship of Christ is redemptive and loving. Christ is himself the Savior of His bride. But how does he save her? He gave himself up for her in love. In this way, as Sam Storms notes, “headship is always others-oriented.” Christ “nurtures and cherishes” His bride, the church, of whom He is the head in a way that brings flourishing and blessing to her. Is this true of the way we relate to our wives? Are they blessed by our headship or are they crushed and crippled by it? Brothers, if we died to ourselves in our turning from sin to Christ, that death was re-enacted at the altar of your marriage. You and I, as we once lived, are dead. Kent Hughes has sharp words that echo Bonhoeffer: “Marriage is a call to die, and a man who does not die for his wife does not come close to the love which he is called.” We are alive only as we live to and for our wives. They are not badges of honor or our minions. We are to use our authority, our headship, to serve them. This is true, Christ-like headship.
John Stott says it well: “If headship means ‘power’ in any sense, then it is power to care, not to crush; power to serve, not to dominate; power to facilitate [her] fulfillment, not to frustrate or destroy it. And in all this the standard of the husband’s love is to be the cross of Christ, on which he surrendered himself even to death in his selfless love for his bride.”
Do you want to know how to shepherd your wife? First look to Christ and follow his example of exhausting himself, of forfeiting himself for the benefit of his wife. Only then will we be well-suited to work out the particulars.
SELF-GIVING LOVE THAT FULLY KNOWS
What is the purpose of Christ’s love for his bride? Christ gave himself up for His bride for her benefit, for her sanctification, that she might be holy and blameless. It can be said therefore that our loving headship entails responsibility. It’s worth quoting Stott again:
“Christ ‘loved’ the church and ‘gave himself’ for her, in order to ‘cleanse’ her, ‘sanctify’ her, and ultimately ‘present’ her to himself in full splendour and without any defect. In other words, his love and self-sacrifice were not an idle display, but purposive. And his purpose was not to impose an alien identity upon the church, but to free her from the spots and wrinkles which mar her beauty and to display her in her true glory. The Christian husband is to have a similar concern. His headship will never be used to suppress his wife. He longs to see her liberated from everything which spoils her true feminine identity and growing towards that ‘glory’, that perfection of fulfilled personhood which will be the final destiny of all those whom Christ redeems. To this end Christ gave himself. To this end, too, the husband gives himself in love (emphasis added).”
Kathy Keller offers a helpful illustration of this idea in The Meaning of Marriage. When Michelangelo was asked how he was able to take a slab of marble and carve out the resemblance of David, he simply replied that he chipped and chiseled away everything that didn’t look like David. What is profound about this is that Michelangelo knew what David should look like. He had some norm in his mind by which he could judge what looked like David and what did not look like David.
The burning, and perhaps convicting, question for us is do we know our wives well enough to know what, in Christ, they look like? Or are we content to know them as little as possible that we would feel constrained to love them as little as possible? Here is the pinnacle of gospel—that we are fully known in spite of our being fully known. It is in marriage that this reality is lived and displayed. Christ has pursued to know us, while we were sinners unfit to know him, that He might love us even there. So too should we pursue to know our wives—to really know them; to carve out time that we, in our selfishness would much rather check out and like Adam abdicate our God-given responsibilities, just for her. To chase after her relentlessly by no merit of her own but if for no other reason than Christ has done so for us.
What are some ways you can gain a clearer picture of who your wife is in Christ that you might shepherd her in her becoming? Read the Word together. Memorize it. Pray with and for one another.
COVENANT, NOT CONTRACT, LOVE
What is the difference between a covenant and a contract? Which is marriage? This kind of love is covenantal. Notice again that Christ has some end in mind when taking His bride—presenting her to himself in splendor in the future. And it is commitment to ensuring this future that sustains the present relationship. This paradigm is drastically different than the one put forward by the world.
What reasons does the world/culture give for marriage? Are these reasons sustainable? Will they endure to your 50th wedding anniversary? Will they survive “in sickness” and “for poorer”? Often marriage is reduced to the pragmatic end of a present love. In other words, most people think marriage is the logical culmination of their present romance. There is rightly a celebration of the present love, but there lacks any real promise of future love. Whether you realized it at the time or not, what you said to your bride on your wedding day was something to the effect of, “I promise that a million years from now, my love will be there. My love for you has gone before you and will be with you wherever you go.” This is the kind of love Christ has for His bride. This is the reason the gospel is actually good news and not some celebratory announcement of a past event. It’s good news because Christ has promised His love for us will endure into the future into which He is carrying us.
THE PRIMACY OF MARRIAGE IN THE FAMILY ECONOMY
What do the ways marriage pictures the gospel tell us about the place of marriage in the economy of our families? If the destination of our shepherding our families is the gospel, it is impossible to do so if we neglect the primary symbol of that reality. To relegate our marriages to any lesser position than the supreme relationship we have with others is to obscure the reality marriage is to portray.
Think of the shadow cast by a tree. Unaltered and uninterrupted, the shadow on the ground is an exact outline of the tree itself. Even the individual leaves can be seen dancing in the wind. The shadow on the ground, while dark and two-dimensional, reveals the tree. Yet the shadow is not the tree. So it is with marriage. Marriage is not the gospel, but marriage—not our relationship with our children or our jobs or our neighbors—is to uniquely serve as a glimpse, a foretaste of the reality of the gospel. Therefore, we should tend to and fight for it with unmatched zeal.
What are some things that vie for primary attention and affection over and against our marriage?
Maybe a too-obvious reason that marriage holds a place of primacy in the economies of our families is that God intends marriage to the origin and wellspring of blessing for the family. In this way, marriage mirrors the reality not only of the gospel but God himself whose union in the Trinity is the fountainhead of blessing.
“And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…” Genesis 1.28.
As John Sailhamer helpfully points out, the sense in these verses is that it is a blessing that marriages would be fruitful in producing offspring. This idea is completely foreign to our culture that views children as expenses and burdens that prohibit a desired lifestyle. We take a cost-benefit analysis approach to family planning when the Bible makes it clear it is no burden but only blessing to be fruitful and multiply. Certainly, there are tensions to hold in balance and realities of a broken world to reckon with (e.g., infertility). Still, the Bible unapologetically holds up the fruit of marriage as a blessing to be desired in marriage. Just like the Trinity’s creation of the world, familial blessing flows out of pre-existing, already-happy relationships. In this way, our happy marriages become a feast of blessing for our children.