By Joel Ryan, Crosswalk.com
When it comes to the institution of marriage, the Bible lays out specific roles for both husbands and wives, outlining how they are to love each other and help one another grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ.
Of course, the Bible does not hold back in expressing God’s view of the sanctity of marriage either. It is an institution established and upheld by God, and one that is rich in its illustrative nature and sanctifying purpose.
In fact, for husbands specifically, the Bible speaks of how deeply a man should treasure his wife and marriage:
“He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22).
“An excellent wife is the crown of her husband” (Proverbs 12:4).
“An excellent wife, who can find her? For her worth is far above jewels” (Proverbs 31:10).
“So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (Malachi 2:15).
Unfortunately, it’s not a secret to say that marriage, like the family, has been under assault since the Garden of Eden. As marriage rates plummet, divorce rates skyrocket, and the desire of young husbands and wives to have children declines, the spiritual well-being of our society is in a state of crisis.
What Does It Mean That Husbands Are “Spiritual Leaders”?
Charles Hodge, the former president of Princeton Theological Seminary writes, “the character of the Church and of the state depends on the character of the family. If religion dies out in the family, it cannot elsewhere be maintained.” (706)
As husbands and wives work as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:23) to disciple their children in the ways of the Lord, they train them to become future ambassadors of the gospel. Godly parents must teach their children the good works of God for them to pass on to their children and future generations (Deuteronomy 6:1-15).
It also is why, in his letters to the early church, the apostle Paul laid out the requirements for overseers and elders in the church. And guess what? The effectiveness of godly men as leaders in the church begins with how effective they are at leading as husbands and fathers in their own homes (Titus 1:6-7).
No one bears more responsibility for the spiritual trajectory of his household than the spiritual leader of the home, the husband.
Husbands must lead by example, leading their wives and children in prayer, worship, and the study of God’s Word. There are responsibilities that belong to husbands and fathers, not simply pastors or other ministers.
Raising godly children, however, is only part of what being a leader in the home entails. Not all husbands are fathers. Therefore, before a man can become an effective shepherd to his children, he must first learn to be a godly shepherd to his wife.
In the Bible, we see that God first ordains husbands to be the spiritual leaders and shepherds in their marriages. But what does this mean and actually look like?
Let’s start with what it does not mean.
What a Spiritual Leader Does Not Look Like
Modern wisdom, both in and outside of the church, often decries the notion of male leadership as patriarchy and submission as oppression. In many circles, even suggesting that a husband is ordained by God to be the spiritual leader of his home will be met with outrage and derision.
However, husbands are ordained by God to be the spiritual leader and heads of their respective households, whether society or individual men and women choose to accept it or not.
Nowhere in Scripture does God claim that husbands are inherently superior, smarter, or more valuable than their wives, which earns them the mantle of leadership. That is not what the biblical definition of spiritual leadership entails. God does not give men free reign to be domineering, selfish, abusive, or cruel to their wives either. The Bible makes clear from the creation account that men and women are both made in the image of God and therefore created with intrinsic, equal worth (Genesis 1:26).
However, husbands and wives do have unique roles to play in the home – roles that are set apart from the expectations and definitions of society. This is important, because as society, career roles, and even cultural norms change, God’s expectation for husbands and wives does not! His standards transcend time, tradition, and culture.
Furthermore, though husbands are called to be spiritual leaders, this does not mean that all men will inherently lead well.
In fact, because of sin, men can often become selfish, arrogant, unloving, and abusive, betraying the very role they have been entrusted with.
In many cases, it is difficult for men to even accept this role. Many would rather surrender this responsibility to their wives or abandon it outright. And often, husbands fail to lead because of neglect, cowardice, or plain laziness, to the detriment of their wives and children.
Wives also are not immune from their own sinful nature, which makes it difficult for many women to properly submit to their husband’s leadership.
As God told Eve in the Garden of Eden, “your desire will be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). Similar verbiage is used to describe the way sin sought to “rule over Cain” and how Cain would need to learn to master and rule over it (Genesis 4:7). He unfortunately did not. Sin would become his master.
What this means, however, as we’ve seen play out throughout history, is that, because of sin, women often seek to dominate and rule over their husbands, usurping the man’s role as the spiritual leader of the home. Does this mean that women are not permitted to labor with their husbands, seek the Lord, have goals or dreams, or share in the responsibilities of raising a family? Of course not. What it means is that the spiritual trajectory, moral structure, values, and vision of the family should be spearheaded by the husband.
Jesus as the Perfect Example of a Spiritual Leader
According to Albert Bayliss in his book From Creation to the Cross, “it is the husband’s moral responsibility to maintain leadership. This involves no new arrangement, but rather a difficulty brought on by the Fall” (64).
No husband or wife is perfect, but the proclivity for husbands and wives to abandon their responsibilities in marriage is something both men and women must fight to overcome.
Thankfully, the Bible provides the perfect example for both husbands and wives to follow through Jesus Christ.
In fact, throughout Scripture, God uses marriage as an illustration for His relationship with the church, whom He refers to as His bride.
God knows better than anyone what is like to be in a marriage with an unfaithful bride. And yet, despite his bride’s many mistakes and betrayals, God’s love remains. His commitment is eternal. So too are earthly husbands called to love their wives.
The apostle Paul writes, “the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-23).
What Does it Look Like for a Husband to Be a Good Spiritual Leader?
As the head of the home, the husband is tasked with modeling the kind of leadership demonstrated by Christ as the head of the church (1 Corinthians 11:1-3).
However, lest we assume that this gives husbands license to dominate their wives or enforce a my-way-or-the-highway attitude, Paul also writes of how husbands are to love their wives, again pointing the sacrificial nature of Christ’s love for His church.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so 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 would be holy and blameless. So husbands also ought to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself” (Ephesians 5:25-28, emphasis added).
Husbands must be patient, strong, faithful, and selfless, giving of himself for the betterment of his bride.
According to Albert Bayliss, “The history of man’s leadership is also the tragedy of the Fall. His failure to recognize his mate as his divine complement and equal is notorious. He has often failed to follow the model of Yahweh’s love to Israel, and for New Covenant believers, Christ’s love for the Church. So in Ephesians 5, Paul reminds the woman to voluntarily follow and respect her husband’s moral leadership and exhorts the husband to love his wife. Each emphasis meets the particular temptation of each of the partners” (65).
“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not become bitter against them” (Colossians 3:18-19).
It is the job of husbands, therefore, to encourage, disciple, and help sanctify their wives. Wives also play a role in helping sanctify their husbands. As Voddie Baucham writes in his book, Family Shepherds “God uses marriage to chisel away at our rough edges and to conform us to the image of His son” (88). Sanctification is at the core of every biblical marriage.
A husband’s role as the spiritual leader of his home is one of the utmost importance. Contrary to popular wisdom, a husband’s ability to effectively lead and shepherd his family carries more weight than even his job or career. It must be treated as a primary responsibility, not a side project.
As the Good Shepherd leads and cares for His sheep, so husbands must shepherd, love, and care for their wives. As the husband goes, so goes his marriage and inevitably his entire family.
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Joel Ryan is a children’s book author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Crosswalk, Christianity.com, Stand Firm Men’s Magazine, and others. He is passionate about telling great stories, defending biblical truth, and helping writers of all ages develop their craft. Joel discusses, analyzes, and appreciates the great writings of the past and present on his website, Perspectives off the Page.