A Family Man

Ephesians 5:15-6:4

Listen or read the following transcript from The Gospel Coalition as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of godly men from Ephesians 5:15-6:4.

My spies tell me that in the parade that will take place in Sydney tonight, there will be some cynicism about the institution of marriage expressed. That’s not entirely new. In the last century, Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote, “Marriage is a step so grave and decisive that it attracts light-headed, variable men by its very awfulness.” Elsewhere he wrote, “In marriage, a man becomes slack and selfish, and undergoes a fatty degeneration of his moral being.”

We might not put things quite the same way today, but certainly there is a widespread denigration of marriage. It’s very difficult to find two people in love on television unless they are out of marriage. The debates, too, today regarding the roles of men and women are sufficiently complex and emotion-laden that eventually we get a little afraid to say what the Bible says because we know somebody is going to jump on us. So then, hear the word of God. Chapter 5, verses 25 to the end of the chapter.

1. A word to husbands first and those who aspire to become husbands

Not thinking of anyone in particular. The thrust of this passage is God lays a responsibility on you to love your wife with a love modeled on Christ’s love for the church, and that is taught elsewhere. Christ’s love for the church, then, must be your model first, in its self-sacrifice; second, in its goal; third, in its self-interest, and fourth (I’m sorry for this one, but …), in its typological fulfillment. Now let me go back and explain them.

First, Christ’s love for the church, then, must be your model in its self-sacrifice. Verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …” Now this, it must be said, is still in the context of the headship articulated a couple of verses earlier. Verse 23: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church …” We’ll come back to that.

This love for the wife is not mere sentimental ooze, primordial goop, without any sort of leadership function, but nevertheless, the focus of this paragraph is on so loving our wives that we mirror Christ’s love for the church. In the first place, that involves total self-sacrifice. “… love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …”

Part of the problem in this whole debate has been if we are to exercise leadership, then those who follow and submit should surely devote themselves to us. Thus, unwittingly, we take on a notion of leadership that is profoundly pagan. Alternatively, if we start saying, “Yes, yes, we are to love our wives sacrificially,” suddenly we lose any notion of leadership whatsoever, but if you want to see the model of leadership that is unflinching with self-sacrifice that is absolute, you turn to Jesus and his love for the church.

Here is a magnificent destruction of all notions of merely dictatorial rights, of treating the wife as mere chattel. This extends to every area. It extends to questions of fidelity, the use of time. I want to know in what ways you have explicitly sacrificed yourself, your interests, your priorities, and your preferences as a mark of love for your wife. How is your love for your wife expressed in any degree in your own self-denial, in your own self-giving, and in your own self-sacrifice? That’s what the text demands.

This can extend to all kinds of things, little things. I hate shopping. I doubt if I’m alone. I can put up with it if I know exactly what I want, exactly where I’m going to go and get it, and I go there, I get it, and I leave. This going up and down the aisle, feeling the material, looking at all the labels, and comparing prices in 15 stores drives me bananas!

She actually thinks she comes out with a bargain after she spent about 40 gallons of gas comparing prices. Yet to be quite frank, if I want to please my wife sometimes … She says, “Oh, you don’t have to come, Don. Don, you don’t have to come.” My wife loves me. It’s surprising, but she does. “You don’t have to come, Don.”

However, if I go, it’s hard to imagine many things that I could do more provocative, more evocative, more intimate, and more sexual than going shopping with my wife. This business can extend to a lot more areas than that, of course. Does it mean that you don’t do something that you want to do a couple of nights so that you babysit the kids while she goes out and finishes her degree? What are you sacrificing for her?

Second, our love for our wives must also mirror Christ’s in its goal. Verses 25–28: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.”

In other words, this is not merely self-sacrifice; it’s self-sacrifice for her good. Now Paul is constantly flipping back and forth here between husband and wife and Christ and the church, husband and wife and Christ and the church. He gets into Christ and the church, and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was not mere symbolic effort. It had a purpose, a goal, and the goal was for her good, “… to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish …”

Now obviously, in all analogies you can’t draw them to the nth degree. If they were exactly the same, they wouldn’t be analogies; they’d be identities. There’s no way you’re supposed to take this to mean that you’re to work to make your wife without wrinkle. There are clearly limitations in the analogy.

Yet your sacrifice for your wife, your love for your wife expressed in sacrifice, is to be for her good, so you ask yourself, “What is for her good?” How many of you pray regularly with your wives? Oh, I’m not asking for a show of hands. That’s far too embarrassing; we’re men. Did you ever do a Bible study with your wife?

Maybe she’s into opera, and it really inspires her. Do you ever take her to the opera? Maybe she’s not; maybe she’s into a book-discussion group. What contributes to her total well-being? For my wife, it’s belonging to a tennis club. She used to do a lot of teaching Phys. Ed. She goes off to her tennis club, beats every woman out there then comes back as red as anything, tired and worn out, and she’s happy.

What this means in different wives, of course, will depend a great deal on the individual wife’s gifts, graces, and so forth. You look at the picture of the ideal wife in Proverbs 31; she’s a real-estate agent. Somebody has to provide her with a home computer to hook up to the Internet. No, in its goal you’re interested in her well-being. What will make her holy, blameless, pleasing to God, a whole woman? Now I want to know what sacrifice your love for her has displayed to contribute to that end.

Third, our love for our wives must mirror Christ’s love for the church in its self-interest. Verses 28b–30. That’s a remarkable passage. We’re told, “He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.”

Now self-love here is presupposed, not commanded. The assumption behind this exhortation is that when a husband and wife are one, then the husband’s self-interest is the couple’s self-interest.

Christ’s self-interest is the good of the church. The church is his body. He lives in the church by his Spirit. What is good for his church is good for him. What brings glory to him is what is good for the church.

Likewise, it is only extraordinarily selfish, individualistic thinking that pits what is good for me over against what is good for my wife. If, instead, we see that we are so linked together by this sexual, covenantal, personal marriage union that what is good for me, what is good for her, and what is good for us are all bound up together as one, thus pursuing her interest is … let’s face it, in that kind of model … also pursuing my interest.

You can see this in concrete terms. You get this description of the ideal woman in Proverbs 31. She’s doing all kinds of things, very busy, sacrificial, and working hard, a godly woman fearing the Lord. Then you get these extraordinary verses in Proverbs 31:21–23. “When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in the linen and fine purple. Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.”

In other words, she has been so industrious working and so forth that her husband’s role and place in the culture is augmented, but, of course, that also increases her place too. The two are tied together. You cannot think in antagonistic terms, so that if I’m promoted, clearly she’s left behind. If she’s elevated, then clearly I must be a bit of dirt.

In fact, this can extend even to the sexual arena. In a crowd this size, I’m sure there are some of you men who spend so much time in pornography and masturbation that you rob your wife. Then you wonder why you have a poor sexual relationship. If you seek, even in the sexual arena, truly to please your wife, you’ll discover you’ve got a better sexual relationship in the first place all around.

In every arena of life, it is a law of the kingdom that the way up is down. Do you want to be exalted in the kingdom of God? Then you humble yourself. Do you want to live? Then you die. Do you want to be a leader? Then you serve. Do you want to have a full and intimate union with the woman to whom you are pledged? Seek her interest, and you’ll discover you’re seeking your own. You just seek your own, and you might not even have a marriage.

Fourth, Christ’s love for the church must also serve as a model for our love for our wives in its typological fulfillment. There’s the theological one in its typological fulfillment. Let me explain what I’m after here. Verses 31–33. In fact, all through this paragraph, in many respects. Paul is going back and forth, back and forth (as we’ve already seen) between Christ and the church on the one hand and husband and wife on the other hand. So much so that sometimes it’s not very easy to figure out which one he’s talking about.

Look at verses 27 and 28. Christ’s purpose in loving the church is “… to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless …” That’s clearly one side. “In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.” That’s the other side.

Now you come down to verses 31 and 32. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” That’s clearly marriage. It’s coming right out of Genesis 2. “This is a profound mystery—but I’m actually talking about Christ and the church.” That’s the other side.

Why does Paul go back and forth like this? What’s the thinking that underlies this kind of switching of categories? What’s at issue, of course, is God tells us of things (real things, future things) sometimes in propositional expressions, but sometimes in models, in pattern, in types, if you like.

On the one hand we can have prophesies saying where the Messiah will be born. Micah 5:2 says he’s going to come out of Bethlehem. We can have prophesies that depict a suffering servant, but we can also have ways of foretelling in Scripture that are based on models, on paradigms, on examples, on types.

So the whole sacrificial system, the offering of the sacrifices on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) when the blood of the animals is taken in before the very presence of God in the Most Holy Place in the temple, is a way of indicating that something has to die for the sin of this guilty priest and of this guilty people. To approach the presence of God and receive his frank forgiveness, something has to die.

The sin is too gross. It can’t be ignored or overlooked. If God pretends that it isn’t important then he’s besmirching his own holiness, his own righteousness, so institutions and structures are built into the very fabric of Israelite culture. Then in various ways, they become patterns over the centuries that look forward to an ultimate sacrifice, an ultimate lamb, an ultimate priest, and an ultimate temple. I wish that I had time to unpack those kinds of things. They become paradigms which, in the sweep of the Old Testament story line, finally become predictions. They’re types.

In something the same way, already in the Old Testament, God himself begins to depict the relationship between himself and his covenant community as the relationship between a husband and a wife. In the Old Testament, Yahweh, the name of God, is the groom and Israel is the bride. Covenantal similarities are picked up as early as Deuteronomy, but it’s not long before this begins to percolate right through the Prophets.

The great eighth-century prophet Hosea … The entire prophesy is based on that perception, on that reality. In that reality, God, the groom, has sought out his wife, his bride-to-be, and he found her as a foundling, a street urchin. He saved her, he brought her up, and he cleaned her up. That model is picked up even more two centuries later in Ezekiel 16 and Ezekiel 23. Eventually he married her, but she turned out to be a slut. Almighty God is pictured as a cuckold who still loves this woman enough to go after her.

Now this is not saying, of course, that all women are sluts, of course not. Great and glorious women are portrayed in Scripture, as great and glorious men are portrayed in Scripture, with some pretty daft failures on both sides too. However in this particular model, God is the groom, and he loves this woman he married even though she is an adulteress. Thus, adultery becomes a kind of model of spiritual apostasy.

That’s what spiritual apostasy, that’s what failure, looks like to God. It’s looks like such a breach of covenantal loyalty, of pledge, that the only adequate model to help us to understand how disgusting it is to God is a man who has given everything he has for his wife, and she’s goes sleeping around all over town.

Eventually, of course, this marriage trickles over into the New Testament. When Jesus says to people in his generation, “A wicked and adulterous generation, look for a sign,” he’s not suggesting that his generation happens to be a little more physically adulterous, a little more sexually promiscuous, than other generations. He’s saying that it’s not a covenantally faithful generation. It’s betraying the heritage, and it looks for a sign from this covenantal God after it’s already betrayed him on front after front after front. What’s this God supposed to do?

Then Paul and other New Testament writers pick up this same Old Testament pattern. There, Yahweh and Israel. Now under the terms of the new covenant, Christ, the bridegroom, and his church, which he bought with his own blood. He loved her that much? The image can be tweaked in a variety of ways. Paul can write to a local church and say, “I betrothed you as a pure virgin to Christ.” In that image, it’s an arranged marriage, and Paul the Apostle has organized it so that this bride-to-be has been pledged to the groom. The consummation … that’s when Christ returns.

The consummation can be pictured a lot of different ways (the coming of the city of God, the renovation of all things so we have a new heaven and a new earth), but one of the ways is the marriage supper of the Lamb. That is this final consummation when groom and bride, pledged to each other, now come together in perfect intimacy. It is one of the most glorious visions of what heaven will be like, of what the new heaven and the new earth will be like.

What is the most intimate, endearing, transforming relationship human beings can have? Is it not the sexual union of a man and a woman within the bonds of marriage, covenantally faithful, deeply endearing? God takes that, and he says that’s a picture of the kind of intimacy that the church will enjoy with her exalted Lord, her husband, in the consummation forever.

Thus there is a sense in which my marriage, your marriage, each of our marriages is to be a kind of mini model, a type, a proclamation of the relationship between Christ and the church. That’s what it’s to be. Paul insists that is at least one of the reasons why marriage has been instituted in the first place. It’s from the very beginning.

In other words, it’s not that marriage is over here and our spiritual life is over there. This is part of a holistic picture of what human existence is about. The primary lesson then, laid on men, Christian men, in this paragraph is husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. That love is displayed in its self-sacrifice, in its goal, in its self-interest, and in its typological fulfillment.

2. A word about wives

If all the wives were here, this would be a word to wives, and I would say a little more than I’m going to say, but as far as I can count, there are only two women in this place helping to run the equipment. If I made this a word to wives, I suspect it could get a little personal. Still, it is important for us to think through what the text says here so we know what Scripture expects of our wives and something of the holistic picture that the Bible lays out in this respect.

The thrust of this passage, chapter 5, verses 22 to 24, is God lays responsibility on them to submit to their husbands. That’s what the text says. Now there are a lot of other things to be said about this. I’ll come to it in due course, but that’s what this text says. Considerable energy is expended today to avoid this rather obvious conclusion.

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” One of the most powerful arguments used for dissipating that text is chapter 5, verse 21, understood in a certain way. In the NIV we read, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

The argument then is if we’re all to submit to one another, then although this text here (verses 22–24) says, “Wives, submit to your husbands …” nevertheless, there’s another sense in which husbands are to submit to their wives. We’re all supposed to submit to one another. So Ephesians 5:22–24 can’t be pushed too hard lest you forget the universal obligation of all Christians to submit to all Christians. I have to tell you frankly, that’s a false reading, demonstrably false. In my view it isn’t even arguable, though many argue it.

First, in the Greek text the verb “to submit” never has to do with mutual submission anywhere in the New Testament. It always has to do with submission in some kind of order, rank, or structure, without exception.

Second, the expression “one another” in verse 21 (“Submit to one another …”), though it can be perfectly reciprocal, may or may not be depending on the context. For example, in Revelation, chapter 6, verse 4, in one of those searing apocalyptic judgments we’re told another fiery red horse came. “Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other.” It’s the same expression … slay one another.

Now this does not mean that all of these men who slay one another shoot at precisely the same moment so the slaying is reciprocal. What it means is there’s a slaughter, and this one is killing that one, that one is killing this one, this one’s killing that one, and so forth. Whoever has the upper hand at the moment kills the other one. In other words, one another in the original language does not necessarily mean perfect reciprocity. That depends on the context. May dad used to say, “A text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof text.”

Third, it’s very important to understand the flow in the preceding verses. Verse 15: “Be careful then how you live …” That’s what this passage is about. It it working out something of the theology of Ephesians into the social context of where Christians live. Above all then, we are to be careful how we live, not living according to the unwise perspectives of this transient and broken world, but we’re to live “… as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil,” we’re told.

In other words, we live with eternity’s values in view. Recognize that if we pick up the counsel of this particular world, when this world is so evil, we’re on the wrong side. We’re unwise. So don’t be foolish then. Your job in understanding how to live is, first of all, understanding what the Lord’s will is (verse 17). That’s what the text says.

In particular, for example, “Don’t get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.” In other words, the aim is not so much to put down alcohol as to put down anything you’re enslaved to. A Christian who is the slave of Christ will not be the slave of anything else. So I don’t care how good LSD, alcohol, or anything else makes you feel. At the end of the day, don’t be enslaved by anything. You are Christ’s freed slave.

Instead of this kind of pursuit of fulfillment, enjoyment, or pleasure, which so regularly (in the long haul) leads to one form of debauchery or another, what motivates us, what empowers us, what inspires us, what drives us is “Walk in the Spirit.” Instead of all that, we’re told “… be filled with the Spirit …” Then, in the original, there are a whole batch of participles explaining what being filled with the Spirit looks like.

“Speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs …” In other words, our lives characterized by praise to God, like the kind of singing we’ve been hearing today, encouraging one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. That’s part of what it looks like to be filled with the Spirit. “Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Here is an image of people not going through life whining, whinging, complaining, and grumping, but rather, people who are grateful to almighty God for all his good gifts. Above all, for the best gift of all that we saw last night. Making merry in our hearts, offering thanksgiving, even in the midst of the loneliness of a tragedy that we may face, the sense of bereavement, the disappointment at work … still giving thanks. God is in charge. He knows us; he loves us.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Looking at everything from eternity’s perspective so that we don’t go through life with this endless self-pitying focus on me and my problems. What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? Well, it means to encourage one another in song, to give thanks to God, to give thanks to God in particular for Jesus Christ in the name of Jesus Christ, making music in our heart, in our very inner being, and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. That’s also what it means.

Verse 21 in the NIV starts a new paragraph. It doesn’t in the original; it’s just a participle tacked onto the rest of them. Part of what it means, then, to be filled with the Spirit is to have an attitude of submission to one another. Then that submission is unpacked in what is sometimes called a household code or a household table. Now in particular, Paul says, let me show you what this submission looks like.

In the verses that follow, he has, in effect, wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters. Now I wish I had time to go through all of these. I don’t, but if I did, one of the things I would point out is if you want this one another to be absolute, perfectly reciprocal, you’re also going to have to have fathers submitting to their children, which isn’t exactly what Paul has in mind.

There is simply no way we’re going to avoid what this text says. Part of what it means to be filled with the Spirit, in addition to the thankfulness and the mutual encouragement in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, is the kind of submission of Christian to Christian. In particular, which Christian to which Christian? That’s then unpacked … wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters. Now I wish I could unpack the slaves to masters one at great length, but I’ll let that one pass entirely in this session.

Fourth, one must also recognize the force of “head” and the sweep of the argument in verses 23 and 24. Despite the efforts of some to make head mean something like source, it has been shown again and again and again that when head is in the singular in first-century Greek, and used metaphorically as here, what it means is to exercise some kind of authority over another. That surely is made plentifully clear by verse 24, which is exceedingly sweeping. “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

Finally, when you look at other passages in the New Testament that lay out household rules of conduct, it’s very interesting that occasionally wives are told to love their husbands; they are always told to submit to them. Men are always told to love their wives. They are never told to submit to them. Those are just the facts.

Thus in Colossians 3:18–19, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” In Titus 2:4–5, the older women are to “… train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands …” And so on with many other passages. Now having said this, having made clear that the text is talking about submission, nevertheless there are other things that must be said.

1. Such submission is not to be confused with certain pathetic stereotypes.

Examples of this are groveling, self-pity, or other issues such as unequal pay for equal work, as if God is the author of injustice. If a woman is doing the same job as a man with the same productivity and with the same experience, it is simply asinine and unjust to pay her something other.

God is not the author of injustice. Moreover, this offers no sanction whatsoever in the total framework of the total passage for some boar to come along and say, “Lord God, you keep her humble, and I’ll keep her pregnant.”

2. This submission does not deny perfect equality that exists on many, many levels.

At the level of the significance of their own being, what does the Bible say? “God created them male and female. Male and female he created them.” Them, in his image and his likeness. In Galatians 3, any sort of institutional barrier that meant that certain people could come to God only through the father, the uncle, or the senior brother, through some tribal representative, that’s all been done away with under the terms of the new covenant.

Whether you’re slave or whether you’re free, whether you’re Jew, whether you’re Gentile, whether you’re man or woman, it doesn’t make any difference. We’re all one in Christ Jesus. In a passage like 1 Corinthians 7, over against the sexual perspectives of the first century, an astonishing array of things are reciprocal, Paul says.

For example, 1 Corinthians 7 says explicitly that a woman does not have the right over her own body. Her husband has that right. Then it reverses it and says the man doesn’t have the right over his own body either. His wife has the right. There’s reciprocity of rights in the sexual arena, according to 1 Corinthians 7, and a whole lot of other things in that chapter too.

3. Like the responsibility put on the husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church, which entailed self-sacrifice, this responsibility of the wife to submit to her husband is dramatically opposed to self-interest.

That is where it flies in the face of the world’s siren call. This is entirely in line with the gospel insistence, again, that the way up is down. If you don’t believe that, don’t get married.

There is something intrinsically … I don’t know how else to say it … self-denying in a good marriage. It’s why sometimes when you see single people … Not always, but sometimes when you see single people who are getting on in their singleness, outsiders say, “What he needs is a good wife” or “What she needs is a decent husband.” What is usually meant when that sort of thing is said is, quite frankly, there’s a brittle, prickly, in-your-face self-centeredness to their living which would be challenged, trimmed, and modified by a good marriage.

Now of course, let us be quite frank. Some people can’t get married for one reason or another. Family obligations, illness, no one asks him or her … Nowadays one can never be sure which way it goes. It is also true that there are some who are single who have so devoted themselves to Christ that they are renowned for their self-denial for the sake of the gospel. There is nothing necessarily more selfish about being single, yet hard experience teaches us that a good marriage does a wonderful job of trimming hubris.

My wife is my best sermon critic. Before that it was my mother. I remember one day when I was still quite a young man … I didn’t get married until I was a good deal older than most. I’d planted a couple of churches, and I was pastoring another one at this point, still single. My mother heard me preach after some period of time. I’d been on the other side of the country. She said, “Don, where did you pick up that disgusting habit?” I said, “Which one?”

“The one where you stop in full flow in a sermon, you sort of look at the congregation, and you leer,” she said. I didn’t know I had the habit. Then I started to think about it a bit, and it suddenly dawned on me where I had gotten it. One of the men who had mentored me … He’d taken me aside every Monday night for a whole summer and had basically taught me to pray. We had prayed, sometimes for many hours, on a Monday night. He had taught me to pray.

When I had heard him preach, I noticed, I suppose without it registering consciously, that he had this sort of a habit. In full flow, he would pause in his sermon, and his lower lip would come down. His eyebrow would go up, and he’d look quizzically at the congregation. On him, it looked reflective and thoughtful. He was probably completely unaware that he was doing it. In all my stupidity, I came along and tried to imitate it and end up leering at the congregation.

Well, we all need our critics, don’t we? For all kinds of things. My wife’s my best critic. As arrogant as I may be, I’m a good deal less arrogant because I’ve been married to Joy for the last 20-odd years. I would like to think that because I’m a bit of a prickly person myself, I’ve probably done her a little bit of good in her spiritual life too.

Oh yes, there is a rubbing up against one another that is bound up with some give and take, yet at the end of the day, it’s very important not to lose sight of the sheer sweep of this demand. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” That’s what the text says. Like all analogies, there are caveats here. Verse 23 says, “… Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” There is no sense in which I am the savior of my wife. Analogies can’t be pushed all the way.

Moreover, I am not sinlessly perfect, believe it or not, and so I can’t claim the kind of sweep of authority and perfection that Christ claims over the church. Yet once you put all the caveats in, once you throw in, as well, that there are differences in gifts and graces, such that in one family it may be the point of ineffable wisdom for the husband to control the pocketbook or in another family, where he’s a spendthrift and she’s an accountant, it may be far better the other way. When you put in all of the caveats, at the end of the day, this is what the Word of God says.

Now the very least that that means, of course, is that wives should not be given to belittling their husbands, running them down, nagging, talking about them behind their backs, treating them disrespectfully to a lot of other wives. None of that. That’s the least, but in addition, it means that you, as the head of the home, in your desire to serve Christ, in your desire to live sacrificially for the sake of the wife, you take some charge. At the end of the day you’ll work things out, you’ll talk things out, and you’ll argue things over, but at the end of the day, you are responsible.

Don’t blame your wife when things go wrong. It’s your fault, it’s your responsibility, and it’s your charge. I want to know what that means then in terms of leadership in the home: training of the children, family devotions, prayer times, priorities, sacrifice, Christian living. Is the whole spiritual realm something for the little woman? “I’m a man. I work, and then I come home and I watch football.” Some final comments on this pattern.

First, tragedy occurs when each side attempts to lecture the other on the other’s responsibilities.

Second, each side can make the other’s responsibility much easier by discharging its own responsibilities well. Be lavish in compliments, lush in kindness. Budget time together. Be self-sacrificing. Think through what will cost you something and lay it out. In all kinds of spheres of ministry, you can work together.

Third, there is, in fact, a fundamental, biblical reason why the stress on husbands and wives is as it is. Do you recall that in the first instance, women were made for man? That’s what Genesis 2 says. At the time of the fall, however, the curse that comes upon them is along this line. The curse on the woman is that she will try to dominate her husband, the whole created order is shaken to its foundations, and he will rule over her with a kind of iron hand.

What needs to be reversed, then, is this iron domination so that he loves his wife. What needs to be reversed in her is the desire to dominate. There are reasons why the biblical line of argument puts the stress on submission on the wife and self-sacrificial love on the husband. Remember above all things that God’s ways are always perfectly wise and for our good. Individually, in our churches, and culturally we ignore them to our peril.

I’m short on time, so I will skip the word about children except to say that there is a distinction in Scripture between children obeying their parents and grown children honoring their parents. Grown children in Scripture are not necessarily commanded to obey their parents. In fact, from the beginning “a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” In other words, a new union sets up.

If you’re an older parent, do not think that you can control the lives of your grown children. That’s unwise. It’s not biblically mandated. But you children who are grown, you owe your parents honor regardless of how good or bad they were. Regardless of how faithful, how wise, or unwise, you owe them honor. They are your parents.

The sad fact of the matter is that very often children will treat their parents the way their parents treated their parents. The blessings and the curses get passed on to the third and fourth generation. If you had abusive parents, you honor your parents, and one day you will be rewarded with your children honoring you. You write off your parents, and one day your children will write you off. You’re modeling something even along those lines. I wish I had time to explore it. I don’t.

Lastly, a word then to fathers. Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” We could easily spend a happy hour just on this one; I’m quite sure. I was brought up in French Canada. In French, there is no simple word that is exactly equivalent to our word education. They use, instead, the word formation because it views education, including Christian education, as a whole forming thing.

What we’re interested in, thus, is not simply passing on bodies of information, educating them in that sense, but forming them. Here, in one succinct antithesis, we’re told what not to do and what to do. What not to do: don’t exasperate your children. What to do: bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Let me hasten to add, not for a moment am I trying to give any formula that will guarantee that everything comes out all right. Some people take a proverb like, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” as if it were case law or a universal promise. Yet it’s not that. It’s a proverb. A proverb lays out the principles and guidelines of what it means to live under the fear of God in God’s universe.

In general terms, that’s the way it works out, so that in many cases, when kids do go amok, you can spot what has gone wrong with the parents, but in all fairness, grace doesn’t run in the genes. You can spot kids who have come loose in families every bit as godly and wise as any other where the children have turned out well. It’s not our place to start throwing stones.

I do not for a moment want to project an image that suggests somehow if you follow a few rules and turn the crank everything will come out all right. You still have to pray for them, weep for them. Their conversion may be late in coming. At the end of the day, “Unless the Lord builds an house, they labor in vain that build it.” Having said that, there are some guidelines that are extremely important, and this is one of them.

A) Don’t exasperate your children.

Don’t give them too many rules, but the ones you do lay down, enforce.

B) Recognize that children are different.

What worked wonderfully for child number one may be an absolute disaster for child number two, because not exasperating our children also means respecting their differences. One is a born athlete. One is intellectually very sharp. The other is a right twit but a real loveable soul. You make adjustments accordingly. You don’t simply go by harsh rules.

My daughter is an international-class motormouth. I tell her that. She’s not offended. The great blessing is that I always know what she thinks. She comes in from school and starts talking. I know what she thinks; it’s a wonderful thing. My son is about as closed-mouth as you can get. He tells you if he wants to, when he’s really good and ready.

“How did it go at school today, Nicholas?”


“Get any marks back?”


“Anything good happen?”


“Anything bad happen?”



“Oh, a few things.”

Now, when he gets around to it, he lets it all out, but I have to work at it. You see, kids are different. Moreover, kids are much more impressed by modeling than by pretention. I want to know if your kids have ever come into the house and seen you in the living room, sitting down with your Bible open on your knees, just reading it because you want to.

Oh, you had your devotions already, maybe before they got up in the morning. They’ve never seen you do that; they’re still asleep. Do they ever come in and just watch you reading the Bible or reading Packer’s Knowing God? Do they ever hear you witnessing to a friend? Do they ever watch you praying with their mother, your wife? Why not? It’s that kind of modeling that will shape them for all eternity.

C) Discipline for attitude, not merely for performance.

Know when to cut them some slack, as they grow older and older. Even in the kind of family devotions you lead, change with time. When our kids were very, very little we did a lot of memory work because it’s easy to get kids to memorize.

It dawned on me when my wife was reading nursery rhymes to our first child, our daughter. This kid, before the age of 2, could recite about a hundred nursery rhymes. You’d open up the book, and the rhyme was on one side and the picture on the other. If you’d open up the book to any of the pictures, when she saw the picture she’d give you the nursery rhyme. It suddenly dawned on me … I was a little thick … that if she could learn nursery rhymes, she could learn some Scripture.

In our family devotions, she was there in her high chair. I started reading 1 Corinthians 13 and then the first paragraph of 1 Corinthians 1. The next day, 1 Corinthians 13 and the second paragraph of 1 Corinthians 1. The next day, 1 Corinthians 13 and the third paragraph of 1 Corinthians 1. The next day, 1 Corinthians 13 and the first paragraph of 1 Corinthians 2, and so on. So every day 1 Corinthians 13, and yet we were progressing through the book. After about three weeks of this, I dropped off the last word of each phrase.

I’d start with, “Though I …”

“… speak …”

“… with the tongues of men and of …”

“… angels …”

“… but have not …”

“… love …”

“… I am only a resounding …”

“… gong …”

They just have these little minds that suck it all up, you know. A couple of weeks later, she reached from her high chair and grabbed my Bible, and she plopped it down in front of her and said, “Tiffy do it. ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love I am only a resounding …’ ”

Now, I have to admit that her mother and I just about fell off the chair when she got to the bit, “When I was a child, I talked as a child, I …” However, the time came when that wasn’t good anymore, this forced memory wasn’t good any more. They were into this stage where they needed lots and lots and lots of narratives, so we read all the narrative bits of the Bible again and again. Then later on, much later on, we got into things like proverbs, parables, prophesies, and so on.

Work hard at being a leader in the home, praying with your children, forming them (la formation), educating them, forming them, not exasperating them, but bringing them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Find models in your church that do this sort of thing all the time. Pass it on from generation to generation. Teach a new generation of converts to bring up the whole family in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Let me tell you, men, by and large, your wives and your children will not resent your leadership if it is fired with Christ’s self-sacrificing love.


Get a FREE eBook to strengthen your family discipleship!

The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?

Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin cover these questions and more in Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones. And we’re excited to offer this book to you for FREE as an eBook today.

Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Family Discipleship eBook now!

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Get a FREE eBook to strengthen your family discipleship!

The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?

Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin cover these questions and more in Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones. And we’re excited to offer this book to you for FREE as an eBook today.

Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Family Discipleship eBook now!

Get your free eBook »