Eight years ago, I whacked on a white dress and stood in front of a big bunch of my friends and family (and a whole load of people that I didn’t know but were very welcome!). My now-husband promised that he would love, cherish and worship me, and I vowed that I would love, cherish and obey him.
My father-in-law, also vicar who took our marriage service, had given me the opportunity during wedding-prep to remove that third promise. But I didn’t want to. And eight years on, I can wholeheartedly say that I am so thankful I didn’t.
My husband and I began our marriage at the tender age of 19. At the time, we believed we were mature and grounded, and just a bit spotty and floppy-haired. Looking back, I admit that I do possibly look a bit like a child playing fancy dress, but the love was real and so was the calling!
As teenagers we had little to no idea what it really meant to worship and obey. It hadn’t been explained to us in huge depth, but we believed the Bible to be true and good, and so we muddled along in our early days of marriage trying to act out what we thought those roles looked like.
It didn’t work very well. We thought that my husband had to make all the decisions and I had to go along with it. Understandably, we clashed. My husband, not then very practiced in leading people, didn’t naturally take this position. And I, being very naturally bossy and opinionated, ‘let’ him have the last say, all the while having an agenda in mind and therefore throwing a strop when decisions did not match mine.
Don’t get me wrong, despite this, married life was indeed bliss and we adored living together and sharing our entire life after waiting four excruciating years to do so (four years seems ever more dramatic when you add distance and teenage hormones to the equation).
But we had no idea what it really meant to be a Godly couple with the roles it explains in Ephesians:
‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do 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 Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 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. He who loves his wife loves himself.’
So we began to learn how to mirror the roles set out by God himself. It seemed that men were encouraged to put their wives’ needs before their own. The Bible says that loving your wife like Jesus loved the church means being prepared to die for her. We realised that meant intense, sacrificial love.
Women were asked to submit to their husbands behaving like this towards them. Having my needs put first, and trusting that every decision made by my husband is made for my good before his own? It all suddenly seemed much easier to let my husband lead when we realised how he should be leading!
It was when we moved to London that we got some real guidance and brilliant examples of what this looked like in practice. We saw strong men, not dictators, putting their wives’ needs first, encouraging them to use their gifts, and leading their families for the good of all involved.
We saw strong women, not mice without their own thoughts, being lifted up and cherished, encouraged to speak into family life. We saw families making decisions together and not just going along with whatever the husband’s latest fancy was.
I’m not saying that we had never seen this before. But it was really explained to us, and the Bible was taught in a very literal and relevant way that suddenly made a lot of sense.
People also gave up their time to answer my questions like “but I want to lead too! I have thoughts of my own! I’m really good at leading!” and it was gently explained that submitting to my husband did not mean, in any way, that I would have to give up my brain. And that women are fabulous leaders and should be encouraged to lead, and lead well. My church made me the leader of the hosting team and encouraged me in this gift by way of example.
But within marriage, we learnt how it flourishes when man and women work together in their God-given roles to create something beautiful and harmonious. And as we started to practice this way of living, we found ourselves slotting into place. The tensions of both trying to be in charge at the same time melted away. Our marriage became much more giving and loving, and servant-hearted. We were working together and building each other up. It made so much more sense!
I understand dearly that many people have abused these roles, and perhaps even used the Bible to exploit their partners. It is beyond devastating to hear of men who use aggressive power, rather than tender leadership, to strip their wives of dignity, strength and their right to opinions and thoughts of their own. It is unimaginable that many women are left in a position of thinking that they need a man to think for them and to validate them.
We believe, wholeheartedly, that men and women are equally special; equally valid, equally gifted, equally loved. But we believe that different roles, when embraced in complete surrender to their partner, makes a really amazing union.
I have sadly watched many couples struggle against each other, desperately trying to make sure that their own needs are met. I watched myself and my husband do this for a few years! I watch the resentment and bitterness begin to grow when each member of the team believes that the other is only thinking of themself.
My husband and I don’t always get this right, and I fully expect that we will keep practicing until the day we die. But I truly believe that by honouring your loved one above yourself, you get in line with the plan of marriage that God gave to the world, and you will find ever less conflict.
Christian wives, trust your husband to lead your family to a place that will bless you and keep you ‘holy and blameless’. Totally trust him.
And husbands , if you believe the Bible, I urge you to take up the challenge. Love your wives before you love your own bodies. Love her as you love yourself, and sacrifice your own needs and ego to lift her up as a ‘radiant church’.