Guest Post: On Marriage Roles

Sorry for the erratic posting recently: I’m away at the moment and in a wi-fi desert…  normal service will resume later this week.

(Also, I’m speaking at an event tomorrow and am a bit nervous, so prayers would be appreciated if you’ve any going spare…)

In the meantime however, here’s a guest post from Glen, on ‘roles in marriage’… Thanks Glen!



Glen here.

What’s the role of roles in marriage?  “Headship” and “submission” language is a hot topic.

Emma and I believe there’s a place for roles in marriage (well… Emma believes it.  I just go along with whatever she says.)   ((That was a joke)).  (((Never mind))).

But what does the Bible have to say on the subject?

Well, let’s start with God. The Father is the Head, His Son is the Body (1 Corinthians 11:3).  They’re both utterly equal (and denying this is the worst kind of heresy).  But there are also roles.

The Father sends the Son out to work and the Son accomplishes the Father’s will.  Then the Son returns to the Father, sits down, and the Father makes His enemies a footstool.  Sometimes it looks like the Son’s doing everything, sometimes it looks like the Father is doing everything, but there are clearly roles.  Some of the roles are interchangeable – working and resting goes back and forth as does giving and receiving.  But there are other non-interchangeable roles.  The Father is the ultimate sender of the Son, the Son does not send the Father.

But there’s more to which Head and Body language refers.

Christ is the Head, His Church is the Body (Ephesians 5:21-32).  Again they are equal.  By grace, the church receives everything from her Head.  We inherit the throne along with King Jesus (Rev 3:21).  But  again there are  roles.  Though we are invited into Christ’s life and status, we are invited by grace into all that He’s worked for.  He is the ultimate giver of self.  And our role, ultimately, is to receive Him (this is what faith is – John 1:12).  Christ initiates, the church receives (though, obviously Christ receives from His church too – Rev 5:12). Utter equality and distinct roles.

In many circumstances, the roles in Head/Body relationships can be inter-changeable.  But there’s a deep ‘direction of travel’.    Messing with the direction of travel messes with the union. The Son doesn’t send the Father and the Church doesn’t save Christ. If we deny the direction of travel, then the relationship doesn’t go where it’s supposed to.

So what about marriage? Ephesians 5 says that these Head and Body roles are taken on by husbands and wives…so it seems clear that there is a place for roles.  But what place?

If you only study Christ on earth, you might see a passive Father and an active Son.  If you only study Christ exalted to God’s right hand, you might see a busy Father and a resting Son.  If you only look at Christ in Gethsemane you might see a sweating Saviour and a sleeping church.  If you only look at the worship of heaven, you might see worshipping servants and a seated Lord.

Freeze-frame a marriage at any one point and either spouse might look like the active partner, either spouse might look like they are ‘taking a lead’.  And that’s a good and healthy thing.  It’s the nature of a proper relationship which thrives on give-and-take.

The thing is – and finally I’m getting to my point – we just can’t insist on one kind of action for one member of the relationship. In fact, to worry about specifics is a big mistake.  Roles is about an overall shape to the relationship in which the Head serves in love and the Body encourages and receives that serving love.  And when this shape is even approximated in human marriages, something wonderful happens.  Suddenly the  caricature of marriage is over-turned.  You know the picture – rightly derided in our culture: there’s a  good-for-nothing husband, half-man, half-sofa, watching Top Gear repeats on Dave while his embittered wife taps her foot and nags him into submission.  The gospel redeems this shadow of marriage as partners embody the true roles of Head and Body.  Where Adam was silent and Eve grasped, now husbands step forward and wives receive.  It’s a beautiful thing when true roles are played out.

But… resolving to take on these roles is not where the revolution lies.  The roles are an expression of the revolution, not the cause.

The gospel is the cause and Ephesians 5 (the passage on roles) couldn’t be clearer about it.

Notice that it’s Ephesians 5 that talks about roles.  In chapters 1-3, Paul reminds us that we are blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  We’ve been plucked from the pit of hell and raised to the heights of heaven in Jesus.  We are united together in the church and united to our Lord.  We are filled with all the fullness of God.  From chapter 4, we read of our relationships in the church.  This is where we, “together with all the saints”, grasp the love of Christ.  And then in chapter 5 Paul starts turning to our other relationships.  First we focus on our relationship to Christ, then to His people and only then to marriages (Eph 5:21-33), families (Eph 6:1-4) and the workplace (Eph 6:5-9).  The order is very significant.

Also, notice that it’s Christ’s husbandly love that undergirds all Paul’s teaching here.  Because we’ve all been recipients of perfect marital love, therefore we can do marriage right.

And finally, realize where the sentence begins.  In the Greek, everything from verse 18 to verse 22 is one sentence and it all starts with, “Be filled with the Spirit.”   That’s where marriage begins.  What we need, foundationally, is not a list of duties for husbands and wives to take on.  We need a knowledge of Christ’s love applied to our hearts by the Spirit (this is the essence of being filled with the Spirit – see Eph 3:16-17).  We need a supernatural buoyancy that comes from the Person of Christ’s Spirit dwelling deep within us.  Such strengthening is enjoyed in the context of a worshipping community (Eph 5:19) and sustained in grateful prayer (Eph 5:20).

But so often people want to jump straight in at verse 22 and tell us our roles.  Such teaching is the very essence of laying down the law.  The law tells us our place and the duties we must perform to be the people we should be.

Now there’s a place for law.  Law can diagnose.  It can point out where we fall short.  But law can never produce the Good Life it preaches.  It’s the gospel that tells us who we are through Christ.  That’s the power to produce a healthy marriage.

The other day a friend told me how he handles every husband’s struggle: i.e. not loving his wife.  He said “All the marriage books say to Act like you love her and the feelings will follow.  This only ever produced resentment in me.  But when I stopped trying to work it up, I looked to Christ and was freed, forgiven and given a new joy to love my wife.”  That’s how the gospel changes everything.

Of course there are roles.  Of course husbands should “love their wives.”  Of course wives should respect their husbands.  Of course these are the very things we struggle with as sinful men and women.  And of course a healthy marriage will involve the overturning of these sinful patterns.  But they won’t be overturned by focusing on the roles.  Nor will they be solved by coming up with a one-size-fits-all blueprint for marriage.  Above all things: hear the gospel of Christ, be Spirit-filled, be part of a worshipping community that speaks the truth in love and in that explicit context think through Head and Body in your marriage.  That’s the role of roles.




4 thoughts on “Guest Post: On Marriage Roles

  1. This is such a refreshing post. Thank you Glen and Emma! I think this is so helpful in a time where “roles” and your place is becoming so much more important in church. It often gets confusing!

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