Chapter 8: The Role of the Wife in Marriage
The Role of the Wife in Marriage
The Form for the Solemnization of Marriage describes the role of the wife in marriage in three places. Where the Form speaks of the mystery of marriage, her place is described with the following words:
As the Church is subject to Christ, so the wife shall be subject in everything to her husband, respect him, and entrust herself to his loving care, following the example of godly women who trusted in God and were subject to their husbands (pg 636).
As the Duties of Bride and Bridegroom are laid out before the marrying couple, the Form gives this instruction to the Bride:
Bride, you shall love your husband and be subject to him, as the Church is subject to Christ. Accept his guidance and assist him in all good things. Take proper care of your family and household, and live modestly, in faith, love, and holiness (pg 637).
In third place, the Form asks the Bride to give an affirmative answer to this question:
Do you promise to love and obey him, to assist him, and to live with him in holiness, according to the holy Gospel? (pg 638).
There are formulations in these statements that raise questions, and perhaps even one’s hackles. Is the wife indeed to “be subject to” her husband, let alone “obey” him?! Is that language not long antiquated, a throwback from a less cultured era? Does the wife not have the gifts to stand on her own, and should she not be encouraged to develop her gifts? Why must she be restricted, in subjection, to the confines her husband lays on her?
Let it first be stated unequivocally that the woman is every bit as gifted and able as a man. The Lord God in no way made the woman to have lesser capacity than the man. Both man and woman were created (and therefore gifted) to image God (Genesis 1:26,27), both equally fell into sin (Genesis 3:6), and both are equally redeemed in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28). Both receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17) and both have their individual natural gifts. That the Form speaks of the woman needing to be subject to the man has nothing to do with the man’s greater physical, emotional, mental, spiritual or financial strength (which in each case may or may not be true), but has everything to do with why God created the woman in the first place.
Why a woman?
On the sixth day of creation the Lord God fashioned a man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). The Lord then put the man He’d created into the Garden He’d prepared for the man, and gave him the instruction to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Yet when the Lord from heaven on high observed the man laboring in the Garden He concluded that “it is not good for the man to be alone,” and so decided to “make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). He did so by taking a rib from the man, fashioning a woman, and bringing her to the man (Genesis 2:22).
Notice: God called the woman into existence because of an incompleteness God had placed in the man. The woman joined the other creatures on the stage of this world because the man needed her. In another place of Scripture the Holy Spirit states expressly that the woman was created “for man” (1 Corinthians 11:9). The woman was not created to be an individual on her own, nor was she created for self-fulfillment, but she was formed to complete the man; he needs her.
The woman’s role in completing the man is caught in the word “helper” (Genesis 2:18). There is a party needing assistance, and there is a second party able to give this assistance. With ears shaped by our culture, we tend to hear in the word ‘helper’ a nuance of being ‘less than’, and so we hear something demeaning in the term. That’s not at all the loading the Lord God put in the word “helper” when He used it in Paradise. In fact, Scriptures repeatedly use the identical word to describe what God is to His people; they need assistance and He is their Helper. Just before he died, Moses blessed the people of Israel with these (concluding) words: “Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD? He is your shield and helper…” (Deuteronomy 33:29). The people had been oppressed slaves in Egypt, and God had come to their assistance. In the desert they could not find sufficient water and food, and God had been their helper. They were now about to enter the Promised Land and yet could not get across the Jordan or defeat the Canaanites on own strength; they needed the LORD as helper. There’s obviously nothing demeaning in the term; on the contrary there is for Israel great privilege in having a helper, and especially a helper as this One.
How, specifically, is the woman to fill in her mandate as helper for her husband? God’s actions as helper to Israel can give us some broad outline, for He pursued Israel’s good and supplied her needs – and the wife as helper is to do the same. Yet we get a far better sense of what the role of the wife as helper to her husband is from the song the Holy Spirit gave us in Proverbs 31.
This remarkable passage of Scripture reads as follows:
10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
31 Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
As we read this poem, a sense of failure and inadequacy can wash over us. If this is the standard a “wife of noble character” must meet, no man shall ever find such a wife, and no woman shall ever be such a wife…. Observe what this woman does: she gets up while it’s still dark, feeds her children and servants, gets involved in real estate and trading, makes clothes for her family, dresses herself in the best, hasn’t a care for cold weather or troubled times – and all the while her husband is busy with tasks outside the home. She’s obviously somewhat of what today is called a feminist, for she goes her own way; she’s a career woman who juggles the responsibility of work and family well. This is clearly a super-woman, with unlimited capacity and energy and resources, the dream woman whom none can match or find….
Yet such a reading of this portion of Scripture does injustice to what the passage says. The Holy Spirit describes her in verse 30 as “a woman who fears the LORD.” Given that she stands in awe of God and so takes the Lord for real, we rightly acknowledge that this woman of Proverbs 31 knows God’s revelation about the role of the wife as He revealed it in Genesis 2; she knows she is “helper” to her husband. Indeed, so much is she helper to her husband that “her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value” (vs 11); indeed, “she brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life” (vs 12). What drives this woman of “noble character” is not a career or a sense of satisfaction apart from her husband, but this woman is a child of the Lord who has embraced in faith the reason for her existence and so uses all her manifold gifts to be helper to her husband – for his benefit.
It should be noted at this point that the poem and the activities of this devout wife reflect the economic and social structures of Israel at the time. Instead of offices and factories as our culture knows (with its work away from home), Israel’s culture knew largely cottage industries. The husband, then, worked from the home, and so his wife (helper as she was to be in every aspect of his life) helped along too in his work. When the woman of Proverbs 31, then, “works with eager hands” and “brings her food from afar” and “provides food for her family” (vss 13-15), we are not to understand her actions as independent from her husband’s activities but instead as her using her gifts to help him in the family business, be it that she focuses on the groceries side of things. “She considers a field and buys it” (vs 16), and yet that’s not without her husband’s involvement but is instead her expression of helper to her husband as befits one who fears the Lord. The result of her diligence in her God-given task is that “her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land” (vs 23). Through her faithful help and support, he can extend his energies and influence beyond the boundaries of his property and family into the community at large – and that’s all part of taking care of the Garden God has entrusted to man.
This husband, in fact, does not hesitate to praise his wife for what she is for him. “Many women do noble things,” he exalts, “but you surpass them all” (vs 29). Very correctly is that his evaluation of his wife, for she, and she alone, is his helper. And he benefits greatly from what God his maker has given to him in her.
To emphasize further this woman’s godliness, I draw attention to the words of the Holy Spirit in vs 10, where she is described as “worth far more than rubies.” This formulation concerning her value is striking, because the identical formulation has been used earlier in the book of Proverbs in relation to wisdom. “Wisdom”, says Solomon in Proverbs 3:15 and in 8:11 “is more precious than rubies.” The woman of Proverbs 31 is “worth far more than rubies” precisely because she is wise – and Biblical wisdom involves fearing the Lord, embracing His ordinances. That is what this wife has done. She has embraced in faith God’s instruction about why He created the woman, herself included, and gives herself wholeheartedly to her God-given task beside the man of God’s choosing.
Timothy and Titus
This understanding of what it means to be a helper to one’s husband receives echo in the New Testament. Paul tells Timothy to “counsel younger widows” in his congregation “to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander” (1 Timothy 5:14). To Titus Paul writes that older women of the congregation 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, so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2:3-5).
Of significance to our topic at this point are the phrases “to manage their homes” and “to be busy at home.” The context in both passages obviously implies the presence of a husband, a man who has received from God the responsibility to look after his home and family (see Genesis 2:15). Yet now the wife is told to “manage” and to “be busy” at “home.” With these words Paul describes her task as helper beside her husband. As the woman of Proverbs 31 in faith used her energies and imagination to be a very effective helper to her husband, so the women of 1 Timothy 5 and Titus 2 are in faith to use their resources to be helpers for their husbands. They’re not to go off in pursuit of their own careers, nor are they to be busy pursuing their own friends and entertainment, but they need –says the Lord to be helper beside the husband and so devote themselves to the opportunities that come to them in the family home.
It is striking that in both the Timothy and the Titus passages Paul speaks of the outsider’s evaluation. When the wife manages the home well –and that’s to say that she carries out well her role as helper to her husband– she “gives the enemy no opportunity for slander” or “no one” has reason to “malign the word of God.” That’s because the ordinance of God in Genesis 2 is no secret to the human race; those who fear God need to take seriously what He has revealed about the reason why He created the woman in the first place. Those who call themselves Christians and claim to take His Word seriously, and yet do not live by the principle of Genesis 2 in their marriage, give occasion for unbelievers to speak evil of God and His Word.
The woman who accepts in faith the reason for her creation also acknowledges in conduct and in attitude her place under her husband. To Titus Paul wrote that wives were “to be subject to their husbands” (Titus 2:5). To the Colossians he wrote, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” (3:18). To the Ephesians he gave more detail, “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” (5:22-24). Peter said it too: “Wives, … be submissive to your husbands” (1 Peter 3:1).
The term translated in these passages as ‘subject’ or ‘submit’ is unambiguous in its meaning. A few chapters before Paul gave his instructions to wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24), he used the identical verb in relation to the exalted Savior: “God placed all things under His feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the church” (Ephesians 1:22). ‘Place … under’ is the same word in Greek as ‘submit’. Again, when Paul tells Titus that older women should teach younger women “to be subject to their husbands” (Titus 2:5), he repeats the verb four verses later: “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything” (Titus 2:9). The sense of the term is clear; it means ‘to subject or subordinate’. Husband and wife are definitely equal before God (Galatians 3:28), but God has arranged a hierarchy between the two whereby the one is the leader and the other submits to the leader. In her helping her husband, the wife takes his wishes into account, accepts them and submits to them. Again, in acknowledging his leadership, the wife accepts her husband’s instruction and directives, and submits – even as the church does to Christ.
This submission, we need to know, does not mean that the wife gives up all independent thought so as to become her husband’s subdued lackey or doormat. It is highly significant that every time the Scripture instructs the woman to submit, it does so before it addresses the husband as to his responsibility (see Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18,19; 1 Peter 3:1-7). That’s because the Lord God keeps on addressing the woman on her responsibility before God, and gives her space to act in faith. Only in second place is the husband addressed, and then he is not told to crack the whip to compel submission (perish the thought!) but to enfold his wife in love (Ephesians 5:25; Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7) and then lead her in the way God wants her to carry out her God-given position in faith.
Submission does mean that the wife embraces in humility that God her Creator fashioned her for a particular purpose. She shall flourish and reach her full potential, and enjoy life the most also, when she is what God created her to be. Submission, then, is very much an act of faith, and so entrusting herself to God’s care – a care God promises to give through this particular man. Submission (and the resulting obedience) is not a negative concept, is not a straitjacket, but a positive concept, a liberating one.
For this reason too submission may not be sporadic, but continuous. It may not be conditional (be it to moods or favors, etc), but willingly. Then it is true that the fall into sin has damaged much in the relation between husband and wife. But the renewing work of the Holy Spirit gives the wife the strength of faith and the resulting wherewithal to fulfill the purpose for her existence – as the woman of Proverbs 31 shows.
1 Peter 3
The wife’s submission to her husband has its distinct flavor. Peter gives us a sense of this flavor in the following passage:
Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear (1 Peter 3:1-6).
This particular instruction is directed to wives of unbelieving husbands. Though these husbands cannot be expected to act as a Christian husband ought to act (see Ephesians 5:25-33), the wives Peter addresses need to recognize the ordinance of Genesis 2 and act accordingly. As with the women of Proverbs 31, 1 Timothy 5:14 and Titus 2:4,5, these sisters of the congregation are to be helpers to their (unbelieving) husbands in every aspect of life (of course, without disobeying God, see Acts 5:29). These women, then, are to be driven by their faith in God, and this faith –with its resulting actions– is to draw from their husbands a recognition that God’s ordinance is good, and they in turn come to faith. In a word: the husbands are to “see the purity and reverence of [the women’s] lives” (vs 2).
Such reverence can only become manifest through a beauty that does “not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.” Not that outward adornment has no place; it does, as every husband will admit. But the outward adornment is very secondary to the true beauty of a woman, which is her faith in God and hence her quiet acceptance of the place God has given to her as helper to a particular man. This is the beauty of “your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” – for it takes seriously God’s revelation and God’s ordinance and so demonstrates respect for God (Proverbs 31:30). This is the kind of beauty that characterized “the holy women of the past who put their hope in God,” and so “were submissive to their own husbands” (vs 5). Sarah displayed that attitude, and so considered Abraham her master not just in words (see Genesis 18:12) but also in deeds – and so she obeyed her husband when God instructed him to move from their home in Ur of the Chaldeans, and obeyed again when God told Abraham to leave Haran for Canaan (see Acts 7:2-5). Rebekkah and Rachel and so many godly women did the same in the course of the years, and so became examples for the wives of Peter’s day of what submission to one’s husband means and how one is a help to him.
This stress on true beauty comes out also in Paul’s writing. He says, “I also want women to dress modestly with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (1 Timothy 2:9,10). Women who profess to worship God embrace the ordinance of Genesis 2 concerning the reason why God created the woman, and in faith such women will place emphasis on developing that their talents in that direction. Such training produces “good deeds” as “managing their homes” (1 Timothy 5:14) in accordance with her place as helper to a husband.
This, then, is also the mindset godly mothers today need to model for their daughters, and insist that the girls learn and make their own. Equally, this is the kind of girl today’s parents need to teach their boys to seek. Young Christian men do not need a wife who is caught up in her own (business) world, no more than they need a wife who is out and about as a gossip for wont of anything else to do. The Lord has ordained that a man needs a helper, one that is devoted to him and serves him with all she has.
Who Supports the Family?
At this point we need to go back to two quotes from the Marriage Form. To the husband the Form gave this instruction: “Work faithfully in your daily calling, that you may support your family and also help those in need” (page 637). To the wife the Form gives a distinctly different instruction: “Take proper care of your family and household, and live modestly, in faith, love, and holiness” (page 637). These quotes would have the husband seek the family income while the wife maintains the family home. Does the Form here echo (western) culture or Biblical principle?
The answer lies in the ordinance of Genesis 2. The Lord God first formed only the man, placed him alone in the Garden, and told him alone to “work it and take care of it” (vs 15). The care for the Garden is his task and responsibility. When God thereafter created a wife for the man, his mandate and responsibility in the Garden did not change, nor did God repeat to the woman the command to “work it and take care of it.” Her role in caring for the Garden is subservient to her role as helper to her husband. To the degree that he needs his helper in the Garden, to that degree does the woman have a task there.
The Lord God repeated this emphasis in His words to Adam and Eve on the day they fell into sin. “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing’” (Genesis 3:16). “To Adam He said, ‘…Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life…’” (Genesis 3:17). God’s conversation with the woman depicts her as busy in the home, while His words to Adam describe him as busy in the fields, gathering the family income.
This structure is behind the command of God to Israel to “not take advantage of a widow or an orphan” (Exodus 22:22). The widow (female), like the orphan, was vulnerable because there was no man to supply her needs. That the women of Paul’s days were to “manage their homes” (1 Timothy 5:14) and “be busy at home” (Titus 2:5) follows directly from the ordinance of the beginning. The principle of Scripture is indeed that the husband work faithfully in his daily calling so that he can support his family – including his wife who focuses her efforts on his responsibilities and needs in the family home (and in it all is his helper).
Does this prohibit all wives from any work outside the home? The principle is clear: the wife is to be helper to her husband. To what degree her involvement in his life (including business) can take her outside the home depends so very much on personal circumstances, talents and needs. The wife of Proverbs 31 was certainly not cloistered inside her home to the degree that she saw nothing of the outside world. Yet it ought not to be financial need or maintaining a (high) standard of living that motivates a couple to seek work for the wife. God has ordained other means to address financial stress (see 1 Timothy 5:4,8 and Acts 6:1-6).
By the ordinance of God, husband and wife are a team together, with each partner having their own specific place in the relationship. God has willed that the husband is the leader, and he needs to give leadership in the style that Christ has given leadership to the Church – He laid down His life for His bride. The wife is his helper, and she needs to serve her husband in his every need (within the condition, of course, of obedience to God). This is the task that God in wisdom has given, and it is by carrying out this task to the best of her ability that the wife will be truly free and will flourish. This generates the praise of men, for “her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her” (Proverbs 31:28). More, this generates the praise of God: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21).
The position caught in the Marriage Form brings about snickers and protests from modern people. One of two things is true: either the Form does not catch what Scripture says or it does. If the Form does not catch accurately what Scripture says, someone will need to show how Scripture teaches a better way (and at the same time how centuries of Bible interpretation was incorrect. If that cannot be done, we are duty bound to embrace in humility what God has revealed, and strive in His strength to live according to those principles in our marriages. To those who would protest that consequence I can only say: your argument is with God. And shall the pot fault the Potter for doing it wrong?? Our place is to accept in humility how the Creator has intended us to be. And the wonderful thing is this: once we accept in faith what God intended us to be (and so act accordingly) we shall flourish and feel fulfilled!
That’s no surprise, for the Maker knows best what’s in us.