Scriptural Gender Roles in Marriage

Gender roles, in and out of marriage, are widely disputed in modern society. There’s a spectrum of opinions. Some will say that there is no difference between men and women, while, on another extreme, traditionalists will espouse classic, male-dominated stereotypes as the way to live. While there are various opinions on gender roles, make no mistake: What you think about gender roles and how they work will impact your marriage on every level. In fact, I would argue that gender roles are so integral to marriage that, once you remove them, marriage ceases to function.

There are essentially two questions every couple must ask themselves - What does the Bible say about gender roles in marriage? and What does society & culture say about gender roles in marriage? What Scripture has to say about gender roles in marriage is not negotiable in the life of a Christ-follower, as with any other topic to which Scripture speaks. Once the Scriptural foundation has been laid, you can and should run what society & culture say about gender roles through the filter of that foundation, because Scripture isn’t really exhaustive on the subject. With what remains after filtering, it’s up to the couple to decide what pieces they want to apply to their marriage. It is important to note, though, that a couple should agree on cultural norms about marriage and their application. There should be some give and take, especially where spouses hail from different cultures, but ending up on the same page is crucial.

So what does the Bible have to say about gender roles?

The book of Genesis describes the creation of man and woman. In Genesis 1:27, God created both genders in his image. This unequivocally makes man and woman of equal value and worth in God’s eyes. This is so crucial because this truth becomes an umbrella principle that governs subsequent gender roles ideas. God sets a precedent by stating the equal worth and value of both genders before he gives specific roles and purposes to each gender. Adam, the first man, is created and told to work (Genesis 2:15). After Adam had been working for a time, God sees that Adam should not be alone, and creates the first woman to be with him: Eve. Eve is described as a “helper” to Adam. The evolution of this word “helper” in Scripture is incredibly important to observe. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is described as a “helper” to Christ-followers. The same word in (Greek or Hebrew) that is used to identify the Holy Spirit is used to describe Eve. This shows how critical Eve’s role is to her husband Adam. She is not someone to just follow Adam’s orders, or to follow him around. Eve, and her role as Adam’s “helper” and wife are considered just as vital as Adam and his role.

In the New Testament book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul writes to the church at Ephesus about husbands and wives and their roles in marriage. In chapter 5:22-24, Paul first tells wives to submit to their husbands, just as the church submits to Christ. Right after this, in Ephesians 5:25-32, Paul commands husbands to love their wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Paul also commands husbands to love their wives as their own bodies. Paul finishes up by summarizing in 5:33, telling husbands once again to love their wives as themselves, and telling wives to respect their husbands.

It’s really hard to get around the connotation that submission involves some kind of authority. In life, whenever we submit to someone, it’s really the authority they have that we’re submitting to. We submit to the wisdom of the elders and pastors of our churches, because they have a measure of authority over it. We submit to the instructions of police officers, because they have the authority to enforce the law. We submit to our bosses at work because they have authority over our departments or over the companies we work for.

But what is the measure of the authority that a husband has? At Not Easily Broken Ministries, we describe that authority this way: a husband has the authority to draw a map from his wife’s heart to God’s heart, to model the behaviors necessary to walk the path drawn on the map, and to motivate his spouse by Godly means to walk that same path. For a wife to submit, then, biblically, she leans into what her husband has set before her. The biblical authority of the husband is actually self-sacrificial. It’s permission & encouragement from the Godhead to take the initiative to sacrifice. The role of headship that the husband takes is not domineering or harsh. The husband’s role reflects how loving and sacrificial Christ is towards the church. On the same note, biblical submission is not weak, nor silent. Ultimately, a wife’s submission is to Christ first, then her husband. The wife’s role reflects how each member of the church willingly submits to Christ.

Ultimately, marriage was designed by God to portray Christ and the church. The purpose of marriage is to show God’s deep, unending love for his people. Marriage is not about the husband or the wife. It’s about God. In the same way, gender roles in marriage are not about the man or the woman. They are about God. When we start from this perspective, we can understand that the roles God set in place for husband and wife are designed to best show his sacrificial love to the world. The gender roles for marriage that God created for man and woman work best when they are working together, and both husband and wife are fully submitted to Christ first. When the husband is submitted to Christ first, his headship is a blessing to his wife and family, gently and firmly guiding and pointing towards Christ. When the wife is submitted to Christ first, her submission to her husband is a blessing to him and family, modeling how Christ-followers can and should submit ultimately to Christ.

Now we turn to the question of how to integrate what our societies and cultures say about gender roles in marriage? Depending on who you ask or where you find yourself, you’ll get a slew of answers that can leave you confused when you take into account how varied they are. In my opinion, the simpler, the better. If you don’t know where to start, take some time and discuss with your spouse what you both like and dislike from examples you have in your own lives. Where did you grow up? Where did your spouse grow up? Did those areas have strong marriage cultures? Did your parents?

Here’s the beauty in this. You and your spouse get to choose what this looks like. Broadly, each marriage ultimately reflects Christ and the church, but narrowly, each marriage is unique insomuch as two unique individuals have been brought together. I know some people who take the approach that the husband will work to provide, while the wife stays at home. I know others where both work. I know of some where the wife brings in the income, while the husband manages the home. None of these examples is wrong. They are simply different. However you and your spouse decide to integrate the cultural pieces is up to you, as long as you live in accordance with Scripture first and foremost.