Biblical Marriage Management:
The method whereby husband and wife should manage their marriage has been debated since Adam and Eve. Ideas preached and practiced range from the absolute husband dictatorship—what ever he says is law, to co-equal authority to partners attempting to reach a consensus on each decision, to no organized plan whatever, with the spouse that fights the hardest or longest on each particular issue getting their way. The Bible teaches none of these methods.
To understand the biblical teaching on how to manage a marriage, it is vital to understand the biblical concept of authority. This concept sinks to the very heart of how God works with mankind and what true religion is about. In the Bible, God gave to individuals, as well as to nations, natural resources, commandments, and dozens, sometimes hundreds of years to see if they would obey Him. Sometimes they did, but usually they did not. The Bible records God’s judgments on some of these individuals and nations. It generally sticks to the big events, good or bad. One of the central themes of the Bible is the return of Jesus Christ to the earth to thoroughly judge it in righteousness (Is 9:6; Jer 23:5; Acts 10:42; 17:31; Rom 2:5, 16; 2Tim 4:1; Jude 1:14; Rev 15:3-4; 16:7; 19:2).
By great contrast, man-made religion is frequently about writing long lists of detailed acts that are supposed to be “righteousness”, and either forcing people to obey them or condemning them for not doing so. This happened at the time of Jesus and it is still happening today. Notice:
Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. 3 For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches. 5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?" 6 He answered and said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me (Mark 7:2-6).
How many people today think the saying “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is in the Bible? How many religious denominations today have all sorts of rules and practices that are not from the Scripture, but which they regard as essential to the Christian life and ultimate salvation?
If doing a lot of pre-programmed, specific things produces a happy life, or ultimately salvation, then indeed the formula for life should be to write the longest, most thorough book of righteous practices possible, and then enforce its contents on the entire planet. A governmental hierarchy and a military force would certainly help this process. Fathers everywhere would simply be the lowest link in this hierarchy, enforcing the man-made rules on their hapless wives and children. But that is not what God says:
He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8).
Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (Jms 1:27).
Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin (Jms 4:17).
The Bible gives us many commands and examples of good and evil, and teaches us to choose the good and reject the evil, but it does not give us a formula whereby we may achieve righteousness.
“Governance”, Not “Dominion”
The book of Genesis marvelously sets down the parameters whereby mankind exists and is to operate. The Bible makes very clear the type of authority that people are supposed to have over each other. Genesis 1:26-27 shows that mankind, both men and women, were created “in the image of God”. We are indeed God’s children, as many other verses show (Matt 5:9; Luke 20:36; Rom 8:16, 21; Gal 3:26; 1Jo 5:2). Mankind was to have dominion (Hebrew radah, Strong’s #7287) over the whole earth and every living thing on it (Gen 1:26, 28). “Dominion” means to have complete charge of, to do whatever one wants with it, either good or bad. Mankind had the right to use, domesticate, train, kill and even eat plants and animals. But neither men nor women were given this same kind of dominion over each other. A study of all the uses of this Hebrew word radah in the Bible shows us that it does not apply to marriage:
By contrast, the Hebrew word used to describe Adam’s governance of Eve (Gen 3:16) is mashal (Strong’s #4910). It frequently describes positive, beneficial governance. For example, the sun and moon “governed” over the day and night—providing a useful light (Gen 1:18). Abraham has a good servant that ruled over his house (Gen 24:2). Joseph was a good governor of Egypt (Gen 45:8, 26). The men of Israel asked Gideon to rule over them in this matter (Jdgs 8:22-23).
The government given to Moses, and successfully implemented by Joshua and the Elders (Josh 24:31), did not set up a king or anyone else to issue orders to people. Even in time of war, a man was not forced to serve in the military (Deut 20:8; Jdgs 7:3). People were sovereign upon their own land. It was only when a person had a conflict with their neighbor that
"If there is a dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked” (Deut 25:1).
The New Testament teaching on “dominion” verses governance is less extensive, but similar to the Old. The Greek words kurieuo and katakurieu (Strong’s #2961 and #2634) are frequently translated with the idea of “dominion” or “lordship”. Jesus and the apostles clearly taught that Christian leaders and governors should not act in this manner:
Jesus told them, "In this world the kings and great men lord it over [exercise dominion over] their people, yet they are called 'friends of the people.' 26 But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. 27 Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27. Matt 20:25-26 & Mark 10:42-44 are similar).
This approach to leadership has been so common for so long that many people accept it as right. We call our leaders “great men” or “public servants’. Their campaign managers and the press go to great extent to picture them as “nice guys”. But most people are afraid of encounters with the police, courts, taxing agencies and other public leaders. Christ is saying that family leadership should not be like that. The leader should go out of his way to serve the others as Christ did among his disciples, but he can also make the key decisions as Christ did among His disciples.
Other uses of the Greek words for “dominion” follow. None of them are the kind of leadership that Christ wants men to have now.
Finally, Christ used the analogy of a shepherd for the leadership His servants were to exhibit, not “lording it over” as worldly leaders do:
Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; (1Pet 5:2-3).
Not that we [the apostles] have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy; for by faith you stand (2Cor 1:24).
Learning to Say: “That Applies to Me”
Only with this understanding of the godly governance can we begin to approach the subject of managing marriages. To this day, many Christian men take the approach, “If I’m in charge, my wife has to do whatever I say,” and apply this to nearly every minor issue of life. This approach makes both persons miserable: the wife because she has to follow unreasonable dictates or because she is simply deprived of decision-making that should be hers; and the husband because he is frustrated that his wife is not following a course of action that was unreasonable in the first place.
Unfortunately, many long-time Christians may understand these biblical principles of governance, and believe they are following them when they, to a large degree, are not! Specifically:
It would be best if husbands and wives in these cases would talk their problems over, with counselors, ministers or friends. Often, one or both parties in a marriage want to talk about only their spouse’s problems—not their own problems. Some are utterly adept at deflecting every question posed about them into a problem with their spouse. Others will find an excuse for stopping the conversation when the subject turns to their own difficulties. The wise believer will not be dissuaded by these things, but make sure the important matters are discussed.
Is Governance the Issue? Often Not!
Most troublesome issues between husbands and wives are not matters of governance at all. Rather, they are:
These issues generally do not require governance to solve, but simply the willingness of each spouse to recognize their own faults, the desire to change and asking God to change them. The biblical principles of conflict resolution (Matt 18:15-17, Gal 6:1; 1Cor 6:4-5) should be used between husband and wife. This paper will not deal any further with these non-governance issues, even though they are often the most important. Many good books and videos are available on the subject from Christian books stores or web sites.
But even when these issues are “under control” in a marriage (the are never perfect), lasting marital peace may not be found if there is neither understanding nor commitment to the biblical principles expounded in the next few sections: Here we deal with marriage management, the cases where there is a difference of opinion as to the goals and objectives of the marriage.
Husbands Leaders of Marriages
The Bible instruction on how Godly governance is to be used in marriage is best summarized in the book of Ephesians, chapter 5. We start with instruction that is sometimes misunderstood to establish a consensus management between husband and wife. Verse 21 might give that impression if it is read with the verses following it, which are addressed to husbands and wives But, verse 21 is actually the end of a thought that is addressed to the entire church:
Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, 20 giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another in the fear of God (Eph 5:17-21).
This “submitting to one another” is not eliminating any spiritual gifts or leadership in the Church—submission exists there too (1Cor 16:15-16; 1Thes 5:12-13; Heb 13:17, 24), but is up-holding the serving, shepherding leadership of Christ explained in previous sections. The final phrase “in the fear of God” is all-important. It should be the goal of all believers to seek God’s will above their own. It expresses that God’s will may be revealed by His spirit to any believer (1Cor 2:9-10). On those occasions when believers have different understandings of the will of God, they can go their separate ways and continue to serve him (Acts 15:39-40).
The same Greek word for submitting one to another is used for wives submitting to husbands in the verses below. This is not dictatorial dominion, but the gentle governance described elsewhere in scripture. Here, God does not specify a mutual submission in order to preserve the permanence of marriage. He commands the husband to manage the marriage with the love of Christ and the woman to accept that leadership:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. 25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, 26 that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, 27 that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. 28 So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself (Eph 5:22-28).
This same instruction is repeated in various ways a number of times in the Bible. It is not an addition or a translation error. Sure, these verses have been used by evil men as an excuse to oppress women. But that sin does not negate their right and godly meaning:
But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God (1Cor 11:3).
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them (Col 3:18-19).
Let a woman in quietness learn in all subjection, and a woman I do not suffer to teach, nor to rule a husband, but to be in quietness (1Tim 2:11-12, YLT).
The older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things — 4that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed (Titus 2:3-5).
In the same way, you wives must accept the authority of your husbands. Then, even if some refuse to obey the Good News, your godly lives will speak to them without any words. They will be won over 2 by observing your pure and reverent lives. 3 Don't be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. 4 You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. 5 This is how the holy women of old made themselves beautiful. They trusted God and accepted the authority of their husbands. 6 For instance, Sarah obeyed her husband, Abraham, and called him her master. You are her daughters when you do what is rightwithout fear of what your husbands might do. 7 In the same way, you husbands mustgive honor to your wives. Treat your wife with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God's gift of new life. Treat her as you should so your prayers will not be hindered (1Pet 3:1-7).
Peter’s words here contain a massive amount of valuable teaching. It is not popular, even in the church today, but it is true. For wives:
There is also a lot of teaching for husbands:
Wives with Magnanimous Lives
Proverbs 31 describes God’s version of a good wife. Besides fearing God, being personally organized, taking care of her family and able to manage her household in peace, she is buying and selling real estate, organizing distant trade, manufacturing goods, helping the poor and many other good things. It appears that she is directing all of these efforts while her husband attends to affairs of state in the city gate. This is hardly the timid wife who is only a shadow of her husband, but a capable person in her own right. She simply has a husband who coordinates the activities of the two of them, and has the sense to let her do what she does well. We see something about what God expected of marriage management here:
And if she be married to a husband, while her vows are upon her, or the clear utterance of her lips, wherewith she hath bound her soul; 7 and her husband hear it, whatsoever day it be that he heareth it, and hold his peace at her; then her vows shall stand, and her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand. 8 But if her husband disallow her in the day that he heareth it, then he shall make void her vow which is upon her, and the clear utterance of her lips, wherewith she hath bound her soul; and the LORD will forgive her (Num 30:6-8, JPS).
While we may not make vows in the same way today, we can still learn a lot about how a husband should manage the serious decisions of his wife—such as a promise to God. Suppose she promised to give a valuable thing to God if He blessed her in a certain way. The husband, on the other hand, may have other plans for this valuable thing—maybe even promised to sell it. This law does not allow the husband to contradict his wife any time he wants, but allows his wife to make an independent decision, subject to his timely oversight. The wisest choice for the woman would probably be to tell her husband on the day she makes the vow—that way she will know whether it will stand or not. But if her husband is gone or too busy at the time, she has flexibility to wait till he can hear it. Lastly, she could wait until the day it was time to pay her vow—the husband still has the right to cancel it then.
We can see an example of this in 1 Samuel chapter 1. Elkanah and Hannah did not have any children together. She wanted children, but his solution to her was to tell her “am not I better to you than 10 sons?” So Hannah petitioned God in the Temple for a son, vowing to dedicate him to God’s service. God heard her prayer and her husband accepted her vow to take Samuel to serve in the temple when he was weaned. When Elkanah normally took the whole family to the temple the first year after Samuel was born, Hannah said she did not want to go this time. Elkanah accepted her request saying “do what seems best to you”. Only a foolish husband has to overrule his wife just to show that he has control.
The Bible has other laws governing men’s leadership in marriage. Some are this simple:
"When a man has taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war or be charged with any business; he shall be free at home one year, and bring happiness to his wife whom he has taken (Deut 25:5).
God clearly allows women to take on responsibilities normally associated with men when the men are not fulfilling them. For example, the daughters of Zelophehad petitioned Moses and ultimately God to establish a statute in Israel allowing a man’s inheritance to pass to his daughters if he has no sons. (Num 27:1-8). Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, was a prophetess, judge and leader of Israel (Jdgs 4:4-9). Jael, wife of Heber, is praised in the Scripture for killing Sisera, an enemy general, by nailing his head to the ground, whereas some men are cursed for refusing to come to the battle against him (Jdgs 5:23-27). Jehoshabeath, wife of Jehoiada the priest, on her own volition hid Joash, one of the kings sons, when Athaliah was killing all the royal heirs (2Chr 22:11). It was a great success. Seven years later, her husband planned a coup, put Joash on the throne, and had Athaliah killed.
Of the two people who had revelations to know who Jesus was when his parents took him to the temple, one was a man, Simeon, and one was a woman, Anna (Luke 2:25-36). Most of the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were women!
These examples are not to say that women can only be fulfilled by competing with men—that is not the general teaching of Scripture. But they demonstrate that the Bible places few limits on what God allows women to do. (There were a few: the high priest had to be a man, the twelve apostles were men, etc.). Husbands ought to realize this great scope that God allows and not unnecessarily limit their wives. Both men and women are striving together to receive the promises to Abraham (Gal 3:28-29). Men have a few tasks assigned to them, but women have some as well:
Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints' feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work. But refuse the younger widows; for when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry (1Tim 5:9-11).
To Obey or Disobey,