What are your dreams for your marriage? If you are the woman, do you visualize yourself absorbed in domesticity? Can you see yourself immersed in a routine of cooking, cleaning, mending, ironing, shopping, and writing your husband's letters? Do you want to be "just" a home-maker and the bearer of children? If those questions sound absurd, even repugnant, pause to reflect that they contain a definition of the traditional wifely role. It may not be your idea of womanhood, but it was the style of life expected and accepted by our forbears. Similarly, the husband's role was clearly defined. He was to be the bread-winner, the provider, the protector of his wife and family.
In the past, as we saw in chapter 5, couples adopted these "spouse roles" without question. A successful marriage depended largely on each partner's ability to fulfil his or her function. Some couples lived together happily; some did not. But intimacy was a bonus, an added extra. Marriage was deemed successful without this perk. Role fulfillment was the make-or-break point of the union.
But today all that has changed. Few couples, if any, marry in order to fulfil a role. On the contrary, couples marry for happiness, for intimacy, for comradeship. Edward Carpenter describes this desire superbly:
That there should exist one other person in the world toward whom all openness of interchange should establish itself, from whom there should be no concealment; whose body should be as dear to one, in every part, as one's own; with whom there should be no sense of Mine or Thine, in property or possession; into whose mind one's thoughts should naturally flow, as it were to know themselves and to
receive a new illumination; and between whom and oneself there should be a spontaneous rebound of sympathy in all the joys and sorrows and experiences of life; such is perhaps one of the dearest wishes of the soul.1
This desire is the greatest longing of most people who marry today. This yearning seems inconsistent with traditional marriage, and so couples are being encouraged to discard stereotyped marriages like shedding outworn garments. But, as Christians, are we right to strip off our entire heritage? Are there remnants which should and must be salvaged? Is it possible to create a companionship marriage within the well-tried framework of the wife adopting a domestic role while her husband concentrates on providing for the family?
Failure to confront these questions leads to conflict. A misunderstanding of role delineation results, not in the freedom promised by the humanists and feminists, but in bondage. As Christians we shall not want to become enslaved to the world's view. We shall want to adventure forth into marriage with purpose, understanding and flexibility. We must not, therefore, prostitute ourselves to humanist ideology. As God's people, we will start with the Bible's teaching, not man's. We will write our rules in accordance with God's plan, not the world's. What does the Bible teach about fixed roles?
Titus 2:4-5 puts the woman's role in a nutshell: "Train the younger women to love their husbands and children .... to be busy at home, to be kind, to be subject to their husbands..." And Ephesians 5:23 crystallizes the husband's God-given role: "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."
The next chapter of this book focuses on the question of headship and submission. But what do these other wifely functions entail? And what does this verse imply for husbands who take Christ as their prototype?
The role of the wife (Titus 2:4-5)
The wife must love her husband. I have already attempted to highlight some aspects of marital love (see chapter 11). This love
includes giving another a zest for life. Today, so much emphasis is placed on the urgent need women have to receive education and training to fulfil themselves and find the answer to the "Who am I?" question, that we are in danger of ignoring man's deepest need. It is the need to feel wanted, approved, applauded by this wife. Irene Claremont de Castillejo puts it well. Young women
are still buoyed up by the exhilaration of their newly found status. They continue to be wives and mothers, yet are successful in man's world as well. But in so doing they often fail to realize how precarious men feel, and how much the particular man needs his woman to believe in him and to welcome his vision with as much warmth and tenderness as she accepts his child.
He looks to her for recognition of his unique personalness. He does not want to be merely the man about the house, the husband whose duty it is to earn money, and wash up after supper. Perhaps man's need is to be trusted even more than to be understood. He needs to be believed in, and his work, whether she understands it or not, to be given full value.2
When a wife fails to believe in her husband, she slowly destroys him and the marriage. I think of one young executive whose self-confidence was eroded by his wife's total disregard for his value and uniqueness. He found himself leading a double existence. "I am responsible in my branch of the business for the jobs of nearly eighty employees and for the operation of a business turning over a million pounds a year. Do I worry about it? Does decision-making bother me? Do I feel over-burdened or unworthy in that area of my life? No! No way do I feel second to anyone while I am at work. So why do I feel so inadequate as a husband?"
The reason he could not make firm decisions at home was that his wife did not trust him. A lack of trust is also a lack of love.
Are you contemplating marriage? If so,
Wives-to-be, are you prepared to renounce the pursuit of self-actualization,
discovering yourself, striving to keep your career, struggling to center life on yourself?
Are you prepared to stand by your husband, be loyal to him and support him in his career?
How do you feel about expressing love for him in this way?
Do you believe in him?
And how do you feel about the vocation to motherhood? This is another "fixed wifely role" which is not only contained in the Bible but which is also a biological fact. The woman conceives babies. This makes inevitable inroads on her career, time, energy, body, hormones and emotions. Are you prepared to accept this role? If not, perhaps you should choose not to marry?
Of course, bringing children into the world demands not just motherhood but parenthood. The need today is for full-time mothers and devoted fathers.
How do you feel about devoting your lives to your future offspring?
The husband's role (Ephesians 5:21ff.; Ezekiel 16)
In the past it was thought that the husband's responsibility stopped at providing for his wife materially. If he contributed an adequate, regular salary and a roof over her head, he had fulfilled his duty. He was a successful husband. This impoverished view of the man's role is unbiblical. As Paul puts it, the husband must love his wife in the same way as Christ loves His bride. This provision is all-inclusive. It is material (Matthew 6:26-32), spiritual (John 3:16), emotional (Ezekiel 16:6) and intensely practical (e.g., John 13:5). What is this example saying to husbands today?
The discernment of Christ, which recognizes not just the surface needs of His bride but which penetrates into the deep recesses of her psyche to recognize and meet her unspoken needs, must also be imitated by Christian husbands. Just as man has a craving to be trusted, his wife has a yearning to be acknowledged and loved for who she is. She has a need to be set free to become the person God made her to be. This is life; the abundant life Jesus promised. How can a husband draw out his wife's fullest potential?
The secret lies in Ephesians 5:21. This Christ-like headship
expresses itself in self-giving. Even the Son of man came, not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). The pattern for husbands to follow is a superlative standard of self-sacrifice which is unafraid to stoop to do filthy, menial tasks.
Husbands-to-be, are you prepared to assist your partner in the mundane, domestic chores so that she is free to express herself outside the confines of the home?
How do you feel about expressing your love for her in this way?
When a husband recognizes his wife's latent talents and promotes them, he is expressing Christ-like love. When a husband acknowledges the sacrifices his wife makes to create a happy home and makes provision for her to push out the boundaries of her own existence, it is Christ-like love that he is demonstrating. And when a man refuses to leave his wife with heart-wounds that will not stop bleeding, but makes emotional provision for her, he is fulfilling his role as a husband in the fullest sense of that word. Role fulfillment is not task-oriented; it is an attitude.
When both partners allow their attitudes to be transformed by Christ, they stop fighting for rights. Instead, they seek out ways of ensuring that neither abdicates his / her God-given role, that each assists the other in fulfilling this role. Intimacy and comradeship are not excluded. On the contrary, this togetherness is the driving force thrusting the couple into the adventure of marriage, a journey characterized by flexibility in love.
But this attempt to combine warmth, flexibility and God-given roles is a challenge which exasperates many newlyweds.
How do you do it?
One answer is to explore the possibilities of chore creativity. A simple time-and-motion study quickly highlights which domestic tasks need performing daily, weekly, monthly. A flexible couple enjoy deciding who will do which job and when. It can be great fun discovering new ways of coping with chores as thoroughly and speedily as possible. But, of course, this is not just enjoyable, it is also common sense and a wise stewardship of time.
Wise stewardship results in some couples reversing the traditional roles within this basic framework. Take Philip and Mary, for example. Philip makes excellent bread. Mary is astute with figures. While he bakes the weekly batch of bread, she balances the books.
How will your gifts dovetail with each other?
This role flexibility within the framework we have considered nurtures intimacy. It does not destroy it. It is the rigid, inflexible adherence to stereotyped patterns which causes marriages to disintegrate, as Michael and Wendy found.
Wendy was a graduate. After she married Michael she insisted on continuing her professional career. After all, why waste her qualifications? She refused to accept her domestic role. This dismayed her husband, whose expectations of his wife were high. "My expectations of the way she would care for our possessions, the furniture, carpets, house, didn't materialize. So I used to nag. She wouldn't even clean the house. The carpets were filthy. She would never dust the skirting-boards. I even had a tussle to get her to iron my shirts."
The intransigence of both partners, not lack of role clarification, resulted in back-biting, blaming and the fracture of their union. How could this breakdown have been avoided?
Michael was right to view himself as the provider. The Bible does. He was also right to expect Wendy to care for their home. The Bible does. But nothing was resolved by nagging, blaming and fighting. Rather, love for Wendy would have recognized her need to develop her talents. It would have discovered ways of assisting her so that she could fulfil her domestic role as well as express herself outside the home. But then, Wendy did not help by standing on her rights. "There is nothing so ruthless as a woman with a cause between her teeth."3 And, of course, they could have foreseen some of these problems if they had planned ahead for these early adjustments of marriage.
How do you feel about chore creativity?
How could it work for you?
The biblical norm is that the wife is responsible for the domestic smooth-running of the home; her husband is the provider.
Any blurring of these roles should be temporary and mutually acceptable. In the present climate, it is sometimes necessary to reverse these roles, to allow the woman to become the temporary bread-winner if her husband is unemployed, disabled or ill, or if he is completing his training and she is already qualified. This occasional reversal of normal tasks can be fun, but it can impose a strain on both. And when a wife attempts to hold down a full-time job as well as run a home, she may become drained or exhausted. That is why the current clamour to set women free from domesticity frequently proves to be, not freedom, but slavery to a more tyrannical master. Many young wives collapse physically, mentally and spiritually when this strain is imposed on them.
So wherein lies the source of true marital fulfillment? Zestful, creative, outgoing couples are those who know that they were born to accomplish His will for them. Their life seeks to be a living response to the plan He unfolds for them. Two people who unite to encourage one another to achieve this aim do not become colorless people. They become colorful for God; strong, capable, trusted, reliable (see Proverbs 31). They are free.
The world does not recognize this spacious freedom. But as Christians we are often called to run counter to the world's wisdom. We are to become fools for Christ. In this folly of Christ we find ourselves, and we discern that God's purpose is being worked out in our marriage.
No one forces these roles on you, but they are a part of Christian marriage.
How do you feel about accepting marriage with its role responsibility?
Would you prefer the freedoms of singleness?
Chapter 13 || Table of Contents
1. Quoted by David and Vera Mace, We Can Have Better Marriages If We Really Want Them, Oliphants, 1975, p.59.
2. Irene Claremont de Castillejo, Knowing Woman, Harper Colophon Books, 1973, p.55.
3. Knowing Woman, p.56.