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Well, This is a Little Awkward...
Before we get to the main game, I just want to apologise for my unplanned two months writing hiatus! Things have been a bit crazy around here and the next few months are also looking a bit dicey 😬. But I’ll do my very best to not let another eight weeks pass without infiltrating your inbox once again!
This image recently popped up on my socials. It was liked and shared by a bunch of my Christian friends. Some male married Christian friends particularly seemed to think it was great. A bunch of them gave it a hearty thumbs up. They offered it a resounding “amen”. They said that this, this right here, is what it means to be a true/good/loving Christian husband.
(NB. I’ve tried to verify the accuracy, source and authorship of this quote. However, I was only able to find other images just like this one. None of them provided any specific details about where it originally came from.)
And yet I gotta say that this image, or rather the quote in it, left me feeling a bit… awkward.
Now, let me say up front that I have no idea who Paul Washer is. Maybe I should, but I don’t. And so, what follows has absolutely nothing to do with Paul Washer personally (whoever he may be). I also realise there is likely to be some reading this right now who are already thinking “Ah, here we go. Another article attacking marriage”. No. What follows is the exact opposite of an attack on marriage.
You see, I think marriage matters. I think it matters a lot. And that’s why I think we need to have an awkward conversation about this quote, and other similar evangelical-vibey-type quotes about marriage.
So, strap yourselves in for a marital conversation as awkward as this AI generated wedding portrait.
The Awkward Truth
“Treat your wife better than you treat anything or anyone. That’s your covenant with God. That’s your first ministry. To love her the way Christ loves the church is a high calling. If you fail at that, you’ve failed at everything.”
It sounds right doesn’t it? It sounds honourable. And godly. It sounds like it takes marriage seriously. That it puts marriage in its proper biblical light. It sounds like a quote which properly honours wives. It sounds like the sort of quote that evangelical Christians (especially married evangelical Christians) ought to get behind and give a hearty “Amen!” too.
But here’s the thing. I reckon the fourth sentence is the only part of that quote that is biblical. Which means I reckon all the rest of it is not just hyperbole or rhetorical flourish, but deeply unbiblical. And so I also reckon that all those unbiblical bits are detrimental to the institution of marriage, to husbands, to wives, to others they are in relationship with, and to the church.
Let me explain why I say that, one awkward truth at a time.
AWKWARD TRUTH #1: Husbands are not called to treat their wives better than anyone or anything.
Treat your wife better than you treat anything or anyone.
Scripture has a number of things to say about how a husband ought to treat his wife. He should fulfil his marital duty and yield his body to her (1 Cor 7:3-4). He should love his wife as he loves his own body and self (Eph 5:28, 33). He should not be harsh towards her (Col 3:19). He should treat her with respect, as a co-heir in Christ (1 Pet 3:7). And of course, he is to love her as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25). So yes, the Bible has a lot to say about the distinctive ways a husband is to treat his wife.
But where exactly does the Bible say that a husband is to treat his wife better than he treats anyone else? #spoileralert: It doesn’t.
Scripture gives clear directives about how a husband is to treat his wife in ways which are different to how he treats his children, his parents, his neighbour, or any other person in his life. But it never once says that he is to treat her BETTER than he treats those other people. It never once gives him a “out” to not treat those other people with the same degree of diligence, love and care he offers to his wife. In fact, I’d suggest it says just the opposite.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Jesus did not say, “Love your spouse as yourself. Treat her better than anyone else in your life. Then see how much love you’ve got left in the tank to give to others. Just make sure they always take a backseat to your wife. Make sure you treat her better than you treat them”.
Yes, Christians husbands are to love their wives as they love themselves (Eph 5:33). But that’s because they are Christians. It’s because all Christians are called to love all others as they would love themselves… even as the expression of that love will look different in different relationships.
Nowhere does God exhort us to treat someone in our lives with a lesser degree of diligence, care, respect and honour just because we aren’t married to them. Nowhere does God instruct us to treat one image-bearer better than we treat another image-bearer because they wear our ring.
The exhortation for a husband to treat his wife better than anyone or anything is not a biblical exhortation.
AWKWARD TRUTH #2: In marriage, husbands covenant with their wife. Not with God.
That’s your covenant with God.
We’ve just seen that ‘treating your wife better than anyone or anything else’ is not what a husband promises to do when he gets married (Pssst: “Forsaking all others” is not a promise to treat others in your life with lesser care than you treat your wife. It’s a promise to not have sex with or marry anyone else since you are married to this woman.)
But more to the point, this second sentence of the quote gets both marriage and covenant wrong. You see, a husband’s marital covenant is not with God. It’s with his wife.
Absolutely, marriage is a covenant designed by God. It is a covenant entered into in the sight of God. It is a covenant blessed by God. It is a covenant which God will hold each party accountable to.
But when a man makes covenantal promises he is making them to the woman he is marrying. When a husband promises to love, comfort, honour and keep his wife in sickness and in health, till death do them part, he is promising to do that with and for and to that woman.
A wife is not a passive or invisible party in her own marital covenant. She is the recipient of her husband’s promises, just as he is the recipient of her’s. Marital promises are made before God. But they are not made to God.
The claim that a husband’s marital covenant is a matter between him and God is not a biblical claim.
AWKWARD TRUTH #3: Your wife is not your first ministry.
That’s your first ministry.
Look, let’s just be honest. Marriage (and family) as ‘first ministry’ is a contemporary evangelical shibboleth. If you need evidence of that, look no further than online bio after online bio of many pastors:
Husband to A. Father to B,C &D. Pastor at XYZ.
There is no ambiguity about the order or priority in this telling. If you’re a married Christian (whether in ministry leadership or not) then by evangelical default and decree, your spouse and your family is meant to be your first, primary and ultimate ministry. Everything else comes second to that. Nothing else is as important as that.
But is that actually what the Bible teaches?
A friend of mine has written a superb article exploring that exact question, with particular respect to those in ministry leadership. In The Pastor and the Evangelical Priority List, Simon Flinders (himself a husband, father and pastor) writes:
But these two responsibilities [family or congregation] are not easily reducible to a simplistic formula. Those of us who are both pastors and husbands/fathers turn to the Scriptures and find that both of these serious privileges have been laid on our shoulders. Meeting the demands of each is a complex exercise and a constant juggling act. Yet, as I suggest, nowhere do we find the Bible simplifying this complexity. Therefore I’m just not sure that the idea that the family is the pastor’s ‘first congregation’ is biblical. I think this is because God knows how complex life is: he knows that it would be simplistic (and, perhaps, counterproductive) to offer a simple formula for steering a course through the complexities… He hasn’t given us a clear priority list—as if one act of obedience is more important to him than another. So far be it from us to invent and broadcast a slogan that God has not deemed best for us.
I think Simon is spot on. ‘Marriage/family as first ministry’ is an unhelpful, unworkable and, most significantly, unbiblical oversimplification.
Furthermore, it’s a slogan which has manifested itself in our time and context largely because of the way the contemporary West has increasingly isolated, separated and nuclearised the “family” from both the church and the broader community. (I’ve written/spoken more about this here).
Now you might be unconvinced by both my and Simon’s arguments (though if you are feeling doubtful then I would ask you to make sure you’ve read his in full). But perhaps the Apostle Paul might be able to convince you?
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not.
- 1 Cor 7:29
Now THAT’S an awkward verse isn’t it?
The Apostle Paul quite literally says that in the now-but-not-yet those who have wives should live as if they do not have wives. How does that gel with the idea that your first, ultimate, top, and primary ministry is to your wife? How does that gel with all those Christian bios of men whose first order of business is making sure everyone knows they do indeed have a wife?
Look, there is no doubt about it. This is a complicated verse (indeed passage). While it’s difficult to know exactly what Paul means here (I’ve got some ideas, but that is for another time), we can confidently identify what he doesn’t mean. He doesn’t mean husbands should abandon their wives. He doesn’t mean husbands should pretend their wives don’t exist. He doesn’t mean husbands should neglect their wives. He doesn’t mean any of those things because he’s just said the opposite to all of them in the very same chapter.
But while we have outstanding questions about this verse’s full range of meaning and application, there is one thing we can know for sure about it. In 1 Corinthians 7:29 the Apostle Paul exhorts Christian husbands to not make their marriages all and everything. As he exhorts those who have a wife to live as if they do not have a wife, the very minimum of what Paul means is that Christian husbands are not to make their wives the very first and fullest and focused thing in their lives. That really does sit awkwardly today doesn’t it?
There is so much more to say about this verse’s meaning and application. Plus, we could even complicate things further by throwing in Jesus’ words (in Lk 14:28) that anyone not willing to hate his wife and children cannot be his disciple. Yikes! But this is not the time or the place for such detailed discussion. My basic point here is a simple one.
The assertion that a husband is to always make his wife his first ministry is not a biblical assertion.
AWESOME TRUTH #4: To be a husband is a high calling indeed.
To love her the way Christ loves the church is a high calling.
Look, I fixed it.
AWKWARD TRUTH #5a: The Christian life is not viewed through the lens of failure and success.
If you fail at that, you’ve failed at everything.
Husbands, you are a sinner. And so you’re going to stuff things up in your marriage. You’re going to stuff up loving your wife as Christ loved the church. You have already done that. You are going to do it again.
Of course, that reality check is not an excuse to stop applying yourself to the task of loving her as you should. It’s not a reason to decide to just throw in the towel because it’s all too hard. Far from it!
But husbands, know this:
The Christian life is not viewed through the lens of failure, but through the lens of forgiveness and faithfulness
The Christian life is not viewed through the lens of success, but through the lens of salvation and sanctification.
The prophet Isaiah said:
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.
- Isaiah 64:6a
Even when you are “succeeding” as a husband, your best successes are still nothing more that filthy rags. Your greatest moral moments as a husband are still nothing more than polluted garments.
God doesn’t give husbands a “pass” or a “fail” mark in their marriages based on how many times they do or don’t stuff things up. Instead, he gives them forgiveness in Christ. He gives them fruitfulness in the Holy Spirit. He gives them his grace which:
…teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
- Titus 2:12-14
Husbands, don’t focus on “failure”. Focus of forgiveness and faithfulness. Don’t focus on “success”. Focus on salvation and sanctification. You are God’s workmanship. You were created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand, so that you might walk in them. (Eph 2:10).
The characterisation of a husband as one who either fails or succeeds in his marriage is not a biblical characterisation.
AWKWARD TRUTH #5b: Stuffing up as a husband does not mean you’ve stuffed up everything.
If you fail at that, you’ve failed at everything.
Husbands, if and when you don’t bear husbandly fruit in your marriage—if and when you don’t love your wife as you ought—then repent and ask our gracious God to change you by his Spirit and according to his word.
But don’t believe any nonsense that in stuffing up as a husband you’ve stuffed up at and in everything.
I mean in one sense, yes, of course you’ve stuffed up at everything. That’s Isaiah’s point above, right? Nothing we sinners do could ever be good enough to make us righteous. We humans are really, really good at stuffing things up.
But don’t believe this nonsense that if you’re struggling with your sanctification as a husband, that the Spirit isn’t still bearing good fruit and good works in other parts of your life. Don’t for a moment believe this nonsense that if you’ve failed to love your wife as you should (whether that be on one or many occasions) then nothing else matters. Your godly obedience as a man is not completely summed up in and totally reliant upon your godly obedience as a husband.
Yes, your marriage is vitally important, significant, unique and meaningful. To you has been given the very high calling of loving your wife as Christ loves the church. That is huge! And yet, it is not the sum total of your life. Being a husband is not the whole of what it means for you to be a follower of Christ.
Your marriage is not the thing that matters so much that nothing else matters at all.
The pronouncement that a husband who fails to love his wife as Christ loved the church is a husband who has failed at everything is not a biblical pronouncement.
It’s Time to Have an Awkward Conversation
We evangelicals are long overdue to have an awkward conversation about marriage. It’s a conversation which goes something like this:
“Stop affirming unbiblical teachings and convictions about marriage. Stop liking, sharing and commending evan-jelly-cal nonsense about marriage. Stop giving pastors, leaders and authors free passes when they write and say foolish things about marriage. Stop being careless and uncritical just because you like the vibe of what they are saying about marriage.”
When an acquaintance of mine who shared the quote on social media received some push back, he responded by explaining why he likes it so much:
“It gets under my skin as a man and doesn’t let me off the hook with doing what I know I should… My greatest struggle is not loving my wife as Christ loved the church. I excuse my lack of sacrifice and selfishness in all kinds of sophisticated ways. I’m grateful for the kick in the pants.
I really value how this acquaintance of mine readily laments his struggle to love his wife as Christ loves the church. I really love that he wants to stop making excuses for his selfishness and his lack of love for her. I really appreciate the fact that he wants to change in this regard. I’m really thankful he wants to encourage and exhort other husbands to do the same. I really, really am.
But a kick in the pants is only as good as what it’s actually kicking with. And what this quote—and so many others like it—is kicking with is (largely) unbiblical nonsense.
This quote exhorts a Christian husband to ensure he treats one human person made in God’s image better than any and every other person made in God’s image. It encourages a Christian husband to see God, rather than his wife, as the recipient of his marital covenantal promises. It urges a Christian husband to make his wife his ultimate priority in life, even as Scripture calls that husband to live as if he doesn’t have a wife in the now-but-not-yet. It compels a Christian husband to look at his marriage through a lens of failure and success, rather than forgiveness, faithfulness, salvation and sanctification. It makes a Christian husband’s marriage into all and everything, rather than seeing it as one very good and meaningful relationship amongst many other very good and meaningful relationships.
Friends, we need to be able to look at contemporary Christian teachings, quotes, slogans and memes about marriage, we need to pay close attention to what they are saying about marriage, we need to compare them with what God’s word says about marriage, and then we need to awkwardly admit when what we are seeing doesn’t line up with what has been revealed to us about marriage.
It’s precisely because marriage matters so much that rooting out this kind of unbiblical teaching about marriage must also matter so much.
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