Husbandhood, Fatherhood and the Gospel

Making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland

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Husbandhood, Fatherhood and the Gospel


As I watched this interview with Dr D.A. Carson in which he speaks about his family, his upbringing and his early days in ministry, there is an observation that he makes that struck me to the very core,

The worst kind of Christian family to be raised in is one with high spiritual pretensions, but low spiritual practice.

As a young(ish) husband and a new(ish) and now newly expectant father (Caroline and I are expecting a new arrival later in the year), this causes me to ask a really tough question. Am I more concerned about maintaining the appearance of godliness than pursuing deep relationship, firstly with God, then with my wife and then with my young family?

The truth is, the temptation to take the easy route of surface without substance is overwhelming. It is so much easier to promote the appearance of Christian nice-ness (we attend church together, we sit together, we smile and say nice things about one another) than Christ glorifying godliness.

You see, a pursuit of godliness is, in fact, a pursuit of Christ and this is always costly; it requires dying to self. Indeed, the  Apostle Paul’s instruction to the Christian men in the church in Ephesus is sobering,

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:25-28)

Think for a minute what Paul is actually saying, that Christ’s love for the church is a picture of how husbands should love their wives. But how does Christ love the church? By giving himself up for her. This is stunning, Paul is exhorting husbands to imitate Christ’s humble, self-denying, cross-carrying sacrifice and this changes everything.

This means that we look to the good of our wives and that we place their needs above our own. Personally speaking, this means if there are financial sacrifices to be made, it should be me that is making them. If there are life-style changes to be made, it should be me that makes them. If there is pain to be suffered, difficulty to be endured I, as much as is humanly possible, should be the one to bear that cross. I am called to love my wife and lay my life down for her.

Sometimes we husbands can be prone to fanciful and exaggerated romantic notions. As we watch Titanic and the moment Leo sacrifices himself to save Kate, we imagine that we are the hero laying our life down that our beloved wife might live, and yet…

…I refuse to give up my Friday night out with the lads. I eagerly grasp at the promotion with a bigger salary (that I don’t need) even though it will mean spending even more time away from home. Home life, time with my wife, time playing with my son is all arranged around the football schedule…

You see, the Hollywood style ending is easy because, for most of us it is never likely to come to that and, if it did, it is a moment of selflessness at the point of excruciating desperation. Far harder is the road that Christ calls us to follow. The road of cross-carrying husbandhood begins in small acts of Christ-exalting obedience, all of which involve promoting our wife’s good above our own. But here we need to be clear and ask whether Paul is suggesting that we should simply cave into the whims of our family no matter what the request? What if, for example, we are being asked to overlook, condone or participate in something that is sinful? Are there any parameters that Paul gives us that might help us understand what this Christ-like love actually looks like?

Paul, in fact, gives us three outcomes of Christ’s work on the cross.

1. Christ sanctifies the church

How does this apply to the way in which husbands are called to love their wives? Let me first begin by explaining what Paul does not intend by this analogy. Paul is not suggesting that a husband’s love for his wife has the same sanctifying effect as Christ’s work on the cross. A wife will never become holy, forgiven, cleansed, redeemed simply because her husband loves her, no matter how fervently.

There is a sense, however, in which a godly husband loving his wife in a Christ-like, self-denying way does participate in her ongoing sanctification. This, I think, works in two ways.

Firstly, as we model Christ-like love in marriage, our wives see something of Christ in us and this is incredibly compelling. Yes, it should deepen a wife’s love for her husband, but, more than this, it should draw the wife (indeed, the couple) deeper into relationship with Christ.

Secondly, Christ’s sanctifying of the church teaches how our love for our wives should be worked out practically, but this begins with a question: how can I love my wife more deeply? By living in such a way and loving in such a way that she would be drawn closer to Christ and that she would become more Christ-like. This excludes certain kinds of behaviour. For example, I have heard of husbands using Paul’s exhortation that wives should ‘submit in everything to their husbands’ (Ephesians 5:24, I discuss this more fully elsewhere, click here to read Wifehood, Motherhood and the Gospel) to try and persuade his wife to watch porn with him. I know of husbands that wear this verse like a badge and use it to compel their wives into a life of servitude and so we must ask if this is the kind of love that Paul is talking about? Absolutely not. How do we know this? Because when men encourage their wives to participate in sin, the effect is the exact opposite of Christ’s sanctifying work on the cross. And when men subjugate their wives, it is utterly unlike the way that Christ, the Creator, humbles himself to serve his creation and runs contrary to his very mission,

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:44-45)

Rather, we who are husbands should love in such a way as to encourage our wives in their prayer-lives, their study of scripture and their service of Christ. This leads me to Paul’s second point.

2. Christ cleanses the church with the washing of water with the word

Paul has in mind here the work of the Holy Spirit and the testimony of Scripture in bringing men and women to faith and increasing sanctification. Again, Paul does not suggest that husbands should, or indeed are able, to replicate this in marriage. There is, however, a challenge and call to husbands to get serious with regards to their personal study of Scripture.

I firmly believe that all Christian men are called to be theologians (as are all Christian women). The weight of this responsibility does, however, bear more heavily on Christian husbands charged with the solemn responsibility of loving our wives and pastoring our families.

The truth is, as a believer, husband and pastor, Scripture lays forth a number of priorities for my life: firstly, I am called to pursue Christ and abide in him; secondly, I am called to pastor my family; and, thirdly, I am called to pastor the church of Christ. The ordering of the second two priorities is important. Scripture is clear that the ability and obedience of a man in the way in which he pastors his family is a prerequisite for church leadership,

He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Timothy 3:4-5)

I must ask myself tough questions with regards to the way in which I work to encourage and promote spiritual maturity in the home. Do I take the initiative in leading my family in prayer and bible study? Am I available and competent to explain the Scriptures? Am I equipped to defend my family against heretics, nut-jobs and false prophets? Sadly, too many Christian men are utterly ill-equipped for such a high calling.

Scripture is intended to be read outside of church (as well as within). Scripture is intended to be read when we are in that quiet place seeking the Lord, when we are around the dinner table discussing our day, when we are facing difficult decisions, when we are confronted with sin in our own lives and the lives of our loved ones… Christ cleanses his church ‘by the washing of water with the word’, husbands, we are called to teach, encourage, exhort and instruct our wives and our families in the Scriptures… Husbands, Christ exhorts us to open our bibles…

3. Christ presents the church to himself.

Again the analogy does not transfer perfectly to marriage. No husband has the same claim on his wife that Christ has on us. However, there is a fundamental and transferable truth here. When we become Christians, we are supernaturally incorporated into the body of Christ. We are his (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Similarly, when a man and a woman marry, they become one flesh – they become spiritually united (I will return to this more fully on another occasion). Paul applies this truth logically. As a man loves his wife, he is in fact loving himself. How can this be? Paul has, I think, two things in mind.

Firstly, in loving my wife as Christ loves the church, we both become more Christ like.  I heard John Piper wisely say that marriage is the most sanctifying act in human experience. What I think he meant by this is that for the believer, marriage will change both husband and wife for the better. As I die for my wife rough edges are beaten off, bad habits fade away, self-discipline increases. As a wife sees her husband die in this way, her love for him grows deeper and, together, their love for Christ grows deeper.

Secondly, as we love one another deeply and give ourselves sacrificially, marriage becomes what it was intended to be… We come to show, to shine out, Christ’s love for the church and in this and through this the gospel goes forth.

And really, this is what is at stake, marriages that speak of Christ, marriages that shine forth the love of Christ, marriages that win souls for Christ.