This is a rework of a paper I wrote in Bible School (long before I had any first-hand experience with the topic). My wife asked me to re-write it, and the following is the result. I’ve treated the topic several times before as has my compatriot, but it bears repeating in a new form. Warning, lots of Bible quotes and antiquated ideas ahead.
The Bible does not have much to say about marriage. What little it does say assumes a cultural setting which may differ very much from your own. Nevertheless, even with the dearth of basis and diverging backgrounds we may glean much. But first a word on equality.
A great deal is made of egalitarianism, where men and women (insofar as the distinction is even made) are interchangeable in all kinds of relationships. The Scriptures appear to come down at once on both sides of this issue. It says, “[Among you] there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are al one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) which both places the distinction between man and woman on the same order as such other social distinctions as race and station, and obliterates that distinction, all in a single sentence. The same case is true of the Bible’s overall treatment of marriage, which calls both to distinct attitudes, and both to specific labors.
Let us begin with attitude, and with the man. We see immediately that the husband’s primary duty (in marriage) is to love his wife. Nearly every instruction concerning marriage uses these terms. Ephesians 5:25, 28-29, 33a state, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also love the church and gave Himself for it,…so husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church…Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself…” while Colossians 3:19 adds, “Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.” The repeated command to love is very clear. These passages also hint at the sins which the Husband is likely to encounter, namely bitter estranging hatred. The husband is strongly commanded to consistently and fiercely love, in spite of the ample justification that his wife will doubtless present for the opposite attitude. This love is not merely flirtatious or intoxicating, but a vivid determination to accomplish what is best for another, and ultimately for himself. As Peter so well says in 1 Peter 3:7 “Likewise you husbands, dwell with [your wives] with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.”
The woman, too, has a primary duty, that of submission. Ephesians 5:22-24 states “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” and again in Colossians 3:18 “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” and 1 Peter 3:1,5-6 “Likewise you wives, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives,…For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.” As with the husband, these passages hint at the sins which tempt a wife, namely the rejection of lordship in all its forms and acceptance of a rule of terror. The wife is encouraged with many examples of righteous submission, to reject fear and choose her husband as lord, and by proxy, the Lord Himself. The submission is not merely that of a slave or a servant, but that of a imperturbable soul soundly confident in the mastery of Christ over all. This submission is not without will, as we see in Rebekah (and many others) who, when in Genesis 24:58 “Then they called Rebekah and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ And she said, ‘I will go.’” showed willingness to commit to the unknown, and later in Genesis 27 endeavors to guide her husband to her plans.
In addition to attitudes, each is laden with labors fitted to their abilities. We begin with the woman, who is cursed with extraordinary difficulty in both submission, and childbearing. Genesis 3:16 “To the Woman He said: ‘I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.’” This labor of childbirth (if you will excuse the pun) is implicitly supported earlier in Genesis 1:28 “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” and later in Genesis 9:1 “So God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…’” both of which presuppose a woman’s contribution to marriage. In addition to bearing children, the wife is tasked with caring for them and the household in general 1 Timothy 5:14 “Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully.” Proverbs adds to this in an extensive passage in chapter thirty-one spanning verses ten to the end of the chapter. While focused on the household, the wife is clearly encouraged to expand her realm as far as she can convince others to value her work.
The man too is encouraged to labors befitting his strengths. in Genesis 3:17-19 God curses Adam with similar difficulty with his tasks, “Then to Adam He said, ‘Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, “You shall not eat of it”: Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’” The implicit labor of providing bread for the family is made terribly explicit in 1 Timothy 5:8 “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” And the provision of food is extended to clothing in Exodus 21:10 “If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights.” which assumes that every husband would do at least this much for his wife, if not much more. Note too that all this sorrow comes from heeding the voice of the wife. The husband must have a firm and clear vision, which will sometimes necessitate ignoring his wife’s pleas.
So we see that, although the Bible draws scant outlines for the roles of men and women in marriage, the lines it traces are definite. The role of the man is, as Genesis 2:15 says to excercise dominion over the earth, “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.”, and for the woman, Genesis 2:18 “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.’” to aid her husband in all that he attempts.