The model of marriage as a model for more

Sixteen days until Jen and Dan’s wedding, so says the Countdown app on my Sony Dash (love that thing!).

It seems like Craig and I are long past the years when we attended the weddings of our peers. Now we are going to about one wedding each year, mainly those of couples whom we’ve mentored through the “Couples Mentoring Couples” program at our church. There are even a few weddings of friends’ children that have worked their way into the mix. I love weddings, but let me just say right here: maybe we need to find some younger friends.

In any case, mentoring engaged couples is, first of all, humbling. The time comes to mind when we postponed one mentoring session because an after-church argument sapped our enthusiasm for the cause. If nothing else, we are real, right? It’s a good thing for a couple to see a genuine example of a not-so-perfect marriage, I suppose, especially when Christians and Christian literature tend to water down our real problems to something akin to this: “He spends too much time washing his truck” and “She spends too much time in Bible study.” I wish I had those kinds of problems.

Most of the arguments in my house, admittedly, are related to such nuances as tone of voice, choice of words, sleepiness or wakefulness, and enthusiasm for this or that activity. While we (I) sometimes panic about money, we rarely argue about it. For us (me) it’s more like, “I can’t believe you said that” and “Don’t look at me like that.” I swear, it’s like kids on the playground with me sometimes. Note to self: grow up.

Next to being humbling, mentoring engaged couples is just plain enlightening. For example, one of the things we cover in our sessions is the role of men and women in marriage. The Biblical model is that the man is the head (read here as “servant-leader”), and the woman is to submit to him by being a helper-lover (that is, a helpful encourager and lover of her man, his children, and their family together).

Now, I know that this is the model that the Bible describes in Ephesians 5:22-33 and other places, but I don’t know that I agree with the book that we use in our mentoring sessions. It describes this model as the best because it is practical to have one person in charge rather than two people competing for leadership. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl, but I don’t think that co-leaders necessarily compete for leadership. I think that many egalitarian-style and co-leader arrangements work out well, especially when the partners (in classrooms, in business, in marriage) recognize that one person is good at some things and the other is good at other things. And whatever one is good at, that is what he or she should do (plus the things that no one wants to do, because, let’s face it, somebody’s got to do them).

Nor do I agree with those (few, I hope) who suggest that the man should be the head and the woman a helper/lover because they are, by virtue of their gender-based hard-wiring, naturally better at those roles. This natural bent toward their assigned roles may be true for some men and women, perhaps for many or most men and women. But I would suggest that there are not a few guys who are happy to relinquish the driver’s seat to someone more able simply because they have an easy-going attitude…or because of fear, lack of confidence, or secret shortcomings. I’m not saying that those guys shouldn’t step up to the plate and be men in their family responsibilities—just that they may not be naturally good at leadership.

Likewise, many women are intense, lack fear, overabound with confidence, and act as if they have no shortcomings. Decision-making, planning, and needs identification and alleviation are a snap for them. These women are experienced, capable, and assertive—real “get-it-done” girls. Playing the role of the meek helper/lover is a stretch for them. It can be done, but it comes with a lot of character reassignment and a lot of suggestion swallowing—not natural for some, and certainly not easy.

So if these roles are not practically ideal or universally borne out as our true nature as men and women, then what’s the real reason for them? I think I’ve found it.

In his book “That You May Believe: New Life in the Son,” Skip Ryan talks about the Wedding at Cana, as documented in John 2. There, the party runs out of wine, and Jesus replenishes the supply by turning into wine the water from large jars used for ceremonial purification. Ryan suggests that this is not just a miracle showing Jesus’ supernatural power. It is also a signpost that reads, “This way to the real wedding.”

Consider what he says about the role of Jesus and the church in the wedding that Jesus describes. He says, “John is giving us a signpost to the greatest wedding of all, and telling us that the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, will have His bride, the church, presented to him spotless, because she will be wearing his righteousness. Why does a bride wear white? It is a direct indication that, in the plan and economy of God, He intends His church to be white and spotless. That is the historical background to the white dress a bride wears. It is the purity given to the bride of Christ by the Bridegroom, who gives to her His own perfect righteousness.”

You thought the white wedding dress was a symbol of virginity, right? Wrong. In the marriage ceremony, the groom is a representation of Christ and the bride is a representation of the church. Together they are a model of God’s heavenly intent for his people: perfect righteousness effected by ultimate sacrifice.

Would it be too much to say, then, that in practicing our marriage roles as God intended that we will gain a deeper, even more profound understanding of what Christ has done for us and of who we are in Christ? In fulfilling his Biblical role as servant-leader, wouldn’t a self-centered man or one who feels ill-equipped to lead his family come to understand more deeply the humble sacrifice that Christ made for us as an expression of his love for us? Wouldn’t he be able to see that just as a man can create security and stability for his family by serving and leading them, even more so, Christ has created eternal security for us by redeeming us?

Likewise wouldn’t a capable or even self-sufficient woman be able to see that in submitting to her husband’s leadership, she is demonstrating the trust and obedience that the church should have in Jesus Christ? In receiving the direction that her husband offers, isn’t she acknowledging our powerlessness as believers to be effectual in our own righteousness? In allowing her husband to do the work that he sees fit in their relationship, isn’t she being the object of transformation that the church is to Christ?

In this sense our marriages are a lifelong devotional exercise. In them we rehearse what it means for Christ to be who He is and the church to be who He intends us to be.

It is a challenge to fulfill these roles because of our imperfections and our lack of trust for the other person. Don’t get me wrong, in many cases the lack of trust is more than justified. A man may not lead or lead well because he is lazy, unwise, unwilling, or simply because his wife overpowers him. A woman submitting to this kind of man may be walking with him down a path that leads to destruction. But a man must not lead blindly, indulging his whim or vices, without thought of the consequences or of his responsibility. To the man, this is the message: be more like Christ, leading as one who is pure and worthy.

Likewise, a woman may not be willing to submit or play the “second fiddle” role of helper because she is productive, capable, and self-assured, or simply because she doesn’t trust her man. Burned once she may be unwilling to set herself up again, even to a man who is repentant and committed to not only their marriage but to his Christian life as well. To the woman, this is the message: in submitting do not stagnate, but grow in sanctification, trusting more.

I’m not sure how to advise a man who leads where his wife will not follow. Nor am I sure how to advise a woman who has only a poor leader to submit to. I trust that I will be enlightened on these points as well. Stay tuned.