Complementarians love to say, “If he loved her like Jesus loves the church, she’d follow him.” This is anti-scriptural nonsense.
The Lord is a faithful husband to his people, yet they often wander from him. Have complementarians forgotten the graphic example of Hosea, made to marry a whore as a living parable of Israel’s infidelity to her Husband? She repeatedly and determinedly abandoned God; all the day long he was a perfect leader to them, and they refused to follow (Isaiah 65:2; Matt 23:37).
In the New Testament also, we find the Lord’s bride, the church, wandering from her excellent Husband. Consider, for instance, his warning to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:
…But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent.
It is unscriptural to place the blame for the conduct of a wife squarely on the shoulders of her husband. As the head of his family, a man is answerable to God for those under his care to the degree that he has the power to rightly order their lives. The extent and limits of this power with regard to his wife are clearly modeled in Numbers 30—a passage which is strangely absent from complementarian discussions of marriage:
And if she vowed in her husband’s house or bound herself by a pledge with an oath, and her husband heard of it and said nothing to her and did not oppose her, then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she bound herself shall stand. But if her husband makes them null and void on the day that he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows or concerning her pledge of herself shall not stand. Her husband has made them void, and Yahweh will forgive her. Any vow and any binding oath to afflict herself, her husband may establish, or her husband may make void. But if her husband says nothing to her from day to day, then he establishes all her vows or all her pledges that are upon her. He has established them, because he said nothing to her on the day that he heard of them. But if he makes them null and void after he has heard of them, then he shall bear her iniquity. Numbers 30:10–15
In the modern day, unfortunately, this authority is practicably curtailed by secular law to whatever degree the woman wishes. We’ll delve into the question of federal responsibility another time; for now, let us summarize by saying that both a husband and his wife are answerable to God; a husband for the duty of cherishing and ruling his wife; and the wife for the duty of fearing and submitting to her husband (Eph 5:33; 1 Tim 3:12; 1 Pet 3:6).
A woman will, of course, find it wearisome and difficult to respect and submit to a man who isn’t loving and ruling well. But she will also find it challenging in other ways to follow a man who is. His leading well doesn’t cancel out her agency (though it may certainly shape it); there is a reason why Scripture repeatedly commands wives to submit. Submission to even a good leader—even a perfect one—is difficult. But it is also critical.
We don’t say this to alarm you. We’re not suggesting that, no matter how well you lead, you might never get anywhere. Women do naturally want to follow men who know where they’re going. Their inclination is to fall in line behind a husband with a strong purpose. They are attracted to men with a mission, men with gravitas. But like all of us, they have competing desires, and one of their desires is “for their husband” (Gen 3:16) in the same way that sin’s desire is “for us” (Gen 4:7). This can make it difficult for them to follow you, even when their own conscience bids them do so.
Indeed, it is only of grace that anyone ever willingly submits to anyone else in a fallen world. Sin, in its essence, is an unrelenting demand for self-rule. But because submission is only of grace, this is the exact point at which you should be most encouraged—because it is the exact point at which Christians are separated from the world and have the most advantage. Whereas unbelievers are sons of the devil, representing his name, and his thirst to make himself like the Most High (John 8:44; Isa 14:13–14), we are sons of God, representing the name of Jesus, who although he was the very form of God himself, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself for our sake in order to endure even being exposed naked on a cross until dead (Phil 2:5–11). This is the mind which we have, if we are indeed indwelt by his Spirit (1 Cor 2:11–12, 16). This is the mind with which we arm ourselves in anticipation of a similar victory (1 Pet 4:1–2). This is the mind which renews our own, transforming us—if indeed we are being transformed—into the image God (Rom 8:29; 12:2–3; 2 Cor 3:18; 4:16; Eph 4:23; Col 3:10). We have this mind because God gave it to us; it is the very thing that separates us from the world (Tit 3:5; Ps 51:10; John 3:5).
The importance of this doctrine of regeneration is so great that we will not even try to do it justice here; we mention it only to remind you that Christians are not slaves to sin and the flesh. This is not to say that we easily overcome our desire for self-rule; on the contrary, our flesh wages war against us (Rom 7:23). But because we are counted crucified with Christ, and because we have received his Spirit, we also are able to crucify our fallen nature with its passions and desires (Gal 2:20; 5:24–25). See with what mercy God has treated you—and what power he gives you in your marriage:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. Romans 8:5–11
If you truly are born again from above, and if your wife is also, then you are his workmanship, created for good works which God prepared beforehand, that you should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10). This means not only that you can walk in them, but that you will walk in them—and these good works all stem from your submission to the rule of God.
In other words, although the sin that still dwells in your wife and yourself makes a perfect marriage impossible, the Spirit who now dwells in you makes a good marriage entirely attainable—a blessing to which you can both look forward, assuming you continue to walk in him.
Therefore, as usual, you must keep your aims and expectations between the ditches. You must lead well, and especially develop the virtues required to have gravitas; to be the center that holds your family together in your orbit. If you do, you can have confidence that your wife will remain in that orbit. But leading well doesn’t guarantee her submission, any more than leading poorly guarantees her rebellion.
This should be common sense; the only reason we spend time on it is because the expectations of both complementarians and red pill Christians have slipped aside into the ditches. The point is to commit yourself to the duties of leadership you are answerable for, and rest upon God for the duties of submission she is answerable for. Nothing more, nothing less.
Continued in part 3, on how leading means calling your wife to follow