Recently I was asked about what headship & submission look like in marriage and how I would counsel a couple going through certain problems. Here was my reply that I hope will be helpful to anyone pursuing love.
My counseling these days is very simple. Every problem in marriage boils down to one simple thing: a failure to love. I would not start with role relationships. The glue that holds marriage together, the oil that makes it work without friction, and the cleanser that makes it shine is love. Colossians 3:14 says that love is the perfect bond of unity.
What we all need more than anything is to learn how to love God and our neighbor. Our most opportune neighbor to love is our spouse. What I would do first is work through what biblical love is. There are many places to go for that, but my favorite place is 1 Cor 13:4-8a.
This passage is very familiar to us all, but I think that the key to our lives is to really see the beauty in what is described and desire it, evaluate our lives by it to see where we need to change to be more loving, request the gift of repentance, resolve and try to change, and rely upon God to sanctify us into more perfect lovers. And I would add that love is seen here as actions. Paul makes clear that if you just say you have love, but you don't really have the active love he is talking about then you are just making noise (clanging gong, clashing cymbal).
There are a lot of things listed in this passage, but the first two descriptions of love are the summary of all the others. Love is patient and love is kind. If we could just be patient with each other through no matter what we do and be kind in every action toward others, we would have wonderful marriages.
Patience involves basically putting up with the other person no matter what they do (now of course there are things that have to have legal or discipline, or other types of consequences, but short of those), the overarching passive response is patience. It involves restraint, self-control, and unselfishness. Patience also involves believing the best and hoping for change.
The other side of love is kindness. This is the active side of love. It should characterize our speech and actions. It involves gentleness, tenderness, compassion, mercy, loyalty, faithfulness, etc. It is just treating someone nice in all of the ways that you can do that.
Now the way that Paul proceeds shows us that if we are going to be patient and kind it is going to involve self-denial, a death to self has to occur. This is what I constantly bear in mind each day. How do I need to die right now so that I can love better next time? Just as Jesus' love was displayed in death, I must die to my selfish desires.
He gives eight ways:
1) Love is not jealous, so I need to die to my desires to have what others have or to have no objects of shared affection.
2) Love does not brag, so I need to die to my desire to talk about myself in a way that I get the glory or look better than others.
3) Love is not arrogant, so I need to die to my desire to be made much of or to think of myself as better than others in anything.
4) Love does not behave rudely, so I need die to my desire to act in a way that unnecessarily offends others.
5) Love does not seek its on way, so I need to die to the desire to be dominated by my own preferences.
6) Love is not provoked, so I need to die to the desire to live a frustration free life.
7) Love does not keep a record of wrongs, so I need to die to my desire to hold a grudge, bring up past wrongs, or not forgive.
8) Love does not rejoice in iniquity, so I need to die to my desire to enjoy any sinful attitude or action against anyone.
Finally Paul ends with 4 statements of hyperbole to emphasize that love must dominate our lives by bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things and enduring all things. Again these are just patience & kindness.
Once I have a couple really working on loving each other by examining themselves, dying to selfishness, and practicing love by patience & kindness, then I show them that God's will for our lives involves being imitators of Him. Ephesians 5 starts with that. Then it goes on to teach how we are to imitate Him in His love, His light (or holiness), and His wisdom. This imitation is accomplished in our lives as we pursue it by being filled by the Holy Spirit (5:18). It is in this context of Spirit produced love, light, and wisdom, being imitators of God and His Son Jesus Christ that we then finally can enter into a discussion of roles. And these roles are simply examples he gives of Spirit filled imitation of God in His wisdom, light, and love.
It is no wonder then that as God says that a husband is his wife's head he simply commands him to love her. I certainly believe that being head in the context implies authority, and there are other passages that make him responsible to lead, protect, manage, oversee, take care of, etc., but what a man first needs to grasp is that his ultimate leadership is to lead in loving--that is--being patient and kind. Then in the context he needs to lead in wisdom and holiness.
I think a crucial thing which is part of that is for him to value his wife as his helper. God providentially arranged that his wife would be packaged with certain wisdom, knowledge, gifts, abilities, talents, interests, and insights, that he would need to accomplish what God has called him to do for the glory of Christ. He must become skilled at drawing these things out of her and unleashing her full potential or he is acting foolishly. This is what I strive for. I don't want to miss anything she has to give.
Now, after all of this, (and even more I would go into), we can talk about submission. I think it is essential to see that in the Greek the word for submit is actually a participle that is in a string of participles that all go back to modify being filled with the Spirit. These are all results of the Spirit's filling. A wife's submission is simply one of God's designed results of her walking in love, wisdom, & light being filled by the Spirit.
She simply treats her husband with love, manifested by patience and kindness, as she understands that God has placed her in a relationship where her husband has authority over her and she is called to respect him as that authority, but it should be kept in mind that she is really ultimately serving the Lord by doing so.
One very important thing to point out is that it is NOT the husbands responsibility to make his wife submit. She must do this voluntarily. This is her responsibility. He is simply called to love her. Likewise, it is not the wife's responsibility to make her husband love her. He has to do that. When a husband will not love her properly she should follow 1 Peter 3:1-6 and seek to win him through love, wisdom, and holiness which manifests itself there by a gentle and quiet spirit which is precious in the sight of God.
What is ultimately at stake in our loving headship and loving submission is the picture of the gospel to the world. Eph 5:32 indicates that marriage is really ultimately about portraying the relationship of Christ to His Church.
So, finally I think that headship looks like this: a husband loving his wife with patience and kindness, leading in loving God and loving others, walking in love, light and wisdom, seeking to promote her growth in grace and wanting to gain from her in every way that God designed her to be a helpmate, recognizing her value as a gift, partner, and co-laborer. Submission relies upon the Holy Spirit to see her husband as her God ordained leader, respect him as that, and in love, light, and wisdom, submitting all that she has and all that she is to her husband to help him in all that God has called him to do. Letting him know all of her wisdom, knowledge, talents, gifts, resources, strengths, weaknesses etc, to complete him yet being willing to let him bear the ultimate responsibility for their family's leadership.
In practice it involves a lot of communication, listening, reading the word and prayer together as we seek to simply treat each other with patience and kindness. There have been a few times where I have had to ask her to just trust me in certain decisions and to ultimately trust God to lead her through me and to deal with me whatever the consequences, but most of the time it involves a mutual agreement.