Title: Reforming Marriage
Author: Douglas Wilson
Star Rating: ★★★★★
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What an immense undertaking is represented by that pat little phrase – Reforming Marriage. And what an array of topics is covered in this slim little book – Reforming Marriage. There is teaching on the purpose of marriage, exhortation in the roles of marriage, and instruction in the problems of marriage as well as miscellaneous bits of wisdom. We shall follow this general outline in the review. But first….
What is marriage? Marriage is one the most besieged institutions in all of history. Its attackers are everywhere, vilifying it on one hand and romanticizing it on the other. Some seek to destroy it by redefining it; others abuse it by idolizing it. But as Mr. Wilson says:
“Throughout the history of the church, destructive heresies have been used by a sovereign God to force the church to define that which was unclear.” [pg. 14-15]
In the face of rising hostility, Christians must define marriage with absolute clarity.
Marriage, if it is Biblically understood, proves itself to be much more than merely a dictionary definition. But as a definition of the word, Marriage is the covenantal union of a man and woman. It is necessary that it be covenantal, because it is a union; it is an agreement, a promise, a vowing of constancy one to another. It must be a man and a woman because 1) It is the example that we see set forth and commanded in Scripture “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” [Gen. 2:24] We never once in Scripture see an example of two men or two women being joined in covenant before God. So far from this 2) we see sexual relationships between members of the same gender condemned by God. “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” [Lev. 20:13]
What is the purpose of marriage? The purpose of every living creature, institution, and object is to give glory to God. But, of course, every creature, institution, and object has its own particular functions wherein it gives glory to God. Marriage has several such roles.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
The chief way in which humans can seek to glorify God is by building His kingdom. Marriage proves itself to be a buttress for this pursuit. Through the joining together of two souls in matrimony, a single, unified vision can be forged and tackled by two people who work in coordination with each other as no other two people can.
“And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.” Malachi 2:5
One of God’s primary purposes in joining together a Christian man and woman is that they might have godly seed. This means that a couple will not only bear children, but they will also disciple and instruct them in the admonition of the Lord. In this way, godly marriages populate the church. Marriage also serves as the foundation of the family, which is God’s means of perpetuating Christian faith and culture.
“For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.” Ephesians 5:23
As a husband leads and loves his wife, he represents Christ’s guidance and redemptive love towards the church. When a wife submits herself to her husband and respects him with all purity, she portrays to those who observe her what the Church’s attitude is towards her Lord. If a husband does not guide his wife, he tells those watching that Christ does not shepherd His church. If a wife loves her husband but does not respect him, she is saying that the Church need only feel emotional towards Christ; she is not required to keep his commandments.
What are the roles of marriage? It is precisely because a husband and wife represent Christ and His bride that the marriage roles are so crucial.
The husband is the head and leader. This is not to say that he ought to be the head or he ought to lead. He leads whether he wishes to or not. His headship is the predicate of his participation in marriage. And this is because he represents Christ in the marriage. Now, just because a man is the inescapable leader of his marriage does not mean that he always or ever leads well. As Mr. Wilson says;
“Because the husband is the head of the wife, he finds himself in a position of inescapable leadership. He cannot successfully refuse to lead. If he attempts to abdicate in some way, he may, through his rebellion, lead poorly. But no matter what he does, or where he goes, he does so as the head of his wife. This is how God designed marriage…. If the husband is godly, then that dominance will not be harsh; it will be characterized by the same self-sacrificial love demonstrated by our Lord—Dominus—at the cross. If a husband tries to run away from his headship, that abdication will dominate the home….. If the marriage is one in which the wife ‘wears the pants,’ the wimpiness of the husband is the most obvious thing about the marriage, creating a miserable marriage and home. His abdication dominates.” [pg. 24]
It may seem self-evident to say that a husband must be a husband. But most husbands are not really husbands. What do I mean by this?
I mean that the word husband doesn’t mean simply a man in a marriage relationship. A husband is a man who practices stewardship over a household; he is a man who cultivates and nourishes that which is under his jurisdiction. When a man determines to be a husband to a wife, he must set about nourishing and cultivating her as well. He should be her tutor in spiritual matters; he should be constantly tending his wife. This is not to say that she should absorb all of his time and efforts, but that however busily he may be engaged in his work and projects, he does not neglect her spiritually.
The wife is the helpmeet; the follower. Now, when we talk about ‘leading’ and ‘following’ we must be very careful. When we say that a man is the head of his household we do not mean that he is the dictator and his wife merely trudges along in his footsteps. No person, however lawful their authority, has the right to tyrannize. Instead, decision-making should be a time of mutual counseling, discussion, and prayer. Husbands and wives should be united in their decisions, both eager to pursue the option they have chosen. A husband does have the ultimate authority in a marriage, but this does not mean that he should make decisions independently of his wife.
We have discussed how men often abuse or abdicate their leadership position. Now we turn to women. Women are just as prone to failure in their role as men are. Women are called to honor their husbands and treat them with respect. Often women follow badly by continuously nagging their husbands about their decisions or by vapidly acquiescing. Sometimes women refuse to follow at all and seek to dominate their home.
Feminism has taught both men and women to eschew the Biblical roles of marriage. It has claimed that women must be equal (or really, superior) to men, and that the only way this can be accomplished is if they have the same function and authority as men. But just because men and women have different functions, this does not mean that they have differing levels of intelligence or importance. Neither a hammer nor a screw-driver is more important than the other; they are simply each better equipped to handle their particular job. I have tried hammering nails with screw-drivers on several different occasions, and each time I was amazed at how much easier it was when I gave in and used a hammer. It’s impossible to turn a screw with a hammer. Yet neither hammer nor screwdriver is inferior. In this same sense, men and women are equally talented and equipped in their own roles. The whole idea of headship is one of jurisdiction not superiority. Christians do not teach that men and their roles are more important than women and their roles; each are equally important and impossible without each other.
Dealing with problems. Marriage was established during the first week of the newly created world, and it was shortly thereafter that the first problem arose between the Adam and Eve. And as might be expected, that problem was over jurisdiction. Eve disobeyed God and her husband and sought to establish her own vision for the world. Adam capitulated to her evil counsel and failed to be her leader.
Having problems in a marriage is inevitable. Even the best of marriages will be beset with sin and offenses. It is not the problems that arise in marriage that is the problem. It’s how those problems are handled, addressed, and resolved.
There are some sins which are so heinously offensive that it is nigh impossible to forgive them. But most often it is not these which destroy a marriage. It’s the little problems which, insignificant in themselves, become a life of torture when clumped together. These problems are not addressed because they do not seem significant, and then when an explosion occurs because of them it is impossible to point to a single incident, and the problem is then thought to be everything. We must be careful not to let these small offenses pile up. As Mr. Wilson says,
“When sins are confessed, it is like picking something up that was dropped on the carpet. If a person learns to pick things up immediately, a thousand things can be dropped on the carpet, and the home will still remain clean. But if things are only picked up once every six months, the result will be an overwhelming house cleaning job. To continue the illustration, some homes are so messed up that those responsible for cleaning simply do not know where to start. They do not necessarily like the way it is, but they are simply overwhelmed. But such things always accumulate one at a time. If they had been picked up as fast as they had been dropped, then the home would have remained clean.” [pg. 68]
Husbands and wives must learn to confess sin to one another. And they must be careful that they are actually confessing their sin and not their spouses’. We see this all the time with children; after a fight breaks out, you ask Tommy what happened and Tommy proceeds to tell you everything that David did to contribute to the fight. Adults are more subtle than children, but the same effect is achieved. “I’m sorry for yelling at you, honey, but I was so mad because you were late coming home, and then you didn’t pick up the mess you made……” Whenever we apologize we must apologize for our own sins.
Bits of Wisdom. Mr. Wilson said a great many wise things which do not really fit into the categories I have provided above. For example, Mr. Wilson addressed the command of Peter for men to give honor unto their wives as unto the weaker vessel.
“The problem is that men commonly have trouble honoring ‘weakness’. When men get together with men, some sort of competition usually arises. And when competition is there, men seek to exploit weakness whenever they think they see it. If a football coach were to discover that the other team’s left tackle was clearly weak, he will run his plays over the left tackle all night long. So men have this natural tendency, and in our nation, this kind of competitiveness is greatly admired.
Consequently, if there is any kind of problem in the marriage, men commonly fall into an adversarial, competitive relationship with their wives. If they disagree over something, and the distressed wife expresses her concerns, a husband with this basic competitive mentality is going to say, “That is the dumbest thing I ever heard!’ He is treating her as though she were the opposing left tackle. When he responds this way, he is seeking to exploit her. But Peter does not say to exploit the weakness; he says to honor her in it….
In order for men to respect weakness, they must recognize it as their own weakness. A wife with her husband is a joint heir of their mutual inheritance, and her weakness is his weakness. She is not his adversary. The weakness is on his own team; it is in his own family.” [pgs. 35-36]
Mr. Wilson also comments on what he calls the ‘Nice-Guy’ Syndrome.
“Susan believes that the man she married is a very nice man, and so she does not really know why she is so frustrated with him. When she gets angry with him, she feels guilty – not because of the anger, but because it has no apparent cause… Why is she so upset with such a nice guy?
In the Christian world today, countless marriages have not really been spiritually consummated. The marriage covenant has been made, and there has been physical consummation, but the marriage is still not right. It is not right because a marriage cannot be spiritually consummated if the husband acts the part of a spiritual eunuch. Such a eunuch is one who is impotent in his masculinity…
When a husband has this problem, the result for the wife is a temptation to deep-seated frustration and resentment….
The irony is that such spiritual eunuchs are almost always nice guys. And because the symptoms of this spiritual neglect overtly appear in the wife, the watching world usually wonders “what on earth got into her?” As a consequence, she feels even greater frustration and resentment. There are more than enough examples of this pattern to give it a name – the Nice Guy Syndrome.
Countless nice Christian men have wives in this state of continual frustration. And the more frustrated the wife gets, the nicer the husband tries to be. Unfortunately, this “nice-ness” is not biblical gentleness. It is not the love discussed above; it is abdication, or ‘wimping out.’ From time to time, the situation gets to be too much, even for him, and he loses his temper over her frustration. But he knows that that is wrong, and so he apologizes, and goes back to his old pattern of indulging his wife, instead of loving her through leadership.” [pgs. 77-78]
In regard to disagreements between husbands and wives, Mr. Wilson says.
“The goal is not to win the argument, but to maintain the relationship. When the husband is ahead 15-3 in husband/wife fights, they are both losers.”
Conclusion. This book does an excellent job at presenting the ideals of marriage and then translating them into practicalities. While not perfect, Reforming Marriage is enormously helpful and easy to grasp. Buy it new or buy it off of Amazon.