Lewis Grizzard, the famous Atlanta newspaper columnist, wrote frequently of his ill-fated marriages, divorces, and remarriages. Eventually, he said he was going to give up on marriage altogether, that there wouldn’t be another Mrs. Grizzard. “I’m just going to find a woman who hates me and buy her a house,” he quipped. Grizzard’s lament elicited laughter, despite the obvious tragedy of his relational life, because it rang true to an American culture increasingly rife with gender wars. The universal tensions between men and women sometimes show up in their most innocuous form in jokes from women about men who fail to clean up after themselves around the house, or from men about women who can’t remember to keep their cell phones turned on. But the gender tensions run into much darker territory.
The divorce culture around us is the most obvious sign of men and women in conflict with one another, as marriages are ripped asunder and the custody of children fought over in law courts in virtually every major city on the planet. Even beyond that, many reverberations of the sexual revolution are built on self-protecting mechanisms for men and women who, at best, don’t trust one another and, at worst, want to exploit one another. Divorce courts and abortion clinics, porn sites and chick flicks— these all reveal men and women who, far from merging into some sort of unisex utopia, find it impossible to give themselves fully to the other.
That’s what the biblical concept of manhood and womanhood is about. The biblical notion of certain creational distinctives of what it means to be a man or a woman isn’t really about “who’s in charge,” and it certainly isn’t about “who’s the best.” King Jesus dismisses such categories— though common in our commercial, corporate, and athletic spheres—in favor of a newer sense of servant-dominion in His kingdom.
The chief analogy used for the male/ female relationship—specifically in terms of the marital one-flesh union—is that of head and body. This is because, the Bible maintains, we are not genderless persons who happen to have been placed in arbitrary male and female bodies. Sexual differentiation isn’t simply a matter of genital architecture. From the very beginning, Scripture teaches, humanity is created “male and female” (Gen. 1:27; Mark 10:6).
Sometimes Christians will argue that male/female distinctions are obliterated by the new covenant. Doesn’t the Apostle Paul tell us that there is neither “male nor female” in Christ (Gal. 3:28)? Certainly, in terms of inheritance, there is no distinction. Men and women alike— not just firstborn sons—share in Jesus’ identity and, thus, in His inheritance of the universe. But Scripture doesn’t teach that this differentiation is in every way gone—in fact, the Bible directly applies some aspects of God’s commands to men and some to women. Masculinity and femininity are not aspects of the fallen order to be overcome; they are instead part of what God declared from the beginning to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
In fact, the mystery of the gospel explains to us why it is that Adam wasn’t designed to subdivide like an amoeba, why he needed someone like him and yet different from him, why he was to join himself to her in an organic union. It’s because the head/body union of a man and a woman is itself an illustration— one that points to something older and more beautiful: the union of Christ and His church in the gospel.
A man, then, is to lead his family. But this is not some sort of tyranny. A man’s leadership is modeled after Christ’s leadership of His church. He leads by discerning the best interests of his family and pouring himself out for them. This headship is self-sacrificial. A wife submits to her husband’s leadership not as a cowering supplicant but in the way the church submits to Christ. Jesus says of His church, in its original twelve foundation stones, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
When we call husbands to lead their families, and when we call wives to respect such leadership (which, like every form of leadership, has biblical limits), we are not speaking of a business model or a corporate flow chart. We’re speaking instead of an organic unity. The more a husband and wife are sanctified together in the Word, the more they—like your nervous system and body—move and operate smoothly, effortlessly, holistically. They are oneflesh. It’s about cooperation through complementarity.
When Jesus carried out His gospel mission, the satanic powers sought to tempt the church to carry out the mission given to Christ (Matt. 16:22–23; 26:51–52), and sought to tempt Christ to seek His own provision rather than that for His bride (4:2–4). Jesus, though, set His face like flint toward the Place of the Skull, and the church eventually, by God’s grace, yielded to being served by the washing of water (Eph. 5:26).
The church continually works to reclaim a biblical concept of the family. We call men to prepare themselves to be other-directed husbands. We call on women to find their beauty not in cultural stereotypes of a woman’s value but in God’s delight (1 Peter 3:1–6). Such will look increasingly and, oddly, peaceful to a culture conditioned to gender wars. But in the end, it’s not about being better men and women. It’s about a clear proclamation of the mystery of Christ and His church. They’re not in tension with one another, in competition with one another, mistrusting one another. They’re head and body—one flesh.