It’s one of the most shocking realities in all the Bible: men of God are called to emulate Jesus Christ and gladly lay their lives down for their wives. We husbands boggle at this call. We are to love our wife “as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25)? This is preposterous. It’s too much for us. It’s too great for us. It’s beyond us.
Yet this is precisely what the apostle Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:25–28.
 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (ESV)
In this stunning little passage, this jewel of a section, Paul shows us what manly headship means. It doesn’t mean that a husband sees his wife as inferior. It doesn’t mean that he has any justification to raise his hand against her. It doesn’t mean that he can put his own interests first. Biblical complementarity inspired by the Spirit and preserved in God’s inerrant, authoritative, sufficient, and final word means this: husbands lay down their lives for their wives. This is a call to come and die. It is a call to put one’s wife first relentlessly. It is a call to seek her spiritual good continually. It is a call to lead daily. It is a call to do nothing less than emulate and imitate Jesus Christ, who gave his life to atone for the sins of his bride (25).
There is no marital teaching on God’s green earth that comes close to the glory of this command from an apostle. There is no religion that offers a comparable view. There is no worldview that more calls a man to maturity, leadership, and selflessness. There is no idea that more counters a man’s sinful instinct to lord his (on average) considerably greater strength over his wife. If you want to see where abuse goes to die, look no further than at the Bible’s most extended teaching on marital complementarity. Christian men are summoned here by an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ to love their wives without limit. Their example is Jesus Christ. Headship means self-sacrifice, accordingly. It means strong, courageous, convictional, tender, loving leadership of one wife and one family. It means always thinking, always strategizing, always taking initiative, always planning for the good of the woman God gave you.
Jesus Christ’s love is not weak. It is strong. It is the love of a Davidic warrior. David was a man of many failings; he sinned grievously against the Lord and against both Uriah and Bathsheba. Yet David is praised as a man of God’s own heart, for David trusted God when few did, and David fought unrighteousness tooth and nail when no one else would (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22). Yet David was not the head-crusher promised by God after the fall in Eden (Gen. 3:15). It was left to another warrior, the man Christ Jesus, the stump from Jesse’s shoot and the root and descendant of David, to come and make atonement for God’s people (Isa. 11:1, 10; Matthew 1-2; Rev. 5:5, 22:16). Jesus the greater David “gave himself up for her,” for his bride, the covenantal community of all who trust in his name for salvation (25).
Biblical complementarity is displayed in dazzling glory in this teaching. The sexes are not interchangeable; they are not the same; they do not fill the same roles in marriage or the church; they each bear the image of God in full, yet there is shape and form to their manhood and womanhood. Paul tells us that complementarity is not only important for domestic flourishing, but for revealing the gospel of the kingdom of God. Men image Christ as head; women image the church. This cannot be reversed; it cannot be undone; it cannot be undermined. God has made it so, and no one can unmake it, try as we might.
This teaching is so important today. A sexualized culture has encouraged men to prey upon women with impunity. Hollywood simultaneously campaigns against abuse but shows men in film after film engaging in sexual predation and being rewarded for it. Think 50 Shades of Gray being promoted right alongside #MeToo. Our society has largely accepted androgyny, and in secular terms basically does not call men to any leadership role, to any form of meaningful self-denial in order to bless women. Then there are failings, real failings, in the church, where men and women alike fail to live up to the standard of sexual holiness. We can think of pastors, for example, who do great damage to the flock by giving in to the lusts of the flesh.
What is to be done in such times? What is to be done is this: call men not a gender-neutral androgyny with a Christian patina, but to the glorious complementarian vision of Ephesians 5. Call men, whether married or single, to pursue character of the Christlike kind through the power of divine grace. Call young men to reject the call of the culture and the pull of a sinful heart. Call young men to forsake slavery to pornography and a pornified era. Call young men to seek a woman’s heart, and to lay their lives down for their wife in the covenant of marriage. Call young men to never abuse or mistreat or take advantage of a woman, but to be like Jesus, and protect their wife and women more broadly. Call men not to be softer and weaker, but to be stronger and mightier in the power of the Spirit.
This and no teaching in humanistic terms will strengthen men and bless women. Will men and young men fail to heed this call as we should? Yes we will, tragically. Should we repent when we do? Yes we should. Should we return, over and over again, to the standard set for us by the Lord Jesus Christ? Yes we should. Should we train our sons to be these kind of men? Yes we must. Should we train our daughters, our precious little girls, to seek this kind of man if God calls them to marriage? Yes we should. Should we teach them the beauty of submission and the power of a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:1-6)? Yes we should.
God’s plan for marriage has not changed. Our culture careens into many pitfalls, but the Word of God is unaltered and unblinking and undefeated. There is no new plan for complementarity. There is no new plan for covenantal union. There is no new way to be masculine. There is only God’s truth, God’s vision, God’s order, God’s design. Let us teach and celebrate and call young men and women alike to this beautiful, dazzling portrait of love (I celebrate it in this forthcoming book). Let us repent of our sin and confess our daily failings to God, failings not only of action, but of thought, desire, and inclination. Let us quickly and without hesitation acknowledge that our doctrine of depravity accounts for sins of every kind.
And then let us think once more about Ephesians 5. Why do godly men want to die for their wives? Why do young men forsake the lusts of the flesh? Why do they discipline themselves in the Spirit’s power to treat younger women “like sisters” (1 Tim. 5:2)? Why do they, even beyond the marriage covenant, lay down their lives on battlefields and neighborhood streets and home invasions and terrorized schools to protect women and children? Why do they sacrifice themselves, when this is literally the instinct that most goes against the human heart and the human mind?
It is very simply this: because Jesus, the head of his bride, laid down his life for her. So we men of God do the same; we hear the ancient call, the call of God, and we answer.
Brad Wilcox’s Soft Patriarchs, New Men (University of Chicago, 2004) offers research-based substantiation of the above claims. As one marker of the difference the gospel makes, Wilcox writes that in his examination of the family, “the wives of active Evangelical Protestant family men report the lowest levels of violence (2.8 percent), followed by the wives of unaffiliated men (3.2 percent) and the wives of active mainline men (5.4 percent).” Here’s a precis of his broader argument; note that by linking to this, I’m not necessarily indicating agreement with everything he argues or concludes, though he is a very respected professor at the University of Virginia and doing much good work.