April 18, 2004 Q & A

Family Roles


1. If a woman works for a living and is married should she give her earnings to her husband or keep them and pay only her half of the bills and keep the rest?

2. What is a woman's role in the family as far as obeying and what is her place in the family chain?

3. Is the man the head (ruler) of the house and if so, explain how so. Please use Old and New Testament scriptures to show examples.


Let's back up a little—a lot—to the foundational beginning. When the Lord had created Adam and said it was not good for the man to be alone, He made "a helper suitable for him" (Gen.2:18). The word translated "suitable" has been variously rendered ("meet", "answering to him," "corresponding to him"), but the idea is one who is like him, will complement him, will be matched to him as his partner. But the first word simply means "helper".

That is, while both man and woman are equally image and likeness of God, and while the command to multiply, subdue and rule this creation is addressed to them together (Gen.1:27,28), the Lord also assigned them respective roles of leading and helping. This follows through the Scripture.

In Genesis 3, in response to the sin of Adam and Eve, the Lord pronounced several judgments upon them: hard toil against resisting nature to wrest a living from the ground (vv. 17-19), pain in childbirth (v. 16), and strife between husband and wife (v. 16b, compare with 4:7).

In Jesus Christ we receive grace (by the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit) that delivers married couples from slavery to the strife-filled consequences of the fall. Husbands find in Christ the perfect model of the love they should have for their wives (Ephesians 5:25-30), and wives are called upon to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ in everything (Eph.5:22-24).

In regard to their deliverance from the guilt and power of sin, in regard to their standing before God as heirs of His saving promises, they are equal (Gal. 3:28-29). But within the family, the role assignments first given in the garden continue, but now sanctified by the saving power of Christ.

Therefore, with regard to your 3rd question ("is the man the head (ruler) of the house and if so explain how so"), the answer is "yes." But we must be careful to understand what this means. Look at Mark 10:42-45, where our Lord says, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whomever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

Yes, the husband is to be the head of the family (which means the responsibility of leadership and the authority that goes with it); but he is not to be a self-centered tyrant, but a servant. God gives authority in the civil realm, in the church, and in the home to be used first in serving Him, and then (in order to serve Him) in serving those under that authority.

Why must children honor and obey their parents (Eph. 6:1)? Because God intends their parents to exercise the authority He has given them for the good of their children, by raising them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (6:4; and notice that fathers are addressed here, not because mothers have nothing to do with training their children, but because the burden of responsibility for this task rests on fathers).

So also, in the verse just preceeding the admonition to wives to be subject to their husbands, the Lord says to all Christians (husbands, wives, everyone), "be subject to one another in the fear of Christ (v.21), wives to your own husbands…Husbands (subject yourselves to your wives, not by coming under their authority, but by) loving them as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her."

Within the kingdom of God, the church, we must all subject our egos, desires, and plans to the good and the needs of each other (Phil. 2:1-11). In the family, this does mean that wives are subject to the authority of their husbands (also Col. 3:18, Titus 2:3-5, 1 Pet. 3:16) and must show them respect; but it also means that Christian husbands are to bear the burden of leadership with Christ-like love and service for their wives and children (1 Pet. 3:7).

Maybe that long discussion also took care of your second question/point. Well, not all of it. "Her place in the family chain"….

Husband and wife stand together with authority over their children (5th Commandment, "Honor your father and your mother", see also Proverbs 1:8, 6:20). Children should never be allowed to pit one parent against the other, to play on the disunity of sinfully competing parents. No child should ever be able to say (and get away with it), "You can't tell me that; I'll talk to Dad and he'll let me!!" (or "to Mom").

But between the two, the husband is responsible to lead and the wife to respect and support, which does not mean he alone has input into decisions and she just has to go along quietly. A wise and godly husband wants to hear the wisdom God has given his wife before big decisions are made; he delegates a lot and trusts his wife to use her gifts wisely. A godly wife looks for ways to encourage her husband in his role and offers her opinions, suggestions, and even rebukes, with a respectful and quiet spirit.

When both are submitting to Christ as Lord, looking to His cross for the grace they need, praying for the help of the Spirit and looking together to the Word for guidance (part of being one flesh is to do these things together), then the love of Christ should constrain them to be thoughtful, gentle, and respectful of each other.

One's place in the family, in a healthy Christian family, should not be like a "chain" or be too much like a military "chain of command" ("Wife, your orders for today are …." "Yes Sir!"), but a comfortable fit of complementary parts—like the body of Christ, described in Eph. 4:15, 16.

Economics and the family: that is what your first question/point (and some of 2?) seems to address. Again, let's back up. Consider Genesis 2:24 (quoted also by our Lord in Matt.19:5 and partially by Paul in Eph. 5:31): "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." Before two people are married, they are each part of separate families and may consider a future in which their identity is their own (under God). But when they marry, they become "one flesh" and a new family unit is created which is not subject any longer to the authority of either of their parents. A person, man or woman, who is going to go on insisting on "their way," their freedom, achieving their goals, protecting their individuality, etc., is not yet ready to be married.

Though fallen families may be torn by much strife over money, egos, and selfishness, in Jesus Christ we should be undergoing a reformation. Just as the Holy Spirit gives a variety of gifts to individuals in the church "for the common good" (1 Cor. 12:7), so all that husband and wife do and have they do and have together as one unit. (I would make an exception for older widowed people who marry and wish to keep their estates intact for their respective children.) It is not the husband's money; it is not the wife's money; it is the family's money. Within that family unit there ought to be cooperative discussion and agreement (with the husband bearing the burden of leading, but the wife fully participating in discussion) about the monthly budget, savings, goals, managing debt, etc.

Part of my earliest training, as a small child, was playing with my tinkertoys on the dining room rug while my Dad and Mom would record the expenses of the week, discuss budget adjustments, and give each other their allowance for the next week. I can still see them counting the money, putting it in envelopes, discussing (sometimes arguing about, alas) overruns, and then handing each other a small bundle of bills for their personal use.

Prior to the industrial revolution of the 19th century all families lived and worked together and shared everything throughout the day. Dad might plow, because he is bigger and stronger and can manage the ox and the plow. And Mom was the primary caregiver to infants and young children (no bottle-fed babies back then). But it was only with the development of modern economies (industrial, capitalist, socialist, consumer) that highly specialized roles emerged, sending men far away to "jobs" and leaving women at home. And since WWII the trend has been for both men and women to leave the home for their "jobs."

As we have become more and more affluent, materialistic, and individualistic (both men and women), we have destroyed marriages, families, and children over the quest for wealth, career, and developing our individual potential. Earning money, advancing in a profession, having freedom, are goals that seduce both men and women to think of themselves individually instead of thinking of their "one-flesh" unity in marriage and home.

Both husband and wife should bring their earnings (if both work outside the home) into the common family treasury. Together, with the husband as head (but not tyrant), they should be careful stewards of what the Lord has given them.

Some (feminist) wives may have a sinful desire to become "somebody" and enjoy freedom apart from their husband and family. And some insecure and egotistical husbands are so afraid their wives will strike out on their own that they over-react in a grasping and dictatorial way.

Headship does not mean the husband has a monopoly on intelligence and wisdom. The boss of a company who thinks only his opinions can ever be right and everything must be done his way is a fool who is wasting the talents and intelligence of the employees he refuses to trust, robbing both the company and himself of greater profit. A husband who thinks that only he can think and the little wife must just listen and obey is no better.

Now that I've sort of answered your questions, I suspect that you did not ask them out of idle curiosity, but out of some sense of personal need or difficulty. I can't tell if you are a wife whose husband expects you to fork over your paycheck every two weeks, or if you are a husband whose wife is demanding to keep "her share" of her earnings for herself. Maybe you're neither of these, but if you are either of these, I think you have a real problem in your relationship with your spouse that goes deeper by far than deciding who does what with the money. I urge you to go to a church where the Bible is believed and taught, Christ is preached and exalted as Savior and Lord, and the pastor can sit down with you and help you and your spouse reform yourselves and your marriage.

Maybe I'm reading too much into your question. But if I'm right I pray you'll heed my counsel. If you need help finding such a church, I might be able to help if you would tell me the city you live in. (Or you can use the Find a Local Congregation tool to find a nearby OPC.)

May the Lord bless you and guide you and yours in His righteous ways.