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Leadership in marriage

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In the early 1960s, Stan and Jessie Merrill were the perfect couple. They’d married just out of high school, got involved in church, and had two healthy sons. Everything was as it should be, except that the hearts of the husband and wife weren’t aligned. Stan was in love with Jesus Christ. His wife was not.

When the boys were eight and ten, Jessie asked for a divorce. She started sleeping with numerous men, both married and single. Quickly her activities became known by their entire town. The boys felt humiliated and drew away from their father because they thought he was weak and a coward.

During the divorce Stan contested nothing, and Jessie took everything he owned. He was left living in a one-bedroom apartment, while almost every penny he made was sent to his family. When the divorce was finalized, Stan drove Jessie home —back to his old home — because she didn’t have a ride. After dropping her off, despite knowing she had many boyfriends, he stopped to buy her flowers.

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Every Sunday Stan would go to where they lived and knock on the door. He wanted to take the boys to church, but most of the time they hid, and their mother, who was still sleeping, wouldn’t answer. Stan would usually stand at the door for about half an hour, just in case his sons needed time to get ready. Every once in a while, Jessie would feel sorry for him and tell the boys to go with him.

This went on for four years until the younger son, Dewey, started junior high. One of the women at church had multiple questions for Dewey about his father: “Is he dating anyone? Does he want to start?”

When Dewey told his father about it, he replied, “That’s nice, Dewey, but I’m not available to date.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Dewey asked. “Mom’s gone. She doesn’t love you anymore! She divorced you!”

Stan looked at his son with the gentle eyes of a man in love with Jesus. What Stan’s sons had seen as weakness was just the opposite. Their father was a man of incredible strength who understood his responsibilities as a husband and father. “Dewey,” he said, “your mother may have divorced me, but I didn’t divorce your mother.”

When Dewey told his mother what his father had said, she came to church with them the next Sunday. She was jealous that another woman was looking at him, and she couldn’t believe what he’d said after how she’d humiliated him.

When the pastor saw Jessie that morning, he set his notes aside and preached on grace and forgiveness. He preached about how Christ forgives everyone who comes to Him in repentance. Halfway through, Jessie ran to the front of the church and fell on her knees. Stan leaped from his seat and wrapped his arms around his wife while they wept together.

They were remarried that day.

God gave man the role of leader of his family, but what does that look like? The world often tells us that leadership and authority are the same thing, but this is not so. Authority is that influence that the law gives to a police officer or a military commander. Authority says, “Sir, please exit the vehicle,” or “Grab your backpack and sit down.” Authority offers no reward for obedience, only punishment for disobedience.

We are not called to be in authority over our wives; rather, we are called to lead them as Stan humbly led Jessie. Leadership creates the space for a person to choose whether or not to follow. Notice that a woman is commanded to submit to her husband, not to obey him. This is because submission involves equality and choice. Obedience involves a hierarchy and offers no choice. A slave obeys his master, and a child obeys his parents. But an equal chooses to submit or not, based on the value in the relationship.

Jesus always offers us a choice when it comes to submitting our lives to Him. Submitting to the perfect Leader maximizes our fellowship with Him and gives us ultimate joy as a result. In the same way, a wife chooses to submit to her husband or not. As husbands, it is not for us to judge her willingness to submit. It is for us to be the kind of leader to whom she can gladly submit.

We are not a perfect leader like Jesus. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to be as much like Him as we can be so that her choice is an easy one.

Your marriage may be struggling. Your wife may have rejected your leadership. One of Satan’s greatest tools is false guilt. He would rather you feel bad about the state you’re in than read this book and do something to try to fix your marriage.

Stay focused on Jesus Christ. Do not focus on past failures, other than to learn from them. Do not worry about future failures, other than to plan for them. Stay focused on the present and on your responsibilities today as the leader of your marriage.

Ken Harrison serves as the chief executive officer of WaterStone, an organization that releases resources to support Christian humanitarian efforts worldwide. He started his career as a Los Angeles police officer in the infamous 77th Division of South-Central Los Angeles. There he received numerous commendations and awards, including nomination for the Police Star for Bravery. Recently, he stepped into the role of chairman of the board of Promise Keepers, a well-known organization ministering to Christian men. He is also the author of Victims & Victors.

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