Is it important for the husband to be the spiritual leader in a marriage, and if yes, does this mean that a Christian woman can only consider marrying a man who is more spiritually mature than she?
As if it isn't already hard enough to find a suitable Christian man, this expectation that the man is more spiritually mature than the woman just makes the pool of marriable men even less. And this would naturally exclude all men who have recently become Christians (if the woman has been a Christian for many years and has matured in her faith during these many years).
There are many cases where the woman, too, can encourage her partner in his faith, and because of her faith he may be encouraged in his faith and to spend more time reading God's Word or praying. Would you consider this an instance of the woman leading the man spiritually if he is learning such good things from her? And does that mean that he is not the spiritual leader and, therefore, not someone she should consider marrying?
This is a good question that comes up a lot. The short answer is, yes, a man should lead his wife spiritually, but that doesn't necessarily mean he must have been a Christian longer than the woman he is marrying or vastly more spiritually/theologically mature than she is.
In Ephesians 5, Paul instructs us as follows:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body (Ephesians 5:22-30, emphasis added).
The theological truth to be grasped here is that God in His Word does not instruct or command a husband to be the spiritual head of his wife. He simply states that he is the head of his wife, with the same certainty that Christ is the head of the church. It's not a command; it's a statement of fact about God's design and designation of roles and offices within marriage.
A husband may be a good head of his marriage or a poor one, but he is always the head, nonetheless. In light of that design, then, Paul instructs husbands and wives how to act. The command to the husband is that he love his wife "just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless" (Ephesians 5:25-27). In other words, a husband is to love his wife sacrificially, in a role of servant leadership (see John 13:1-17; Luke 9:46-48; Matthew 23:11-12), for her spiritual good and to help her mature in Christ.
This work to which God calls husbands is far from easy (in fact it's very challenging, even for men considered "spiritually mature"), but it is not really theologically complex. Men who are relatively new Christians can understand the work to which they are called and faithfully and responsibly undertake it. It happens all the time.
For example, a husband need not be a long-time Christian or a theological wiz to set patterns in his home that will benefit his wife spiritually and help both of them mature in Christ. He can encourage regular family worship, encourage membership and deep involvement in a good church (which one or both of the couple should be attending even before the marriage), be deliberate about being discipled by a more mature man, seeking advice about good books for both of you to read, and more.
Leading spiritually is about determining direction, setting the tone, and faithfully following through in the details. Tweet This That can happen wonderfully at a pretty basic level, and even a more theologically mature wife will benefit if the husband is faithful in basic ways and the wife is open to his leadership.
It's also true that a wife can (and should!) encourage her husband in his faith as well — and that's not the same thing as "leading" him spiritually. (See Proverbs 31:10-31, especially verses 11, 12 and 26.) Every wise husband not only accepts, but invites challenge, encouragement and counsel from a godly wife. My own wife has made me a better man and a better Christian in too many ways for me to count. That is perfectly in line with the Bible's notion of a wife as "helpmate" (see Genesis 2).
I would not normally encourage a situation in which a wife is consistently discipling her husband in Christian basics, and as I wrote above, the husband will necessarily set the basic spiritual tone for the home (for better or worse). But challenge, encouragement, instruction in something the wife knows more about — all this can and should happen in a home where the husband is still the overall spiritual leader.
With all that said, some caution is in order. As your question implies, there is a difference between theological knowledge and spiritual maturity. If a woman believes she will have to be the engine of spiritual focus in a household; if her potential husband is not clearly walking with Christ and showing real spiritual interest and growth; if a potential husband has not reached the point of basic spiritual maturity at which he can faithfully (even if basically) live out Ephesians 5; then marriage to that man — by any woman — would not be wise. It's also true that if a woman is much more spiritually or theologically mature than her husband, it can make it more difficult (though not impossible) for her to happily submit to his leadership.
Bottom line: If a man has the basic spiritual maturity to understand and faithfully pursue his calling in Ephesians 5, he can be a spiritual leader — even of a woman who has been a Christian longer or is more spiritually/theologically mature in some ways. Still, part of evaluating whether you should marry a particular man is deciding specifically whether you both believe he can lead you spiritually. That decision should be made in consultation with elders or other wise, mature believers who know one or both of you well, ideally in the context of a local church.
I will pray for the Lord to give you wisdom in all this — and a godly husband!
For His glory,
Copyright 2014 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.