The problem can come about in many different ways. Perhaps a couple marry when both were non-Christians, and he later becomes a Christian. Perhaps he was a believer who disobediently married an unbeliever. He repents later, but he remains married. Perhaps husband and wife are both professing believers, but through his abdication of godly authority, she has backslidden to the point that he simply does not know how to lead her. Most married Christian men are not in this position, but at the same time we cannot say the problem is extremely rare.
The symptoms can of course vary. He may be distressed over her spending habits, television viewing habits, weight, rejection of his leadership, laziness in cleaning the house, lack of responsiveness to sexual advances, whatever. But however the problem is manifested, what should a husband do? Suppose for a moment that he really wants to serve God in their marriage, and she appears to be distinctly unenthusiastic about changing. What course should a man pursue?
First, the husband in his capacity as a private person should confess to God his own individual sins as an individual which have contributed to the situation. For the typical husband, such sins will be numerous, and may even include the initial decision to marry her. In other words, to take an example at random, if his name is Jay, he begins by confessing Jay's sins.
Second, the husband as a "public person" should begin confessing the sinful state of his household before God, assuming full and complete responsibility for the way things are. But what is meant by this phrase "public person"? A husband is an individual, but he is also an officer--he is invested with the office of husband. In this status, he is not his own man; he is a public person--he represents others. The responsibilities of a public person are not the same thing as the guilt of a private person. When a wife neglects her duties, the guilt of the sin is hers. The responsibility for her negligence is her husband's.
The husband should confess, on a daily basis, the sinful status of his household before God, and his responsibility for it, until it changes. A "problem wife" cannot be worked on like a car that has broken down. Because of the organic and covenantal nature of marriage, the problem is never "over there, with her," but rather here "with us." And who is the spokesman for "us," the spokesman for this particular household before God? The husband is, and he must learn the importance of such corporate confession. If his name is Jay Smith, he must learn to confess the Smiths' sins, and he must do so as the covenant representative of that household.
Third, when he has learned to assume full responsibility before God for the spiritual condition of the household (and not before then), and the ramifications of this lesson have settled in his marrow, the husband should then sit down and have a talk with his wife. In this talk, he must assume the complete responsibility for the way things are. The chances are that he has previously blamed her many times, both in his heart and out loud. This is not to be a sanctimonious version of the same thing. While granting the reality of her negligence and her individual guilt before the Lord, his talk should not be accusing. After he has acknowledged his responsibility, and his failures to exercise it properly, he should then make clear what his expectations are for her in the future. He should also make clear his complete unwillingness to step in to do for her what she neglected to do, or to tolerate a lapse into the old way of doing things.
Fourth, his expectations for change should not be exhaustive, but rather representative. He should want to address the problem in principle, not in toto. The purpose of this discussion is not to present a twenty-year-old list of grievances--love does not keep a record of wrongs--but rather to help her learn to do her duty, and to lead her as she learns what is, for her, a difficult lesson. She can learn on a representative problem. She would be overwhelmed with a requirement that she change everywhere, all at once. If, for example, the problem is one of poor housekeeping, he should require something very simple, i.e. that the dishes be done after every meal before anything else is done.
The first time the dishes are not done, he must sit down with his wife immediately, and gently remind her that this is something which has to be done. At no time may he lose his temper, badger her, call her names, etc. He must constantly remember and confess that she is not the problem, he is. By bringing this gently to her attention, he is not to be primarily pointing to her need to repent; rather, he is exhibiting the fruit of his repentance.
He does this, without rancour and without an accusative spirit, until she complies or rebels. If she complies, he must move up one step, now requiring that another of her duties be done. If she rebels, he must call the elders of the church and ask them for a pastoral visit. When the government of the home has failed to such an extent, and a godly and consistent attempt by the husband to restore the situation has broken down, then the involvement of the elders is fully appropriate.