Growing up, I was told to find a husband who would be a strong spiritual leader.
But when I started dating, I wasn’t exactly sure how to know if my boyfriend was one.
After all, I learned that limiting spiritual intimacy while you’re dating can be healthy. As my boyfriend, he was not in the position to lead me in all the ways a husband would.
A mentor told me, “Look to see how he’s leading men around him” as a way to gauge a guy’s spiritual leadership abilities.
While there’s some wisdom in this advice, I think I misinterpreted it…because I began making a mental list of all my boyfriend’s leadership activities.
He was a Bible study leader — check. He led worship — check. To top it all off, he was a leader in the Greek community, getting to know fraternity guys who wouldn’t have otherwise stepped foot in a church.
But while my husband is a strong spiritual leader, it’s not because he has a strong leadership track record. None of these things proved he would be a spiritual leader in our family.
Strong leader = Strong follower
I was wrong to look at my boyfriend’s outward leadership activities and jump to conclusions about his ability to lead me as his wife. But why?
The biggest reason is that I was looking at external things. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
A man can look like a leader on the outside, but if his heart isn’t in the right place, he’s not going to be able to lead you spiritually.
Rather than asking, “Is he a leader?”, I should have been asking, “Is he a follower of Christ?”
See, to be a good leader, you must first be a good follower. That’s generally true in the world. But it’s especially true in the Christian faith, because we know that Jesus Christ is the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 2:12). Without Christ, we cannot bear spiritual fruit (John 15:5).
Notice, though, that I said “follower” and not just “believer.”
Faith is crucial: we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). But if your boyfriend truly believes in Christ, he will do much more than verbally affirm the truths of the Bible.
He will live out those truths more and more each day as the Holy Spirit works in his life.
And so, yes, he may lead a small group or the sound team because he is serving from a transformed heart. But as someone looking in from the outside, you can’t use those as the only basis for evaluating whether or not his faith in Christ is authentic.
How do you know if your boyfriend is really a follower of Christ? You don’t want to be overly skeptical, but you do need to be discerning.
While only God knows the heart, I would recommend looking for at least these two things as you’re considering whether your boyfriend follows Christ:
- Godly sorrow over sin
- Genuine repentance
First, if your boyfriend is a follower of Christ, he will express real remorse when he sins. He won’t just be ashamed that he got caught or regretful that he experienced the consequences of his actions. He’ll grieve his sin because he knows he has grieved God.
Second, he will continually seek to turn from his sin to Christ. “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10). While he may commit that same sin again, his attitude and actions toward that sin will be profoundly different, and he will grow in obedience over time.
Not what you’d expect
Maybe you’re already confident that your boyfriend is a follower of Christ, but you still want to know if he’ll lead you well in marriage.
In the church, we sometimes get a narrow view of what spiritual leadership looks like. We see the pastor preaching on Sunday. We see our small group leader guiding us in prayer and study of Scripture.
These things are examples of spiritual leadership, but we forget they’re not the only way to lead someone spiritually.
Abigail Dodds observes in a podcast episode that a woman often expects a husband to be her own personal pastor. She imagines him leading her in devotions and a detailed study of the Bible.
While a wise husband will actively encourage his wife’s walk with Christ, the reality is that teaching — one of the primary pastoral gifts — is not every man’s spiritual gift. And that’s a good thing!
Romans 12:6-8 explains that God gifts each of us in different ways:
“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Romans 12:6-8)
Teaching is just one spiritual gift of many. A husband leads his wife in the unique ways God has gifted him.
When I expect my husband to lead me in a way he’s not gifted, I’m asking him to fit a mold of my making rather than God’s.
As Dodds points out, I may fail to see the godliness that’s already in his life if I’m looking at the wrong things. This isn’t just unfair to my husband. Frankly, it’s rude to God.
This concept also makes a lot of sense if we think about Jesus’ example of leadership.
Jesus was a teacher and he spoke to large crowds. But he also told his disciples, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26, 28)
According to Jesus, the defining mark of a leader is humble service. How does a leader serve, then?
“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).
A spiritual leader serves others the same way anyone serves others: with the gifts God has given him.
What you should be looking for
So far, we’ve established that it’s more important to look for a man who is a follower of Christ than a spiritual leader. If you set out to look for a “leader,” you’ll probably just project your own ideas of what leadership should look like onto him.
So what really makes a man a spiritual leader? Here’s my definition:
A spiritual leader is someone who uses their spiritual gifts to lead you toward Christ.
Has anyone asked you lately, “How does your boyfriend point you to Christ?”
All dating relationships should cause you to grow in Christ, whether or not they end in marriage. As you learn to care for another person and encounter temptation, God can fortify your dependence on Him.
But in order for a dating relationship to transform into a healthy marriage, you need more than a relationship that reminds you to trust in God. You need a boyfriend who leads you toward Christ.
Here’s an example of what that can look like.
As I prepared to write this article, I asked for my husband’s perspective. I asked because I value his opinion and because discernment may be one of his spiritual gifts.
He didn’t lead me into the topic — I brought it up. And he didn’t lead the conversation — I asked him questions.
But he did lead me toward Christ in his answers. He helped me think about the topic from a biblical worldview, and he reminded me of the gospel at every turn.
Right where it mattered most, he was a spiritual leader.
Spiritual leadership won’t look the same for everyone or in every season of life. You must be careful of copying and pasting your assumptions about leadership onto your boyfriend.
The common thread, though, is to look for a man who causes you to…
- Treasure Christ in your heart
- Honor Christ in your words, actions and attitudes
- Engage Christ’s truth with your mind
…more and more each day.
If he does these things, you don’t have to worry about whether he’ll be a strong spiritual leader. You’ll already be seeing the fruit of the Spirit at work in his life.
In the meantime
Don’t forget: God has gifted you, too.
As you ponder and pray about your future together, consider how you can serve your boyfriend and spur him on to grow in Christ (Hebrews 10:24).
A husband may have a unique responsibility to lead his wife, but all believers are called to humbly serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13).
Whenever you’re tempted to size up your boyfriend against your high expectations, evaluate your own heart. See if those standards are truly rooted in the grace of God, the grace that you also have received.