Submitting to Submission
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33 ESV)
As we continue listening to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we come to a passage that is controversial today – so controversial that it is often simply rejected and people would simply edit, skip over, even delete it today. I suggest that the issues people have with the passage are with how the text has been applied or used and it, very much, runs the danger of being taken out of context or selectively used. Last Sunday we concluded the reading with Paul’s message that the followers of Jesus are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). Remember we are in the part of the letter that deals with practical living – discipleship – following Jesus in real-time and Paul is calling all disciples – men and women, young and old, in your nationality, occupation, financial, and civic lives to work out how to live wisely, work out the will of the Lord for you – and the key here is submission rather than power.
Folks, that is not the way of this world! To be told that you have to work out submission in our world seems to be a rather perverse, mucky, yucky instruction – when what we believe or want to believe – and what the world admires – is agency, competency, power, independence – and hopefully success. The world and parts of ourselves hear the call to submission as being losers where as the world’s way of doing things – especially independence – as being winners.
But I ask you – what is it really like to live in a community where everyone is out to the winner?
Now in some ways our ol’ lectionary compilers haven’t helped us today because last Sunday we concluded the reading with Paul’s message that the followers of Jesus are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) and today we hear about wives and husbands. They are the first pair Paul deals with. There are two more pairs that Paul deals with but we will not hear about them because next Sunday we pick up in chapter 6 spiritual warfare and the armour of God. In the verses in between – pleased read them also this week – Paul addresses the pair of children and fathers and today we’d think more of parents – and bondservants or slaves and masters.
Addressing Christians, Paul takes what is familiar back then – codes of behaviour – and he doesn’t dismantle the social order but describes how the disciples of Jesus can live together in a peace and harmony that the world hadn’t seen before – through obedience to Christ and submission to each other out of reverence for Christ.
Let’s go back to the first hearers – to the first century – and imagine which of each pair would be the most shocked by how Paul describes submission for each pair.
Wife, submit to your husband as to the Lord.
Husband, love your wife as Christ loved the Church.
Which of this pair would have heard something most radical – even controversial – even something to reject? The husband or the wife? I suggest to you that it is the husband that is open mouthed and shaking his head.
Children, obey your parents.
Parents, do not provoke your children to anger.
In every code, in every society, children are always told to obey their parents – ok, not in the Lord as Christians children are taught – but you know what I mean.
It is the parents who are challenged.
Slaves obey your earthly masters – but now as you would Christ. Slaves always have to obey!
Masters, do good by and through your slaves and stop threatening them. Yes, it is the masters who are challenged.
In the Christian context it is the ones with the social, physical power that are challenged to follow Christ through submission to him but while still being, back in the first century, husbands, parents, masters.
Yes, a lot has happened in 2,000 years and particularly in the last 130 years if we look at women being able to vote. Here in the UK it wasn’t until 1918 that women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification could vote. We are also conscious of how our text and others like it have been used in and by the Church because what has often happened is that Paul’s comments to wife and husband have been broadened to include all women and all men – when that isn’t the context before us. We are also conscious of the abusive use of this passage to claim so called rights when the very context of mutual submission challenges that idea. So what it means is that this passage in particular becomes hard to hear – easily dismissed – and that is a difficulty for those who say that all the Bible is God’s Word not just the parts that I like or prefer. The question always to be asked is not ‘Is this the Word of God?’ but rather ‘How is this God’s Word for me who wants to follow Jesus?’.
Maybe in the past what would happen now is the pastor would give some specific examples of how husbands and wives should behave as determined by gender roles of the society of the time. Husbands, do this – wives, do that. That is not what Paul does. Instead he sets the relationship – a most intimate, personal, vulnerable one – called marriage into a landscape where the wife out of reverence for Christ is submissive in her marriage to her husband. There is no talk about finances, meal times, bedrooms, occupations but you have an analogy of helping and supporting the man she has married. What she does will be unique to her marriage and what is helpful for her marriage as she follows Christ. In this marriage landscape Paul reminds, calls, tells husbands to love their wife as Christ does the Church – he served, sacrificed, and died for the Church – and there is no talk of finances, meal times, bedrooms, occupations but you have always a call to love – that’s what you do husbands, love your wife. And this love is not arrogant, rude, insist on its own way, irritable, resentful but is patient, kind, endures all things. How a wife and husband work out their marriage is up to them but Paul has called them to remember that Jesus is with them in this most personal of relationships.
Yes, there is a mystery here that in the marital solidarity and mutual service and, one hopes, love and laughter that the togetherness that develops between a married couple can give us a sense of the relationship between the Church and the Lord of the Church. The Church – congregations or synods – want to follow Jesus, obey him, be in submission to him because again and again we learn that is the best way to live trusting Jesus. Of course Jesus is faithful and loves us because he never stops serving us – he died for us on the cross and was raised to life so that he now personally comes and serves us whether single or married, woman or man, no matter our context and calls us to follow him.
The struggle with submission, I think, comes about because we hear it, conceive it, think about it in the context of weakness and being a loser – and we forget – almost constantly I think – that Christians always act from a position of strength. My Lord loves me. My Lord is with me. I choose to follow my Lord and live in submission in my relationship to serve the other and to help the relationship. This doesn’t mean that we can’t say ‘No’ or ‘Stop’ or ‘We have to talk’ and do what is necessary to restore harmful behaviour but we do so with the goal of healing and helping that relationship.
Is any of this easy? Sometimes it is! To enjoy the chemistry of a happy marriage is truly a joy and it can feel easy at times. But such times may not last or may be attacked or it may suffer from laziness or sin and yes, then it can be hard indeed. It is easy then to yell at each other, ‘Jesus says you should do this for me!’ where we often interpret what we want as what Jesus wants. Maybe it is (what Jesus wants) and maybe it isn’t and that is what the couple need to work out for themselves personally – and not through what they think is the norm or what others tell them.
The goal of following Jesus is that we live with security and faith and trust and confidence not just with Jesus but it is wonderful – safe – when all those round you also live with that same security, faith, trust, and confidence – because then the relationship or the community which isn’t paradise or utopia is well worth living in because Jesus directs us away from selfishness, power, and control to service and what is best for the other – and that is the mystery of a beautiful life – loving rather than being loved.
- Ephesians 5:22 - 33