You can’t be serious?!
… submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 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. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:21-33 ESV)
We continue hearing Apostle Paul, Pastor Paul, prisoner Paul in his letter to the Ephesians and possibly a circuit as well in Turkey rather than Brandon, Cambridge, and Coventry. Today we have twenty centuries of church history to learn from and God’s Word to consider as well as the teachings and preachings that have gone before us. The message of one Lord, one faith, one baptism is needed more now that the Christian Church is so organisationally and doctrinally fractured. How Christians live in the world is increasingly on the agenda in the West as what used to be a pretty neat overlap of Church world view and societal mores are now moving apart – the Venn diagram would show less commonality – which is perhaps making visible what has always been the case, that Christian discipleship is about …
walking in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV)
no longer walking as the Gentiles do in their futility of their minds (Ephesians 4:17)
walking in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:2 ESV)
walking as children of light (Ephesians 5:8) not as unwise but as wise (Ephesians 5:15).
This is only possible because of God’s grace in Christ – remember God’s choosing of you to be saved (chapter 1); God’s rescue of you from death to life in Christ (chapter 2); God’s new creations individually and corporately as the body of Christ no matter your gender, status, or nationality – particularly the Jewish / Gentile distinctions and demarcations are abolished (chapters 2 and 3); and God brings his life and gifts to his people through his Word and those assigned to use the Word so that the people of God can live this new life in the world. No longer going to the pubs, as it were, for advice and support but meeting together in worship and fellowship submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) – chapters 4 and 5.
And now we come to the part of Ephesians where I have wondered whether I’ll get out of the pulpit alive. My friends, the lectionary compilers, haven’t helped, in my opinion, by decoupling our second reading from what went before and what goes after. Our reading addresses wives and husbands but we all heard it. How many of you bristled? How many thought the passage really shouldn’t be read these days? I wonder whether anyone pumped their fist in the air in their imagination and said ‘Yeah!’? I wonder would these reactions have any gender correlations? But the LSB lectionary compliers did select this reading whereas the Revised Common Lectionary omits it and the Roman Catholic lectionary gives you options – you can have it or you can have a portion of it linking verse 2 – ‘And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5:2 ESV) with the verses to the husbands only; the verses to the wives are omitted.
‘Wives, submit to your own husbands’ is so deafening it seems to me that it drowns out ‘Husbands, love your wives’ and pretty well everything else. And the lectionary compilers further compound not helping by completely silencing the words afterwards spoken to children and to parents and those to slaves and to masters because next week we hear from the lectern well into Ephesians 6 and the ‘finally’ – the last point – and it’s the armour of God.
Why is this verse in particular and this reading almost a pariah? I think there are a number of reasons not the least being how to translate the Greek involved – subordinate, subordination, subjection, submit, submission, be submissive, be obedient, obedience which are seen more in the breach than in the fact for we hear and observe that this term and idea is about inequality and inferiority which then leads to debasement and domination. And no matter how much I say that the Greek doesn’t carry with it an authority to abuse, to control, to curtail, to demean – that it is about order and structure – there will be couples who hear me who shift uncomfortably in the pew; there will be people who will tell me about their aunt, their sister, their mother whose lives they will say were ruined by this text; and there will be women and possibly men for whom this passage just isn’t practical and they will say something along the lines ‘George, there has to be limits – you just can’t say it like that’. We have too much experience of those with power or privilege or prestige holding onto it at the expense of others in personal relationships, in society, in the church – and we sense this desire in ourselves when we don’t want to be ‘under’ anything or anyone – and together with today’s ongoing calls for equality and freedom, today’s reading is often regarded as controversial at best or to be rejected at worst.
Our reading today is part of a New Testament that does teach that disciples of Jesus while they are to be obedient – to be under – to be subject to their worldly rulers are still to obey God rather than man when required (Acts 5:29). Our reading is part of a New Testament that gives equal conjugal rights to husbands and wives who don’t have authorities over their own bodies which is given to the spouse (1 Corinthians 7:1-4). Our reading is part of a New Testament that seeks to keep a marriage of a Christian and non Christian together but won’t stop the non Christian from leaving (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).
Our reading today is part of the Christians walking worthy of the calling, not walking as the world does in the dark, walking in love, walking as children of light, walking wisely – how? By submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ.
That applies to all Christians! Whom do you – and each of you should be answering in your head – submit to; are subject to? Paul is calling Christians to look at each other – not at the world for the moment – and he says ‘How do you live?’.
Jesus’ description of the world’s way of living permeates all relationships in my opinion – “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27 ESV) … Whom do you serve?
Women – and everyone listens but women more so – to their own men as to the Lord. That’s the Greek and women who don’t have their own men hear this too and they may then learn for the future or recall the past.
Men – and everyone listens but men more so – love your women – love them as you love your own bodies. Those who don’t have their own woman also hear this message and learn for the future or recall the past.
There are no details given how these men and women have got each other. There are no details about the bank account, the bedroom, the raising of children, who does what at home, who does what in the workforce; there’s no real practical how-to advice of how you live together as husband and wife.
Figure it out! That’s what wives and husbands are to do!
Marriage is a foundational relationship no matter times and places – however it occurs it is an alliance, a partnership (maybe even of countries), a gamble, a hope, a dream; it can be a place of companionship and joy and/or the deepest hurt and abuse. Golde and Teyve, in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, after 25 years of marriage wondered whether they loved each other since they only met on the day of their marriage and they concluded that they did. But where there is no agreement as to what a marriage is between the people involved, where there really is a power deferential between the people involved, then essentially you have two people together for some reason trying to survive and find some sort of fulfilment and security and since the playing field is uneven against women on this planet especially in such situations, men wreck this relationship by searching for love away from ‘his woman’ and women by not respecting – maybe for that reason but it can be for any reason – ‘her man’.
Paul sees marriage differently and in explaining how husbands and wives who are Christian live together he sees the wonder and the mystery of Jesus and his bride, the Church. Both have a freedom to act in ways that are harmful. God in Christ in grace and mercy chose to love and rescue this world. He didn’t ask permission and he doesn’t let the world’s behaviour and rebellion and rejection – humanity’s wanting to be God – control or determine his behaviour for God acts in love, according to Christianity.
The people of God, in a covenant relationship, also have a freedom to live in this relationship – so that the relationship governs the behaviour, they way they live – following Christ or rebelling and wanting to be god. Both Old and New Testaments reveal God’s rescue of his people and the call to discipleship. God establishes the relationship but he doesn’t turn people into puppets or robots for each day they can either follow him who serves them or walk away.
So when we read our passage today it is not up to me as a husband to make my wife submit. Can you imagine how that would work? I come home and say ‘Charlotte, you have to submit to me; it’s in the Bible’ to which I will get various replies along the lines of ‘George, you have to be like Christ to me, it’s in the Bible, so die!’. This is the way of the world – seeking to impose – and for the world an external law has its use – but this is not to be among you. So Jesus calls squabbling or hurt or angry or unfulfilled Georges and Charlottes (and I’m not talking about the Prince and Princess!) to turn to him and he speaks and now George and Charlotte have a choice – to follow Jesus or not.
But she … serve her George, she is your woman, sacrifice for her.
But Lord, you don’t understand what it’s like with him … follow me, Charlotte, and respectfully work together on this matter.
George, serve Charlotte. Charlotte, serve George.
That’s the paradigm, the vision, the goal and as it is lived out trusting Jesus – because George is not perfect to Charlotte and Charlotte is not perfect to George – but living with his grace, mercy, and forgiveness, they can be gracious, merciful, and forgiving to each other.
Paul’s message to women, children, and slaves was not one of rubbing their noses in their so-called inferiority but was a recognition that women, children and slaves have choices – are equal to men, parents, and masters before God. The ancient world expected compliance; usually there was no choice. But it is not so with Christ – for now women, children, and slaves – relate to men, parents, and masters through Christ – he is between them.
And Christ calls men, parents, and masters to follow him and serve them.
How does this all work out in practice? I suppose that’s what one’s discipleship is all about.
- Ephesians 5:21 - 33