(second in a sermon series on Family Business)
When people get married, they often say, “We have decided to “tie the knot.” Given the numbers of people who are deciding not to tie the knot at the present time, I think that is an admirable decision.
I try to point out to them that when we think in terms of Christian marriage, it’s not so much two people deciding to tie the knot as God deciding to join two people together. It’s not so much a human decision as a divine action. Marriage is all about God joining two people together. I say this on no less of an authority than Jesus Christ Himself. In fact, He went even further, saying, “Whom God, therefore, has joined together, no man should separate!”
So when we think in terms of marriage in these terms – “God having joined two people together” – it’s rather obvious that two independent people now being brought together in some new union are going to have a lot of adjustments to make.
In Ephesians 5 Ephesians 6, the apostle Paul gives some very helpful teaching on this whole business of how the husband and the wife adjust to each other. He does it in a very balanced way. For instance, here is a familiar verse, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). It’s very familiar because the wives have heard it over and over again.
It’s also very familiar to the men. Some men, who don’t know any other verse in the Bible, know this one very well, indeed. However, if we’re going to look at what Paul actually said in Ephesians 5:25, he said, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church.” You see, it’s rather like a pair of scissors – when you have a pair of scissors, you’ve got two things (blades) that have been joined to form a new whole. If the scissors are going to work, then both sides have got to be in operation and in harmony.
So Paul would say, “Look, half the story about marriage is ‘wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord;’ the other half is ‘husbands, love your wives, as Christ loves the church.’” Today I’m going to talk to you about the first half of this relationship, this business of adjustment. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Next time it will be about “Husbands, love your wives,” and no you cannot go and play golf! You have to listen to both of these, unless you’re going to try and operate with half a pair of scissors.
An old man is walking along a country road in the Deep South with his mule and his dog. A pickup truck comes around the corner too fast, knocks the old man, the mule and the dog into the ditch. Some time later, the old man is suing the driver of the truck. The attorney defending the driver is cross-examining the old man.
“Did you, on the day of the alleged accident, tell my client you had never felt better in your life than you did that particular day?” asked the attorney.
The old man replied: “Me, and my mule, and my dog were walking on the road. This gentleman came around the corner in his pickup truck. He knocked me and my mule and my dog into the ditch. He jumped out of the cab carrying a shot gun. He went up to my dog that was bleeding, and he shot it. He went to my mule that had broken its foreleg, and he shot it. He walked over to me with his shot gun and said, ‘Are you all right?’ And I said, ‘You know, I’ve never felt better in my life!’” The moral of the story is: If you take a text, out of its context, you’re left with ‘a con.’
It’s very important that we understand the context in which Paul is giving this teaching, because if we don’t understand the context, we may get Paul all wrong. If you look at Paul in his immediate context, what you will discover to your amazement is that he was a radical, and that he was doing more for the emancipation of women and other oppressed groups at that time than anybody else on earth. But you will never understand it until you see it in context. It’s important that we see this, because many people are simply dismissing this aspect of biblical truth concerning marriage.
First note the historical context. First Century Greco-Roman culture was the culture in which Paul was living, to which he was writing. They were particularly interested in maintaining law and order! They said, “The way you do that, is by breaking society down into its most manageable pieces, and maintaining law and order there.” The most manageable piece of their society was the household. That’s very different from the nuclear, suburban household which many of us are used to at the present time. This could be a rather large group of people, certainly husband and wife, children and very often slaves and many servants.
They maintained order in that household by giving absolute authority to the husband, the father, and the owner of the slaves. He could rule that household with a rod of iron. For instance, if his wife gave birth, in his opinion, to too many daughters, he could order the infant baby girl to be exposed and die. That wasn’t a problem in that culture. If his son became unruly and disobedient, he could be thoroughly beaten and – if necessary in the father’s eyes – he could be imprisoned. If a slave escaped from the household and was captured, he could be executed at the command of the head of the household.
The wife was regarded not as a person, but as a piece of property. She was not allowed to make decisions of her own, particularly in the area of religion. The father and husband decided what everybody’s religion was going to be. She had no rights whatsoever. So as far as the women, the children, and the slaves were concerned, they didn’t rate at all.
So when Paul came and preached the Gospel, this was a dramatic intervention in their culture because he told these people: You’re all created in the image of God. God loves all of you. You slaves, God loves you. You women, God created you in the image of God, as much as He created your husbands in the image of God. Christ died for all of you. All of you are sinners, you have that in common – men, women, children, slaves, wives, husbands, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
He said: Christ died for all of you that you might be reconciled to God. If you’re reconciled to God the Holy Spirit will come into your life, and He will baptize you into the Body of Christ, and He will give you gifts. In the Body of Christ, men, women, children, slaves, slave owners, husbands, wives, you will be all one in Christ Jesus. “For in Christ there’s neither Jew, nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor slave owner.” We’re all one in Christ Jesus!
That’s old hat to us; we’ve known that ever since we’ve known anything about Christianity. But this was a radical message to the people to whom Paul was preaching. The women couldn’t believe their ears, “What is he saying about us?” The slaves couldn’t believe what they were hearing. “What is he saying about us?” The men, they were having fits! “Wow, these women might start believing this crazy character. They might start to thing they’re as important as we are. These slaves might get all kinds of big ideas about themselves. We will lose control, and if we lose control in the household, it’s only a matter of time until law and order breaks down in the household, and then the whole of our society will collapse.”
That’s why Christianity was regarded as dangerous and subversive at that time. How many of you think that the man in the street in America today regards Christianity as dangerous and subversive? Now the man in the street in America generally regards Christianity as fundamentally weak-kneed and irrelevant. That will give you some idea of the change in culture.
So the Apostle Paul is bringing a message to those women who are hearing something so exciting, so radical, and so emancipating that it’s very important that he teaches them very, very carefully how to enjoy their freedom in Christ while living within their culture. Come to think of it, that’s what we have to do today! How can we live uniquely free in Christ, within our culture, so that we don’t become a scandal to the name of Christ in the culture of which we are a part?
Next notice the grammatical context in which Paul is writing. Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives, submit to your husband as to the Lord.” Some women absolutely hate that verse! Well, I’ve got some good news for you! That verse was originally written in Greek, not in English. When it was written in Greek, the word ‘submit’ was not there! You say, “Why didn’t you tell me this 35 years ago?” Well, the reason, I didn’t tell you that 35 years ago, is I didn’t know.
The word submit is not there in the Greek. You say, “How in the world did it get in there then in the English? Well, the translators know that you cannot have a sentence without a verb. So they said, “We need a verb!” If you look in the previous verse, Ephesians 5:21, it says, “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ, wives, to your husbands as to the Lord.” In the Greek it makes perfect sense. You don’t need to “submit” in the second sentence because it borrows the verb from the previous sentence. You say, “Well, what’s all the fuss about then? No fuss, it’s just explaining something to you: you cannot separate Ephesians 5:22 from Ephesians 5:21.
So now you get the grammatical context, which gives a very, very different light on it. You don’t start with “Wives submit to your husbands”; you start with “Submitting to each other as unto the Lord,” and in that context Paul says, “Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” “Submitting” is the accurate translation here; it’s what we call a participle.
I just mention that to you quickly because there are three other participles in addition to submitting in Ephesians 5:21: singing in Ephesians 5:19; speaking in Ephesians 5:19; and giving thanks in Ephesians 5:20. Submitting, Giving Thanks, Singing, and Speaking. The important thing about that is this: these participles are like big clusters of grapes. You’ve got a cluster called Submitting; and you’ve got one called Thanking; and you’ve got one called Speaking; and you’ve got one called Singing. These clusters of grapes all need a branch to hang on, that’s what a participle needs. It needs a verb on which to hang. The verb, on which these participles hang is found in Ephesians 5:18, where it says: “Don’t be drunk with wine, which leads to all kinds of wrong living; rather, be filled with the Spirit.” (Ephesians 5:18)
And that’s the context; that is the grammatical context in which Paul now says to wives, “Wives, submit to your husband as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22). So where does it all start? It all starts with husbands and wives being filled with the Spirit. And how can you tell that they’re filled with the Spirit? By their speaking, by their singing, by their thanksgiving, and by their submitting one to the other. In that context, where you’ve got a husband and a wife filled with the Spirit, and you can tell it by their speaking and their singing and their thanksgiving, and their submitting, in that context wives are submitting to their husbands. Now we’ve moved a long way from simply saying, “Wives, submit!” But if you take a text out of its context you’re left with a ‘con.’
The third aspect of this context we need to recognize is what I would call the spiritual context. That starts in Ephesians 5:1, which says: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.” That is a command; it is a principle for all believers. Are you a dearly loved child of God? The answer should be: “Yes!” Than this is what dearly loved children of God do! They seek to imitate God – to become more like Him.
How do they that? They do it by living a life of love. But how do they live a life of love? They do it just as Christ loved us – He gave himself up as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. This is the overarching rule of a Christian. Christians are dearly loved of God, and they bask in the love of God. Because they bask in the love of God, they want to imitate Him; they want to live more like his Son, Jesus, who lived a life of love and of submitting gladly to the will of God.
So what is it you expect to see in your average Christian? You’d expect to see two things: A loving attitude and a submissive spirit. Why? Because that was Jesus, and we wish to emulate Him.
You say, “How in the world can you live in this world and in this situation, and in my marriage in particular, with a loving attitude and a submissive spirit?” The answer is: You can do it in the fullness of the Spirit. So do you have a context here? You don’t start with “Wives, submit to your husband;” you start with “As dearly loved children, be imitators of God.”
What that means is that you become more like Christ. What was Christ like? He was loving! How did he demonstrate His love? By submitting to the will of God, and sacrificially giving Himself on the cross. Then emulate His example! You say, “I can’t!” Yes, you can in the fullness of the Spirit. If you’re living in the fullness of the Spirit, this is what will be showing: your speaking, your singing, your thanksgiving, and your submitting. Submitting to who? One another – that’s what Christians do.
Now in that normative Christian environment some Christians decide to get married. Guess what they bring into their marriage? Christian attitudes. And what are Christian attitudes? Loving and submitting! So how does it work out in a different culture? Well, it doesn’t matter what the culture is; you’ll find the same things are operative there. In the fullness of the Spirit, there will be loving and submitting and sacrificial giving to each other. And the wives, particularly, focus on the submitting, as the husbands particularly focus on the loving. You see the scissors need two sides or blades. So much then for the context of Paul’s teaching on marriage!
Let’s look at the content of Paul’s teaching on marriage. Notice again that in Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” is not what it says. What it actually says is, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Now, why do I stress that? When the women who are sitting in the Church in Ephesus discover that Paul is actually addressing them, they can’t believe that for a start off. “Wow! He thinks we are smart enough to understand what he’s talking about.” They never did that to us before! They just parked us in a corner, and we just sat and chatted. All the men did all the religious stuff, now he’s actually writing to us! It’s wonderful!
But you know what he just said? He said, “Wives, submit!” They said, “Nothing ‘new’ there! That’s what we’ve always done, never had any options!” I mean, this guy runs our household. “Boy, if you stepped out of line, you were in big trouble!” No, big difference here! “Wives, submit!” He didn’t say, “Wives, submit to your husbands. He said, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” And their ears pricked up with that. He said, “Submit to your husbands as to the Lord!” Does Paul think my husband looks like the Lord? No woman has ever confused her husband and the Lord! It has never ever happened!
No, what does it mean then? What it means is this: Wives, you don’t submit to your husbands – this is to women in the Greco-Roman culture – because he’s an old tyrant and you’ve no option. You now submit to your husband, because by the way that you respond to your husband, you are indicating your attitude to the Lord.
How in the world can that happen? Because he is the husband, he’s been given in the divine economy certain responsibilities in the marriage and the family. As he has been given these responsibilities, as you respond to him fulfilling those responsibilities, you are actually responding to the One who made him responsible. So the wife now is not simply responding to a tyrant, because she has no option; she is now responding to somebody who, in his capacity as husband, has been invested with responsibility for which he is accountable to God. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” That puts a different slant on it, doesn’t it?
Notice that I’ve been saying responsibility rather than authority! When Paul writes about “husbands and wives” in marriage, he only uses the word “authority” once; and he uses it in this sense: the husband does not have authority over his own body, and the wife doesn’t have authority over hers. Paul is not saying, “The husband is the authority figure who rules the roost, and women better submit!” He doesn’t say that! The idea of her ‘submitting’ to his head ship, as we’ll see in a moment, is not so much he is the ultimate authority because he is a man, and she is a woman.
Let’s see if I can illustrate this for you. In the Marines, we used to say: “You don’t salute the man, you salute the uniform!” Same with the President of the United States of America; you might not like the man, but he is the President, whether you like it or not! And he’s your President, whether you like it or not! So you don’t salute the man, you salute the uniform. In actual fact, a man can function in entirely different situations.
I played rugby for the Marines. I was the only non-commissioned rank on the team, the other fourteen were all officers, I had a non-commissioned rank, because I was only in for a short period of time. But the interesting thing about it was this: Whilst all the others had superior rank to me, I played “stand-off-half” which is equivalent of quarterback. That was wonderful! So I got the ball first, and it would come to me all the time. I had four options: I could pass left, I could pass right, I could keep it and go ahead with it, or I could kick! Now, I had fourteen officers yelling and shouting at me, telling me what to do all around me, and I used to ignore them with impunity! The guy who played right next to me was the adjutant and he was number two behind the commanding officer, and he would yell and scream and shout for the ball, and I would grin at him, and pass it the other way; and I loved it!
But when I got on parade the next morning, it was an entirely different matter. I was the same man, he was the same man. But in his position, there was a different roll being played. It isn’t that men are superior and women are inferior; it’s that in the economy of God in a marriage, a husband has been invested by God with responsibility, and the wife recognizes it and responds to it. She submits to her husband as to the Lord.
Now the women here in Ephesus won’t even question it. They say, “What’s new? That’s the way we spend our lives, being submissive around here.” And the Apostle Paul said: No, you’ve got to understand that you are fundamentally equal with those men. You are both made in the image of God. You’re both redeemed sinners. You’re both indwelt by the Holy Spirit. As a man and a woman, you are fundamentally equal, but the husband has been given responsibility delegated by God, and you need to recognize it!
Of course, Paul understands that the women to whom he is writing won’t question it; but God knows that this letter will find its way into the Bible and be read 2,000 years later in America. Now, that’s an entirely different situation because that 21st century American woman will say: “Why should I submit to him?” And he gives us the answer here. Not for the folks he’s writing to, it’s for us today.
What’s the answer? Why should I submit to him? Answer: Because the husband is the head of the wife. That’s why! The husband is the head of the wife. Notice what he doesn’t say. Paul doesn’t say, the husband is the head of the family! And he doesn’t say, the husband is the head of the house. He never does say that, because he isn’t! The husband is the head of the wife! Now, a lot of women have got the idea the husband is supposed to be the head of the family, and that means he says “Grace,” and he leads the children in devotions. A lot of women get very frustrated because their husbands won’t do it, when they’re better equipped to do it than the men are.
It doesn’t say, “He’s the head of the family.” It doesn’t say, “He’s the head of the house.” It says, “He’s the head of the wife!” But what does that mean? Well, it isn’t left up for grabs. The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church.
In what way is Christ the head of the Church? Now this is where it gets really tricky. The Greek word for head is kephalé. Kephalé – like many words in many languages – has different shades of meaning. It can mean the head in terms of “authority,” or it can mean head in terms of “headwaters.” In fact, just a few weeks ago, Jill and I were in Uganda near the headwaters of the Nile. So, the head can be an authority figure or a source of supply, and theologians have been arguing this forever. If you look in Ephesians Chapter 1, the word head relating to Christ and the Church seems to convey the idea of Him ruling and being in authority. But in Chapter 4, it seems to convey the idea of Christ being the headwaters or the source of supply.
It isn’t an either or thing. The husband – not by virtue of being a man, but by virtue of being a husband – in a marital situation has been invested by God with responsibility to oversee the well being of the wife. In overseeing the well being of the wife, he is responsible to God to see that through him flows all that is necessary for her to be all that she was created and redeemed to be.
Let me ask you a question, ladies, and don’t shout out the answers! If you were married to a man who took seriously the fact that – having decided to be married because no one put a gun to his head – he had all the world to choose from, and he chose you; and having chosen to be married to you, he now recognizes that God joined the two of you together. In joining the two of you together as Christians, you understand that Christians are known for their love and their submissive attitude.
He brought that into the marriage, and you brought that into the marriage, and you’ve nurtured it over the years. But as you’ve matured in your marriage, you’ve understood that he has a particular roll to play. It is this: to accept from God the responsibility of caring for and overseeing your well being so that you have every opportunity to be all that God created you and redeemed you to be.
Here’s the question: If you’re in a marriage like that, wouldn’t you go along with that? Wouldn’t you say, “That sounds good to me. I’m going to cooperate with him, I’m going to partner with him. I’m going to make absolutely certain that he has every chance to do what God has told him to do. He is going to find somebody one hundred percent on his side.” There’s one word for that, it’s called submitting. What a shame that there’s been such a misunderstanding of what Paul is saying, so that some men use this verse to basically rule the roost and dominate their wives and threaten the possibilities of them being all they’re intended to be, for purely selfish, male reasons.
On the other hand, what a tragedy it is that sometimes there are women who show little interest in discovering all that God has made them to be. Because they think if they do, they might take some risks which they’d rather not risk taking. So, what is the consent that is necessary to Paul’s teaching on marriage?
This is my final point: Husbands and wives need to consent to basic Christian principles of love and submission. Go home, husbands and wives, and ask yourselves, Are we agreed on this, that Christians are dearly loved by God and as such seek to imitate God, and they do it by becoming more like Christ, who loved and submitted and gave himself up. Is that our fundamental attitude in general? Then say, “And do we consent to the fact that this is only possible in the fullness of the Spirit.” So we will encourage each other to discover more and more of life in the fullness of the Spirit. Will we consent to this: That the husband consents to the responsibility of loving his wife, and the wife happily submits to it, and deeply respects her husband for it?
“Gracious Lord, there’s so much for us to wrestle with here, so much for us to think through. Will You help the brothers and sisters who are married to agree together that the fundamentals of Christian behavior are an imitation of Christ in His love sacrifice? Will You help them decide in their own hearts whether they are encouraging each other to life in the fullness of the Spirit? Would You help husbands to think through what it means for them to be responsible, under God, to be a source of nourishment and encouragement and support for their wives? And help wives to look at their attitudes toward their husbands, and see if they’re encouraging them in this role; partnering with them, in the task, respecting them for it. Hear our prayers, let our cries come unto You in the Name of Jesus, our Savior. Amen.”