Once Upon A Marriage Week Four: He Said, She said
I had a vision when I planned this sermon series some months ago that for the final day I needed some help to preach the Scripture passage that I had chosen (or that had chosen me). The Scripture passage is one of the most challenging--if not the most challenging passage--in the Bible that directly addresses marriage and relationships: Ephesians 5:21-33
Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord, Paul exhorts the church at Ephesus, and Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church.
I asked my wife Merideth if she would help me by team teaching this passage with me. She was reluctant at first, but soon caught the vision and the need to have a female voice heard in the midst of the discussion of "submission" and "love" as outlined by Paul. She is a highly successful businesswoman, a lawyer with her own law practice, runs a real estate company and property management company with her mother, serves on numerous boards and foundations in our community, and always seems to have time for family, running our household, nurturing our kids, and putting up with me. I don't think I could have found a more highly qualified person to help me teach this passage.
I remember when I was growing up in the fundamentalist Baptist churches of my youth that this passage of Scripture was lifted up and lorded over women in triumph. There was no conversation about context. There was very little discussion of the role of husbands in Paul's formula. All that was highlighted was the idea that women were supposed to submit to men--which is not what Paul said at all.
One of the things that we have got to be honest about in the Christian community is the violence that has been done to Scripture by people who decide to twist it to fit and support their worldview.
But this passage provides us with some invaluable information on what it takes to have a happy and lasting marriage. Christians need to be paying attention to what the Bible has to say, and to listen to it carefully---rather than imposing their will upon it and ignoring its truth.
I found the following list on what it takes to have a happy and lasting marriage from a resource site for social workers. Apparently, it is important for social workers to be able to recognize the evidence of good marriages in their line of work. Here's the list, edited a bit by me:
Both people are truly happy, optimistic, problem solvers
Financially more secure
Find ways to “renew” the spark
Healthy involvement with children/grandchildren
Don’t criticize and reject each other
Have more than “gotten through” problems, they triumphed
Wildcard - a highly personalized reason to be happy
Now this is a secular, very objective sort of assessment tool, but even in its objectivity there is a bit of mystery and the unknown to it. The idea of a Wildcard is one that is hard to qualify, but those who follow Jesus can put some legs on it. For Christians, who are seeking to live by Biblical principles in marriage that last one is defined within the context of following Jesus, and seeking to be in a relationship that is grounded in His love and example.
When Paul wrote this passage he was writing in a context that would have thought his words to be strange and outside the bounds of acceptable "family values" in Greco-Roman culture. In almost every other contemporary mention of "proper" marriage relationships in Paul's day, the word "submission" would have been used in conjunction with "obedience." Additionally, Paul's mention of "love" as a duty for husbands would have been strange to the ears of the ancients.
I read a story about a guy named Amelius, who lived in Rome. He divorced his wife Papiria quite suddenly without any real reason as was his right. She was known to be a beautiful woman, who was bright and capable. She also had given birth to three children with Amelius, and was held in high esteem in their community. When asked why he divorced such a good woman, Ameilius took off his shoe and said, "Is this not handsome? Is this not new? But not one of you can see where it pinches my foot."
So he discarded her like an old shoe. Love was not a duty of a husband in the ancient world, but it was to Paul.
I love this: "Love takes on its noblest forms when it is spelled concretely in terms of self surrender, sacrifice and holy design."
Paul begins his whole discussion of Biblical marriage by saying to the entire group: "Submit to one another in reverence to Christ." No one seems to bat an eyelash at this verse... it's the ones that follow that cause all of the controversy. The bottom line is this: You can't ignore that Paul clearly intends that wives submit to husbands. The phrase "as to the Lord" gives us a clue as to what that should look like. Additionally, husbands are supposed to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. Jesus is at the center of both exhortations.
For wives, submission is a gift, freely given to honor Christ, not necessarily to honor their husband (some husbands are clearly not worthy of their wife's honor, nor the gift of her submission). It is also not obedience. Submission is a free act, that is not coerced. It simply means, placing the will, desires, hopes, dreams, goals and needs of another above your own. And this is done as a response to the grace of God through Jesus Christ.
For husbands, loving their wives as Christ loved the church is very nearly impossible. Jesus loved the Church so much that he gave himself for it. He humbled himself and became a servant. He accepted shame and death so that Church could live. But this is the call to husbands that they cannot shirk. Paul uses 41 words to exhort wives and 116 to exhort husbands. Husbands are called to love their wives with the kind of selfless, sacrificial, agape kind of love that changes every aspect of her life as a result. When a wife knows that her husband loves her beyond all love she is given space for grace, growth and freedom in Christ to be whatever she is called to be.
Here are some additional things that we need to know about this passage and what it really means:
Christian submission is a gift. If it is coerced it is not submission “as to Christ.”
Fundamentalists and Misogynists beware
There is a “vertical” component in a Christian marriage that can’t be ignored.
Christ needs to be the core value of your marriage
This is not extended to all male/female relationships
In other words, men can't think too highly of themselves outside of marriage. Submission and
Love are intimate and very personal actions that occur between people in marriage.
Neither partner can demand either submission or agape love.
If you have to demand it, then you're not ready to receive it.
Christ’s action for the church reflects the way Paul describes the role of the husband’s “headship.”
Paul believed the Church was the body and Christ was the head. The head (Christ) needs the
body (the Church) in order to do God's will in the world. The same is true for a husband and wife
Proper exercise of authority should not be seen as tyranny, nor should proper submission be seen as an indication of inferiority.
Many progressives chafe with this passage while many fundamentalists misinterpret it. Both sides
need to understand this last point.