This week, in part four of our series, I Do, we dealt with one of the dirtiest words in our culture. Want to know what it is? Submission. The idea of one person submitting themselves to another is anathema in the mind of the culture. And yet, when guys like Paul and Peter talked about marriage in their New Testament letters, they consistently used the word. That means we need to figure out what kind of a role it is supposed to have. Keep reading and wrestle with me with what this should look like.
My boys enjoy Legos. A lot. In addition to having two of them on Lego Robotics teams at school, I think we are on a good approach for having every Lego set known to man before they graduate from high school. Over the years of accumulating various cool sets, though, some have gotten disassembled after being played with for a while. On occasion, they’ll want to play with a set from the past they know now resides in pieces in the playroom. Fortunately, the Lego website has the instructions and parts list for pretty much every set they’ve ever produced available to download. It’s just a simple matter of printing out the parts list, finding the right pieces, and then pulling up the instructions on some kind of a computer so they can rebuild it. Simple, right?
When we first moved down here a couple of years ago, all of our Legos were in one great big storage container. All of them. If you wanted to rebuild something, you had to dump out the contents of the bucket on the floor and start sifting through to find what you needed. Imagine dumping out a big bag of M&M’s and searching for one that had been marked. It was a lot like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Finally, I had enough. I gathered a couple of those plastic storage file drawers and started disassembling everything and sorting it by color. Then I roped the rest of the family into the project. It took us a full week of breaking and sorting. Now we have buckets for shades of blue, shades of red, light grey, dark grey, black, white, orange, yellow, green, clear, light brown, dark brown, tires, tiny pieces (no, they’re not all tiny), and last but not least, minifigures and their accessories. Fifteen buckets of nicely sorted Legos that only occasionally need touching up. No, I’m not OCD, I just think the world works better when everything is where it’s supposed to be.
Now, though, when they wanted to rebuild something or create elaborate setups with the best-outfitted minifigures on the block, it’s a piece of cake. Well…sort of. When they really want to build something, they’ll start strong, but before long, even though they only have to search through one color at a time, the tediousness of finding each piece begins to wear on them. I’ll jump in and help on occasion…actually I usually just wind up doing it for them because I have a little higher a tolerance for repetitive, tedious tasks than most people do…but I try to make them take at least some of the burden of the search. They are undoubtedly excited at the prospect of playing with whatever vehicle they have in mind, but slogging through the drudgery of trying to build it is often more than they want to handle.
You know, we all encounter times like this. Whenever we go back to do something we haven’t done for a while, it takes some time to get back into the groove we once had. This is even more true when we try and do something new. It doesn’t matter what it is we’re trying to do, if we haven’t done it before, there’s going to be a learning curve to it. And, getting through that learning curve is often going to require some tedious repetition to get whatever it is just right. For example, if you want to hit a baseball well, you’ve got to learn how to swing a bat. Now, in theory, anyone can swing a bat. But swinging a bat in a manner that results in hitting well takes some practice. The same goes for anything else we want to do. If you want to bake a cake, you’ve got to learn how—even if you’re only doing it from a box. If you want to get into the cattle business, you’ve got to learn how. If you want to knit a scarf or play an instrument or climb a mountain or run a marathon, you’ve got to learn how; you’ve got to master the learning curve.
But there’s a catch here: A fair bit of ascending that learning curve involves doing things that aren’t exactly the most fun we’ve ever had. Building a Lego set from a box of several hundred pieces means painstakingly picking through it over and over again as you identify each little piece. Learning how to swing a bat correctly involves swinging a bat thousands of times. Learning to run a marathon means running hundreds or even thousands of miles in preparation. I can say from experience that playing an instrument well involves hours and hours in the practice room going through mindless and sometimes pointless-seeming exercises. Why bother with all of this? Because the end goal is something we want more than we don’t want to do all the less desirable steps it takes to get there.
This morning, we are in the fourth part of our series, I Do. Just to jog your memory a bit, the big idea for this series is that most of us have at some point in our lives said, “I do,” to someone else. But there’s a fair chance that if we were really honest with ourselves in that moment, we probably didn’t really know what to do. In fact, it may be that still today, all these years later, you’re still figuring it out and even sometimes making it up as you go along. The goal of this series is to offer a bit of a corrective for that. In the first couple of weeks, on either side of Nate’s great call to be annoying to God, we addressed the fact that we can’t do much of anything well if we don’t really know what it is we’re doing or why we’re doing it. Identity and purpose are crucial for everything in our lives. And so, we defined marriage: Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman established by God in creation. If you have a relationship that doesn’t check off all those boxes, the hard truth is that it’s not a marriage no matter how else you frame it. And, if you try and pretend it’s a marriage anyway, people are going to wind up hurt for the simple reason that anytime we take something God has given us, distort it, and use it in this distorted manner, we lose. If, however, you do check those boxes, then what you have on your hands is a marriage. Congratulations.
More than simply looking at what marriage is, though, in the second week of the series we talked about what it is for. We can point to a number of different secondary purposes of marriage, but the primary purpose according to what the Spirit inspired Paul to write to the church in Ephesus is to point people to Jesus. This starts with the husband and the wife and then moves out from there. When we are getting marriage right, we will be on a path to Jesus, there’s simply no way to avoid that. If we are not moving closer to Jesus as a result of our being married; if our partner is not moving toward Jesus as a result of being married to us, something’s not right, and if we don’t address it, we’ll soon find ourselves dealing with bigger, more difficult problems somewhere down the road.
Starting the week before last, then, we shifted gears to spend some time reflecting on how to actually put all of this theory into practice. The first target for our conversation was husbands. Guys, do you remember what we said? It wasn’t very fun to hear, perhaps, but the apostle Peter was pretty clear on the matter all the same. If you aren’t right with your wife, you can’t be right with God. If your relationship with your wife is not fully in the place it should be, then your relationship with God won’t be either. The two go hand-in-hand.
Well, this week I want to tackle a subject with you that is again going to be tough to talk about. This morning I want to dig a bit deeper into the nuts and bolts of what makes marriage work. And, just like becoming a great marimba player requires a lot of time in the practice rooms that isn’t necessarily peaches and cream—while I was never great, I remember practice sessions that finished with blood running down the back of my hands—what we’re going to talk about this morning is going to be at times uncomfortable and may even be a bit painful. Aren’t you glad you got up to come this morning?
This morning we are going to talk about submission. Before you head for the exit, though, I told you a few weeks ago that we were going to come back to Paul’s words on marriage to the believers in Ephesus in order to deal more directly with some of the hard stuff and so here we are. And I’m not going to try and sugarcoat the matter for you: talking about submission—particularly given the state of our culture—is hard. It’s not much fun. It goes pretty hard against our natural inclinations. But think about it like this with me: If you are married, is your marriage today exactly where you want it to be? You could not imagine it being any better than it is right now. Perhaps we have an expert or two in the room, but I suspect that for the rest of us, given the chance, we could point to two or three areas we would like to see improved in the relationship. Even if you’re not married, though, this still applies to you. I want you to think about it like this: Is your relationship with God today exactly where you want it to be?
Now—and don’t raise your hands on this one; just let it percolate inside while we talk—for how many of you who recognize that there are some changes you need to make are you taking active steps to make those changes? If your answer is no, then consider the implications of what you’re saying: You’re on a broken path, you know you’re on a broken path, and yet you keep doing the things that keep you on that broken path even though you know they’re going to keep you on that broken path. The only two options here are that you’ve either settled for mediocrity which is problematic in and of itself because your spouse doesn’t deserve mediocrity; or, you’re doing the same things over and over again expecting a different result which is a textbook definition of insanity. In other words, you’re either a deadbeat or you’re nuts! Let me give you one more option, though, to ease that burden a bit: Perhaps the reason you keep doing something you know isn’t really working is that you don’t know what else to do and at least moving feels better than not moving. What I want to do in talking about submission this morning is to offer you a different path to follow that will lead you in a different (and better) direction.
Let’s start by diving headfirst into the text and then we’ll pull back a bit to unpack it. Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures, find your way to Ephesians 5:22, and take a look at this with me. Paul writes to couples there in Ephesus: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her…”
Alright, I warned you ahead of time. Now I’ve read it to you. Let’s just get it all out of our system together. Repeat after me: “Oh, that’s hard!” Say it one more time just for good measure, but with a little umph behind it. Now that we’ve said it, let me explain why it’s not.
The original Greek of v. 22 literally reads like this: “Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord.” Notice anything missing there? That’s right: the word “submit.” There are some later manuscripts that add the word in for the sake of clarity, but most scholars are pretty confident Paul didn’t actually write it there. So then, why fill in the verbal blank with “submit” instead of something else? Before I answer that, let me give you one more grammatical detail: In the original Greek, verse 22 does not start at the beginning of a paragraph, much less a sentence. The sentence it is actually a part of starts in v. 18.
So then, in order to understand what Paul is really saying here when he talks about submission, we need to start by going back. Well…what did Paul write before this? I’m glad you asked. Let’s start with v. 21: “…submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.” Now, on the one hand, we can see where the word “submit” comes from. It comes from right here. Putting these two verses together yields literally: “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ; wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord.” On the other hand, though, if that sounds like an incomplete sentence, that’s because while the grammar checks out in Greek, in English it is. The reason for this is that in the original Greek, “submitting” is a participle which isn’t so important except to know that while participles sometimes act like verbs, they don’t often function as the main verb of a sentence. Just trust me on this one. Instead, in order to get to the main verb here, we need to look back a bit further to the end of v. 18 where Paul issues the command for believers to “be filled by the Spirit.” In other words, Paul’s instructions to wives to submit to their husbands flows out of an initial command for believers to be filled with the Spirit.
But wait! There’s more. The command to be filled with the Spirit is itself not even the controlling command of this section. In order to get to that we have to go back even further to v. 15 where Paul commands his audience to “pay careful attention, then, to how you live—not as unwise people but as wise…” Paul’s discussion of submission in marriage can rightly be seen as flowing from this command. In other words, as Jesus followers we shouldn’t be doing marriage the way everybody else does. If you’re not a Jesus follower, this doesn’t apply to you, but you might as well pay attention because you’re here and Christian marriage when done properly works pretty well. For Jesus followers, though, we need to guard our ways carefully when it comes to our marriages because doing them unwisely will have consequences we may not want to face.
There’s even more than this, though. When Paul says, “pay careful attention, then…” that’s a “therefore” and we need to go back and see what it’s there for. We first look back to 5:1 and see this: “Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children, and walk in love, as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us…” So, our submission is done in imitation of God. But that’s another “therefore” so we go back further to 4:1 where we find this: “Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to live worthy of the calling you have received, with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unit of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” So then, our submission is about living up to the calling we have received in Christ, like Christ…which happens by imitating God…which we do by looking carefully at how we walk…which comes when we are filled with the Spirit.
But we also find yet another “therefore” in 4:1. In order to get our minds around this call we have received, we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the letter. In 1:3 we see this incredible statement: “Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ. For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him.”
So, what’s the point here? I mean, this is a lot of detailed textual study! You were probably not counting on this when you walked in the doors a little while ago. The point is that for Jesus followers, the kind of submission in marriage Paul is talking about here happens primarily in response to our being called by God to be like Jesus. Jesus Himself practiced submission to the people around Him—remember when He said to the disciples in Matthew 20 that He came not to be served, but to serve?—and so if we are going to look like Him, we need to practice submission as well. Or perhaps to put all this in summary fashion: Submitting to the people around us after the pattern of Jesus is a result of being filled with the Spirit which results in a careful look at our walk so that we are imitators of God which we pursue because He chose for us such a lifestyle before the foundation of the world. Clear as mud?
Let’s make the connection. We will have the greatest opportunities to practice this kind of godly submission to the people around us most with the people we are around most. Guess which person most of us are around more than anybody else. Our spouse! We have more frequent and more significant chances to practice this submission to which we were called in Christ before the foundation of the world (let that one sit on you for a bit sometime) with our spouse than with anybody else. There is a very good reason, then, that the first place Paul went after calling finally and therefore most significantly for believers to submit to one another out of our reverence for Christ as a clear indication of our being filled with the Spirit and not something else, is to showing how this plays itself out in the most significant earthly relationship most of us will ever have. In all of our relationships we need to practice submission, but this goes double for the marriage relationship because of its abiding significance. If we want to get our marriage right, we have to practice submission. Getting marriage right takes submission.
Okay…great…but what does that mean? I mean, culturally speaking, we’re taught pretty consistently both explicitly and implicitly that submission is not a good thing. And, understanding the cultural ideal of submission to be a forced, though probably metaphorical, bending of the knee to someone who may or may not (probably not) be worthy of such a posture and who will very likely abuse their position to their own advantage and at our expense, we can perhaps understand this reaction. But what Paul has in mind here is very different from that. When he calls for believers to submit to one another out of their reverence for Christ, it is the last part that is most important. Whether you are married or single, your submission to other people should flow out of your larger and prior submission to Christ as Lord. With Him firmly established in the seat of lordship in our lives, we are free to treat the needs and desires of the people around us and even the people themselves as if they were more important than us (which is what biblical submission is) precisely because we know this isn’t the case. We know that our value is sealed in Christ and we know further that Christ, whose value is surpassingly higher than ours, nonetheless lowered Himself to serve us. The very least we can do in response to this is to serve those whose value is equal to ours.
And again, if we are married, the first and best place we have to practice this submission is in the marriage relationship. In fact, our marriages depend on it. Getting marriage right takes submission. This, however, leads to an important question: What does this mutual submission look like in marriage? The most straightforward answer is: It depends. Because of the nature of the relationship and the role differences between husbands and wives, mutual submission looks differently depending on which partner you have in mind.
For wives, it looks like this: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” And I know that still may sound like a terrible idea, but think about it like this: If your husband’s prior submission is to Jesus, then He is going to be wholly committed to your good. He is going to be looking for ways he can advance your interests even and especially at the expense of his own. He is going to be always on the lookout for ways he can help move you in the direction of becoming more fully who God designed you to be. It’s easy to submit to a person like that…especially if your own prior submission is to Jesus…which is why Paul spends three times as much time telling husbands how to be that kind of person as he does telling wives to submit to him.
Furthermore, the pretty clear picture from guys like Paul and Peter is that God designed husbands to be the leader in the marriage relationship. Paul calls him the head of the wife. Submission as Paul defines it here, then, can be perhaps more easily be thought of as simply following his lead. If he is leading in the direction of Christ, that should be easy (once you process through your own background and the baggage you carry because of it, that is). If he is not leading in the direction of Christ, as long as your own heading is set firmly in His direction, you can still follow his lead to a certain extent in order to be there to help pick up the pieces when he crashes up against the walls of reality.
Or, if he is clearly leading in a direction that will dishonor God, you can gently, humbly, and submissively refuse to go with him. You can plant yourself firmly in Christ and with all the love in your heart say, “Honey, I know that God designed you to be the leader of this relationship, and I want to follow you everywhere you lead, but you are leading in a direction that will dishonor God and because I am first and foremost a follower of Him, I can’t go with you there. I hope you’ll reconsider and change your mind, but if not, I’ll be right here waiting for you when you get back.” In this kind of a place Peter’s words from last time will come powerfully into play. But the point is that by practicing submission to him out of your larger submission to Christ, you will be doing everything you can to set your marriage relationship on a foundation that will lead to flourishing. Getting marriage right takes submission, and that’s exactly what you’ll be doing.
For the guys, on the other hand, Paul makes equally clear for us what the larger concept of mutual submission looks like in v. 25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her…” Now, while this might sound different from the command Paul gave to the wives, don’t make the mistake of thinking this is any less arduous a task. We can see this by asking a simple question: How did Christ love the church? The simple answer: He died for her. He gave Himself to the last drop of blood to see her become fully who God designed her to be. He served her selflessly and with everything He was (and is!). He made the meeting of her needs His highest priority. And why? Verse 30 makes this clear: “…since we are members of his body.”
Guys, everything we are and everything we do is to be directed toward seeing her flourish in Christ. Anything less than that and we aren’t worthy of being called husbands. That doesn’t mean we should give up if we’re not doing it—especially if we have made a covenant—and it doesn’t mean we should refuse to try if we’re in a place where marriage is clearly the direction our path is headed (and if it’s not headed there, celibate singleness is the place we need to be). It means we should recommit to do our duty. It means we should submit ourselves to her as a function of our larger submission to Christ in order that she might become more fully who God designed her to be…that is, in order to love her. Getting marriage right takes submission…even from husbands.
But there’s a catch. Remember our conversation a little while ago about the fact that everything comes with a learning curve. Practicing this mutual submission in the marriage relationship—or with anyone for that matter—comes with a learning curve. And depending on how long you’ve been married and how long you haven’t been practicing it, the learning curve might be pretty steep. There are going to be parts of learning how to do this that are not a lot of fun. There are days it will seem like the painstaking process of finding the Legos to rebuild a set in a giant pile of colorful plastic (even if it’s been helpfully sorted to all be the same color!). Training ourselves to do anything that doesn’t come naturally—and this doesn’t come naturally…it is the opposite of natural—is hard and this is especially true when it comes to matters of how we think and behave. And yet, getting marriage right takes submission and so we’ve got to do it.
The only hope we have in this journey is to begin with the end in mind. We begin with a picture in our minds of the kind of marriage we most want to have. We begin with an image of the feeling we want to have every time we look at or even think about our spouse. We begin with a clear goal of where we’re going—to be naked and unashamed before each other—and we make sure this stays before us constantly. Every time our partner does something boneheaded, we forgive, practice godly submission after the pattern Paul laid out here for us, and remember that this is just a bump on the journey, even if a big one. Every time we face a personal setback and do something boneheaded ourselves we seek forgiveness, practice godly submission after the pattern Paul laid out here for us, commit to pruning out the bad in us while nurturing the good with the Spirit’s help, and remember that the pain we feel inside as we make the necessary changes to who we are has a purpose. There are days this will be harder than others. Ladies, it’s hard to follow someone’s lead when you don’t like him very much. Guys, it’s hard to love and make sacrifices for someone you don’t think has any respect for you. Yet we do precisely this to precisely these people because our submission isn’t chiefly to them; it’s to God in Christ who has already established the pattern for us to follow. And that pattern is one of humble submission to the people around us. Getting marriage right takes submission. It’s hard…but it’s worth it. And if you’ll come back next time as we wrap up this whole series, we’ll talk about the virtue we need to get it done.