This week, as we continued our series, Married for Good, we started getting practical. What does it look like to get marriage right as followers of Jesus? In order to answer this question, we jumped headfirst into one of the most challenging – and misunderstood – passages about marriage in the entire New Testament. On this day for spooks and chills, this idea puts fear in the hearts of not a few couples. We’re talking about Paul’s words to the Ephesian believers which include the command for wives to submit to their husbands. Joy me this week and next as we work to make sense out of this, and to see how getting it right is a key to getting marriage right.
One Anothering One Another
Have you ever misunderstood something? There’s a difference between not understanding something and misunderstanding something. In the former instance, we have genuinely not grasped the details of some matter. Our acting in a manner inconsistent with it is out of pure ignorance. What’s more, this is often a known ignorance on our part. We understand that we don’t understand and can do something about that. Often, in this case, more time learning and gaining information about it will be the solution to the problem. But when we misunderstand something, the problem is deeper. In this case, we often think we do understand whatever it is. We think we understand, but in understanding it incorrectly, we react to it in ways that are inconsistent with reality. And, because we fail to grasp that we don’t understand it, attempts to correct us will often be rebuffed. They may even lead us to double down on our misunderstanding. It takes a lot of patience and often a lot of time to correct a misunderstanding. Well, this morning, we are going to start looking at something the apostle Paul said that is frequently misunderstood. We are going to see if we can set the misunderstandings to the side—both those of others and perhaps of ourselves as well—and get at what Paul is really trying to say.
This morning finds us in the second week of our new teaching series, Married for Good. Over the course of these five weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we are talking about marriage. More than that, we are talking about how we can get it right. A lot of people get married. They get that knot all tied up nice and tightly. But then, instead of feeling empowered and enlivened by it, sometimes they just feel trapped, bound tightly in a situation they never realized was going to be like…this. Far too many of these relationships end much sooner than the point of death as the couple probably promised each other at the altar. That’s not something anybody wants. God gave marriage to us as a good gift to be enjoyed. My hope is that over the next few weeks, with the help of Paul and Peter, we can learn some ways to avoid this all too common end. My hope is that we can together learn some ways to be married for good.
Last week we started things off not by offering any tips or tricks on doing marriage well, but by clarifying exactly what marriage is. It’s hard to receive counsel on how to do something better when we are not all on the same page about what exactly it is. In order to do this, we went back to the very beginning of God’s story, to the tail end of the creation narrative, where we find the first presentation of marriage in the world. God created the man and woman in unique but different ways, and then brought the pair together in what was essentially the first marriage ceremony. The two, we are told, became one flesh. They were naked, and yet not ashamed (something that changed as soon as sin entered the picture sometime later). Now, none of this provided us with any kind of direction on what a marriage ceremony should look like, but it did give us a clue as to what marriage is. Drawing on what Moses had to say along with a couple of other passages from later in the Scriptures, we concluded that marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman designed to point people to Jesus.
Knowing what something is and how to do it, however, are not the same thing. Knowing what marriage was designed by God to be and getting it right are separate challenges. Well, with that in mind, I promised at the end of our time together last week that we were going to start talking about how to get marriage right this week. In order to do that, I want to jump right into one of the single most important passages about marriage in the entirety of the Scriptures. It also happens to be one of the most misunderstood and misused passages about marriage in the entirety of the Scriptures. If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby, find your way to the New Testament letter of Ephesians with me so we can see something the apostle Paul had to say about marriage.
Ephesians is kind of like a mini version of Paul’s letter to the Roman believers. At the very least, he takes the same basic approach with it. He begins with a block of teaching about the Gospel—what it is, how to receive it, and the like—and concludes with a series of applications which are offered in light of everything in the first part of the letter. Ephesus was one of the churches into which Paul had invested a great deal of himself. It was one of the most prominent churches in the central part of the Roman Empire. It was pastored by Paul, Timothy (who was serving there when Paul wrote both of his letters to him), and the apostle John. In addition to getting an entire self-titled letter from Paul, the church got instruction from him again by way of Timothy in 1 and 2 Timothy, and got more instructions from John in 1 John and Revelation. These folks invested a lot of time and energy in making sure the Ephesians understood the Gospel and practiced it properly.
If you’ve got Ephesians open there, flip over to chapter 5. In the second half of the chapter here, Paul starts talking about marriage. When he does, he opens with a statement that is a definite attention-getter in our culture, but not in a good way. Let me just drop it on you, and then we can figure out what to do with it. In Ephesians 5:22 we find this: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord…” Now, perhaps you can guess why that verse might trouble some folks. We don’t much like the idea of submission nowadays. And in our hyper consciousness of inequalities both actual and perceived, the notion that one person should have to submit to another is just nearly anathema to us. When you add to that a culture that celebrates the strong, independent woman who doesn’t need anyone else in her life (particularly a man) to accomplish all her goals, the very thought that a woman should have to be submitted to a man, let alone to her husband, is enough to leave some folks convinced the whole Christianity thing is a scourge on the earth on the basis of this verse alone. This kind of thinking is what has kept women down for centuries. Far worse than Moses’ identification of the first woman as a “helper” to the man, Paul’s command of submission here has been the justification for a whole world of abuse and inequality that women have had to suffer for far too long. We need to get rid of Christianity and its evil ideas if we are ever going to be the free and equal society we desire to be. Who’s with me?
It may not surprise you to learn that even I’m not with me there. Before we lose our minds completely, let’s all take a step back and take a little closer look at what’s going on here. In order for us to do this, we have to acknowledge together that while our English translations of the Scriptures are good and trustworthy, they’re not the language Paul would have used in his writing. And sometimes, when we translate from one language to another, while the overall message can be preserved accurately, some of the details can become a bit fuzzy. I would argue that’s sort of the case here.
When you examine the original Greek of Ephesians 5:22, the word “submit” is nowhere to be found. A woodenly literal translation of the original Greek of Ephesians 5:22 would read like this: “Wives, to your own husbands as the Lord.” This, of course, begs a rather important question: What should wives be doing to their own husbands as to the Lord? That last “as to the Lord” part is important. Otherwise we could probably run in all kinds of directions with our answers to the question of what wives should be doing to their husbands.Well, there are actually a couple of answers to our question here. One is direct and simple, and the other is a little more complicated, but it gives us a whole lot more clarity in terms of making sense of what Paul says next. I’d like to spend the rest of our time together this morning exploring these two answers, and then, Lord willing, we’ll come back next week and tackle the rest of what Paul has to say about marriage.
Let’s start with the short and simple answer. The reason most translators fill in the word “submit” in the English versions of v. 22, is that coherent English sentences demand verbs. Because Paul doesn’t give us a verb in v. 22, we have to find one. The next closest verb available to use is in v. 21. Okay, what does Paul say there? Well, that’s a sentence fragment in English too. “…submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.” Other translations put that, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Putting both verses together gets you this: “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord.”
From that, you can perhaps see why translators fill the word “submit” into v. 22. And, I think they are getting Paul’s intentions right when they do it. This, though, leads us into the second answer to our question. This will take just a bit more time, but we’re going to land somewhere really cool, to stick with me. You see, the trouble with borrowing the verb “submit” from v. 21 is that v. 21 isn’t a complete sentence, and it is really the ending of a previous section of the letter. Verse 22 takes us into new territory. The whole thing makes for a messy flow. Complicating this even more is the fact that the word “submitting” in v. 21 isn’t really a verb. This is where grammar nerds get excited and everyone else groans just a bit, but I promise we’re going somewhere with this. That word “submitting” in v. 21 is a participle. A participle isn’t technically a verb. It’s a word formed from a verb, but which is being used as an adjective. In other words, it is modifying or adding color to a noun. Okay, so what’s the thing being modified? In order to answer that, we have to go back to v. 18 where after a warning to not get drunk, Paul commands us to be filled by the Spirit. He then goes on to offer three ways to do that including this idea that we should be submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ.
But if you’ll notice in v. 18, Paul starts that sentence with “and.” Now, ignore for the moment the rule you probably learned at some point in school that you aren’t supposed to start sentences with “and.” It’s really okay, just don’t overdo it. More to the point, though, Paul’s “and” there in Greek is a way of continuing a series of commands. That means we have to go back a bit further to get our minds around what exactly Paul is doing here. In v. 15 we find his instruction to “pay careful attention, then, to how you live—not as unwise people but as wise.” Okay, so this is really about exercising wisdom. Well…sort of.
If we really want the proper context here, we have to go back to the beginning of chapter 5 where we find Paul leading us forward into further applications of his explanations of the Gospel by saying, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children, and walk in love, as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God.” Of course, the fact that he uses a “therefore” here means we need to go back even further to find out what it’s there for.
Ephesians 4:17 gives us a little bit more context: “Therefore, I say this and testify in the Lord: You should no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their thoughts.” In other words, if you are a Jesus follower, don’t behave like you’re not. That’s sound advice, sure, but he starts it with yet another “therefore,” meaning we’ve got to go back even further. Well, his entire line of application begins at the beginning of chapter 4. Turning there we find this: “Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to live worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” So really, everything Paul talks about in the letter from this point forward is an application of our living worthy of this calling we have received. But do you see the word? It’s right there. Another “therefore.” Rather than backing up in steps and skips anymore, let’s just go back to the beginning of the letter to see if we can figure out what this calling thing is.
Come back with me almost to the very beginning. Just after a standard greeting formula, Paul opens his letter to the Ephesian church by saying this in Ephesians 1:3: “Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ.” That’s pretty powerful as far as opening statements go, but he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to tell us about the biggest of these spiritual blessings. Look at this in v. 4 now: “For he chose us in [Christ], before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him. He predestined us to be adopted as sons [and daughters] through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One.”
That’s a lot, isn’t it? We could spend lots of time just going through what Paul says here, but we’re not going to do that now. We’re on a mission to figure out submission in marriage. What I want us to see here is that the calling we have received and which Paul makes mention of at the beginning of chapter 4 when he is turning to begin applying all of the ideas he introduces in the first three chapters of the letter is this calling to be sons and daughters of the King in Christ. And that’s the trick to everything Paul says in the second half of this letter. It’s all written to people who are already following Jesus. If you are following Jesus, you are an heir of this incredible calling to be a part of God’s kingdom. You were chosen for this before the foundation of the world (just try to wrap your head around that one!). Now, if you’re not a follower of Jesus right now, this call is still for you. You’re not excluded from it; no one is. You simply haven’t embraced it yet. I’m just glad you’re here. But if you are a follower of Jesus and are a recipient of this incredible calling, all of Paul’s applications flow out of the idea that you need to live up to it. You need to live your life in a manner worthy of the incredible calling you have received.
Paul organizes his applications around three different spheres of life which are all connected to one another. He starts with the church in the first half of chapter 4. We need to live worthy of the calling we have all received in the church which primarily means leaning into the unity we have in Christ. The church should be absolutely united in heart, mind, and spirit around our efforts to advance God’s kingdom using the various gifts He has given us to that end. The second sphere of life is out in the world outside the church. This runs from 4:17–5:21, and the big idea here is that living up to our high calling means making sure our behavior in public consistently reflects the character of Christ. And the connection between these two spheres is that the second flows from the first. When we get living up to our high calling in Christ right in the church, that is going to flow over to our behavior in the world around us. When we are able to love one another in spite of our differences in the church, we will naturally love one another in spite of our differences outside of the church.
He lands this second application on the idea that we need to be filled with the Spirit in order to do this. We can tell we are filled with the Spirit when our lives are filled with joy (Ephesians 5:19), our hearts are filled with gratitude (5:20), and we are submitting to one another as a function of our higher reverence to Christ. In other words, because we have submitted our lives to Christ, we can freely submit in a temporal sense to anyone else around us, but especially other followers of Jesus. We do this not because our inherent value or theirs are somehow unequal, but because Jesus submitted Himself to us. This flows directly out of what Jesus said to the disciples just after washing their feet in John 13:13: “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are speaking rightly, since that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you.” Even better, this idea of mutual submission flows out of Jesus’ command just a little while after unpacking His washing the disciples’ feet to love one another just as He loved us.
And I should pause here for just a second and clarify what submission means in this context. This is not some unhealthy subordination of ourselves to another person wherein we become mindless peons who give over any sense of a unique identity and simply shuffle around doing what we are told all the time. Nothing could be further from the truth of what Paul has in mind here. Indeed, does that sound in any way like Jesus’ voluntary submission to us? No! What Paul means by “submission” in this context is an intentional elevation of the needs and interests of another person over our own. It is a conscious leveraging of our strengths and advantages to see them moved intentionally in the direction of Jesus. We lower ourselves beneath them not to demean ourselves, but to lift them up. This is a putting of someone else on our shoulders in order to get them closer to Jesus. And with this idea in mind as he calls us to live worthy of our calling in Christ in the church and in the world, Paul adds one more sphere for pursuing this goal: our homes. It’s like Paul is saying, “Practicing mutual submission is a critical way to live up to your high calling in Christ both in the church and in the world. And oh, by the way, it’s also pretty important to do this in your home starting with your marriages.” In other words, this idea of mutual submission undergirds everything Paul says in the next three sections of the letter. In v. 22 and in v. 25, Paul is simply showing wives and husbands the unique ways they can practice this mutual submission with one another in the context of their marriage.
This is a big enough idea that it’s worth stopping on it here and not going any further today. This principle of mutual submission is something that should affect our whole lives including our marriages. And, if you’re not someone who has signed up for the whole following Jesus thing and this sounds crazy to you, that’s okay. This isn’t a standard to which anyone is going to hold you. But you might want to consider giving at least a little bit of thought into putting some parts of it into practice. It just might make more of a difference in your life than you think. If, on the other hand, you are a Jesus follower, this idea isn’t optional. This is the standard set by Jesus Himself, and we are expected to follow it. Our call as Jesus followers is to practice this mutual submission with other believers, to put their needs and interests ahead of our own. It is even to do this with the needs and interests of unbelievers. The simple reason for this is that it’s what Jesus did. Jesus consistently submitted Himself to the people around Him. And now, He’s the Lord of all creation. We can follow His example because He’s got our backs when we do. If our lives are submitted to Him, then we can submit ourselves to the people around us without fear. If our lives are submitted to Christ, we can submit to others without fear.
We can love one another. We can be kind to one another. We can support and encourage one another. We can stand with one another. We can elevate one another toward Jesus. We can one another one another in every way imaginable precisely because Jesus did. Now, outside of our submission to Him, doing this kind of thing can get messy because there isn’t anyone who can safeguard our identity and worth the way He can. But in Him, we are free to go to town. If our lives are submitted to Christ, we can submit to others without fear.
We can do this in our lives generally, yes. But here at the end, let’s get back around to actually talking about marriage again. We can do this in our marriages. In fact, given where Paul put this final exhortation before transitioning to talking about living worthy of our calling in Christ at home, if we are going to get anything right there, we have to do this. Mutual submission that is rooted in a higher submission to Christ and worked out through our Jesus-mimicking love is the oil that keeps everything else in our marriage relationships running smoothly. If our lives are submitted to Christ, we can submit to one another.
If you are married, your daily goal and challenge is to practice this mutual submission with your spouse. See if you can outdo one another in putting the other’s needs and interests ahead of your own. Fight tooth and nail to leverage your strengths and advantages for the sake of the other. Grab every opportunity you can to encourage and lift up one another. And, do all of this without keeping score or worrying about the other returning favor someday. As we talked about last week, you are not obligated to one another. You are obligated to the covenant you made. The other is simply the happy beneficiary of your efforts to be faithful to the promise you made before God. Indeed, that is where everything starts. If our lives are submitted to Christ, we can submit to one another. How exactly this works out in practice is something we’ll talk about next week, Lord willing.