Power Struggle

For the last couple of weeks, we have been working through Paul’s challenging words about marriage to the Ephesian church. What he describes there sounds awesome when it works, but the reality is that it doesn’t often work. Ideals are nice, but reality is rarely ideal. So, what do we do when things aren’t working like God intended, particularly when it comes to our marriages? That’s where something the apostle Peter said comes into play. This week, we are talking about what to do when reality falls short of ideal. This idea applies to our marriages, yes, but it applies more broadly than that as well. Read on to find out what to do and the impact it can have.

Power Struggle

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: Polycephaly is better than being monocephalic. Wait, you’ve never heard that one? Well, how about this version? Two heads are better than one. That probably sounds a bit more familiar. Be honest with me, though: How many of you have ever heard of the medical condition known as polycephaly? It is a rare genetic defect causing a creature (including human creatures) to be born with two heads. Perhaps you’ve seen a picture of a turtle like this one. This poor calf just tugs at your heartstrings a bit. This last one, however, is probably something you could only imagine seeing in a nightmare. As a general rule, God designed the various creatures He created to have one head. That’s all they need. When a creature enters the world with two heads, that is unfailingly a signal that something has gone wrong. If you want to be all theological about it, it is one of the many impacts of sin on the world. 

This does not, of course, mean that the old saying about two heads being better than one is wrong. It was coined without something like polycephaly in mind. Having multiple different perspectives and sources of counsel when it comes to things like problem solving can be a great thing. But when it comes to leadership, having two (or more) heads at the top of the organization is often a precursor to a disaster. The same thing goes with our relationships. We often like to imagine that all of our relationships, whether business or personal, will involve an even balance of power. The reality, though, is that this is almost never the case. This morning I want to spend a few minutes thinking about uneven balances of power, where they show up in our relationships, and what we should do about them. 

This morning finds us in the fourth part of our teaching series, Married for Good. We have one more part to go next week that you will not want to miss. The big idea for this journey is that marriage is something that affects everyone’s life. Whether you have been married, are married, never married, or still have marriage as something sitting on the distant horizon, it is something you simply cannot escape. And, in spite of all the challenges marriages face nowadays, God gave us marriage as a good gift. He intended for it to be an enormous blessing, a stabilizer for healthy societies, the best precursor to happy families, and a model of the kind of relationship He desires to have with us in Christ. Because of all of this and more, it is something that is decidedly in our best interest to be getting right. 

In order to make sure we were all starting on the same page together, three weeks ago, we began this whole journey by defining marriage. We went back to the beginning of the story to see where God created the very first marriage between the very first man and woman. From Moses’ retelling of that incredible episode and a couple of other passages, we came away understanding that marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman designed to point people to Jesus. That’s simply what marriage is from the Spirit-inspired perspective of the guys who contributed to the Scriptures. 

From there, we took the next couple of weeks to examine Paul’s important but challenging words on marriage to the Ephesian church. We started by zooming way out to take in the broader context of the passage from the perspective of the letter as a whole. Paul’s extraordinarily uncomfortable command for wives to submit to their husbands (which is all the further we got in that first week) sits firmly in a context of his call for us to live up to the high calling we have in Christ to be citizens of the kingdom of God. With this in mind, we dove into Paul’s teaching on marriage itself last week. We saw that when we get marriage right, both the husband and wife wind up looking more like Jesus.

Now, all of that is still challenging stuff. There’s not really a way around it. The ideas Paul laid out there come pretty directly into conflict with our sin-twisted tendencies and desires. As a matter of fact, this ideal for marriage and the reality of our lives as well as the lives of the people around us can sometimes seem like they are the polar opposites of one another. What Paul describes to the Ephesian believers is how marriage should work when everything is working just exactly like God designed it to work. In other words, he was showing us the ideal. I don’t know if you ever noticed this, though, but life doesn’t always fall within the boundaries of ideal. Maybe it’ll cross one of those lines on occasion, but mostly life is a lot messier than that. Marriage is often a lot messier than the ideal too. So, while having the God-designed ideal as a target to be aiming for is a good thing, it would also be helpful to know what to do when things don’t go like they should. 

Fortunately, God knew we needed both, so He gave us both. Paul got the job of describing things how they should be. It fell to the apostle Peter to talk about when things aren’t going that way. In fact, Peter’s first letter to a group of believers living in modern-day Turkey is all about what to do when things aren’t going like they should. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy this morning, find your way almost to the back of the New Testament to a letter we call 1 Peter. 

Peter wrote this letter to believers living in a hostile cultural situation. In other words, for all the good they were striving to do with their lives, the world around them was not playing along. As a matter of fact, the world was playing the game with an entirely different set of rules that often seemed intentionally designed to be to the disadvantage of Jesus’ followers. And what kind of advice do you think he gave these poor folks? A few years earlier, before the Holy Spirit got ahold of him, Peter probably would have encouraged them to fight for their rights. What Peter counsels here, though, is an entirely different kind of fighting. He calls them to fight, but instead of for their rights, for Christ’s righteousness. For these believers who were living in situations when there were often very few of them pursuing the life of Christ together, Peter called them to nonetheless stand firm in it. They were to shine with the light of Christ, playing by the culture’s rules to the extent they could, but otherwise to be the best friends, neighbors, family members, citizens, and generally people they could be such that the only meaningful complaint anyone could make about them was that they were being too much like Jesus. In short, this letter is about how to be faithful to Jesus when no one around you is, and you’re getting punished for it too. 

Well, as a part of this broader set of counsel, Peter takes a few minutes to give some attention to how all of this would play itself out in the marriage relationship. We find him doing this in 1 Peter 3. Take a look at this with me: “In the same way, wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands…” Seriously? This again? I thought we dealt with all of this kind of stuff last week? We did. Peter may be using some of the same words here, but his approach and context are different from what Paul was doing. And, like we discovered in Ephesians, that context makes a pretty big difference in our ability to understand and apply it. 

We’re not going to spend an entire morning addressing Peter’s context like we did Paul’s, but we do need to take at least a second to clear it up some. Peter starts here with the phrase, “In the same way…” This should prompt us to ask a fairly natural and obvious question: In the same way as what? As you can probably already guess, the way we answer that is by looking back. In the previous section, Peter is talking to slaves and masters. He says some stuff there that is perhaps even more perplexing to modern ears, but even that bit sits in the context of what comes before it. Stepping just a couple more verses back in the letter, we find our key to understanding chapter 3 here in 1 Peter 2:11-12: “Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and exiles to abstain from sinful desires that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourself honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits.” In other words, when you are surrounded by folks who want nothing to do with God, and aren’t thrilled that you do, double down on your efforts to live like Jesus. He then goes on to offer a couple of examples of situations where that might play itself out that were relevant to his audience. One of these groups was slaves who had converted to Christianity with masters who hadn’t. The other group was wives who had converted with husbands who hadn’t. If you don’t have that in mind, Peter’s words here are going to be a whole lot harder to understand.

Peter says, “In the same way…” In other words, with this same trust in Jesus that allows you to pursue His way of life in spite of the challenges you are going to face because of your commitment to it, “wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, even if some disobey the word, they may be won over without a word by the way their wives live when they observe your pure, reverent lives.” So, what we have here are some women with unbelieving husbands wondering how they can be faithful to Jesus in spite of husbands who not only don’t share their faith, but may not have any intention of allowing it. And, yes, in that culture, a husband could refuse to “allow” his wife to change her religious views without anyone thinking there was anything wrong with that. Of course, in actuality he didn’t have any control over her heart, but he could sure make living in a manner consistent with her newfound faith awfully difficult. What was she supposed to do? 

Well, the culture around her had a particular vision of what a “good wife” looked like. Peter’s basic counsel to believing wives with unbelieving husbands was that without violating her faith, she was to strive to live up to those standards to the best of her Spirit-empowered abilities. This was not, however, simply so she could be a good wife to him—something she strove to be not because he was particularly worthy of it (he almost certainly wasn’t), but because of the covenant she had made with him before God. What did Peter say here? She was to do this “so that, even if some disobey the word [that is, they aren’t believers], they may be won over without a word by the way their wives live.” She was to be the best wife she could possibly be to him in hopes that by demonstrating such sterling devotion, and by making it clear that her devotion was enabled by her relationship with Jesus, perhaps she could convince him to consider a relationship with Jesus himself. Or maybe to put that another way, while she may not be able to talk him into the faith, perhaps she could love him into it. 

What was her husband doing during all of these efforts on her part? Who knows, but he probably wasn’t reciprocating them very consistently or well. In other words, she was doing this in a context that was not at all like the one Paul envisions with the Ephesian believers in which her efforts would be received well and generously rewarded by a response in kind. She was setting herself up here to be taken advantage of and disrespected and not loved nearly as well as she should have been if things were working like God designed them to work. Peter was essentially saying, “Look, as a follower of Jesus, you need to do your part right. Hopefully, that’ll encourage him to start getting his part right. But even if it doesn’t, you still do your part right because you’re not doing it primarily for him; you’re doing it for Jesus.” In other words, even when things aren’t going like they should and the power in the relationship is horribly imbalanced, if you are a follower of Jesus, you make sure your part is right. 

Now, the next few verses here can get a little tricky. At least, they can get a little bit tricky if we forget about the context we have been putting in place. Like we have today, the culture of Peter’s audience had some ideas about what made a “good wife” that weren’t so healthy. Honestly, when you read the next thing he says here, it sounds like some of them weren’t so different from the bad ideas about it we have today. Starting in the text again at v. 3, Peter says, “Don’t let your beauty consist of outward things like elaborate hairstyles and wearing gold jewelry or fine clothes, but rather what is inside the heart—the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” Are you with him? It’s the inside stuff that makes you a good wife, not the outside stuff the world sees and values. 

Peter then offers an example of this that would have resonated with his audience. “For in the past, the holy women who put their hope in God also adorned themselves in this way, submitting to their own husbands, just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. You have become her children when you do what is good and do not fear any intimidation.” 

Now, again, to our ears, this rings with quite a lot of dissonance. I don’t suspect there are many wives listening to this who are going to be all that interested in calling their husband, “lord.” Furthermore, if you search through Abraham and Sarah’s appearances in Genesis, you will search in vain to find a verse where Sarah calls Abraham lord. So, what’s going on here? Sarah occupied a much bigger place in the Jewish culture of the first century as a woman who was considered an example of righteousness and faith for other women to follow than she often does today. Because of this, there were documents that weren’t considered Scripture but which highlighted and celebrated her character and worth in ways that fit with the beliefs and assumptions of the culture out of which they were produced. Peter was probably citing one of these here called The Testament of Abraham.

 But even if that’s not the case and we don’t know where he got this story, his point is a good one nonetheless. And we find his point right at the end of v. 6. What did he say there again? He basically said to these Christian wives striving to live out their faith in a context in which their decidedly ungodly husbands were making their lives difficult, that they would be living up to this model of godly righteousness and character if they “do what is good and do not fear any intimidation.” What does that mean? He is calling wives as followers of Jesus to commit themselves to living out His command of love to their husbands without fear of any efforts he might make to discourage her from it. Now, just so we are clear, this does not for a second mean that a Christian woman (or any other woman, for that matter) should remain in an abusive situation. The same goes for the kids. When abuse is happening, the priority is getting to a safe place first and then sorting out the issues from there. What Peter is saying is that when you are striving to live like Christ and your husband is giving you a hard time for it, don’t be afraid. Follow Jesus, and trust Him to have your back. For He will have your back. Do you know how I know? Because He promised us He would, and then He died on a cross to prove it. And when we follow Him on the way of the cross, we get to follow Him in life as well. 

Situations like this in which the power is out of balance such that one side has way more than the other often go against followers of Jesus. We will be the underdogs in most of these situations. In this case, Christian wives with non-Christian husbands did not have most of the power. But though this is often the case, it’s not always so. Sometimes we find ourselves as followers of Jesus and with most of the power. For Christian husbands with non-Christian wives in the first century, this was rather decidedly the case. They could have compelled belief in their wives and nobody would have batted an eye about it. And yet, such a use of power is not fitting for a follower of Jesus, so Peter had some words for them too here. Listen to this from v. 7 now: “Husbands, in the same way”—in other words, with that same attitude of humility and a dogged intention to pursue the path of Christ even if you’re doing it all alone—“live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker partner, showing them honor as coheirs of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.” 

Now, it’s easy to get all caught up debating what to do with Peter’s insinuation that women are weaker than men that we miss out on the part of this that should absolutely captivate our attention. But just so we clear things up, let’s answer the question: Are women weaker than men? It depends on how you define your terms. Men are physically stronger. That’s simply a biological fact about which there is no use arguing. In most cultures in most places across most of human history, men have had more power in political and economic and religious and cultural terms. We can debate whether that’s as it should have been, but it is nonetheless true. Peter may have had one or the other or both of these in mind here. 

But put this in context, and you get an even better sense of what he’s saying. He’s talking here to husbands who were Jesus followers with wives who weren’t. He’s reminding them that they need to be rather explicit in rejecting their culture’s expectation that they can just make their wives go along with their newfound faith. They need to treat their wives with gentleness and compassion and respect. As followers of Jesus, they now had a spiritual strength in which their wives didn’t share. If they abused that strength, how likely do you think their wives were going to be interested in joining them in it? 

There’s one more thing here, though, that should have the effect of grabbing us by the shoulders and shaking us into paying attention. Peter tells these guys that they need to do all of this toward their wives “so that your prayers will not be hindered.” Think about this here. If these guys didn’t treat their unbelieving wives well, God wasn’t going to be listening to their prayers until they did. If God held these men with unbelieving wives to that kind of an expectation, what do you suppose he expects of those of us with wives who are faithful? Forget an, “Amen,” can I get a, “gulp!”? This whole behaving like Jesus even if the other side doesn’t reciprocate it thing turns out to be a whole lot more important for us than we perhaps previously imagined. 

That’s actually something I want to be sure none of us miss. Peter is talking about marriage here. And in our marriages, especially if only one spouse is a believer, we’ve got to get this right. We’ve got to get it right when we’re both on the same page on all of this. But the more basic point Peter is making applies more broadly than just this. You see, there’s no such thing as a relationship in which the power is evenly balanced. Those don’t exist anywhere other than on paper. The second they leave the page and enter the real world things go haywire. That’s just life. But there’s one that’s consistent, and this is the thing Peter is trying to get us to understand in this passage and throughout the rest of the letter. Here it is: If you are a follower of Jesus, you are called to live like Him even if the other side isn’t playing ball. Jesus was Jesus and He died for it. We’re not called to anything less. Live like Jesus even if you’re the only one doing it. 

Friends, while this again applies to the kind of relational situations Peter specifically had in mind here, it applies more broadly than that to all of our relationships. There is not a single relationship you have in which this idea isn’t going to at least occasionally come into play. Not one. No matter what the relationship happens to be and who it is with, there will be times when the other person isn’t following the path of Christ in terms of how they are interacting with you. In those moments, you will have a choice. Are you going to respond in kind, or with kindness? If you happen to confess Jesus as Lord, your decision has already been made. Live like Jesus even if you’re the only one doing it. 

If you can’t do this with a spouse, you can do it with a friend. This is especially true if you have friends who aren’t also followers of Jesus. Live like Jesus toward them because when they see your life reflecting the life of Christ, even though they have rejected the word before, perhaps they will be won to it without a word on your part. This doesn’t mean speaking doesn’t still have its place. It absolutely does. What it means is that unless you are living an example to back up your claims, no one is going to buy them, and they may be pushed further away from them. Live like Jesus even if you’re the only one doing it. 

Parents, you can do this with your kids. In fact, you’re probably going to have to do it a lot. All of us are born as dirty, rotten sinners, and we start living down to that early. If you don’t show them Jesus by your behavior, how likely are they to have any interest in following Him when the time is right? Kids, you can also practice this with your parents. Parents aren’t perfect even if they are followers of Jesus. As a result, sometimes they are going to behave like it. Now, if you haven’t started following Jesus, this will just be frustrating. If you are a follower of Jesus, this isn’t optional for you. Instead, it is an opportunity. It is an opportunity for you to show them the love of Jesus by your behavior toward them. For most parents, but especially believing parents, they’ll respond to this pretty well. Live like Jesus even if you’re the only one doing it. 

The journey after Jesus is not always an easy one. He gave us the heads up on that Himself. It was not for no reason He told us to count the cost before going in. But He also promised to never leave us nor forsake us. When we commit ourselves to walking His path through life, only rarely will our efforts be reciprocated. We do it anyway. Live like Jesus even if you’re the only one doing it. This doesn’t come with any kind of a guarantee it will seem to work out in your favor in the moment. We don’t have that particular hope in the Scriptures. What we have as our hope is that our faithfulness will be rewarded richly when the day arrives. Live like Jesus even if you’re the only one doing it. Do it in your marriages. Do it in your friendships. Do it in your families. Do it at work. Do it at school. Do it in every situation you happen to find yourself no matter where it is or what it is like. Live like Jesus even if you’re the only one doing it. 

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