This sermon is one in a series entitled Family Matters. I hope to examine some biblical teachings about family. In this series we shall look at Husbands and Wives, Parents and Children, Divorce, Sexuality and some disputed ethical issues within the Christians Church. I request your feedback and response as we look together at the Bible and family matters. In this sermon we will look at husbands and wives.
An English professor wrote the words, “Woman without her man is nothing,” on the blackboard. He directed the students to punctuate it correctly. A man came forward and took the chalk and added a few commas. He wrote: “Woman, without her man, is nothing.” A woman raised her hand. The professor called her forward to the board. She erased the man’s commas and added her own punctuation. She wrote: “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.”
Today we read from the 2nd chapter of Genesis today, an ancient Hebrew creation narrative about the first man and woman. We also read from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Both of these passages have come under much scrutiny in the modern world. Both have been used to support a male dominated world, a patriarchal society where men rule women and keep them in their place.
You know the Bible can be and often is abused. That is because we come to the text with preconceived ideas. We filter the material according to what we think it ought to say. In my country Republicans sometimes see a Republican God and Democrats a Democratic God on the Divine throne. Sometimes we are unaware of our biases. We fail to notice the colored lenses through which we read scripture. Liberals and conservatives, Charismatics and Traditional Christians, alike bring their lenses to the text. It is inevitable that our early teaching and our own experiences color how we view a text. I am not immune. The issue is not that we somehow can read the text totally objectively with no biases. That is impossible. There is no purely neutral reading of a text. We all bring to the text our own questions and pre-understandings. What I call for is two things, two basic postures:
Two interpretive principles
First, can we acknowledge that we come to a text already biased? Can we, just for the sake of discussion and for the sake of the love of God, at least listen to one another and not dismiss a view with which we are not already familiar as un-biblical or hurl the accusation that the person with whom we disagree “doesn’t believe the Bible”. “Oh, he doesn’t believe the Bible. The Bible plainly says…” That kind of talk is not helpful and especially in trying to understand how the Bible functions in the Christian life as a tool of liberation and not oppression.
Secondly, I would like to put forward that we approach every text of scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ. That is, whatever Paul wrote, or James or Isaiah, or Jude do we see their words complimented, completed and even corrected by Jesus Christ? To me, and this is my bias, the Bible is to be read as a book that points us, not to Moses, or Ezekiel, Malachi, Paul, Peter, or John, but to Jesus Christ. Any interpretation of scripture that is not in keeping with the spirit and character of Jesus Christ the Church rejects as unhelpful. People have used scripture to justify lynching black people, burning accused witches, to torturing heretics on the racks and slaughtering their enemies in Holy Crusades. People have propagated and defended slavery and denied women a right to vote, hold public office, and receive ordination, all using scripture verses. I say this to help us approach scripture as a witness to Jesus Christ and to see how various communities of the first Christians sought to be faithful in their generation to God. But culture changes and the church must respond in the spirit of Jesus and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to each new situation. The words of the old hymn by James Lowell in 1845 “Once to Every Man and Nation” sum up the position: New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.
Marriage forms a context for discipleship
Let us examine then the text from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The section we read is called the “house laws” by many New Testament scholars. Paul dashes them off as a kind of rule of thumb to give some basic guidance for the Christian families in the churches over which he held some influence. What we notice about them is that they reflect very traditional culture. He deals with wives and then husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters. What he wrote could almost have been written by any middle to wealthy class Roman of the time. This text reflects the social realities of his day. And yet there is a special twist that Paul includes that marks it off as revolutionary. To Paul marriage forms a context for Christian discipleship. How we follow Christ gets reflected in our marriage.
Let us go back to the first verse in chapter 5. Paul usually begins his letter with theological material but about halfway through he adds the practical application. In Chapter 5 verse 1 Paul writes: Be imitators of God as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering to God. Ephesians 5:1
In the whole chapter following Paul works out this Christ centered ethic. How Christians are to follow Christ is in love and giving up of ones self. It is a life of outpoured love, a tall order, but one graced by the presence of Jesus Christ himself who led the way and modeled such a life for us. The Apostle wrote, Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Notice the submission Paul advocates. It is first of all not one way, females always submitting to men. It is mutual subordination: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (verse 21). In many teachings of Christian family relationships this point gets neglected. But what does Paul mean by submit anyway? It isn’t a slavish taking the place of a doormat to be tread upon. We might better translate the term “accommodate ones self to another”. Learn how to adapt to another’s needs and expectations.
How do we get along as Christians? Certainly not by always insisting that we get our own way. There is a virtue in being easy to get along with, willing to listen and renounce our own rights now and then. Have you ever met a person who it was their way or the highway? There are times to be strong and unbending, but there are also times, for the sake of peace and unity, to gently renounce our rights and willingly subordinate ourselves to another. To Paul this mutual subordination marks the Christian life, male and female alike. By the way, elsewhere in Paul’s writings he urges Christians to practice the revolutionary subordination when he wrote: You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it. I Corinthians 16:15-16
By this Paul means to help them, assist them in their labors, give them what they need to do their work. Again he wrote: Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men. Titus 3:1-2
The writers of Hebrews wrote: Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. Hebrews 13:17
And the Apostle Peter wrote: Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:5
My point in this little word study is simply to show that Christians, men and women alike, practice willing and joyful subordination in a variety of relationships. We do so in order to keep the peace and to adorn the Gospel of God. It is unfortunate that some have latched upon the teaching of submission and imposed a meaning alien to it. This has caused unnecessary confusion and often heartache in the Body of Christ. I know of persons affected by the teaching of obedience who have parted from their money, their dignity and their virtue
by a false emphasis on submission.
Chain-of-command or revolutionary subordination?
One well-known Christian teacher in the United States, from whom I gained much otherwise, approached these Bible texts with an unfortunate lens. He taught that these texts revealed God’s appointed chain-of-command. He used that phrase often. It was an unfortunate teaching because he took the texts and imposed on them a military image as though God’s primary purpose for the Christian family was to keep everyone in their place and in their proper order. This is not military language that the Apostle uses here. Paul writes, not about command and obedience, as though the husband is the commanding officer and the wife a private or a grunt at the husband’s beck and call. Anyone who tries to run a family like a military platoon does great damage to the delicate fabric of the family. Paul rather urges Christians to attempt to accommodate to another in a godly, loving and peaceful manner.
I know of one woman who told Stephanie, “Well, my husband is the head of the household and he makes all the decisions for the family. My job is simply to obey. I have suffered a lot from his foolish decisions, but that is my lot in life.” Of course she knew that “the Bible says” and her literal slavish obedience pushed her to the corners of family decisions.
I received a gift from a member of this church the other day. It is a plaque that states: “Christ is the head of this household”. Not me but Jesus Christ. You see, even a text that was meant to assist Christians to adorn the Gospel with loving mutual subordination exhibited in beautiful mutual subordination and respect gets twisted and in service of sin becomes an oppressive law of who is in charge and who must kowtow to authority.
When reading these texts we must avoid trying to stretch them to say things or imply things that they do not. Let us call one type of distorted construction The Tyrannical Man and Submissive Woman.
Here the insecure man asserts his authority. He, demands that he be obeyed and makes unrealistic demands. I heard the tragic story of a man, a minister in fact, who took this text “Wives submit to your husbands” and treated his wife like a child. He commanded her to do things and not talk back. He scolded her in public and even when angered sent her to her room humiliated in front of guests, as though she were a child. This is wrong and is out of keeping with the spirit and manner of Jesus Christ. But there are men, some men, not all, who take these few chaste and simple words of Paul distort them into a false and oppressive construction. Remember that our principle is would Jesus act this way? A man, who demands that he is “the head of this household” and must be obeyed, already is outside the apostolic counsel of peace. Especially if a man resorts to physical abuse of a woman, slapping, punching, kicking, or even verbal abuse, he is living in sin while claiming the scripture in his favor. It is not of God. We must remember that a woman is man’s co-partner, man’s co-equal helper in life. She is companion not servant. She is not a doormat for her husband to tread upon. It is a weak and insecure man who must prove his manhood by resorting to physical or verbal violence. And believe me, domestic abuse it quite high these days. It is so out of keeping with Christ’s manner.
There are subtle instances of this extreme. I remember some male church leaders in a house movement in Florida who caught hold of this distorted teaching. They thought it their prerogative to exercise their male authority over their wives. To prove their authority they made strange and unreasonable demands upon their wives. They used the scripture like a hammer to beat their poor wives over the head with “The Bible says ‘wives submit to their husbands!’ So go to the store and buy two dozen head of cabbage.” They wanted to test their wives obedience. It was all so much foolishness propping up a weak and insecure male ego, if you asked me.
The 18th century Greek saint, Kosmas Aetolos, commented to men on Eve’s creation from Adam’s side: “God has not made woman inferior to you, that is why He made her from the middle of man. . . [God] did not make woman from the head [of man], that she might not despise man, and similarly He did not make her from [Adam’s] feet, so that man might not despise woman.” http://www.stnina.org/journal/art/2.1.2
If we want to avoid the sinful construction of the Tyrannical Man and Submissive Woman, we also want to avoid the opposite distortion: Rebellious Woman and Weak Man. Often the pendulum swings away from the machismo of the tyrannical man another extreme.
Women, tired of being under the oppressive and unreasonable masculine demands declare independence and moves in a posture of antagonism in their relationship to the man. Some of the extremes of the Feminist Movement drifted that way. Take for example the witticism quipped by Australian feminist, Irina Dunn, ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.’ In this construction we have entered the war of the sexes where both sexes station themselves against one another in mutual distrust and dislike. Again, this is a result of human sin not God’s design for the relation of the sexes. Let us be sure that neither the model we label Tyrannical Man / Submissive Woman nor its opposite, Rebellious Woman / Weak Man come even close to fulfilling God’s intention for marriage. God doesn’t gain glory from a tyrant reigning over the family nor a weak vacillating man afraid to assert himself and be counted. Conversely God doesn’t intend a cowering woman, brow beaten and shamefaced hiding behind her husband’s authority. Neither does God will a defiant, unruly woman claiming her complete independence of the male gender. Perhaps we can venture to put forward a third alternative which might help this deadlock: Strong Man / Mature Woman.
Strong Man / Mature Woman
I don’t have time in a single sermon to develop what all this may mean in practical ways. This sermon is offering only a starting point for discussion. I hope that husbands and wives will discuss God’s plan for their marriages in these terms. However, for the moment I think that we can look at the Apostle Paul’s words to the husbands to get a picture of the beauty and symmetry of God’s intention.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word…, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
Paul’s principle for interpreting a Christian’s responsibility in the world was Christ. Paul was Christ centered or as scholars might say Christo-centric. Marriage, for Paul, is an occasion to practice, not just conventional family values, but more, to demonstrate the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, the dawning of the New Creation.
First, as Christian partners we practice mutual subordination. As a woman may, for the glory of God, accommodate herself to her husband the husband has a reciprocal responsibility to love “as Christ loves!” Paul states that Christ is the head of the Church and the husband is the head of the family, but did you notice something? According to Paul Jesus Christ redefined headship. In Christ’s economy the head is not the tyrant who gets his way, insists on his rights and demands feminine obedience. The head, the really strong man, demonstrates his headship by willingly giving up himself. Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. He practices self-giving love, like Christ did. He leads by serving. He serves his wife. Didn’t Jesus teach his disciples the same lesson elsewhere?
Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. Luke 22:25-26
Jesus took the towel and bowl of water to wash his disciples’ feet he told them: You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. John 13:13-14
Jesus redefined power. He gave a fresh interpretation to headship. It is not wielding power to command and demand obedience. Leadership is exercised in humility in the crazy upside down kingdom of God that Jesus taught us. In this kingdom we practice values that sometimes look very conventional, but take another look. You will see that Jesus has planted a time bomb in the human institutions like slavery and the patriarchal family. The old order is being dismantled silently, slowly and lovingly. This is a kingdom where the servant leads and the master serves, the greatest is the least and servant of all. The king rules from a cross. In this upside down world (or we might say right-side up world!) the poor and the meek are pronounced blessed. In this kingdom everything is different; everything is rearranged to open up every relationship to more love and justice. Every relationship, husband and wife, master and slave, ruler and ruled, stand under the sign of Jesus and can be transformed to where more love and justice are possible.
What does this mean for us as Christian husbands and wives? It means that we cannot simply tell men that they are the head of the house and leave them to believe that they exercise their masculine prerogatives through commanding and expecting shamefaced obedience by their wives. As Christian men we must understand that the degree to which we hinder and oppress our wives and limit them reaching their potential for the kingdom of God is the degree to which we sin against them and against Christ in them. Do we exercise headship as spiritual leaders, serving our spouses by assisting them, encouraging them to maximize their every potential for God’s kingdom? Do we support them in prayer and encouragement and lead spiritually by our example?
I know men who think it is enough to go to work and bring home the bread and butter but expect their wives to provide the entire spiritual basis of the family. “If the wife goes to church, and wants to take the kids, fine, but I will just stay home and enjoy a nice day off.” Well, men, you have neglected your God given calling to lead like Christ leads, to lead by serving and giving yourself up for your spouse. If men lead like Christ leads it is the manliest and most masculine thing you can do. Not expecting service, but exercising strength through self-giving service.
According to Paul the relationship of a husband and wife not only provides a context for Christian discipleship, but also offers the world a little picture of the great mystery of non-coercive love, the kind of love that should be exhibited in God’s church. Paul concludes his discussion on husband and wife with these words: This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. Amen