Before Easter we began a mini-sermon series on 'Christ-centred family life' – and now after Easter we conclude it. And like the TV reality show - in reverse order – mothers and fathers, sons and daughters and today wives and husbands. Or, if you take headship seriously, husbands and wives.
I am mindful too that today we mark our 25 years partnership with St Philip's, Mburi, Kenya. So we send greetings to them in Christ's name, as we consider another aspect of the partnership between men and women. I am mindful too that today we mark the first Sunday after Easter – so we continue to celebrate the resurrection. Jesus has died and is risen and we acknowledge him as Saviour and continue to submit to him as Lord. So incidentally we touch on these broader themes of partnership and submission as we consider today the theme of husbands and wives.
Scattered throughout the NT epistles are what the commentators refer to as 'household rules'. Rules for the home. Rules for the church. Practical teaching for men and women. The rules include the reciprocal relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants. The epistles are not just theory – but teach us how to live as Christians in an unbelieving world. So here we have practical directions for Christian living. Practical principles for Christian living inside the confines of the family and outside in society. In other words the NT includes both the theory and the practice of what it means to be a Christian.
The key to this extended passage (5:21-6:9) is v.21. 'Submit (or be subject) to one another out of reverence for Christ'. In other words Christ first, others second, and self last. John Calvin put it quite simply: 'where love reigns, there is mutual service.'
In the Bible the chapters, paragraphs and verses are quite arbitrary. So where do we place v.21? This verse may be linked to the previous paragraph. Keep on being filled with the Spirit (v.18) and continue to reverence Christ as Lord (v.21) - in fellowship and worship praise and thanksgiving. Or, this verse may be linked to the next paragraph. Keep on being filled with the Spirit (v.18) and continue to reverence Christ as Lord (v.21) - and submit to one another – wives to husbands, children to parents, servants to masters. I want to apply v.21 to the following verses and to look at submission under three broad headings:
1. Submission to scripture
This year we celebrate the 400 years since the publication of the Authorised (or King James) Version of the Bible. During the past few months much has appeared on the history of the Bible – on TV, the radio and in a number of books. Many of these presentations are well researched and very objective studies. But they are often looking at the Bible from the outside to the inside. Like a nosy neighbour looking over the garden fence. Like the expert on swimming who never gets wet. The unbelieving presenter or author may have a dispassionate and detached view of the text; but he fails to understand scripture and certainly not to submit to its supreme authority.
And what of the Christian believer? What is our view of scripture? How do we understand it? How do we allow it to order our lives? How much does it regulate our thinking and our behaviour? We may give our general assent to it but do we permit it to govern us and to mould us in our thinking and in our attitudes and our relationships?
How do we read a passage like Ephesians 5:21ff? Is it something that is culturally conditioned? Something for the past but not for the present? Or does it remain for us the very word of God to which we are subject? Of course we mustn't wrench it out of context but to set it within the whole of the epistle. Earlier Paul had referred to our coming to faith – of us being chosen and predestined (1:11). Having heard and believed the good news we were sealed by the Holy Spirit (1:13). God's power is at work within us (3:20). We were not saved by works but by God's sovereign grace so that no one may boast (2:8-9). 'We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works' (2:10). As believers we have put off the old self and have been 'made new in the attitude of our minds' (4:22-23). We are to continue to be filled with the Spirit, and subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 'Where love reigns, there is mutual service.'
We are to submit our lives, our wills and our minds to scripture as the very words of God. Both as individual believers and in the regulation of the home and church. It is because we submit to Christ as Lord that we submit to each other – husbands to Christ, wives to husbands, children to parents. Not in order to dominate. To control. To crush. To manipulate. To force. To humiliate. But in order to follow the biblical blueprint. Is Christ truly our Saviour? Do we reverence him as Lord? Do we reflect the servant heart of Jesus? And how is this profession of faith evident in our lives; in our homes; and in our places of work and recreation?
As Christians we are to express Christ likeness to those around us. To demonstrate that we belong to him. To take his word seriously. To recognise his authority. To submit to him as Lord. We need constantly to hear his voice and to heed the promptings of his Spirit and to become more and more like Jesus. In Ephesians Paul says: 'Be kind and compassionate to one another (4:32). 'Be filled with the Spirit' (5:18). 'Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ' (5:21). 'Where love reigns, there is mutual service.'
2. Submission to Christ
The story goes that in a marriage service instead of saying 'I will' the poor man replied 'I wilt'! And then as the years pass when the wife says that she always allows her husband to have the last word, its always 'yes dear'!
The instruction 'husbands, love your wives' (v.25) and 'wives, submit to your husbands' (v.22) mustn't be taken out of context. It seems to me that v.21 and the following paragraph is primarily about Christ and about the church. Once this is grasped then all else fits into place. Look at what the passage says about Christ. Six times it refers to him (vv. 21, 23, 24, 25, 29 and 32). Christ is the head of the church; Christ loved the church, he feeds it and sustains it; and the living Christ is united to his church. Look at what this passage says about the church. Six times it refers to it (vv. 23, 24, 25, 27, 29 and 32). Christ is the head of the church; Christ loved the church, he feeds it and sustains it and the living Christ is united to his church.
And why is there so much here about the church when the context is about the home? We tend to put 'church' in one box and 'home' in another. Church is where we go to on a Sunday and home is where we live. But we mustn't think of the church as a building or denomination or place in which to worship. The church is the body of Christ, those who are one with him, those who respond to his love, those who submit to him as Lord, those who submit to each other out of reverence for Christ.
In the NT there was little difference between church and home. The church (that is the body of believers, the people of God) met in the home. So what was modelled in the church was modelled in the home. And what was modelled in the home was modelled in the church. The church and the home were one. The head of the church is Christ and the man was the head of the church that met in his home.
Still today in the Jewish home – the Sabbath is celebrated in the home and in the synagogue. In the home the family share a meal together. The family celebrate together. Worship is central to the life of the home. While we may have separated church and home they were not always so distant. In the past the custom of holding family prayers was fundamental to the Evangelical household. Bishop Walter Shirley stressed the importance of family prayers led by the head of the family. He believed that in the home 'extemporaneous prayer is the best ... for every Christian man is the priest of his own house.' In other words the man as the head of the house is to lead the little church that meets in his house. Headship in the home and headship in the church is following the example set by Christ himself. If the home is a little church and the church reflects the home then we need to see the one being reflected in the other. Since Christ is the head of the church / he is also the head of the home. 'Be filled with the Spirit' (v.18) and 'submit to each other out of reverence for Christ' (v.21). 'Where love reigns, there is mutual service.'
3. Mutual submission – some practical observations
I don't want to get side-tracked with a feminist reading of the passage and to get diverted by non-Christian stereotypes. This passage of scripture is far more important than that! Rather we are to look at what is fundamental here. That Christ is the head of the church and of the home and of all who live in that home. Paul does however address the issue of gender roles. The model for the husband is clear. He is to reflect the Lord Jesus. He is to be his mirror image. As Jesus has loved the church and died for the church, so is the husband to be – faithful, dedicated, committed and he is to love his wife. The role for the wife is also perfectly clear. It is to reflect that of the church's submission to Christ. It is a voluntary, joyful, obedient submission. Faithful and true / serving and caring.
The letter to the Ephesians is about 'God's new Society'. It concerns our relationship to Christ as Saviour, and our submission to Christ as Lord. The church is to be the bride of Christ, the wife of the king. One commentator has these wise words. Men and women are not the same. 'Their relations and roles must ... be mutually complementary rather than identical. Equality in voting rights, and in employment opportunities and remuneration ... should not be taken to imply such identity. And, within marriage, the guidance is clear. The husband is to take the lead – though he is to do so fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided. As soon as “taking the lead” becomes bullying or arrogant, the whole thing collapses.'
What is spoken about here is a high standard to which we should all aspire – both husbands and wives. Yet all of us know family members and friends where things haven't worked out and where bullying, wife-beating husbands and dominant bossy women fall far short of the biblical standard. What sort of model do we adopt in our homes and in the life of this fellowship? Do we genuinely submit ourselves to Christ as Lord? Not just when it suits us. When we want to get our own way. But in a mindset that is humble and Christ-centred. 'Be filled with the Spirit' (v.18) and 'submit to each other out of reverence for Christ' (v.21). 'Where love reigns, there is mutual service.'
And in homes where the wife is a believer and the husband is an unbeliever? I know of a couple (not here but elsewhere) where the unbelieving husband prevents his believing wife from meeting with other Christians. What then is she to do? In 1 Peter 3 the household rule is clear. The wife should still submit to her husband, she should live an exemplary Christian life and demonstrate purity and reverence in the way that she lives (1 Peter 3:1ff).
Over the years I have prepared a number of couples for marriage, and I've usually read these wise words of John Stott. The essence of Eph 5 is 'wives submit, husbands love'. But what does this mean? 'What does it mean to “submit”? It is to give oneself up for somebody. What does it mean to “love”? It is to give oneself up for somebody, as Christ “gave himself up” for the church. Thus “submission” and “love” are two aspects of the very same thing, namely of that selfless self-giving which is the foundation of an enduring and growing marriage.'
In a recent edition of Radio Four's Any Questions a question was asked about the secret of a successful marriage. One panel member thought that it was patience, and another that it was doing the ironing (that is the man doing the ironing). Patience and sharing (yes), and of each loving Christ and each other. Of submitting to Christ as Lord. Of submitting to each other out of reverence for Christ.
Perhaps as we conclude I could read extracts from the marriage service. First, from the introduction. 'The scriptures teach us that marriage is a gift of God in creation, and a means of his grace, a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh. It is God's purpose that, as husband and wife give themselves to each other in love throughout their lives, they may be united in that love as Christ is united with his church ... Therefore ... we pray with them, that, strengthened and guided by God, they may fulfil his purpose for the whole of their earthly life together.'
And in the service a question is then addressed to the man and to the woman. Here I will use the names John and Mary. If you are married, then may I invite you to echo in your heart the response 'I will'. In this you could rededicate yourself to your husband or wife.
John, will you take Mary to be your wife? Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?' I will.
Mary, will you take John to be your husband? Will you love him, comfort him, honour and protect him, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?' I will.
To summarise then, 'Be filled with the Spirit' (v.18) and 'submit to each other out of reverence for Christ' (v.21). For 'where love reigns, there is mutual service.'