We're in this series called 'Church Life: How to Love One Another'. And my title this evening, from Ephesians 5.21, is 'submit to one another' and I want us to look at how the Bible unpacks that in relation to marriage, family and work in the section that begins with that verse, which is Ephesians 5.21 – 6.9. Please open that up. It's on page 978 in the Bibles.
But today is also Pentecost Sunday, which is a reminder of the gift of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost after the ascension of the crucified and risen Jesus, and the life of love that we're called to in the church can only be lived by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit-filled life.
What is a Spirit-filled life like? There's a wonderful example from soon after the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. Stephen had been chosen for service because he was:
"full of the Spirit and of wisdom." (Acts 6.3).
He was brought to trial because of his evangelistic activity. He turned his trial into an opportunity for more preaching. Then with Christ before his eyes and with a prayer on his lips, he was stoned to death.
What is a Spirit-filled man like? He is so taken up with Jesus that he is ready to lay down his life in submission to his loving rule. Stephen saw Jesus, he behaved like Jesus, he proclaimed Jesus, he spoke to Jesus. Jesus was the centre of his life. He died for Jesus.
What is a Spirit-filled life like? It is centred on Jesus. That is exactly what we find in Ephesians 5-6. A Spirit-filled life is a Christ-centred life. Just look at Ephesians 5.1-2, which provide the context for what follows:
"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."
We should live like Christ. Ephesians 5.18:
"… be filled with the Spirit,"
Then Ephesians 5.19-21 spells out some of what that's going to mean, ending with this:
"… submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ".
Here is a basic principle for life in Christ: mutual submission out of reverence for Christ. We are not to be a collection of Kings and Queens each ruling our own dominion, population of one. Because of what we know of Jesus, and because we submit to him, we submit also to one another.
We are all to yield our lives – submit our lives – to Christ the King of kings. Not just wives, children, and workers – every one of us is to live in submission to Jesus. We are to recognise our dependence on each other, because we all recognise our dependence on Christ.
Then Ephesians 5.22 – 6.9 gives worked examples of that principle of mutual submission. This is Spirit-filled living brought down to earth in relation to wives and husbands; children and parents; and bondservants (that is slaves) and masters – which I've transposed into employees and employers. And very challenging and uncomfortable this teaching is. Sometimes listening to God is rather like reluctantly diving into a very cold swimming pool. We don't like the thought of it, but once we've done it, we discover it's very bracing and refreshing. So, let's dive in.
Spirit-Filled Wives And Husbands Live In Submission To Christ (Ephesians 5.22-33)
Now, this is certainly deep water in which to swim and we can't begin to get to the bottom of it. All we can do is to make some soundings.
"Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour."
This is an amazing passage. Sometimes it is read in wedding services and there is an unmistakeable reaction, because it is only half heard and generally less than half understood. You can see some strong female hackles rising, and some smug smiles on the faces of men, which they try not to let their wives see and both have missed the point.
Married or not, we're all involved here because marriage is an illustration of a relationship in which every Christian is involved: the love relationship between Christ and the church.
But this is also relevant because all of us, single or married, have a stake in what happens to marriage in this country. For good or ill the state of marriage permeates the whole of society – either as a poison or as a healing medicine. At the moment it seems like lethal poison is pumping around the blood system of our nation, and the signs of sickness are everywhere. The deterioration in marriage is frightening. The accumulated pain of it all doesn't bear thinking about. How can we turn back this tide of anguish? Surely only by listening again to the wisdom of the Bible.
A wife should not seek to dominate her husband. She should not seek to force her own will where there is a disagreement. Her attitude to him should be submissive.
A number of things need to be said.
First, accepting the headship of the husband in marriage is unavoidable if you accept the Bible as the word of God. There is scope for discussion about what it means and how to apply it, but the only way to escape the notion altogether is by straightforwardly disagreeing with the Bible and rejecting its authority and that of course is what many do. But if we do that, we are casting ourselves off to drift rudderless on a very stormy ocean.
Secondly, headship is grounded in creation and is therefore permanently valid. That is implied in this passage when Paul takes us back in Ephesians 5.31 to the creation account in Genesis 2, before The Fall. He spells it out further in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2. It is not something that derives from the culture of Paul's day. It is built into the fabric of God's creation.
Thirdly, different does not mean inferior. Men and women are equal in the sight of God.
Fourthly, being equal does not mean having the same roles in God's order for society. That is, after all, basic teaching about life in the body of Christ: the eye is just as important as the ear; the hand is as important as the foot; but it cannot be claimed that their roles are the same.
So it is with husband and wife. The roles of husband and wife, of father and mother are complementary. They are not identical. No doubt sometimes men do regard women as inferior, and denigrate the role of wife and mother. It is conceivable that sometimes wives regard husbands as inferior. Those are sinful patterns of thought that need rooting out. But you don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. We have to hold together the equality and the complementarity of the sexes.
Fifthly, submission is voluntary, not forced. Submission is a matter of willing obedience to the will of a loving God who is working to transform us into the likeness of Christ. The command is to the wife to submit and it is up to her to work out under God what that means for her in her situation.
One last point here. The command is:
"Wives, submit to your [own] husbands as to the Lord." (Ephesians 5.22)
It is not, "Wives, change every nappy." The point is that this framework for marriage of voluntary submission and self-sacrificing loving headship is a rather different matter to the division of labour in the family. I take nappies as an example because I'm well clear of that particular danger zone. Though we do have a grandchild on the way.
It is not that every task has to be equally shared out. Division of labour is appropriate and can be worked out within the family. But headship does not imply that the division of labour should be: wife 95%, husband 5%.
Now the question has to be asked: Isn't this whole biblical pattern of marriage ultimately anti-women? No. It is impermanence in relationships and abdication of responsibility on the part of men that is the real insult to women.
But haven't men oppressed and abused women in appalling ways down the ages? They often have. And that's because Ephesians 5 has been ignored, not because it's been followed. The vile parody of submission and headship that we sometimes see displayed should not cause us to chuck the beautiful biblical original into the wheelie-bin with it.
Remember we've only had half the picture so far. On to Ephesians 5.25:
"Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,"
Just as there is no escaping the principle of headship, there is no escaping the fact that it is the self-sacrifice of Jesus for us that is the pattern for what headship means. It is not lording it. It is serving the wife, as Jesus came not to be served but to serve. It is putting her welfare above your own convenience and comfort – even above your very life.
Look at the unfolding stages of Christ's commitment to the church: he loved us; he gave himself; he cleansed us; he makes us holy; he will present us in splendour. He doesn't look at us critically to see how we're doing, how we're presenting ourselves. He works through love to present us holy and blameless.
So his concern is for our past, present, and future. He is prepared to pay any price to secure what's best for us. His headship is one of responsibility and care and that's the pattern for the husband. John Stott describes in contrast how we think of the authoritative husband…
"as a domineering figure who makes all the decisions himself, issues commands and expects obedience, inhibits and suppresses his wife, and so prevents her from growing into a mature or fulfilled person."
(The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, pg.232)
That is not biblical headship. Certainly leadership and initiative are involved, but they are exercised through loving care.
The second analogy that Paul uses is that of the husband's care for his own body. That's rather more basic and down to earth, but he seems to be saying that if you can't at first get your mind round the idea of being ready to be crucified for the sake of your wife, then you can at least understand the care that you lavish on your own body. Well, he says, give that same care to your wife. And that is after all appropriate, because, as he points out, husband and wife are one flesh through marriage.
So, we are to follow the pattern of Christ, and of his relationship with the church. Submit to one another; let wives submit to their husbands, and give them due respect; let husbands in submission to Jesus love their wives with a love like his.
Now the foundation of a strong marriage is the best possible basis for being effective parents. And that's what Paul comes on to next.
Spirit-Filled Children And Parents Live In Submission To Christ (Ephesians 6.1-4)
"Children, obey your parents in the Lord [that is, in Christ], for this is right". (Ephesians 6.1)
Here is the principle of Christ-centred submission worked out again, this time between children and their parents. Unless they are commanding something forbidden by God, or forbidding something commanded by God, the duty laid on children is to obey, at least until they're adult and taking full responsibility for themselves.
That is for the child's own good. And it is right that we should teach children to obey. Learning to obey God is more straightforward if we have first learned to obey our parents.
And throughout life, we have to be careful to honour our parents. That of course features in God's top ten commands. Why? Is it because in practice that's something we don't do at all well? Do we too easily take our parents for granted? Do we even forget them, and wish them away? We should honour them. In an increasingly aging population, we'll have to pay attention to that neglected command, or our whole society will suffer the consequences.
But the duties don't just fall on the children. Ephesians 6.4:
"Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord".
Mothers are also to do this of course. But perhaps that goes without saying, and it's the fathers who need reminding that they personally have a heavy responsibility for the upbringing of their children. It's no good leaving it to others, whether in the family, or at church, or at school.
'Discipline', or training, is if you like the negative side: working to remove ways of thought and behaviour that shouldn't be there. 'Instruction' is the positive side: working to instil ways of thinking and behaviour that should be there.
That's a long-term project that has to be maintained year in and year out until it's finally too late to do any more. Here too we have to be careful that God-given authority is not abused. Children are people too, and must be treated with great respect. They do not belong to their parents. Ephesians 6.4:
"… do not provoke your children to anger …"
says the Bible.
If our child is angry, it may be that it is we who should say sorry. We easily overlook that possibility. Colossians 3.21 says:
"Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged."
What is it that provokes and discourages? It may be an unbending demand for obedience in something that the child just can't see any purpose in. It may be treating an older child as if he or she were still an infant. Or it may be inconsistency, so that something that gets ignored, or that gets an amused reaction one day, is met with anger and punishment the next. We shouldn't be surprised that we have irritated children if we behave in irritating ways.
Don't make unreasonable demands that make no allowance for the inexperience and immaturity of the child. Don't humiliate. Don't be overindulgent. Discipline should not be arbitrary or unkind. That will not build up the child. It will lead to discouragement and frustration. But do not abdicate responsibility either. We are to give our children a Christ-centred training for life.
Spirit-Filled Employees And Employers Live In Submission To Christ (Ephesians 6.5-9)
Paul's third example of the application of the principle of submission relates to bondservants – slaves, effectively – and masters – not a family relationship but an economic one.
The nature of that relationship in the first century Roman world was not that of employee and employer. The slave was a possession. The master was the owner, but Paul does not regard the slave in that dehumanised way. He addresses slaves within the Christian community as fellow-heirs in the family of God.
However, they are to live out even in their slavery the principle of mutual submission. And here, too, what transforms the slave's attitude is putting Christ at the centre. From Ephesians 6.5-7:
"Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ [there it is for the second time], doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man [that's the third time in three verses], knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free."
Then what is astonishing in the context of the culture of the time is what Paul says next (Ephesians 6.9):
"Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him".
The relationship between bondservant and master should be based on justice and the knowledge that they are equal before Christ. That, as someone has put it, is to put a time bomb under the institution of slavery. But in the meantime, the slave should serve as if serving Christ; and the master should treat his slave as he would want to be treated.
A contract of employment is different. But surely what was true for slavery is even more applicable to employment. The employee should work as if Christ is the employer. Employers should treat employees as they would want to be treated, in the knowledge that Christ is Lord of them both.
If we are employed, then whatever our work, we are better off than slaves were. If we allow this principle of Christ-centred – not employer-centred, but Christ-centred – submission to shape our thinking, then our attitude and approach to our work will be transformed.
We all have a responsibility to the Lord for each other. Whether wives or husbands, parents or children, employees or employers, we are to submit to Christ, and faithfully fulfil the role that he has given us for now, looking to the other's interests, and not our own.
If we stand on our own rights; if our major concern is for own fulfilment, our own enjoyment, then that sets up powerful centrifugal forces in families and societies that tend to force them apart. If our aim is to be like Christ, to imitate him, then that acts like glue that sticks people together.
This path of Spirit-filled submission to Christ and to one another is not an easy one. But then Stephen is one example of how being filled with the Spirit never was easy. We have seemingly endless failures in our lives that drive us to seek forgiveness. But the life of Christ-centred submission is a possible path, because the Lord is with us, by his Spirit. Jesus lived a life of free submission and of servant leadership. Be filled with the Spirit, and it is possible, for the glory of God.