Submitting Ourselves to One Another
Part 1

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Read Ephesians 5:21-33. - I have read these words at dozens of weddings. It’s more than a habit or stock sermon. It’s a conviction that these words call us to live as a people filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s a conviction that walking worthy of our calling in Christ involves relationships.

I will always remember the first wedding service in which I used this Scripture. In a meeting with the bride and groom before the wedding I mentioned that I intended to use this Scripture. I asked them to read it and get back with me. A few days later she called me. She let me know that she had a problem with the language of wives being in subjection. She wanted me to know that she had felt that way for a long time and not just because of my request to use this text. For years she had heard the statement that a woman ought to be in subjection. She had a problem with the way that tended to be abusive and the way people used this Scripture as a “biblical law” to get their own way and to “put a woman in her place.”

I was surprised at this reaction. This young woman did not have an agenda by any means. She wasn’t trying to be difficult. She was simply being honest with me. I was stunned at that moment, but I will forever be grateful to her for making me go back and read the Scripture carefully.

I considered her experience with the language of “subjection” and “submission” and I could now see that what she heard from that language was the language of being a second-class person or a doormat. For a wife to submit meant she should shut up and behave.

The attitude she encountered is like that of a cartoon someone recently sent me. It depicts a very happy looking 1950’s era couple. The husband is standing by the fireplace with his pipe in his hand. He is addressing his wife and says: “I’ve been thinking ... I’m the man of this house, so starting tomorrow I want you to have a hot, delicious meal ready for me the second I walk through that door ... afterwards while watching ESPN and relaxing in my chair you’ll bring me my slippers and then run my bath ... and when I’m done with my bath, guess who’s going to dress me and comb my hair?” The woman answers rather directly, “The funeral director.”

Maybe that joke works because the attitude displayed by the condescending husband is all too real. And that attitude has been around for a long, long time.

The arrangement of instructions to the members of the household that appears in Ephesians was not unique to the Bible in ancient times. Philosophers and politicians of the ancient world frequently commented on the way husbands and wives, fathers and children, and masters and slaves ought to conduct themselves in good society. The likes of Aristotle, Josephus, and Philo drew up their own codes of household conduct. And there are even other examples of this in the Bible in Colossians and 1 Peter (even though that one is interestingly incomplete). So, there’s nothing exceptional about the apostle instructing Christians how to behave in the household. What is exceptional is how the biblical code of contact differs ever so slightly – but oh so importantly, from the typical code.

For instance, the typical code is usually just aimed at the free men: husbands, fathers, and slave-owners. The duty of the men is to rule the household and the wives, children, and slaves are to be in servitude. Of course the men ought not to be cruel and violent, but the assumption is that the other groups require this sort of guidance. Josephus will even point out that the wife is inferior in all things to the man (Contra Apionem 2.24). It sounds patronizing to us. In fact it is patronizing. It truly is paternalistic because that’s the way these ancient societies were structured – the father, the pater, ran the show. He had all the authority and in that world the head of the household’s position was not just familial, it was also political.

And when Paul writes to the Ephesians, he knows that. Nevertheless, he aims his code of conduct at Christians who live within the pattern of these social institutions. And the all-important difference is tucked away so subtly in verse 21: “Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Notice the difference ...

First, submission is voluntary. The text says, “submitting yourself.” It is describing one of the results of being a Spirit-filled people (v. 18). [Note that the verb in 5:18 is the main verb. 5:21 is a participle and 5:22 doesn’t even contain a verb in the original language.] This is the way that God’s people live in community with one another – in the church, in the family, and in the world. We are the children of light, the imitators of God, the wise folk who make the most of the times. Being filled with Christ’s spirit and walking worthy of our calling means we submit ourselves (willingly, voluntarily) to one another.

Second, it isn’t just the wives who submit. Husbands also submit. They are to be like Christ who loved the church so much he gave his life for it. Self-sacrificing love! Husbands are to treat their wives as if they were their own body – and how does Christ treat his body (meaning the church)? Christ made his “bride” holy and cared for her.
        That submission language changes meaning in a context in which the submission is voluntary. Wives love their husbands and respect the authority that the first-century structures invested in the husband – not because she is being “put in her place” but because she is thinking of someone else. Husbands love their wives and will sacrifice and care for them in a way that imitates Christ. Not because they must, but because they willingly choose to do so.

Thirdly, can we see how Paul is addressing the social reality that husbands and wives in first-century Ephesus find themselves in, but at the same time he seems to be working from a higher standard. Some of the other philosophers who wrote up household codes of conduct attempted to preserve the status quo. A few others were cynically critical of the status quo. But there’s more going on in Ephesians 5 than a concern for or challenge of the way things are. Paul is looking “off the page” at a greater vision. One in which there is neither male nor female, slave or free, but unity in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Paul is looking at a new vision of humanity that has an attitude of humility and service. Like Christ, the new humanity doesn’t grasp at authority, but looks out for the interests of others rather than self. Paul is looking at the creation story and describes marriage as a mysterious unity in which two individuals become as one. Sort of like Christ and the church. It is a lot to take in, he admits. But for now, in his world, he simply asks them to love and respect one another.

Our institution of marriage in 21st America is only slightly similar to the first century institution. There’s probably more that is different than similar. And that not necessarily a bad thing, the bible doesn’t authorize or affirm any particular culture’s details about family relationships. But it does reference a higher vision. Can we also look off the page with Paul and consider how the influence of the Holy Spirit and the example of Christ and the church order our husband and wife relationship? Not stopping there, how shall we all submit to one another out of reverence to Christ?

That woman who helped me read this Scripture carefully told me that she could see the wisdom of this the way I explained it to her that day. She said that that was what she wanted in a marriage relationship. That’s what I attempt to preach at every wedding – a calling to be unified in Christ’s spirit; submission to one another in love and respect. That’s what I hope I have preached today.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 15 July 2007

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