August 12, 2012

Humble Submission, part 1

Well, this morning we are going to talk about marriage.  We’re also going to talk about one of the dirtiest words in our culture.  It starts with an “S.”  Some people might refer to it as the terrible “S-word.”  Know what it is?  Submission.  Marriage and submission.  I would wager that in most places today if you were to mention those two words in the same context, you would turn off most of your listeners.  “That’s old and out-of-date and reeks of the evil partriarchalism that ruined the lives of countless women in the past,” you might be told.  The only question is whether or not such a criticism is talking about submission or marriage.  Both ideas are becoming increasingly passé in our culture.  Admittedly submission is much less popular than marriage, but the difference in opinion between the two is not nearly what it was not that many years ago.  More couples than ever before are settling with living together as either an acceptable substitute or even a lead-in to an eventual marriage in complete disregard of not only faith-based encouragement to the contrary, but also of a great deal of secular research which shows that a couple living together without being married does almost nothing positive for them both now and later whether marriage is in the future or not.

But if our culture has a problem with marriage, this is nothing when compared to its problem with the idea of submission.  After all, submission by definition means you are putting yourself as less important than the other person.  Well, one of our culture’s clearest proclamations is that there isn’t anyone more important in this world than you.  I mean, me.  Well, you.  Well, you know what I mean.  For me to stand up here, then, and tell you to act in a way out of sorts with this truth of who you are is deeply offensive.  How dare I talk about demeaning yourself in such a base manner!  When I have the choice between serving and being served, the higher good is to be served.  So why would I want to put myself in a servile position?  In the eyes of the world this simply doesn’t make any sense.  When these ideas are taken into the context of marriage perhaps you can see the potential problems brewing.  Modern culturally attuned pictures of marriage argue in favor of both parties maintaining their “own identity.”  Marriage isn’t seen as being about uniting in heart and soul and becoming one flesh.  It’s a contractual partnership in which two people set themselves on the same set of tracks as long they generally stay out of one another’s way.  But is this the full extent of what marriage is about?  Well, we’re going to spend some time on this very subject in more detail in a few weeks, but for now, let me answer that with a resounding no.  In the eyes of the world, perhaps, but then, we’re not terribly concerned about the view from there, are we?

We’re now into the sixth week of our journey through the New Testament letter of 1 Peter.  The title for our series is Strangers.  The big idea here is that as followers of Jesus we are strangers in this world.  Well, if we are indeed strangers in every respect, shouldn’t our marriages look different too?  I think we can only answer this affirmatively, yet what should make our marriages look different?  What should be the driving character of our marriages as followers of Christ?  Well, as you might expect, Peter has some advice.  Open your Bibles with me to 1 Peter 3:1.  We’ll take a look at his advice here and then make an attempt to unpack it.  He speaks here to women and men separately so I’m going to take the same approach.  It’s actually going to take us a couple of weeks to do this.  As I got into this passage and started putting down on digital paper the things God was laying on my heart, there was way more than could fit in a single sermon.  So this morning we’ll just look at the background and I’ll talk to the women.  Next week we’re going to unpack the next passage as we commission the Honduras team for their work.  Then in two weeks we’ll come back to all of this, I’ll speak to the guys, and make some general applications for us.  Ultimately, in these words, I think Peter lays out a pretty good understanding of the chief character for our marriages.  Let’s look at these words together.

“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.  Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.  For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.  Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”

This is a thorny passage of Scripture.  It has been used to suggest that Christianity condones spousal abuse.  Unfortunately this criticism has on occasion been apt as it has been used by some wildly errant professed Christ followers to justify spousal abuse.  We’ll come back to this in just a minute.  It refers to women as “the weaker vessel,” I mean, how much more offensive and culturally irrelevant could it get, right?  Well, one of the key principles for understanding any text in the Bible is that we must first understand what it meant to the original audience because a text cannot mean something it never meant.  If this was written to give license for abusing women then we should reject it, but if it wasn’t understood by its original audience to suggest that, then it can legitimately be neither used nor criticized for that purpose today.

So what did these words mean to Peter’s audience?  Well, keep in mind that in Peter’s day, women were regarded as property.  Unmarried young girls were the property of their fathers.  Married women were the property of their husbands.  Widows and otherwise unmarried women were considered social outcasts and either quickly remarried, starved to death, or became temple prostitutes.  In this kind of a culture, a woman was not expected to have a different religion than her husband.  The head of the house’s religious affiliation was assumed on the part of all its members.  A first century Greek historian, Plutarch, once wrote: “A wife should not acquire her own friends, but should make her husband’s friends her own.  The gods are the first and most significant friends.  For this reason, it is proper for a wife to recognize only those gods whom her husband worships.”[1] For a wife to commit herself to a religion other than that of her husband would have been for him deeply embarrassing.  It would have suggested that perhaps he was not as fully in control of the affairs of his household as he should have been.  And in a culture in which honor and shame were the lens through which everything else was viewed, this was a huge deal.  In this regard Christianity was often attacked in its earliest days as undermining the very foundations of good society.

Peter’s command here for wives to be subject to their own husbands was geared at countermanding this charge.  It was like he was saying: “Look ladies, it’s bad enough for your husbands that you’ve rejected their religion in favor of this one.  That was a good decision, but it’s really hard on him.  Don’t make things worse by trying to assert yourself against him and further upset the social order.  You won’t score any points with him and worse, you’ll convince him that this new religious movement should be rejected at all costs.”  Look at how Peter says this, though.  He tells wives to be subject to their own husbands.  In other words, no other men have any authority over you including your father.  This was very much countercultural.  Reading through the rest of his words to women we also see that Peter roots his command for Christian wives to submit to their non-Christian husbands in their commitment to Christ and not in the idea that their husbands really are worth more or are somehow otherwise better than they are.  In other words, he called Christian wives to practice submission not because it fit the social order, but out of their commitment to Christ.

This takes us down to the final context piece here: literary context.  Both Peter’s words to wives and to husbands as we’ll soon see begin with the Greek adverb homoios which means “likewise” or “in the same way.”  Well, the natural question here is: in the same way as what?  If we’re supposed to be copying something or someone, then what or who are we copying?  In order to answer this, we have to look back to what we talked about last week.  In our drive to create copycats, even ones that scratch by not quite getting their mimicry right, who did Peter say was our pattern?  Look at the text with me again starting in 2:21: “For to this [the lifestyle of humble submission geared at lovingly countering Christianity’s critics] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.  He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.  When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

Here then we have uncovered the centerpiece of Peter’s entire argument.  We have brushed away the dust from the defining characteristic of marriage.  What Peter is doing here is commanding both husbands and wives to submit to the pattern of Christ in their marriage relationships.  And what was the pattern of Christ?  He consistently and humbly submitted Himself to people who were in authority over His body.  His first allegiance was unquestionably to God the Father, but He trusted that by remaining absolutely righteous and humbly submitting to the authorities in His world, God would take care of things.  This is the pattern we are to follow if we count ourselves among His followers in every area of our lives including our marriages—regardless of the state of our spouse’s soul.  In this, marriage runs on humble submission.  That is to be the character of our relationships as followers of Christ.  Anything less falls short of the example of Christ and will only cause us trouble.  Marriage runs on humble submission.  With that understanding in place, let’s get specific.

Peter begins by focusing on wives.  He tells them to submit to their husbands.  Now, we’ve already dealt with the cultural context of this.  Let’s deal with a couple of the most common challenges.  Is Peter telling women whose husbands are physically or verbally or emotionally abusive to simply shut up and take it?  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  I heard of a woman who approached her pastor about her husband being physically abusive to her and wanting to know whether divorce might be appropriate.  He told her that she needed to simply be more submissive and eventually things would improve.  In all likelihood he was drawing his motivation from this very text.  Let me assure you: this man was a fool on this point and badly misused this text.  Neither this text nor any other suggests that someone in a place of physical abuse should simply remain there without changing the situation if such an option is available to them.  This is not what Biblical submission means.  Not here.  Not now.  Not ever.  In situations of abuse, the immediate primacy is on the safety of the person being abused.  Once this is established the various channels of resolution can be pursued.  These should be pursued, however, with a great deal of humility—which is nothing more or less than an honest evaluation of a situation and the people involved in it—and submissiveness—which means putting the needs of the other ahead of your own.  If the other needs help, as in this kind of a situation, Biblical submissiveness would be to humbly, lovingly, and gently encourage the attainment of the necessary help before further reconciliation is possible.  And the tough reality is that sometimes further reconciliation isn’t possible because one spouse or another isn’t willing to do the necessary work.  But, Biblical submission means seeking what’s right as far as the other person goes and putting this as more important than what’s immediately right for you, not simply taking it quietly when they treat you badly.  Sometimes what’s right for the other person is for them or you to be removed from the situation at least temporarily until they can get the help necessary for you to be reconciled with each other.  Indeed, marriage runs on humble submission.  But Biblical submission may not actually look like you’ve been taught to think about it by our culture.

Speaking more to Peter’s intent, though, some folks, and women tend to do this more than men, view marriage as a platform to take the partner they have and change him into the partner they want.  But let me let you in on a little secret: you don’t have it within you to accomplish such a feat.  And if you try it of your own power, you’ll create either a monster or a shadow, neither of which will be very satisfying to you in the end.  But there is another way.  Marriage runs on humble submission.  As we said last week, love accomplishes what force never can.  When you begin taking Jesus’ model and putting it into practice toward your husband or your wife, the power of such an example is going to get their attention in the best possible way.  It might take some time.  Depending on the nature of the situation this time might have to be taken apart.  But it will get his attention.  Thus by living to create a copycat, you just might succeed.  Peter doesn’t offer any guarantees here, but if it is going to happen, this is the only sure way to make it so.  Marriage runs on humble submission, not angry, proud force.  And by the way, this same principle applies in other relationships as well, like say, parent-child relationships.  Marriage runs on humble submission, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work anywhere else.

Now, if we’ve had to make some cultural leaps in order to really apply what Peter has said so far, the next part reads like it was written yesterday.  Peter advises women to not let their adorning be external.  While some believers trying to take the Bible seriously have taken Peter’s words here to the extreme end of wearing their hair long, straight, and unbound and not wearing any jewelry or fancy clothes, I don’t think that’s his point.  Instead, I think he’s reminding women to make sure they root their personal value in the right soil lest their self-image either not grow or else grow into something entirely unlike what it should be.  You see, for a whole host of reasons both internal and external but into which we are not going to plunge this morning women have always struggled with issues of self-image.  They have always felt the temptation to rely on external things to supplement their natural beauty.  They’ve always doubted, in fact, that they have any natural beauty.  They’ve always felt the pressure to measure up to whatever the culturally defined model of beauty is and this image has never gone more than skin deep and has most often reflected fairly specific ideals of shape and size.

One of the driving questions women need answered is: am I beautiful?  Little girls start asking this of their daddies almost as soon as they are able to talk and the need to hear the right answer (yes) from the most important man in their life never goes away.  The truth is that our culture has its own specific image of beauty into which all women are expected to fit if they are to be pronounced beautiful and therefore valuable.  This image, however, is generally a terrible distortion of real, godly beauty, and leaves the vast majority of women who don’t fit it searching desperately for someone who will affirm their beauty and worth in spite of their knowledge that they don’t fit the cultural model.  Indeed, when a woman, particularly a young woman, though not-as-young women are in no less of a need of being so affirmed, has been convinced by either the culture or the people in her life that beauty and worth are not inherent to her, that she needs to make some kind of a change in her physical self in order to achieve them, that they are out there for her to find if only she looks hard enough and does the right things, she will do nigh on anything to have them affirmed.

Let me offer a bit of advice on this point.  I’ll start with a story.  I was visiting with my 18 year old cousin a few months ago and she related that one of the popular trends among her girlfriends is for their parents to give them some kind of elective cosmetic surgery as a sweet 16 present.  Think those girls have a twisted understanding of the nature of real beauty?  You bet they do.  Parents: if you want your daughters to grow up to display the Biblical modesty and Christ-like character which will attract the kind of guy who will respect and love them for the treasures they are, you must stand in the gap and proclaim to them what real beauty is.  Don’t let them think that they need to fit a certain mold to be beautiful.  Regulate the kinds of images you allow them to see until they are able to meaningfully and positively interact with those.  Teach them about the real beauty found in modesty and Christ-like character.  Never let them think that they need to sell themselves in the culturally prescribed fashion in order to attract guys.  Parents, do you do this?  In a day of rampant social media when sharing pictures is a teenage pastime talk with your children about Christ-like modesty and model that for them with what you share and allow them to share.  And just to be safe, use a pretty conservative definition of modesty.  You see, in the great relationship marketplace we all advertise ourselves in one way or another in order to attract a partner.  The way in which we present ourselves, though, determines the kinds of people we’ll attract.  If you let your daughters present the wrong kind of image because she thinks that’s where real beauty lies, she’ll attract the wrong kinds of guys.

Last word to women and I’m done.  The root for this pursuing beauty in all the wrong ways and places is a deep seed of vanity growing in the heart of women.  This is the result of the Fall.  Men deal with this too, but in different ways.  Ladies, vanity plays itself out in a number of different ways, some of them outwardly positive, some of them outwardly negative, all of them inwardly harmful, but it is never humble.  Now, let’s be honest: This outward beauty, this sex appeal to call it what it most often is in our culture, is capable of accomplishing a certain number of things.  But these things only ever deal with the flesh and the mind.  If you want to make your husbands love you more; if you want to see them become more the men God made them to be, this isn’t how you do it.  Don’t make appealing to his body your first goal—or your last—but rather aim for his heart and you’ll get the whole package.  Now, be as beautiful as you can be.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But, you will never have your value affirmed in the ways you need when you seek such affirmation through vanity, when you seek such affirmation by modeling your style after some cultural image of beauty.  You’ll never be able to put the needs of your husband first when you are being driven by vanity like this because you’ll be too stuck on yourself.

Marriage runs on humble submission.  Marriage runs, as Sarah, Abrahams’ wife, demonstrated for us, on a deep-seated understanding of your own inestimably great value and beauty played out in the context of putting your husband’s needs first in all things.  You want to know a little secret: if you don’t get your value right, you can’t love and humbly submit to your husband in the ways he needs you to; you can’t be the wife you want to be if you don’t understand who you are.  Now, is doing all of this sometimes a little or even a lot scary?  Yeah, it can be.  You’re submitting yourself to someone who might abuse such a gift.  But you must remember this: your ultimate submission is not to your husband and he is not your ultimate authority.  Instead, you are submitting to him—putting his needs ahead of your own, treating him as if he were more important than you—as a function of your deeper submission to Christ.  When we are safely in His hands, there is nothing in this world worthy of our fear because as our living hope informs us, though we might experience a manifold of pain now, the honor and joy we have ahead of us because of our submission to Christ will completely wash away this pain with grace and life.  Marriage runs on humble submission.  And as I’ve tried to make clear, when done according to Biblical principles, that doesn’t play out the way the cultural parodies you’ve seen all your life are intended to make you think.  When done well, such an approach will be to your joy.  You will know the peace of Christ in ways you’ve not before experienced.  Marriage runs on humble submission.

Now, I’m going to stop here this morning.  I know we’re not done, but if you can bear to wait a couple of weeks, I’ll turn my attention to the guys.  Guys, in the meantime, here’s a challenge for you: you know this is coming.  Don’t hide from it.  Don’t find some pathetic reason to stay home that morning.  Man up and be here.  Peter has some tough words for us.  We are just as much in need of hearing them as the ladies were this morning.  Marriage runs on humble submission.  Be here in a couple of weeks as we find out what it looks like for husbands to submit to their wives.

[1]Advice to Bride and Groom 19, Moralia 140D.