So the other day we had to keep Noah home from school. In hopes of keeping him entertained while I worked I pulled up the instructions to some of his Lego sets on the iPad so he could rebuild them. The challenge was not in the rebuilding per se, but rather in the fact that we have about ten sets worth of Legos all disassembled and in one big bucket. There are probably close to 2,000 Legos of various shapes and sizes all mixed together. In theory all the pieces to build all the various sets they have received are in there, but finding any one individual piece is a little like finding a needle in a haystack. Still, though, in order to be able to play with a completed Lego trash truck or police truck or speed boat or ocean explorer vessel or just about anything else requires finding all the right pieces in order to put them in the right place. It’s a significant time commitment to be sure, but the end result is worth it.
Well, Noah got started and went pretty well for a little while, but before too long the tediousness of finding each piece was starting to wear on him. I had told him I would help him when I took a break about mid-morning, but until then he was on his own. He was undoubtedly excited at the prospect of playing with the trash truck he was trying to build, but slogging through the drudgery of trying to build it was just nearly more than he wanted to handle.
You know, we all encounter times like that. It doesn’t matter what we do, if we haven’t done it before, there’s going to be a learning curve to it. For example, if you want to hit a baseball well you’ve got to learn how to swing a bat. In theory anyone can swing a bat, but swinging a bat in a manner that results in hitting well takes some practice. The same goes for anything else we want to do. If you want to bake a cake you’ve got to learn how—even if you’re only doing it from a box. If you want to raise goats or chickens or cows or some other animal you’ve got to learn how. If you want to knit a scarf or play an instrument or climb a mountain or run a marathon you’ve got to learn how; you’ve got to master the learning curve. But there’s a catch here: a fair bit of ascending that learning curve involves doing things that aren’t exactly the most fun we’ve ever had. Building a Lego set from a box of several hundred pieces means painstakingly picking through it over and over again. Learning how to swing a bat correctly involves swinging a bat thousands of times. Learning to run a marathon means running hundreds or even thousands of miles in preparation. I can say from experience that playing an instrument well involves hours and hours in the practice room going through mindless and sometimes pointless-seeming exercises. Why bother with all of this? Because the end goal is something we want more than we don’t want to do all less desirable steps it takes to get there.
This morning we are in the fourth part of our series, I Do. Just to jog your memory a bit, the big idea for this series is that most of us have at some point in our lives said,” I do,” to someone else, but there’s a fair chance that if we were really honest with ourselves in that moment, we probably didn’t really know what to do. In fact, it may be that still today, all these years later, you’re still figuring it out and even sometimes making it up as you go along. The goal of this series is to help correct that. In the first couple of weeks we addressed the fact that we can’t do much of anything well if we don’t really know what it is we’re doing or why we’re doing it. Identity and purpose are crucial for everything in our lives. And so we defined marriage: marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman established by God in creation. If you have a relationship that doesn’t check off all those boxes the hard truth is that it’s not a marriage no matter how else you frame it. And, if you try and pretend it’s a marriage anyway people are going to wind up hurt for the simple reason that anytime we take something God has given us, distort it, and use it in this distorted manner, we lose. If, however, you do check those boxes, then you have a marriage on your hands.
More than simply looking at what marriage is, though, in the second week of the series we talked about what it is for. We can point to a number of different secondary purposes of marriage, but the primary purpose according to what the Spirit inspired Paul to write to the church in Ephesus is that marriage is for the purpose of pointing people to Jesus. This starts with the husband and the wife and then moves out from there. When we are getting marriage right we will be on a path to Jesus, there’s simply no way to avoid that. If we are not moving closer to Jesus as a result of our being married; if our partner is not moving toward Jesus as a result of being married to us, something’s not right and if we don’t address it we’ll find ourselves dealing with bigger, more difficult problems somewhere down the road.
Starting last week, then, we shifted gears to spend some time reflecting on how to actually put all of this theory into practice. The first target for our conversation was husbands. Guys, do you remember what we said? It wasn’t very fun to hear, but Peter was pretty clear on the matter all the same. If you aren’t right with your wife, you can’t be right with God. If your relationship with your wife is not fully in the place it should be, then your relationship with God won’t be either. The two go hand-in-hand.
Well, this week I want to tackle a subject with you that again is going to be tough to talk about. This morning I want to dig a bit deeper into the nuts and bolts of what makes marriage work. And, just like becoming a home run hitter takes a lot of time in the batting cages that isn’t necessarily all peaches and cream—in fact sometimes it’s downright painful—what we’re going to talk about this morning is going to be at times uncomfortable and may even be a bit painful. Aren’t you glad you got up to come this morning?
This morning we are going to talk about submission. I told you a couple of weeks ago that we were going to come back to Paul’s words on marriage to the believers in Ephesus in order to deal more directly with some of the hard stuff and so here we are. And I’m not going to try and sugarcoat the matter for you: talking about submission—particularly given the state of our culture—is hard. It’s not much fun. It goes pretty hard against our natural inclinations. But think about it like this with me: If you are married, is your marriage today exactly where you want it to be? You could not imagine it being any better that it is right now. Perhaps we have an expert or two in the room, but I suspect that for the rest of us, given the chance we could point to two or three areas we would like to see improved in the relationship. Even if you’re not married, though, this still applies to you. I want you to think about it like this: Is your relationship with God today exactly where you want it to be?
Now—and don’t raise your hands, just let this percolate inside—for how many of you who recognize that there are some changes you need to make are you taking active steps to make those changes? If you answer no then consider the implications of what you’re saying: you’re on a broken path, you know you’re on a broken path, and yet you keep doing the things that keep you on that broken path even though you know they’re going to keep you on that broken path. The only two options here are that you’ve either settled for mediocrity which is problematic in and of itself because your spouse doesn’t deserve mediocrity; or, you’re doing the same things over and over expecting a different result which is a textbook definition of insanity. In other words you’re either a deadbeat or you’re nuts! Let me give you one more option, though: Perhaps the reason you keep doing something you know isn’t really working is that you don’t know what else to do and at least moving feels better than not moving. What I want to do in talking about submission with you this morning is to offer you a different path to follow that will lead you in a different (and better) direction.
Let’s start by diving headfirst into the text and then we’ll pull back a bit to unpack it. Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures, find your way to Ephesians 5:22, and take a look at this with me. Paul writes to couples there: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”
Alright. I warned you ahead of time. I’ve now read it to you. Let’s just get it all out of our system together. Repeat after me: “Oh, that’s hard!” Now that you’ve said it, let me explain why it’s not. The original Greek of v. 22 literally reads like this: “Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord.” Notice anything missing there? That’s right: the word “submit.” There are some later manuscripts that add the word in for the sake of clarity, but most scholars are pretty confident Paul didn’t actually write it there. So then why fill in the verbal blank with “submit” instead of something else? Before I answer that let me give you one more grammatical detail: In the original Greek verse 22 does not start at the beginning of a paragraph, much less a sentence. The sentence it is actually a part of starts in v. 21.
So then, in order to understand what Paul is really saying here when he talks about submission, we need to start by going back to v. 21. Well…what did Paul write in v. 21? “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” On the one hand, we can see now where the word “submit” comes from. It comes from right here. Putting these two verses together yields literally: “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ; wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord.” On the other hand, though, if that sounds like an incomplete sentence that’s because while the grammar checks out in ancient Greek, in English it is. The reason for this is that in the original Greek, “submitting” in v. 21 is a participle which isn’t so important except to know that while participles sometimes act like verbs they don’t often function as the main verb of a sentence. Instead, in order to get to the main verb here we need to look back a bit further to the end of v. 18 where Paul issues the command for believers to “be filled with the Spirit.” In other words, Paul’s instruction to wives to submit to their own husbands flows out of an initial command for believers to be filled with the Spirit.
But wait! there’s more. The command to be filled with the Spirit is itself not even the controlling command of this section. In order to get to that we have to go back even further to v. 15 where Paul commands his audience to “look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.” Paul’s discussion of submission in marriage can rightly be seen as flowing from this command. In other words, as Jesus followers we shouldn’t be doing marriage the way everybody else does. If you’re not a Jesus follower this doesn’t apply to you, but you might as well pay attention because you’re here and Christian marriage when done properly works pretty well. For Jesus followers, though we need to guard our ways carefully when it comes to our marriages because doing them unwisely will have consequences we may not want to face.
There’s even more than this, though. When Paul says, “look carefully then…” that’s a “therefore” and we need to go back and see what it’s there for. We first look back to 5:1 and see this: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” So our submission is done in imitation of God. But that’s another “therefore” so we go back further to 4:1 where we find this: “I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” So then our submission is about living up to the calling we have received in Christ…which happens by imitating God…which we do by looking carefully at how we walk…which comes when we are filled with the Spirit. But we also find yet another “therefore.” In order to get our minds around this call we have received we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the letter. In 1:3 we see this incredible statement: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”
So what’s the point here? I mean, this is a lot of detailed textual study! The point is that for Jesus followers the kind of submission in marriage Paul is talking about here happens primarily in response to our being called by God to be like Jesus. Jesus Himself practiced submission to the people around Him—remember when He said to the disciples in Matthew 20 that He came not to be served but to serve?—and so if we are going to look like Him, we need to practice submission as well. Or perhaps to put all this in summary fashion: submitting to the people around us after the pattern of Jesus is a result of being filled with the Spirit which results in a careful look at our walk so that we are imitators of God which we pursue because He chose us for such a lifestyle before the foundation of the world.
Let’s make the connection, then. We will have the greatest opportunities to practice this kind of godly submission to the people around us most with the people we are around most. Guess which person we are around more than anybody else. Our spouse! We have more frequent and more significant chances to practice this submission to which we were called in Christ before the foundation of the world with our spouse than anybody else. There is a very good reason, then, that the first place Paul went after calling finally and therefore most significantly for believers to submit to one another out of our reverence for Christ as a clear indication of our being filled with the Spirit and not something else, is to showing how this plays itself out in the most significant earthly relationship most of us will ever have. In all of our relationships we need to practice submission, but this goes double for the marriage relationship because of its abiding significance. If we want to get our marriages right we have to practice submission. Getting marriage right takes submission.
Okay…great…but what does that mean? I mean, culturally speaking we’re taught pretty consistently both explicitly and implicitly that submission is not a good thing. And, understanding the cultural ideal of submission to be a forced, though probably metaphorical, bending of the knee to someone who may or may not (probably not) be worthy of such a posture and who will very likely abuse their position to their own advantage and at our expense, we can understand this reaction. But what Paul has in mind here is very different from that. When he calls for believers to submit to one another out of their reverence for Christ it is the last part that is most important. Whether you are married or single your submission to other people should flow out of your larger and prior submission to God as Lord. With Him firmly established in the seat of lordship in our lives we are free to treat the needs and desires of the people around us and even the people themselves as if they were more important than us (which is what biblical submission is) precisely because we know this isn’t the case. We know that our value is sealed in Christ and we know further that Christ whose value is surpassingly higher than ours nonetheless lowered Himself to serve us. The very least we can do in response to this is to serve those whose value is equal to ours.
And again, if we are married, the first and best place we have to practice this submission is in the marriage relationship. In fact, our marriages depend on it. Getting marriage right takes submission. This, however, leads to an important question: what does this mutual submission look like in marriage? The most straightforward answer is: it depends. Because of the nature of the relationship and the role differences between husbands and wives, mutual submission looks different depending on which partner you have in mind.
For wives it looks like this: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” And I know that still may sound like a terrible idea, but think about it like this: If your husband’s prior submission is to God then He is going to be wholly committed to your good. He’s going to be looking for ways he can advance your interests even and especially at the expense of your own. He’s going to be always on the lookout for ways he can help move you in the direction of becoming more fully who God designed you to be. It’s easy to submit to a person like that…especially if your own prior submission is to God…which is why Paul spends three times as much time telling husbands how to be that kind of person as he does telling wives to submit to him.
Furthermore, the pretty clear picture from Scripture is that God designed husbands to be the leader in the marriage relationship. Submission as Paul defines it here, then, can be perhaps more easily thought of as simply following his lead. If he is leading in the direction of Christ that should be easy (once you process through your own background and the baggage you carry because of it, that is). If he is not leading in the direction of Christ, as long as your own heading is set firmly in His direction, you can still follow his lead in order to be there to help pick up the pieces when he crashes up against the walls of reality. Or, if he is clearly leading in a direction that will dishonor God you can gently, humbly, and submissively refuse to go with him. You can plant yourself firmly and with all the love in your heart say, “Honey, I know that God designed you to be the leader of this relationship, and I want to follow you everywhere you lead, but you are leading in a direction that will dishonor God and because I’m first and foremost a follower of Him I can’t go with you there. I hope you’ll reconsider and change your mind, but if not, I’ll be right here waiting for you when you get back.” In this kind of a place Peter’s words from last week will come powerfully into play. But the point is that by practicing submission to him out of your larger submission to Christ you will be doing everything you can to set your marriage relationship on a foundation that will lead to flourishing. Getting marriage right takes submission and that’s exactly what you’ll be doing.
For the guys, on the other hand, Paul makes equally clear for us what the larger concept of mutual submission looks like in v. 25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” Now, while this might sound different from the command Paul gave to the wives, don’t make the mistake of thinking this is any less arduous a task. We can see this by asking a simple question: how did Christ love the church? He died for her. He gave himself to the last drop of blood to see her become fully who God designed her to be. He served her selflessly and with everything He was (and is!). He made the meeting of her needs His highest priority. And why? Verse 30 makes this clear: “…because we are members of his body.” Guy, everything we are and everything we do is to be directed toward seeing her flourish in Christ. Anything less than that and we aren’t worthy of being called husbands. That doesn’t mean we should give up if we’re not doing it—especially if we have made a covenant—it means we should recommit and do our duty. It means we should submit ourselves to her as a function of our larger submission to Christ in order that she might become more fully who God designed her to be…that is, in order to love her. Getting marriage right takes submission even from husbands.
But there’s a catch. Remember our conversation a little while ago about the fact that everything comes with a learning curve. Practicing this mutual submission in the marriage relationship—or with anyone for that matter—comes with a learning curve. And depending on how long you’ve been married and how long you haven’t been practicing it the learning curve might be pretty steep. There are going to be parts of learning how to do this that are not a lot of fun. There are days it will seem like drudgery. There are days it may even be painful because of how directly this goes against our natural inclinations. Training ourselves to do anything that doesn’t come naturally is hard and this is especially true when it comes to matters of how we think and behave. And yet, getting marriage right takes submission and so we’ve got to do it.
The only hope we have in this journey is to begin with the end in mind. We begin with a picture in our minds of the kind of marriage we most want to have. We begin with an image of the feeling we want to have every time we look at or even think about our spouse. We begin with a clear goal of where we’re going—to be naked and unashamed before each other—and we make sure this stays before us constantly. Every time our partner does something boneheaded we forgive her, practice godly submission after the pattern Paul laid out here for us, and remember that this is just a bump on the journey. Every time we face a personal setback and do something boneheaded ourselves we seek forgiveness from her, practice godly submission after the pattern Paul laid out here for us, commit to pruning out the bad in us while nurturing the good, and remember that the pain we feel inside as we make necessary changes to who we are has a purpose. There are days this will be harder than others. Ladies, it’s hard to follow someone’s lead when you don’t like him very much. Guys, it’s hard to love and make sacrifices for someone you don’t think has any respect for you. Yet we do because our submission isn’t chiefly to them, it’s to God in Christ who has already established the pattern for us to follow. And that pattern is one of humble submission to the people around us. Getting marriage right takes submission. It’s hard…but it’s worth it. And if you’ll come back next week as we wrap up the series we’ll talk about the virtue we need to get it done.