February 27, 2011

The Right Milieu for Marriage

This morning we finally come to the end of our series on love.  Thus, by the end of the sermon we should have love totally figured out, right?  Maybe not so much.  What we do have, however, is a better understanding of what love is than perhaps we started out with three weeks ago.  If you can remember back that far, three weeks ago we took a look at Paul’s masterpiece on love in 1 Corinthians 13.  This is, of course, the great passage on marriage and how to have the best one possible…oh wait; not that at all.  No, the famous “Love Chapter” is a treatise on the medium in which God designed the spiritual gifts to operate.  If love is the foundation for our efforts to minister to each other and the world around us in the name of Christ then we can’t not be successful.  If it is not then there is no chance in the world we’ll find success.  Of course, such a bold statement demands that we have a definition of love solid enough to bear such weight.  And so we devised just such a definition.  Who remembers it?  Everyone say it with me: Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God created them to be.  At its core, this is what love is.  This is why God can be legitimately defined as love: because He works intentionally to see us become fully who He created us to be.  All of our feelings of preference for this or that and amorousness for one another are not, at their core, love.  This is because love is not a feeling.  It is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God created them to be.

Moving on from there, we spent the previous two weeks talking about ways that we get love wrong.  In the first example from a couple of weeks ago, we talked about our culture’s inclination to define love as sex.  We said that when this happens, sex becomes something other than God designed it to be.  Instead of a beautiful expression of an intentional decision between a husband and wife to each see the other become more fully who God created them to be, it becomes a mere animalistic satisfaction of carnal desire.  And all the amorous feelings in the world can’t change that fact.  Furthermore, when in allowing this degradation of sex to occur we make someone else the object of our lust, we cease to be able to love them because they have been reduced in our minds and hearts to an object of desire, not a person uniquely crafted in God’s image.  Well, if this was the more generalized misappropriation of love, last week we talked about one specific case.  Together we tackled the tough, emotional issue of homosexuality.  We determined then that regardless of the social stigmas involved simply because some people seek fulfillment of their need for love and sexual fulfillment in members of the same gender does not give us reason to fail at love.  We must still be intentional in calling them to be fully who God created them to be.  The assumption undergirding this love is the Biblical view of homosexuality.  Folks who seek satisfaction of desire in this way are committing a sin in that they are not living up to God’s standard of heterosexual monogamy in the context of marriage.  They may have struggled with such sin-twisted desires since birth, but this no more makes it right than it does for the person drawn to alcohol since birth to justifiably become an alcoholic.  This, by the way, in spite of the attention we give it, is a microcosm of a larger rejection of God as God.  If these are folks God has not called to glorify Him through the covenant of marriage (meaning simply they will glorify Him in another way, not that they will do it less), then our job is to love them by calling them to perfect celibacy, purity of thought, and by encouraging them to be driven by something higher than mere fulfillment of physical desire.

All of this, then, leads us to this morning.  As promised when we began this series, we are going to wrap up this morning by taking a look at the place of love in the relationship which is, more than any other save that with Christ, built on a foundation of Biblically-defined love: marriage.  Well, when it comes to passages in the Bible on marriage, there are really only four in the New Testament.  There is one in 1 Corinthians 7, but there Paul is actually talking about sex in marriage.  A second is in 1 Peter 3.  But there, Peter is addressing spouses (particularly women) whose partners are non-believers.  It’s good stuff, but that doesn’t apply to most of the married folks here.  This brings us to the last two which are found in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, respectively.  Of these, the passage in Colossians 3 is really the Cliff’s Notes version of the passage in Ephesians 5 so we will spend the remainder of our time there this morning.

Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:22-33 are actually some of the more controversial he writes in our current cultural context.  Ever since the rise of radical feminism in the 1960s, words like these have been used to paint all of Scripture and even Scripturally-sensitive believers as hopelessly, irredeemably chauvinistic.  (And as evidence, a popular four-volume Greek-English dictionary written in the 1950s did not even include the word submission whereas the 2005 abridged version of the same dictionary includes a relatively lengthy article on it.)  Paul opens the passage with a command that uses one of the dirtiest words in modern English vernacular.  This is a word which prompts fear and anger and gnashing of teeth in many who deem themselves able to successfully navigate the trials of this life without the help of anyone, particularly an overbearing, dispiriting, even abusive husband.  In our culture where the driving ethos is a mandate to look out for numero uno and never debase oneself to serve anyone, this is not a welcome word.  And what is this horrifying, terrible, no-good, very bad word you ask?  Submission.  But before you rise en masse to head for the door in protest of my using such a dirty word, hear me out, hang on until we get to the love part of the passage, and you might be surprised at what Paul is actually saying here.  Marriage is not to be a life-taking thing, but a life-giving one.  Submission and love both have a place in marriage.  In order to understand this place, we have to have an example to follow.  The problem is there are no earthly relationships that can do this but that they are reflections of the one that can: the relationship of Christ with His church.  Indeed, the mirror for marriage is Christ and His church.  If you have your Bibles nearby find Ephesians 5:22.

“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 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, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.  ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.  However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

With your throwing tomatoes still in check, let’s talk for a minute about what Paul is saying here.  Paul is arguing that in order for a marriage to be everything God intended it to be, men and women need to take on the roles for which they were created in the beginning, before sin entered the world.  In this, women as wives were created to take on a role of submissiveness.  Once again, let me urge you to hold your tomatoes, keep your seats, and let’s see the full picture of what Paul is saying.  Too often people get stuck on the word “submission” and completely tune out the rest of the text.  Let’s tune back in.  Women are not commanded to be submissive to every man—as would have been expected in Paul’s culture—but only to their husbands.  Furthermore, Paul’s understanding of submission is not blind, unthinking obedience as many today assume and as also would have been expected in Paul’s day.  And if that weren’t enough, wives are not commanded to submit to their husbands as their ultimate masters.  Submission is an active, loving decision to take on the humility of Christ in putting the needs of others ahead of your own.  Where we submit to anyone, we do it as if we are submitting to Jesus Himself.  And while there is certainly an aspect of obedience there, it is never unjustified, unearned, or unthinking.  It is instead a vibrant display of love and faith in His determination to lead us into life.  As we shall see in just a minute, this level of behavior is the expectation on husbands such that they become people who are worthy of submission.   When wives submit to their husbands as to the Lord they never go where Christ doesn’t also call them, instead, they use the gifts God has given them to see their husbands’ design fully realized.

The reason Paul offers for his call for wives to submit to their husbands is that husbands were created to be the head of their wives in the same way that Christ is the head of the church.  Indeed, the mirror for marriage is Christ and His church.  Now, when most of us hear that one person is pronounced the “head” over another, we naturally assume that the first person is somehow qualitatively superior to the second.  This is to be expected given the influence of this world on our thinking.  In the world, when one person is promoted over another it is because the first has some quality which is more desirable for the position than does the second.  Thus, the first person is superior to the second.  In the kingdom of God, however, where all people are viewed as possessing perfectly equal value, this is not the case.  Headship here is about role, not value.  For example, when two equal parties are trying to make a single decision and support opposite positions with no possibility of compromise, someone has to make the decision.  In the Biblical picture of marriage, the husband is appointed as head to make that decision.  In a sin-broken world, this poses all kinds of problems.  But, the world is not to be the mirror for our marriages, Christ and His church are.  And the Christ-centered husband acting as head does not necessarily make the decision he favors.  He humbles himself and makes the decision which will result in the family becoming more fully who God created them to be.  In other words, he makes the loving decision.  The submissive wife trusts that her husband is going to act in such a manner and lets him lead, trusting further that even if he does not, Christ will honor her obedience to His command and take care of her when her husband fails to do so.  Let me acknowledge here, though, that this is the ideal and in a broken world there are times and situations where this doesn’t hold including circumstances of abuse when it is best for a wife (or a husband) to get out of a situation in order to protect herself before trying to engage further with her husband.

Let me drive this home further: the assumption here is that the husband is a believing man who is genuinely seeking to lead his family to be more reflective of the image of Christ.  You and I know the reality is often far from this ideal.  Sometimes husbands are not worthy of the position of head and I believe that in some extreme instances God removes such a designation from him for a time.  But, simply because the ideal is not currently reality doesn’t give us reason to ignore its call.  Love demands otherwise.  Besides, the wife’s submission is a freely given gift that must start with her.  The husband must be careful to neither expect nor demand it.  He must only receive this gift with humble gratitude and handle it with great care; kind of like Jesus does when we submit to Him.  The mirror for marriage is Christ and His church.

Well, once Paul finishes addressing Christian wives, he turns his attention to Christian husbands.  Actually, he doesn’t simply turn his attention to them, he turns both barrels of his bazooka in their direction and begins firing away.  From a numerical standpoint, Paul addresses 39 words (in the Greek) to Christian wives.  He addresses over 120 words to Christian husbands—three times that necessary for the wives.  That should say something in and of itself.  Guys, there are times we need a lot more help than our wives at getting our position straight.   Also, our position carries with it a much greater authority and therefore expectation.  Whereas Christian wives are commanded to submit to their husbands after the model of Christ and His church, Christian husbands are commanded to love their wives (and not other women) after the same model.  As I said just a minute ago, this idea in itself should throw out any notions of submission here being a negative thing.  Simply because someone’s words have been corrupted doesn’t mean the words themselves were bad.

The natural question here is: how does Christ love the church?  Paul’s answer is pretty straightforward: He “gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”  That’s a pretty high calling.  I mean, our definition of love was a high enough calling in itself: to intentionally work to see someone else (in this case our spouse) become fully who God created them to be.  But this raised things to another level.  Think about what this is saying for a minute.  It’s actually pretty easy to say that we are going to love someone according to our definition, but this really puts it in perspective.  What does it mean to work intentionally to see someone else become fully who God created them to be?  It means that every decision we make with regard to that person is aimed at preparing them to stand before the throne of Christ one day completely unspoiled by the world, a fitting bride for the Bridegroom.  Let me tell you something: in Paul’s culture, if his command to wives to submit to their husbands was shocking, his command for husbands to love their wives would have blown people right out of their seats.  Of all the duties ascribed to a husband with regard to his family in that day, love was simply not on the list.  And yet here Paul makes it the primary essential.  This is so because the primary driving force behind our relationship with Christ is love.  That we have a relationship with Him at all is an effect of His love for us.  The mirror for marriage is Christ and His church.

Note well that the husband’s first duty is not to be the head over his wife even though he is.  Paul doesn’t say: “Husbands, lead your wives effectively as Christ leads the church.”  No, his first duty is to love her as Christ does His church.  Yet again, how does Christ do this?  Well, perhaps most notably, He gave His life for her.  Jesus was clear on this: there is no greater expression of love than that a person will lay down his life for another.  In applying this, however, we have to think beyond the obvious.  In some sense, being willing to take a bullet for someone else is easy.  There are lots of husbands who would give their life for their wife in a heartbeat, but they ignore her love needs all the rest of the time.  So what are some other ways to follow through on this?  This is important to think about because any failures we have in loving our wives are in fact failures in loving ourselves.  If we truly believe that husbands and wives are “one flesh” as God says they are, as is what happens to us in becoming Christ’s body—the bride of Christ—as the church, then we’ve got to not only think this through, but reevaluate constantly.

Husbands, perhaps we could love our wives by laying down the life of our ego.  How would we treat her if we really strove to put her needs ahead of ours?  Working to provide is a divinely-appointed duty of husbands, but the duty doesn’t end there.  What else could be done?  Make sure the laundry is done and the house is clean?  Learn to cook so she doesn’t always have to think of meals?  Take care of Sunday lunch once in a while so she doesn’t have to?  Make the emotional and mental sacrifice to remain fully engaged when we come home after a long day at work?  Take the kids off her hands to give her some “me” time?  Give her the face time she desires—that means sitting and listening with the TV and radio and internet and cell phone and house phone off.  Actively take care of the burden of spiritual leadership for the family (which is yours by design anyway) so she doesn’t have to?  Although this certainly does not go without exception, kids will generally be as committed to their relationship with Christ as they see you are and a commitment to Christ means more than simply coming to church on Sundays.  Finding ways to recognize her God-given gifts and providing encouragement and opportunities for her to pursue their development and use to the fullest extent possible?  Ultimately, every single thing we do must be aimed at building her up fully into the image God has created her to bear.  Anything less is quite simply a failure at love.  Anything less doesn’t live up to the standard of Christ’s love for His church.  The mirror for marriage is Christ and His church.

And lest you leave thinking wives are off the hook here, let me turn my attention to them for a moment.  Wives, I know the passage doesn’t tell you to love your husbands.  In fact, it only tells you to submit which is later defined primarily as respect.  But where do you think that submission comes from?  Why does the church submit to Christ?  Because she loves Him.  If your submission to your husband springs from anything other than your love for him—out of your desire to see him become fully who God created him to be—then it is not Biblical submission of the kind Paul mentions here.  It will ultimately reduce you to less than yourself and it will do the same to him.  In loving your husbands, consider seeking to pursue activities alongside him—just like women need “face time” men need “alongside time.”  Look for ways to encourage him to develop and use the gifts God has given him.  Be intentional about framing your submission so that he becomes a better leader of the household.  Not only will you benefit, but your kids will as well.  Never seek to tear him down in public or even in private when you’re out with just the girls (the same goes for husbands too here).  Release all the images of the man you want him to be and pray diligently for a vision of the man God wants him to be.  Then, through your godly, Christ-centered submission, seek to build him up into that man each and every day.  This is exactly how the church responds to Christ.  We seek to understand who He is and then commit ourselves to seeing Him fully recognized as such.  This is because the mirror for marriage is Christ and His church.

So then, drawing all of this together, we have come a long ways in the last four weeks.  We have come to understand that love is not a feeling, but an intentional commitment to see someone else become fully who God created them to be.  We have seen that we fail at love when we reduce another person to anything less than full humanity—be that an object of lust or an object of scorn.  We have also seen that love and sex are not the same thing and regardless of who we seek sexual fulfillment with, if it is not our opposingly gendered husband or wife, it is not right.  And finally this morning we have seen the place of love in our marriages.  Our definition of love does not change for marriage at all.  It only grows more acute.  Not only that, but it has an even greater potential for unimaginable success than it does anywhere else because it has the opportunity to be more consistently and constantly applied.  And the model for all of this is the relationship of Christ and His church.

Well, just like husbands and wives seek to see the other become fully who they were created by God to be after the pattern of the relationship of Christ and His church, this relationship is itself intended to bring all who share in it to completion in Christ’s image.  Our relationship with Christ as a church is designed to prepare us to be the bride of Christ.  This is a celebration which will one day culminate in the great marriage feast of the Lamb.  This morning we are going to close out the service by engaging in a celebration which is intended in part to be a preparation for this future, heavenly reality.  This celebration is, of course, the Lord’s Supper.  In this shadow of the feast to come, we are reminded of what it took to make the greater feast available to us.  It took an act of love, The act of love in fact, which set the tone for what love is.  God is so committed to our becoming fully who He created us to be that with great intentionality He sent His only begotten Son to live among us as fully one of us so that He could die to pay the price for our sins.  By this we are able to access the life of the kingdom in which, with the Spirit’s help, we can become our truest selves.  We can become the selves God created us to be in the beginning.  This we remember and celebrate this morning in the bread—symbolizing Christ’s broken—and in the juice—symbolizing Christ’s spilled and covenant-sealing blood.  As you are served by the deacons in a few minutes we’re going to eat and drink altogether as a body, as the bride of Christ.  All those who name the name of Christ as Lord and Savior are welcomed to join with us in this small feast.  Let us celebrate this act of love together and commit ourselves to living it out in our marriages and in the rest of our lives as well.  Deacons come on forward as I pray.