October 21, 2012

A Model Marriage

So this morning we are beginning a new series.  Before I get to that, though, I want to say that you guys (that’s Midwestern for “ya’ll,” by the way) have some great ideas.  I was right that there are some idea folks in this room.  I have already started to have people share some ideas with me for how we can establish an intentional presence in Midway.  I have also had the opportunity to hear back from my main contact with the Boy Scouts about some ways we can be more intentional there.  These focus mostly on service opportunities at big events in order to free the leaders up to focus on leading and not on issues of set-up and tear-down.  All of this, by the way, fits squarely within the sights of our goal of serving unconditionally.  If I keep going on this, though, you’re going to get two sermons today.  The real trick is that I just prepared one so the freebie could be interesting.  Let’s move on to the new stuff.

As I said, this morning we are going to begin a new series called Married Well.  The reality is that for most adults, marriage is a huge part of our life.  Certainly not everyone gets married and it is even more certain that not everyone stays married, but for the vast majority of us, marriage impacts our lives at some point in one way or another.  Even if you’re not currently married, you might be someday again.  But if even that’s not the case, you probably have kids or grandkids who are themselves going to be married one day and you are in a position from which you can influence how they think about marriage and the kind of partner they are going to seek for marriage.  All of this is to say: whether you are married, were married, or have the chance to impact someone who will be married someday, this is a topic relevant to all of our lives.

It is furthermore relevant because being married well is hard.  I said last week when talking about discipleship requiring involvement in someone else’s life that this makes discipleship messy.  In the same way and for the same reasons, marriage is often messy.  Marriage takes us to a place of involvement in another person’s life in which they know all our junk whether we want them to our not.  And when someone knows all of our junk, the great danger is that they might not like what they find.  The problem with this is that if we don’t have the proper belief framework about marriage as a starting point for these journeys of self-exploration (for the “one flesh” principle from Genesis 2 suggests that learning about our spouses is the same thing as learning about ourselves), it is far too easy in a culture with easy, no-fault divorce laws to head for the exit rather than pushing through with grace.  As a matter of fact, driving down the Boulevard in Colonial Heights the other day I saw a business sign right near the Bank of America that read: “Simply & Easy Divorce.”  Indeed, most research today shows that the divorce rate in the U. S. is on the rise.  Actually, I think some recent studies are showing a falling divorce rate, but this is the result not of more people staying married but of more people not getting married in the first place.  You heard that right: marriage is so difficult that more and more young people who have watched their parents’ marriages fail in one way or another are opting instead for a pseudo-marriage state of affairs called “cohabitation” or “living together” which in reality has none of the most important personal and social advantages of its real counterpart while maintaining most of the drawbacks.  Most studies today—and not just those done by Christians—show pretty conclusively that cohabitation, even cohabitation with the intent to marry someday, does a great deal of harm and very little actual positive good in the lives of those who pursue it.  But that’s the subject of another conversation.

All of this brings us to a point of conclusion: Marriage is perhaps the single most profound human relationship and an important shaper of the culture and so as a people committed to shaping the culture of our community in such a way that it comes to more closely resemble the culture of the kingdom of God, it is worth our time taking a look at what the Bible—which is our primary source for understanding the kingdom—has to say about doing this vital relationship right.  And as it turns out, the Bible has quite a lot to say.  Let me add this next part, then, by way of disclaimer.  We are going to focus our attention for the next few weeks leading up to the season of Advent (with a brief exception to take some time the Sunday before the election to talk about that) on several different things the Bible has to say about marriage.  We’ll look at what it means for two to become one flesh, the right kind of attitude to have toward our spouses, the approach to communication that will keep it helpful, and finally the kind of belief framework about our spouses that will result in the best marriage environment possible.  The reason we are going to stay so focused on what the Bible has to say regarding all these matters is twofold.  First, the Bible is our primary source of truth as followers of Jesus and so it should be the place we look to first and foremost in all these matters.  Second, I’m barely 30 years old (although I don’t look a day over 29 even when I forget to shave) and my own marriage is not quite seven and a half years old.  There are folks in this room who have been married multiple decades longer than I’ve been alive.  Who I am to tell you veterans how to do marriage?  I ought to bring all of you up here and sit down in the pews myself.  No, for the next six weeks we’re not going to talk about my thoughts on how to be married well, we’re going to talk about what the Bible has to say about it.  And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that I owe intellectual debts to some other people who don’t even know I exist.  In preparing for and even developing the idea for this series I am indebted to both Tim Keller (who actually began his ministry in Hopewell before planting what is now a megachurch in Manhattan) and Andy Stanley whose thoughts on this and a number of other matters have influenced me profoundly.

With all of that said, let’s get down to the task at hand for this morning.  If we are going to talk about marriage, we need to start with a baseline.  We need a place to start that establishes a firm foundation on which the rest of our thoughts can rest securely.  It needs to be a place of firm footing capable of holding up a great deal of other structure and framework.  I think we actually find this in what is probably the chief teaching on marriage by the Apostle Paul.  Some of you might be able to guess that this comes from the letter to the church in Ephesus, a few verses over from where we were a month ago.  In Ephesians 5:22-33 Paul lays out his vision for what marriage ought to look like.  Admittedly, for a lot of folks, these are hard words.  This is another one of those places where the Bible talks about wives being in a position of subordination or submission to their husbands.  As we have talked about recently for three weeks in 1 Corinthians (with another hard section coming soon) and a couple of weeks this summer when we journeyed through 1 Peter, this kind of language is not terribly popular in our culture.  The very word “submit” for most of us by itself brings all kinds of negative connotations to mind.  The difficulties are merely magnified when the word is applied to a certain segment of the population, particularly a segment that forms its own political interest group: women.  Yet, we must not let the difficulty of a single part of a passage of Scripture keep us from appreciating the wisdom of the whole.  We need not lose the theological forest for the interpretive trees.  In Ephesians 5 Paul’s command to wives to submit to their own husbands as to the Lord is a function of a much larger vision for marriage.  Having given two full weeks to the place of submission in the marriage relationship this summer, this morning we are going to focus on the bigger picture which is this: here Paul lays out a model for our marriages.  Friends, the model for our marriages, the foundation on which our marriage relationships need to rest if we are to be married well, is Christ and the Church.  The model for our marriages is Christ and the Church.

If you have your Bibles, open them up to Ephesians 5 and let’s see how and why this is.  I’ll be reading from the Message this morning because I think Peterson’s wording really captures the heart of Paul’s emphasis here.  If you can follow along with me, I’ll start reading at v. 22.

“Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ.  The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing.  So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands.  Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting.  Christ’s love makes the church whole.  His words evoke her beauty.  Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness.  And that is how husbands ought to love their wives.  They’re really doing themselves a favor—since they’re already ‘one’ in marriage.  No one abuses his own body, does he?  No, he feeds and pampers it.  That’s how Christ treats us, the church, since we are part of his body.  And this is why a man leaves father and mother and cherishes his wife.  No longer two, they become ‘one flesh.’  This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it all.  What is clearest to me is the way Christ treats the church.  And this provides a good picture of how each husband is to treat his wife, loving himself in loving her, and how each wife is to honor her husband.”

So then, read in full context, what is Paul doing here?  Is he trying to further establish the patriarchal system in the earliest days of the church that so many conclude is set in place in the Old Testament in which men are favored over women?  If he is he does a pretty terrible job of it.  If he were trying to do that why wouldn’t he just come out and say: “Wives, you are not as important as your husbands.  You need to submit to them because they know better and you’re not smart enough to make it on your own.”  I mean, this is the way much of human culture has thought throughout history.  Paul’s words here and in other places have been used to justify this belief framework for a long time.  And yet, seen in context, it’s painfully obvious that this isn’t what Paul’s trying to communicate at all.  Keep in mind the broader context of Ephesians.  Paul spent three chapters talking about the high calling all (that’s male and female) believers have in Christ.  These words come about halfway through the section of the letter in which Paul is trying to explain how believers should live in light of this calling.  In the words that come in the middle of chapter 4 which we examined a month ago Paul makes very clear that the church is only going to operate as it should when every part (that’s male and female) is operating as it should be.  With all of this equality language forming the contextual framework for these words, it doesn’t make any sense to treat them as if they were suddenly misogynistic in their intent.  Paul isn’t saying anything at all about the value of women or men here, but rather He’s saying everything about the kind of model Christians have for their marriages.  The model for our marriages is Christ and the Church.

Forgetting the ensuing explanation for a moment, listen again at how Peterson words v. 22.  This is often the place where people stop and throw in the towel on the whole exercise because of its cultural connotations, but I think Peterson accurately captures Paul’s heart here.  Listen again: “Wives, understand and support your husbands…” That sounds quite a bit more culturally palatable than, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” doesn’t it?  And yet it’s saying the same thing, merely with more culturally suitable words.  But, such behavior should be a given in marriage.  Whether you are a follower of Jesus or not, if you want your marriage to work, you have to be understanding and supportive of your spouse.  That’s a given.  What makes Paul’s words here notable is the next part: “…in ways that show your support for Christ.”  Now that’s something entirely different from how we are taught to think culturally.  Culturally speaking, Paul’s would have written something more like, “Wives, understand and support your husbands so they will treat you as you deserve to be treated.”  Or perhaps, “Wives, understand and support your husbands because this will play out in your favor in the end.”  Or perhaps even, “Wives, understand and support your husbands because you owe them this for working so hard to pay the bills.”  Yet what Paul actually does say is light years different from this.  All of those and other similar statements put the focus on us.  Paul takes it off of us and puts it where it should be, at least in the marriages of followers of Jesus.  In other words, for Christian wives, their behavior toward their husbands should flow from their commitment to Christ and nothing else.  If anything else is the primary motivating factor in determining how you behave toward your husband, trouble is going to come.  After all, the model for our marriages is Christ and the Church.

Pushing forward just a bit to finish this idea, though, Paul does rhetorically locate Christian wives in the place of the Church and husbands in the place of Christ in this model.  Does this somehow demean or undermine their value?  Well, is the Church devalued because it submits to the authority of Christ?  Does the Church give over all of its decision-making capabilities to Christ?  Is the Church restricted to a single mode or model of operation because of its submission to Christ?  No, no, and no!  Does this mean the husband is somehow more important or valuable in the relationship?  By no means!  As a wise professor I had noted in one of his books, the leadership of the husband in the marriage relationship, on which the Bible seems pretty clear, says nothing about whether or not a woman should work outside the home.  It says nothing about her value in the relationship.  It says nothing about the way the couple makes decisions together.  Instead, it speaks volumes about the spiritual responsibility the husband has to see his wife and children become fully who God designed them to be.  Indeed, Paul has very little to say about physical or situational leadership here and a great deal to say about spiritual leadership.  Husbands, if you are not leading your family in pursuing a relationship with Christ, in worshiping God for who He is, you’re missing a key element of your duties as a husband.  Husbands who abdicate spiritual matters to their wives faithlessly reject perhaps the most important duty they were given by God and relegate their marriages to look little different from those of the non-Christians around them.  They are far more likely to abuse a misinterpretation of Paul’s words here, rejecting the model he actually laid out.  The model for our marriages is Christ and the Church.

While we’re on the subject of husbands, let’s turn our attention there.  As with the wives, Paul begins addressing Christian husbands by making a statement that any husband should be able to embrace: “Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives…”  Now, admittedly, some husbands who have been in the game very long have a pretty narrow definition of what “going all out” includes, but certainly there aren’t any husbands who would reject the ideal here.  And yet, as with the wives again, it’s what Paul says next that’s so important: “…exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting.”  The model for our marriages is Christ and the Church.  Husbands are to love their wives exactly after the model of Christ and the Church.  I think there’s only one sufficient response to this: yikes!   How did Christ go all out in His love for the Church?  Well, He died for her.  There was no act of service beneath Him.  There was no task He “just wouldn’t do.”  Getting domestic for a minute: Husbands, do you have anything around the house that you just won’t do?  Is it something your wife really likes doing?  If not (and it’s probably not), could you learn how to do it or start doing it every now and then as a way to go all out in your love for her?

And yet, focusing on practical, domestic issues, while worthwhile, runs the risk of missing the bigger point here.  The model for our marriages is Christ and the Church.  Jesus doesn’t do much house cleaning for the Church… not physical house cleaning at least.  (That in itself doesn’t exempt husbands, by the way.)  Paul’s further explanation here gives really important context to his initial statement.  Because of the love of Christ, the Church is made fully into what she was designed to be.  She is brought to a place of fully reflecting the splendor and glory of Christ.  When husbands go all out in love for their wives, this is what happens.  “But she won’t follow me!” someone might protest.  “She isn’t interested in being involved or growing spiritually.”  First, it isn’t often the case that wives are less interested in spiritual matters than their husbands.  But, and second, have you established yourself as someone actually worth her time following?  Jesus has involved Himself deeply in the life of the Church and gave His life in order that she might start down the road of becoming fully what He established her to be in the first place.  Husbands, have you established your moral and spiritual authority in your household?  Or have you abdicated it through compromise, misplaced priorities, and un-Christlike behavior toward your wife and kids?  Would you follow you?  Be honest.  The model for our marriages is Christ and the Church.  Are you living in such a way that this model is even within the realm of possibility for your family?

Well that all lays out our marriage model in terms of understanding and appreciating its usefulness from both sides of the marriage line, but there’s one more question to answer.  It’s actually a pretty self-centered question, but we all ask it all the same.  What’s in all of this for me?  What I am going to get from pursuing this model in the context of my family?  What will this do for me?  Well, in a word, everything.  As Paul points to here and we are going to talk about in a fair bit more detail next Sunday, in marriage, his and hers is gone.  Ours remains.  The two individuals are knitted together in a spiritual, emotional, relational, intellectual, and even physical way such that there is one interdependent person with two centers of consciousness in a manner that has echoes of the Holy Trinity itself.  Taking up the relationship between Christ and the Church as your model in marriage is of immense benefit to you.  If I go all out in my love for Lisa such that she becomes fully who God designed her to be, I am one of the primary beneficiaries of this.  If she is a fitting reflection of Christ in all things then she is going to be able to love me in ways that most minister to my own needs.  The reverse is true as well.  In fact, to strive for anything less than this model is an act of self-hatred.  And as Paul asks: “No one abuses his own body, does he?”  Not unless there’s something fundamentally wrong with him.  In this case, the fundamental flaw would be a lack of relationship Christ.  This is why I have said in every wedding I’ve done that apart from Christ no marriage can be fully what its members hope it will.  This is why the model for our marriages is Christ and the Church.  Nothing less will do.

Now, is this counter-cultural?  You bet your life it is.  This model throws the functional equality which our culture currently prizes most dearly right out the window.  Husbands: you are not the same as your wives.  Wives: you are not the same as your husbands.  You were designed and built for different things.  Trying to do the things the other was designed to do will only lead to frustration and heartache.  Indeed, the Church is not the same as Christ and Christ is not the same as the Church.  They have different roles in the world.  Now, this doesn’t say anything about your respective values.  Those are absolutely equal and secure in Christ.  But this morning we’ve been talking about neither role nor value.  We’ve been talking about model.  We’ve been talking about the model which, when followed, will result in our marriages resting on the kind of foundation that will give strength and security to everything else we do.  The model for our marriages is Christ and the Church.  It is not anything less than this.  In fact, any other model will lead to ruin and failure (and there are many ways a marriage can fail that don’t end in legal divorce).  The model for our marriages is Christ and the Church.  With this model in mind, then, for four out of the next five weeks, we’ll look at some applications of it that all have the potential to transform our marriages into something entirely more like God had in mind for them at the start.  I hope you’ll be here as we explore all of this together.