Sermon Notes

Ephesians 5:22-33 Part 3 May 28, 2000
Walking Wisely: Roles in Marriage

In 5th Grade gym class one of my favorite games was dodgeball. Armed with red rubber balls, the class divided into two sides. The cowards sought protection by using their own classmates as shields; the bold and daring would run toward the front hoping to become a human target. But the game always got interesting when our gym teacher would toss out a second and then a third ball onto the floor. When that happened, you couldn’t keep your attention on the one ball. You may successfully dodge the first or even the second, but then, out of the blue would come the third, striking you squarely on the solar plexus sending you crashing to the floor and out of the game. This morning is the third ball.

Over the past two weeks we’ve examined what the Apostle Paul said, under divine inspiration, regarding Christian marriage. But the first ball laid the foundation for marriage as we looked at the definition found in Genesis 2:24 which Paul quotes in verse 31. Then came the second ball as we examined what it means to be one flesh, the need for marriages to demonstrate the cleansing and caring for one another which is a part of biblical unity. That ball made the "game" a bit more interesting, but that too did not deal with the passage most people gravitate toward as they discuss this passage. But this morning is the third ball, so be prepared as we examine that which is so hard for some to swallow. This morning we will look at the issue of submission and headship.

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.

23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.

24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her

26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,
27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church--

30 for we are members of his body.

31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh."

32 This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church.

33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Some have problems with this passage because Paul seems antiquated, that for us to even consider it shows that we are hopelessly out of touch with reality. Rather, the controversy is due much more to the fact that Scripture critiques culture. Ephesians 5 calls on the carpet both modern issues of individual freedom as well as traditional conceptions of human order.

In the society Paul wrote to, where the roles of men and women were very set and determined, these words seemed to challenge the authority. This passage was viewed as subversive, overturning the traditional order of male dominance. In our culture, though, to talk about submission is countercultural because such an idea appears synonymous with "oppression," "subjugation," or "dominance." In discussing the subject, one runs the risk of being misunderstood and possibly vilified. The problem is compounded for the passage has been perverted and abused by disordered and sinful men. God's holy Word in the hands of a religious fool can do immense harm. We’ve seen "couch potatoes" who order their wives and children around like the Grand Sultan of Morocco, adulterous misogynists with the domestic ethics of "Jabba the Hut" who cow their wives with Bible verses about submission, insecure men whose wives do not dare go to the grocery store without permission, who even tell their wives how to dress. But the fact that evil, disordered men have perverted God's Word is no reason to throw it out. (Hughes, Ephesians 181-182)

In response to the improper use of God’s Word, some have swung the pendulum to the other extreme, where they obliterate any distinction between men and women. Maleness and femaleness is nothing different than the color of one’s eyes as gender distinctions melt into an androgyny of sameness. Gender is only a fluke of biology and has nothing to say about being bearers of God’s image in our maleness and femaleness.

This passage forces us to wrestle with the questions of gender and identity unlike few others in God’s Word. But in grappling with these issues we can have a clearer, better appreciation of who we are and how we relate to one another. The question this passage raises and which I want us to grapple with this morning is this: Is there something unique in being male, in being female, not so much in what we do, but in how we approach life, in how we live and think so that in marriage a powerful lesson is brought to our attention about our need for someone outside of ourselves to make us what we need to be?

Let’s be honest; there are differences between men and women. People notice, but don’t want to talk about it. Comedians make their livelihood off those differences. The popularity of the bestseller a few years back, Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, illustrates the point that people see differences all the time. What is more, those differences are transcultural.

Pediatric psychologists and anthropologists have commented on the universality of the fact that when boy babies come up to an obstacle, they push it over. Girl babies on the other hand go around it. Who teaches them that? Boy babies prefer a lower complexity of stimuli and girl babies like a higher. At six months, when girls hear jazz their hearts beat louder; boys ignore it.

Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan, in her book, In a Different Voice, summarized her research by concluding that when men and women have the same job they go about it differently. Men see themselves as maturing as they separate; women see themselves maturing as they attach. Men see maturity as independence and making an impact; women see maturity as they attach themselves and they invite one another into networks where they become inter-dependent. Men have the gift of independence and women the gift of interdependence.

Back to the Beginning

To understand the differences and why Paul makes the statements he does about husbands and wives, we have to go back to creation, to Genesis 2. There, in 2:18, in the perfection of creation we are told that there is something wrong. Adam is alone.

There we get the first hint of the incompleteness of man; there is something he lacks which must be supplied from outside of himself. What should come as a surprise is that perfect communion with God was not what was needed. In the Garden, before the entrance of sin into the world, the only thing that was not good was that Adam was alone. God then sets Adam on a task of self discovery: he is to name the animals. By doing what he was created to do, he finds his life is still empty.

Ever wonder why this is here? Was God so tired from the last six days of creating that He needed a break, that He ran out of ideas and thought it best to let Adam do some of the work here? No. Naming in the ancient world was more than slapping on a label; it meant you were shaping, taking charge. When God comes to Adam to name the animals, it is his job to bring order out of something wild, to have an impact, shape them, take over, take charge of the world and take formlessness and bring order to that which is otherwise wild. But in the midst of this work, Adam finds no satisfaction; the vacant hole is still there. There is nothing suitable in all creation to meet his needs; what is more, even the act of taking dominion of the earth (something God commanded Adam to do, which was good) was not enough. What Adam needed was a helper.

What do we mean by a helper? If we go with our first inclination from the English word we will have trouble.

We think of a helper in the context of weakness, as in "Daddy’s little helper." It is used of the child who can’t really do the work of an adult, so his or her job is to hold the hammer. A helper is an assistant and we all know assistants are second class, a step below the person in charge. But that is not what this word means. The word for helper is used not of an accessory, an aide which is expendable. Rather the word "helper" is applied most often to God.

In Exodus 18:4 Eliezer name is explained: "God (El) is my helper (ezer)." In Deuteromony 33:29 the people are reminded that they are saved by the Lord who is called their "shield and helper and your glorious sword." In 1 Samuel 7:12 we are told that Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, "Thus far has the LORD helped us." (Remember that the next time we sing Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Throughout the Psalms David calls the Lord "my helper." (Psalm 20:2; 30:10; 54:4)

A helper is someone who has power and resources that you don’t have. When Eve was created as Adam’s helper that tells us that Adam had deficiencies that Eve does not have. She has power and resources he does not have.

I can help Jenny with social studies, with history, with literature, with Bible, for I (at this time in my life) know more than she does. But I can’t help her with Geometry, Trig or Calc. I don’t have it to help in those areas. But there is another side to help and this is the secret to what femininity is. If I know more than Jenny about history then I can help her, but there are two ways to use that power. I can use it by bringing myself under her and enable her to empower herself to do it herself. Or I can replace her with my power. I can do it for her. But am I helping then?

This basis is very important if we are going to understand what Paul means by submission. Submission has nothing to do with inherent inferiority; rather it has everything to do with possessing something the other lacks.

What is that "thing"? The text doesn’t tell us. This is not about what men do and women do. Rather, Eve being Adam’s helper serves to make him complete. How the wife completes the husband and how the husband completes the wife may well depend on that wife and that husband.

Certainly there are aspects to maleness and femaleness which we can note. By and large men are fact based, women emotive. Men tend toward independence and women interdependence. (Guys don’t go to the restroom en mass!) Guys want to do; women talk. Few men will want to talk about their relationships with others. If a husband wants to annoy his wife all he needs to do the next time she is facing some relationship problem is listen attentively and when there is a pause in the conversation, tell her how to fix the problem. Guys, she is not the transmission on a ’69 Malibu!

When you add the variety of gifts and abilities between the husband and wife, the sum is greater than the parts. It is then you have completeness, just as in a fine piece of music, you must have a theme and counter theme. The beauty of the music will be heard as the notes complement one another, even if their lines move in opposite directions. A simple melodic line is made richer by other notes that move in other directions.

The commands in Ephesians 5

How does this information help us understand what Paul is saying in Ephesians 5? The call for submission to the husband acknowledges the complementary nature of marriage. Each part adds to the other. The husband and wife are to complement one another, and to assume that their roles are interchangeable, are negotiable, is to create confusion.

Submission, the placing oneself at the disposal of another, yielding to the other, is the command given to the wife. Notice it is not all women to all men. Nor is it unconditional authority, for the "in everything" of verse 24 is modified by "as to the Lord" in verse 22. Just as we are all called to submit to each other in verse 21, that submission is done as a reverence for Christ. That does not mean, however, that we do every and anything others desire. Submission is always in the context of what God commands.

"...submission does not lessen believers' standing, it confirms their place. Christians' responsibilities vary, their value does not. To conclude otherwise is to reason that Christ became an inferior in the Godhead when he submitted himself to the Father, or that the Spirit deserves less glory because he fulfills the purposes of the Son. By his Trinitarian nature our God has made it abundantly clear that an equality of value does not require an identity of roles." (Modern Reformation, Chapell Mar/Apr ’95)

"Wives submit" does not mean wives do not participate in the decision-making process of the marriage. The perception of the Victorian home, the little wifey model where the husband makes all the decisions and she runs errands, smiles, takes care of the kids, is not what this passage is saying. That perception has no idea of mutual completion, of complementing one another. How does completion work? It involves conflict, discussion. It is hard work, where both are involved. There is to be concensus; what if there is no agreement?

What does submission mean if you can’t agree? Let the husband break the tie, then she defers. The other option is seen in what may be called an Egalitarian marriage. If you can’t agree, then there's no decision. But that is impossible. To not make decision is to give the power to one or the other. To not decide is to decide. How do you decide who decides? You have to have some way, in those relatively rare instances where, although you are one flesh, you are of two minds, to know what is going to happen then. How will you make a decision? You need some way of approaching the situation and Scripture says, in those instances, it is the husband’s prerogative.

The desire for the reversal of roles may seem to some to be good, but what lies behind it may belie a lack of unity in the marriage.

A journalist had done a story on gender roles in Kuwait, several years before the Gulf War. She noted in the article that women customarily walked about ten feet behind their husbands. She returned to Kuwait recently and observed that the men now walked several yards BEHIND their wives. She approached one of the women and said, "This is marvelous. What progress!" Then she asked, "What enabled women here to achieve this reversal of roles?" The Kuwaiti woman said, "Land mines." That’s not what we are talking about here!

What about the men? What is expected of husbands? Love sounds first.

But just because the wife is to submit to her husband does not give the husband a right to act like a petty tyrant around the house. In fact, he is not to be a tyrant at all. If the wife's standard in the marriage is the very high standard of her love for and submission to Jesus Christ, the man's standard is to be even higher. He is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. No woman will have much trouble submitting to a man who loves like that. No good woman will struggle hard against a man who is willing to die for her. (Boice Ephesians 200)

One wife rightly told her husband, "Dear, I know that you are willing to die for me; you have told me that many times. But while you are waiting to die, could you just fill in some of the time vacuuming the living room?"

Notice here the reflexive nature of the command.

It's wives respect your husbands, not husbands demand the respect of your wives. The only thing a man is to do is to love. The implications of this are that husbands are entitled to headship as they are loving their wives sacrificially. It is not something you demand, but only receive. There is no allowance for oppression here, nor placing of the wife underfoot. This is about sacrificing in light of Christ’s sacrifice for us.

To the husband is given the authority for the sacrificial responsibility of biblical headship that is designed to lead a family in the paths of God. To the wife is committed the nurture and care to support him so that he can carry out these responsibilities. Each has responsibility for the other to the end that the family unit as a whole is whole and healthy before God. Note this goal is much clearer than a specific set of behaviors imposed on every couple despite differing personalities, gifts, and situations. We are not obligated by some simplistic imposition that determines who takes the garbage out, who washes dishes, or how many hours outside of the home a spouse may work or play without crossing some definite biblical threshold of marital correctness.

The responsibilities of marriage are determined at the deepest levels of the Christian heart, and call for the most diligent, honest, conscientious questions of self-examination. The husband must not only ask, "Am I leading my family to a better knowledge of God?" but also, "Is my leadership self-serving or sacrificial?"

Similarly, the wife must not only ask, "Do my actions, words, and attitudes enable my husband to lead my family to a better knowledge of God?" but also, "Have I truly in everything submitted my life to this highest priority?"

These are questions that cannot be answered by arbitrary, cultural, or merely traditional role assignments regarding such things as who gets to talk first, who writes the checks, or who gets to drive. The inappropriateness of culturally imposed rules is obvious when we understand that submission (in addition to requiring the pouring of oneself into the completion of another) involves the exercising of gifts for the glory of another. (Modern Reformation, Chapell Mar/Apr ’95)

Who is the only one who can complete us?

It would be a tremendous mistake when discussing marriage to miss the central core of what marriage is to picture. It would be a mistake, because for too many who work so hard at their marriages, who desperately desire to be married, fail to realize that marriage is but the picture. The reality of completeness comes not in the form of a husband or a wife. It is found in Christ. In light of what we’ve seen over these past three weeks have you seen Christ in a different light?

Just as you can picture a man falling head over heels in love with a woman, how he is ravished with her beauty, how she is on his mind constantly, you can get a glimpse how Christ views you as His Bride. Christ is not an indifferent groom, but one whose existence is geared toward one thing: making sure His Bride is holy and blameless. His passion for His Beloved is beyond any human desire. His delight is found in you.

What is more, His love is a love unlike anything we can ever imagine.

His love is always "in spite of." Despite our flaws, despite our lovelessness, despite our adulterous thoughts and actions, He is committed to love us to the point of His death, securing our hand in marriage. Our completion is found in Him; our identity is made complete as we are covered by the wedding gown He purchased for us by His own blood.

As you gather a glimpse of Christ’s love for you, the extent to which He went to make you His very own, as you grapple with the implications of His love and our response to Him, now let that translate into how you respond to one another, how you seek to serve your spouse, how you look toward marriage and encourage those you know who are married. May Christ and His Bride be reflected in our homes as we live lives of submission and love.

(Much of this material was adapted from a series of sermons by Timothy Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, NYC in September and October of 1991)

Sermon Notes