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military marriage

The "Submission Thing"

Ephesians 5: 21-33

By Dr. Al Hill, CAPT, CHC, USN (Ret)

If you've watched the news on television lately, you've probably seen the reporters talk about this poll or that. If it is your habit to sit down to a quiet meal at the normal dinner hour, the pollsters have probably called you on the phone. These are public opinion polls.

I would like to conduct a "private" opinion poll with you this morning. I will ask you a question and I would like you to consider which of two answers you prefer. This is a "private" opinion poll because I do not want you to share you opinion with me. Decide what you think and keep it to yourself-to yourself and God.

The question is this: Is the Bible merely inspirational-a source of heart-warming devotional thoughts...to "brighten your day and lighten your way"? Or is the Bible also, and pre-eminently, instructional-an authoritative guide to thinking and acting in accordance with God's will? If you are of the "Inspirational School," then you will be content to float from wonderful passage to wonderful passage, as the bee to spring blossoms, drawing sweet nectar where you find it, while ignoring those gardens where fragrant flowers do not grow. But if your Bible is the Word of God with divine authority still, then you must till row by row in the biblical garden and harvest every plant so that no nutritious food is neglected.

The Bible's opinion on this question is stated pretty clearly in

2 Timothy 3: 16-17:

"All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."

The Bible itself claims God's inspiration for every word in every verse in every book. Not every verse inspires, but every one instructs, and equips the submissive reader for all that God desires of him. Every passage is inspired by God and possesses God's authority.

And with that fact comes a problem.

If you're just looking for inspiration, you can simply ignore all the troublesome passages -the passages you don't like. But what do you do with the passages you don't like if God doesn't want them ignored? I'll give you an example. There is a passage from Paul's letter to the Ephesians 5:21-33 that fits the bill of troublesome, disliked, prefer-to-ignore scripture for many people. Listen to this!

Ephesians 5:21-33

"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

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

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-for we are members of his body. 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' This is a profound mystery-but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband."

Almost nobody today, inside the church or out, wants to take this passage seriously. But there it is; still in the Bible. Is it still "authoritative"? Or have we "outgrown" it? Are we too modern-too sophisticated-to take it seriously anymore?

If the Bible is the inspired word of God, why would God have left this passage in there? It's a source of ridicule from the secular world. It's just about the most attractive target of radical feminists and other enemies of Christianity desperate to ravage the Bible's moral and spiritual authority. The modern, secular, feminist-driven culture rails against the idea of wives submitting to their husbands in marriage: "Insane! Barbaric! Patriachal! Fascist!"

thinking woman

Now this is an interesting reaction when you consider their alternative. The secular folks promote a value system that encourages women to submit to any number of men outside of marriage. If a man wants to have sex with you, with no forethought or concern for the physical, emotional, medical, financial, or social consequences to you, let him, they say. Let him, whoever he is, use your body for his momentary pleasure with no expectation of responsibility for the results. Women are encouraged to put themselves at the mercy of selfishness, egotism, uncontrolled anger-and then rage about the damage men do.

With the epidemic of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and single parenting-or the callous encouragement to abort-the date rape and venereal diseases-the depression, debt, and shattered self-esteem, it's clear to see why the world would be so hard on a Christian model for marriage: their worldly way works so much better than God's. And you don't have to worry about God's will.

But speaking of God: Did God set marriage up the way Paul writes in Ephesians out of spite for women? Does the Christian God despise and devalue women as much as the world accuses the Christian Church of doing? The Gospel says, "No"-resoundingly! Jesus liberated women from the outdated straightjacket they wore consistently-everywhere and in every age-until Jesus. And everyday and everyplace since, every action by, for, and against women has been judged by the standard Jesus established for their fair and honorable treatment.

thinking man

"Well, maybe Jesus is okay and Paul's the one who has the problem with women."

Please note: At no time does Paul suggest that men are better than women-or brighter. Paul does not say that men make better leaders than women. He does suggest elsewhere that men are physically stronger, which is a reasonable and accurate generalization.

But in many other places, Paul refers to women as the spiritual equal of men and treats them as such. Paul says women are free and equal to men in Christ and before God-and he tells them to submit to their husbands.

Most people think this passage makes no earthly sense at all today. Of course, God has never been particularly concerned with or impressed by "earthly sense." All right, then, "Why would God make marriage to be this way?"

Let's consider the possibility that the passage merely looks outdated, intolerant, reactionary, and disgusting, but, in reality, remains the inspired word of God. As such, it would not only retain divine authority over us-it would also contain divine blessings for us-if we obey it. Is it possible that there is a deeper truth buried beneath what only seems to be foolishness? Paul says in First Corinthians 1" ...the foolishness of God is wiser than men...God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise...so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

This is God's way for marriage so that there will be no doubt that when it works, the glory will be God's and not yours-so that a successful marriage will be a miracle whose source can only be God.

Paul subordinates the purpose of marriage to the purpose of the Church. Now, do not interpret that to mean that all free time and every spare nickel is to be poured into your local church. It does mean that every marriage exists to strengthen the Church and to model to an ignorant, indifferent world what the Church is, and what God is doing with it in the world. Does the way you interact with your marriage partner-do the things you two devote your marriage to-promote the Christian community's impact for Christ in the world? Husbands and wives, you are the Church in your homes. You bring the Church here when you come here, and take it back with you when you go.

Unfortunately, most Christians and most churches in America today have, in practice, rejected this biblical model for marriage just about as completely as the secular world has.

This is God's way for marriage...so that a successful marriage will be a miracle whose source can only be God.

People may be Christians, committed in their personal lives to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, dedicated to bringing the power and influence of the Holy Spirit into their homes and the lives of their children, and still reject the biblical model for their marriage relationship. Too many Christian folks do the logic this way: "That 'submission in marriage'" thing is just so weird and outdated that it can't be taken seriously today. But surely we can make the secular model work because we are Christians. People who can't make "a-go-of" marriage must fail because they're trying to work the secular model without being Christians."

Wrong! To paraphrase the politicians: "It's the model, stupid!"

confused man

The generic secular model for marriage is broken. It's defective. It doesn't work. And the more you adopt the overall godless value system and perspective of modern culture-the more the moral and spiritual defects of our culture filter, unnoticed, into your personality and behavior-the quicker you will come to chaos and grief in your secular marriage, whatever the thickness of the Christian veneer you apply on the surface.

So let's get down to business and unpack "this submission thing," and see why it's still God's word and God's will.

First of all, please notice that at no point does Paul instruct husbands to force or demand submission from their wives. This one is strictly between God and the wife. Husbands are instructed to love their wives as Christ loves the Church-and there'll be more on that next Sunday. Bring the men who need to hear it.

Paul also tells all Christians in verse 21 to be subject to each other. And telling husbands once appears to be enough for them. But Paul decides to emphasize the point to the wives: Be subject to[ your husband] out of reverence for Christ. Be subject to your husband...as to the Lord.

Wives, would you subject yourselves to your husband if your husband were Christ-rather than that particular example of manhood you freely and enthusiastically chose? How would your attitude, your tone of voice, your expectations be different if you were "Mrs. Christ" instead of "Mrs. Whoever-You-Are"? Would you begrudge Christ your submission? Would you wait to see if His behavior or demeanor deserved your submission? Would you measure submission to Him out carefully to ensure that it did not exceed what his attitude and actions had earned? Is that how you submit to Christ now? The Bible says, "Submit to your husband as you submit to Christ."

If you will not be subject to your husband, you cannot be subject to Christ. To be subject to Christ, you must subject yourself to your husband-as you do (or should) to Christ-as the Church does (or will) to Christ. And if you will not be subject to your husband as the Bible instructs you to do, what excuse will you give God? What excuse do you think God will accept?

To subject yourself to another, you must humble yourself and restrain the ego that yearns to be first and greatest. It requires maturity, strong character, and faith in the wisdom of the Holy One Who requires it.

This can be hard, for women are almost always the more spiritually mature-the more spiritually active partner in the marriage. And yet the Bible says they are to subject themselves to their plod-along husbands. Why? Is it to teach wives humility? (Notice I said "humility," not "humiliation." There is a big difference.) Is it to stimulate spiritual growth and commitment in the man who maybe wouldn't bother in these areas if he didn't have to? Maybe God doesn't want women "carrying" their men spiritually?

It's probably not because the husband is superior to the wife in exercising authority, either. But husbands generally need to exercise authority more that their wives do. What husbands need most is respect, the kind of respect that comes with being in charge of something important. And Paul concludes this passage by insisting that wives show their husbands respect (not because they are respectable-Paul says nothing about that-but so that they will want to be, to prove your respect justified.)

What wives need most, on the other hand, is not respect, but love-Christ-like love. If the wife submits, she gives the husband what he needs most. If the husband loves, the wife gets what she needs most. (And we will get into the husband's love next week.)

What does your submission do to your husband? It humbles him. You know he doesn't deserve it. So does he. But you do it anyway. And it humbles him-and then it encourages him-it builds his confidence and determination to fulfill his sacred responsibility as a husband.

If there's a constant struggle for control in the marriage, husbands will generally take one of two approaches to it. Some will contend, and others will concede. Both options are losers.

If you're constantly wrestling for the upper hand or the last word, the marriage wastes the energy available to do great and necessary things. But not all husbands will struggle with their wives to see who gets to lead in the marriage. If you will not submit, your husband may.

Sound good? Think again.

If your husband concedes to you the role God has directed him to fulfill, your husband will withdraw from his rightful responsibilities, and from you, in passive anger and unexpressed shame, in confusion, depression and indifference. He will look for other, less appropriate, places where he may lead-and perhaps other, less appropriate, people who will let him hold the position of leadership in their lives that he longs to hold in yours.

And if he concedes authority to you, then you are the leader, the head, in change-but of what? Of an empty shell of a marriage? Of a family where you get to play both husband and wife?

Your husband is not likely to do his part if you don't do yours. It's not likely that he will be motivated to love you like Christ loves the Church when you are bent on taking his God-given role away from him. So by refusing to submit to your husband you've disobeyed God, demoralized your husband and piled all the responsibilities of marriage on your own shoulders. It would seem that just about everyone would be dissatisfied with this arrangement. Sounds like it's time to make a change-even if you are exactly where the world says you ought to be.

couple walking

Before your husband became (or becomes) your husband, God put a system of marriage in place. God did this not because all men are better qualified-or that your particular man is. But it is the husband's assignment, regardless of whether you support him in it or not. The husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church-and both positions, your husband's and Christ's, are divine assignments. It's not a hierarchy of value; it is a remarkably wise and effective distribution of function.

The point of both assignments is not prestige or hubristic power, but responsibility. It is the weight of the responsibility imposed by God, and the life dedicated to sacrificial service to fulfill that solemn and sacred responsibility, that justifies the honor to be paid to the husband by the wife's submission. The husband bears the final responsibility before God for the spiritual, social, moral and physical condition of the marriage-not the wife-the husband. And not because he is better suited, but because he is officially assigned. Withhold your submission and oppose any effort on his part to do his job-make it all but impossible for him to be your head-and he is still accountable to God for the job you won't let him, or won't help him, do.

The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the church. Is-not ought to be, or could be. This is a plain statement of completed fact. Like it or not-accept it or not-behave accordingly or not, the Bible says, "The husband is the head of the wife." It doesn't say, "...until the feminist movement of the second half of the 20th Century figures out that this is a sexist arrangement and shows intellectual people a better system." Here's divine revelation for you: The husband is head of the wife. No "ifs." No "buts." There are a few "ands," which we'll get to in time, but they do not restrict or qualify Paul's categorical assertion. This is a "done deal." God has willed it in His infinite wisdom, and in His equally infinite power, He has already made it so.

So how does this submission work in practical terms? An issue arises. No clear-cut consensus response emerges. The wife says, "I think we ought to do this." The husband says, "I think we ought to do that." The wife knows the husband is wrong, but she cannot convince him. So she submits to him, knowing that his decision is wrong.

The result is the disaster she predicted. The husband is responsible. The wife is vindicated-and loyal-and the next time an issue arises with no clear-cut consensus response, she says with greater confidence-and equal submission-"I think we ought to do this." He says, "I think we ought to do that."

But he also thinks: "The last time we did this, she was right, but she let me make a choice that blew up in my face, even though I was convinced I was right. She trusted me and I let her down. So maybe I ought to pay more attention to her perspective because she'll submit to my decision again and I don't want to mess things up again by not listening to her."

On the other hand, if the husband is right (which could happen) and the wife is wrong (a theoretical possibility, at least), she's had her say with no harm done and he succeeds in his responsibility, building his confidence in his leadership ability-and in her support. And she gets to praise and appreciate him for doing such a great job on her behalf.

You might say that submission is an "inspired" strategy for success in marriage.

Now, all of this has important implications for those of you who have not yet become wives. If you are to subject yourself to the man you marry in all things as you do to Christ, you should be very careful and selective in your choice of a husband. Among your criteria for an acceptable mate-perhaps the most importance criteria-should be that the man submits to Christ as you will submit to him.

couple walking

Submission to anyone is not an easy thing. But if you must bend your will to another human being-and the Bible says wives must in marriage-you will be infinitely happier if that person has already bent his will to Christ. Whatever qualities-physical, financial, psychological, or social-a man possesses to attract and intrigue you, they all pale in significance to this one, and all will turn to bitter ashes in a marriage without it.

If a man is not submissive to Christ, do not allow yourself to become subject to his charms. And, for goodness sake, do not assume that his submission to Christ will come after you marry him-or because you marry him. If you marry him, you are to be submissive, whether he is or not, so be wise and do not "go there" if the man is not where he must be spiritually to satisfy God as a husband for you.

And do not be submitting the things a woman should only submit to her husband before he is your husband. Do not share a man's bed or his home or his bank account if you are not married to him. A man who will have sex with you or live with you or use your money without having married you first does not love you as Christ loves the Church.

"But I know he loves me." No! If a man will seek or accept this level of intimacy with you without-or before-being married to you, he does not love you as Christ loves the Church.

And by accepting the "benefits" of marriage from you without the public and sacred commitment of marriage,he calls into question whether he will become like Christ in his love to you just because he goes through a ceremony with you later that brings no significant change in the actual behavior already established in your relationship.

No, Christ would not do it and a Christ-like man wouldn't, either.

Perhaps your man will protest, "But I am a Christian and I do love her!" The definition of Christian has been stretched a bit in our day, even to the point of covering anybody who has a background in Christianity or some positive feeling toward his personal perception of Jesus. But the biblical understanding of a Christian seems to be "a follower of Christ who lives in obedience to His example and His word, not knowingly or persistently doing what is clearly contrary to the Master's will." And the word "love" serves to label a host of very different attitudes and emotions, some of which are anything but what Christ demonstrates in His relationship to His Church. So I shall repeat: A man who will relate to a woman as though she were his wife when she is not is not a Christ-like man, and does not love this woman as Christ loves the Church.

Single women, beware.

How can this biblical model presented by Paul work in our day? It can work-and does-because God wants it to. It serves His greater redemptive purpose for the Church and humanity and all Creation. God makes it work.

Biblical marriages demonstrate the nature of the relationship between Christ and His Church. Biblical marriages are the seedbed of a new generation of Christians, the foundation of truly godly homes. Biblical marriages equip the husband and wife to grow in their personal relationship with God.

Don't worry about justifying your submission to your friends who can't even begin to take it seriously. They've been brainwashed with the assurance of superior understanding. Don't worry about defending it to the world. Just do it for Christ, and see if God's way doesn't change the world, starting with your marriage.