“Submitting to One Another” – Ephesians 5:22-33
Introduction: love, weddings, marriage
There aren’t very many places in the Bible that we hear about weddings and marriage. I have often said that there are probably only two actual weddings in the Bible – one wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine at the reception, and one where Old Testament Jacob went in to lie with his bride on their wedding night and found out the next morning that he had actually been deceived into sleeping with the wrong sister. Those accounts don’t really tell us what ancient Jewish weddings were like. In fact, we probably learn more about wedding customs from Jesus’ parable of the 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins in Matthew 25.
Last Sunday, as I was being chauffeured from Kitimat to Terrace, my host and driver brought up the topic of how the church views common-law marriage, and what defines marriage Biblically, in God’s eyes. I responded with two points:
- First, I said to him that the church has generally accepted the definition of marriage according to the laws of the land. But you and I know that that legal and federal definition of marriage changed in Canada 16 years ago, and in some countries or jurisdictions polygamy is acceptable. So, defining marriage has become more complex for us Bible-believing Christians.
- Second, I also admitted that I have struggled with a definition of marriage for the last 3 decades or so because the Bible doesn’t explicitly say when marriage begins. It seemed to me – based on the Jacob story and a few other similar ones – that marriage was defined in the Bible by the phrase: “He went in and lay with her.” Does that mean a consensual physical relationship begins marriage rather than that legal document signed by a bride and groom and two witnesses and the officiant? Muddy… complex… Oh, and if the physical relationship does begin marriage in God’s eyes, there are a lot of people that are married to one another and they don’t even realize it, AND there are a lot of people who are married to multiple partners and they don’t even realize it.
There are some other Bible passages about love and marriage. The Old Testament book called Song of Solomon describes the beauty and sensuality of a couple that intensely longs for one another through their courtship. 1 Corinthians 13, with it’s “Love is patient, love is kind” poetic message, is often read at weddings even though a marriage relationship is not the context. In the Gospels, Jesus addresses the question posed to Him about divorce by some Pharisees. In His answer, He points back to the creation account which says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” That was even quoted in our Ephesians 5 Epistle reading today.
1. Genesis 2 – Three aspects of marriage
So, if we go back to that sentence from Genesis 2, we find that God, Himself, describes three aspects of marriage. First there is the leaving. This is the public and legal aspect of marriage. Marriage isn’t only a private act between two people – the one flesh part. Really, there is no marriage without a wedding, for marriage impacts the extended family, the friends, and the community. Leaving refers to both the man and the woman. They both are to be independent from their parents and in-laws as they start a new family unit.
Second, there is holding fast, or cleaving as some older translations of the Bible say. Cleaving is the personal aspect of marriage. The Hebrew word for ‘cleave’ literally means ‘to stick to’, ‘to paste’, ‘to be glued to a person’. Cleaving can only happen between two persons. Cleaving means that you are closest to each other; no one, no thing gets in between. Cleaving is really love, a mature love, a decision to be faithful to one another through all of life.
Third – the two become one flesh. This is the physical aspect of marriage. The physical union of husband and wife is also God’s will. It is as near and dear to God as are the legality and the faithfulness. ‘One flesh’ means to share everything – your bodies, yes, but also your possessions, your thoughts and feelings, your joys, your sufferings, your hopes, your fears, your successes, your failures. Physical union is not in and of itself marriage or love, but rather grows out of leaving and cleaving love.
The three parts of marriage are inseparable – public, personal, physical. If one is missing the marriage is not complete. Only those who leave and cleave can become one flesh.
OK… let’s lighten things up a bit with a story. One man was telling another, “My wife got angry last night and we had a fight.’ His friend asked, “How did it end up?” The first man replied, “Why, she came crawling to me on her hands and knees.” “What did she say?” the curious friend asked again. Hesitating and embarrassed, the man finally answered, “She said, ‘Come out from under the bed, you coward.’”
Now that is not exactly a positive example of a marriage relationship.
2. Another challenging teaching?
It’s time to get to perhaps the most significant Bible passage about marriage – the one we heard in Ephesians 5, the one that began “Wives, submit to your own husbands…” Last week, my sermon was about those difficult teachings of Jesus. This is another one of those challenging passages, and maybe all the women are ready to turn back from following Jesus because of it, just like some of Jesus’ followers in John 6 left their discipleship because of that “eat my body, drink my blood” teaching of Jesus.
Oh, just so the men don’t feel left out, there is a challenging word for them, too. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” Husbands, if you are not willing to die for your wife, then following Jesus may not be for you either. But let’s not make such decisions rashly or superficially. Let’s dig deeper…
3. The context – commands and participles
The few verses that we heard from Ephesians 5 last week included 5 verbs and 5 participles. The verbs were all imperatives, commands: look, do not be foolish, understand (the Lord’s will), do not get drunk, be filled (with the Spirit). Participles – often words ending in ‘ing’ – are helping words, and in this passage they describe how a person lives out those 5 commands in the power of, the fullness of the Holy Spirit. The participles are: speaking (psalms and hymns and songs), singing, making melody, giving thanks (to God), and submitting (to one another).
Usually participles qualify the previous verb which in this case is “be filled (with the Spirit).” Our reading today, then, is a continuing description of how the Christian lives wisely, in accord with the will of the Lord, and having been filled with the Holy Spirit.
In Greek, the participle ‘submitting’ is found only in verse 21 where it says “submitting to one another,” but it also applies to the responsibility of wives to their husbands in verse 22. So, first, we submit to one another. That action applies to all of God’s people as we live in relationship with one another. The word ‘submit’ – whether it’s a verb or a participle – refers to placing yourself under someone else, to a voluntary yielding in love. As such, it’s a word of humility, rather than one of domination.
The submitting, the yielding, is explained in three different relationships that follow – the wife/husband relationship in chapter 5, then in chapter 6 the parent/child relationship, and the slave/master relationship. In each one, a conciliatory attitude will help that relationship to work appropriately and to be mutually beneficial and satisfying.
4. Submitting / Loving
In verse 21, the submitting, the yielding is done out of reverence for Christ. The Greek word is ‘phobos’ from which we get our English word ‘phobia.’ However, we are not to yield to others with a paralyzing fear of Christ. Rather we do it out of reverence or respect for Christ. And that’s how Paul applies the wife to husband yielding. He counsels those women who reverence Christ to reverence their husbands, too, and to do that by submitting. God calls men to lead as the spiritual head of the home and of the marriage. Humbly following that lead is the kind and gentle attitude that God is asking from wives.
As I mentioned, Paul is wise for he doesn’t leave the ‘submit’ aspect of the relationship dangling. Husbands demonstrate that “submitting to one another” differently. Whereas wives were directed with a participle, the Scripture instructs husbands with an imperative. A couple of verses later, he turns to the men, the husbands. “OK, guys, you’ve gotta love your wives, too. And I don’t mean in the “two become one flesh” kind of way. I mean you’ve really gotta love your wife with everything you’ve got, in a self-sacrificing, voluntary yielding of yourself kind of way… like Jesus loved the church, like He loved YOU, and gave Himself up for you. Yeah, you know what He did for you, right? He died for you!! He DIED for you!! That’s how I want you to love your wives. That’s how much I want you to love your wives.”
And a couple of verses later again, Paul writes, “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” That doesn’t mean that they should care for their wives just as they care for their own physical needs. After all, the two have become one flesh – the husband and the wife are one body. Not to care for his wife would mean not caring for part of his own body.
To love as Christ loved the Church, to give one’s self up to death for your beloved wife is a more extreme expression of devotion than the wife is called on to make in her submission to and reverence for her husband. You see, what Paul is saying is that it’s not a one-sided submission, but a reciprocal, self-giving relationship. When a woman has a husband who loves her deeply and genuinely, that’s what she needs for her security and strength.
A couple celebrated 70 years of marriage. They were of German stock, and you may know that can mean strong-willed and stubborn. Their marriage endured significant disagreements on a regular basis, probably with choice words spoken – hopefully no pots and pans thrown. Their pastor asked them how they stayed together for 70 years. The husband replied that every night, no matter how mad they might be with one another, they would hold hands in bed and pray the Lord’s Prayer. He said that each time they got to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” their anger melted into forgiving love.
Wow!! If that’s what Jesus is teaching us about marriage today, then I’m ready to run after Him in discipleship rather than turn away because He’s asking me to give up my life in love and because He’s asking my wife to yield to me in love.
5. Fulfillment – giving, not taking
You see, submitting to one another, voluntarily yielding to your beloved has its own blessings and finds its own fulfillment, because fulfillment comes not in taking but in giving. Self-centeredness – which is all about taking – actually works against the ‘us’ of a marriage. If all you are interested in is what benefits you, what makes you feel good, what you want to do, where you want to go, how you want life to be, someday your spouse is going to figure out that you’re not interested in living in a marriage relationship… you would rather do your own thing. In fact, that person may very well figure that out before he or she says, “I do.”
It’s our sinful nature that desires to live as though we were single even though we are married. It’s our sinful nature that desires to live as though we were single even though we are part of the Bride of Christ, the Church. Our sinful nature leads us to an attitude and lifestyle that puts us first and the other person second. Our sinful nature makes our priorities personal and self-serving rather than for the good of the marriage or of the community of believers. Our sinful nature puts the emphasis on ME – what can I get, what can I take, what is good for ME.
In contrast, fulfillment in a marriage or in life comes through giving… giving of one’s self, through submitting, through yielding one’s rights and privileges and desires for the good of the beloved. That turns ME into WE. Giving of yourself is the most precious gift one can give and it deepens rather than cheapens a relationship. It makes WE the important thing, not ME.
6. Christ the Bridegroom
How can we fulfill God’s design for relationship and live in humble and loving submission to one another? The answer comes through Christ. He is the Heavenly Bridegroom – the perfect, divine model. He was motivated purely by love – love for YOU! Instead of asserting His privileges and rights and position and authority as the Son of God, He freely subjected Himself to the Law, took on your sin, and even gave Himself over to a shameful death on the cross. He did that to fulfill God’s purpose.
Paul explains: In Baptism, He cleanses us by washing us with water and the Word. He presents us before God as His holy, blameless bride, restoring our right relationship with Him. He unites us with Christ and makes us part of His Body, the Church. He loves His Church deeply. He loves YOU deeply. From the very beginning – when that first man and first woman were joined together to become one flesh – from the very beginning, God designed marriage to be a Gospel picture of Christ and the Church.
If you wives have a tough time with this teaching from St. Paul – from God – about submitting to your husband, remember and give thanks that you are part of the Church that submits to the leadership (and Lordship!) of Jesus Christ. Submit as you do to the Lord. If you husbands have a tough time with this teaching from God about loving your wives, remember and give thanks that Jesus loved YOU enough to give up His very life for you, then love your wife like that. I’ll leave Paul with the last word: “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Amen.