Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ

Sermon Date: 
14 Mar 2010
Bible Base: 
Ephesians 5:15-6:9

David Jeans

There was once a Christian who used the Bible as a sort of inspired fortune cookie. He thought that God guided him by him opening the Bible at random and stabbing with his finger to find a verse that God wanted to speak directly to him that day.
So one day he was doing his usual and the verse that turned up was Matthew 27:5 “Judas went away and hanged himself”. He thought this wasn’t very helpful and tried again. This time he turned up Luke 10:37 “Jesus told him ‘Go and do likewise’”
Taking verses out of their context can be a dangerous thing. So can taking passages out of context. The passage from Ephesians that we are looking today is a passage that is often dragged out of its context and turned into something that I believe Paul himself would not have recognised and would have been shocked by. This happens when people start the passage at verse 22 (which we often do at weddings).
Before I go any further let me declare my hand. Use of this passage to justify tyrannical husbands demanding total obedience and servility from their wives goes totally against Paul’s intentions.
Why do I say that? First because of the whole thrust of this letter. It has been about God creating one new humanity in Christ. One new humanity which stands united at the foot of the cross, where no-one can say they are superior to anyone else. One new humanity in which Paul writes elsewhere (Galatians 3:28) that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, because all are one in Christ Jesus. This letter has stressed that the working out of this involves being completely humble and gentle, being patient and bearing with one another in love. Why on earth would Paul write so passionately about all that and then justify tyranny within the Christian household? In fact I believe that he does not do that.
Then secondly if we start the passage where we should, we get a totally different understanding of it. It follows on from the passage we had last week about putting off the old self and putting on the new. In verse 18, the thing being put off is drunkenness; the thing being put on is being filled with the Spirit. Don’t let drink make you lose control – let your life be controlled by the Holy Spirit of God. Just as an aside here – the Greek is in the present tense, which is a tense implying an action which is continuous rather than an action which is once and for all. It is best translated as ‘go on being filled with the Spirit’ – daily. You cannot point back to a past experience and say because of that experience I am filled with the Spirit. We need to ask God to daily fill us with His Spirit.
The next few verses describe the consequences of being filled with the Spirit. They are all what we call participles – ‘ing’ words. The results of being filled with the Spirit are in praise and worship – speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; singing and making music to God; always giving thanks to God for everything. God’s new humanity in Christ, the church which brings glory to God should be a vibrant praising and worshipping community.
But then look at verse 21 – the next result of being filled with the Spirit is submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. A genuinely charismatic church is one in which people give way to one another and put others first. A church which brings glory to God is one in which people give way to one another out of reverence for Christ. Submitting to one another means acting towards each other in sacrificial love, recognising that other members of the body of Christ are just as important to God as we are, knowing that we stand equal together at the foot of the cross.  
So what follows – the stuff about husbands and wives, children and parents, slaves and their masters – is Paul describing how this works out in practice in the Ephesians own context. The key principle in this whole passage is about submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ; the key question for each of us is how do I express that in my own relationships?
So along with the question how should wives submit to husbands, children submit to parents and slaves submit to their masters, we have to ask the question how should husbands submit to their wives, parents submit to their children and slave owners submit to their slaves. This teaching is radical and revolutionary – which is why it is so tragic the way it has often been totally distorted and misused. I have been shocked this week to see how male commentators have tried to wriggle out of this - one commentator says that what Paul meant was “submit to one another, and what I mean is, wives submit to your husbands, children to your parents, and slaves to your masters”. Another says it means “those who are under authority should be subject to others among you who have authority over them”[1]. Such commentators often claim that because the word translated ‘submit’ usually carries overtones of authority, then it cannot mean a mutual submission here. It seems to me that they can only argue that if they want to dismiss the radical transformation of relationships that Paul is advocating here – they are refusing to put off the old and put on the new!
So back to Paul’s examples. I am going to start with husbands first, to make the point of the radical nature of this. Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church. Some points to emphasise the force of this. In that society, many marriages were for financial or status purposes, and for producing children, rather than for love. So husbands being told to love their wives was not as obvious a command as it seems to us. Secondly, some Greek philosophers did tell husbands to love their wives – but using the rather weak Greek word phileo which implies affection. But Paul uses the word for love derived from agape- which is the word coined by the New Testament for the sacrificial love of God for us. The model of this love is God’s love. The love shown by Jesus in the way he washed his disciples’ feet; the love described by Jesus when he said that those who aspire to greatness should be the servants of all, just as He came to serve rather than to be served. Above all, the love shown by Jesus in dying for us – in giving up himself for the church. Tyrannical husbands are not loving as Christ loves; Christ’s love does not insist on its own way, but insists on what will benefit the person loved.
Let me give an example. Last night we went to a 40th birthday party for Melissa and Cheryl. Now I really do not like dancing, because I have at least two left feet. But Viv does like dancing. So the husband insisting on obedience to his desires might have said ‘I am not going to dance and I forbid you to dance’. But the husband submitting to his wife out of reverence for Christ out of love says ‘Would you like to dance?’ – and becomes the first of only 3 blokes who went on the dance floor (up to the time we left). Actually to be honest, I didn’t actually say ‘would you like to dance?’, I less nobly said ‘Shall we get the making fools of ourselves out of the way, then?’ – but if I had been properly submitting out of reverence for Christ I would have said ‘would you like to dance?’. The Christian husband is called to submission to his wife by loving her as Christ loved the church (and that also implies helping her draw closer to God).
What about the Christian wife then?  It is interesting that in the Greek the word ‘submit’ does not occur in verse 22 – verse 22 carries on from v 21 – “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands as to the Lord” (and I think verse 25 similarly carries the force “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.....husbands by loving your wives just as Christ loved the church”. Submission is putting the other person’s interests above your own. The wife is therefore not to take advantage of the sacrificial love of the husband by insisting on her own way – rather she is to respect her husband. (Remember that this was so radical – oppressed women liberated by this teaching may well have been tempted to put their own interests first). Notice by the way that the word obey is not included here, nor is it in the equivalent passage in Colossians. Submit does not equal obey – it means putting the other person’s interests above your own. And sometimes, dare I say it, that understanding of submission may mean saying ‘I think that you are wrong’ – because that in some situations is the loving thing to do. In a violent marriage, submission might involve reporting the violence because that may be the only way in which the best interests of both parties can be served.
The passage finishes with parents and children and slaves and masters. Note the submission called on for parents – not to exasperate your children. (In Roman times the father had total authority over the children, even including the ‘right’ to kill or abandon the newborn[2] or to sell his children into slavery). Paul urges restraint upon parents in the exercise of authority. But he also says ‘bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord’. It is not submission to our children to abandon them to the ways of this world without guidance or help.
Obviously today we thankfully do not have slavery. Of course the principle of submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ would eventually lead to its abolition. Paul was not in a place to abolish slavery, as later Christians were, but he was in a place to urge mutual respect and humane treatment.[3] Those of us in employment, or indeed as consumers, need to think how the principle of mutual submission works in our context today.
Two final points – firstly, remember that this principle of submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ flows out of being filled with the Spirit. It is not something we naturally do, but follows from the growth in our relationship with God.
Secondly, I believe that our relationships with each other are the area where we are most vulnerable to spiritual attack. This is why Paul goes on to talk about the spiritual armour of God to protect us from those attacks. But more of that next week!

[1] See the discussion in B.Wintle and K.Gnanakan Ephesians (Asia Bible Commentary) (Asia Theological Association, Singapore 2006) pp174-176

[2] See JRW Stott God’s New Society (IVP 1979) p 245

[3] And in Philemon he urges a Christian slave owner to set free his runaway slave who has become as Christian.