A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on July 15, 2012.
O God of all mercy, we pray this morning that you would make us more like Jesus. We offer ourselves to the school of your spirit that we might grow in his ways and in his character. Teach us his ways in rising above criticism and disagreement. Help us to see as he did into the hearts of those who opposed him and criticized him and to understand that people so often act out of fear or lack of understanding or out of their own insecurity. Grant us that measure of character like his that we might respond in similar ways—in love and in understanding. Help us to do as he did and love them in their weakness instead of hating them for their pain. Teach us in this way to love our enemies and to forgive all. We pray that you would give us his servant’s heart and reveal to us the joy that comes from serving one another. Teach us the deepening of love and commitment that comes only by sacrifice. Lead our hearts to learn from obedience that we might accept the narrow path of righteousness and even the way of the cross. We confess, our Father, that we would escape all these things, if possible, but we know the path to you includes them all for we have seen Jesus go before us, and we would ask, not according to our will, but as you would choose for us. Give us faith to follow, give us strength of character to love and forgive, give us obedience for joy, give us humility to learn, and above, give us a servant’s heart for the good of the world. Lord, if you will grant us these things, we know that we shall see you more clearly and walk with you more closely and find our heart’s desire. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Each of us is called to serve one another: the husband, the wife, the parents the child, the manager, the laborer – all are to serve the people with whom they are mated or associated.
—Markus Barth in The Broken Wall
How do you like the scripture reading for today? Those of you who are married or anticipate a time when you might be, is that part about “wives submit to your husbands” working well for you? Do you see that being a positive thing ten years from now? I will tell you that over the years I would say that this passage of scripture has probably brought more people by my office to ask questions than any other. Sometimes it is the husband who asks me, “How can I get my wife to do this?” Sometimes it is the wife who comes by—rarely together, I might add. Oftentimes, a woman will ask, “Is this serious?” or they take it seriously and want to know what on earth they are supposed to do, maybe even offer up some extenuating circumstances about “How can this be? What does this mean?”
By the time we get to later in the passage where it talks about children obeying parents, parents not aggravating kids, slaves obeying masters, masters treating slaves right, nobody is paying any attention because we already have locked into that first part and there is not a lot of good to say, is there?
I really think it is one of the most misunderstood and one of the most abused passages in the New Testament. I don’t often call on you to do this, but I would suggest that you take your Bibles and look at a few things I want to point out, particularly because I have to begin with about a minute of technical Bible study. Will you give me that much before we move on?
If you could find the earliest copies of any of the New Testament, particularly the Letter of Ephesians, you will find no chapters, no verses (they were added much later), no punctuation (no commas or periods), and no capital letters. It is as if it is one huge run-on sentence. Students of the Bible have to make judgments about where a sentence begin and where it ends. Most of them are really easy, but in particular, where do you start a paragraph. The translation of the NIV Bible starts a paragraph with verse 22. There are other very good translations of which I would go along with that start at verse 21. Most of the time, this would not make any difference, but in this particular passage, I think it makes a big difference because the paragraph begins like this, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” That is where this whole section that Paul is dealing with begins. This is the governing sentence. It is the guiding principle for everything that follows.
Then Paul goes on to list three pairs of common relationships in a home in the world in which he lived: Spouses, parents and children, and slaves and masters because this was part of many households. It is in this context, Christ first and other relationships underneath, that everything else follows. Some of the greatest misunderstandings and greatest abuses of the passage come from starting the paragraph at verse 22. “Wives, be subject to your husbands.”
It starts in verse 21, “Be subject one to another out of reference for Christ.” Paul’s point is this: Christ is above all, and think about all the things that we know about Christ. One of the things about Christ is his humility. Christ said, “I came not to be served but to serve.” He also said, “The greatest among you shall be as servant of all.” He also says, “This is the way I was among you and a student is not above the teacher.” What is the implication? That we are supposed to serve as well.
The Book of Philippians is actually a great hymn. It is hard for us to see the meter of it. Paul tries to summarize it and says, “Have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, our Lord, who though being found in the form of God did not think equality with God was something to hold onto. He emptied himself and he came in the form of a servant, and he was obedient, even unto death on the cross.” Everything about this Christ who was above us was about Christ’s humility, Christ’s willingness to serve, and that the followers of Christ are supposed to be like him.
I know it has probably been a long time since any of us studied Greek and Roman mythology, but if you remember anything about that from high school literature, I challenge you to find a story about a Greek or a Roman god that loved anybody human or that loved another god. They were always at odds with each other. The only time that there is ever mention of a god loving someone is always in the context of a conquest in lust. Try to find a story about a Greek or a Roman god that humbled themselves. You can’t find one. They were always vying for position, jockeying for authority, and trying to get one up on everybody else. The difference in Jesus Christ is not only that he died on a cross and rose again, but that Christ came and taught us a whole other way. He taught us the way of love, he taught us that we are to serve one another, and he taught us that we are to be humble as he is humble. That is where this starts. There is actually some reference to this earlier in the Book of Ephesians. If you don’t start there, you really don’t understand what Paul is saying when he says, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” If you start it right there, you have missed the whole set up with Christ as our head.
If we have read and understand that, what do we get? Verse 22 says, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord,” then three verses about that. Verse 25, “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church.” As if the men have more need for remedial relationships, instead of three verses as there are for the wives, there are nine verses for the husbands. It is all about sacrifices—how Christ gave himself for the church—and love your wife as yourself. It is reciprocal. It starts with Christ and there is a paired relationship, and he says, “Be subject one to another. Wives, be reverent to your husbands. Husbands, sacrifice for your wives.” This is not easy on either side. The same thing is true for children and parents, slaves and masters.
One of the things that would be easy for us to miss is that Paul has taken these three pairs of relationships that were common in a household in his time and has given them other distinctive characteristics. In each of these relationships, there was an over and an under, there was a winner and a loser, there was somebody who dominated and there was somebody who was dominated. Do you need me to tell you about husbands and wives? We have probably learned enough in Bible study and other sermons to know that women in general had no status.
Paul was writing 1,900 years before this, but do you realize that as late as Victorian England, if a woman got divorced, she lost all of her property, most likely lost custody of her children, and actually had almost no legal standing? Just multiply that a couple of times and that is just 160 years ago. Go all the way back 2,000 years to the time of Paul, and we recognize just what a difficult status women are in.
Recently, I was reading a book entitled At Home by Bill Bryson. It is a fascinating book. He is using Great Britain in the 19th Century as an illustration. He said, “There can be few more telling facts about life in 19th Century Britain than the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals preceded by 60 years the founding of a similar organization for the protection of children. Perhaps it is no less notable that the first one was made the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1840 and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children remains to be royally blessed.” Sometimes, we think more about our animals than we think about our children, and that is just the 1800’s.
Go back to the time of Paul. Children were property and had no rights. Children could be treated anyway people wanted to treat them, and do we need to say anything about slaves and masters? Can you imagine preaching this passage honestly in 1855 in Atlanta, Richmond or Charleston and try to say that last little part about “and masters do the same for them.” Stop threatening them because you know that you both have the same master in heaven.
Paul takes these relationships that are over and under, win and lose, dominate and be subject to, and turns them right-side up so they are parallel to each other. He starts with Christ. Christ is the head, and out of reverence for Christ, subject yourselves to one another. Instead of making it win-lose and over-under, he makes it a win-win situation. He elevates the partner in these relationships and he puts them in a reciprocal, equal relationship. When I say “equal,” I don’t mean that a six-year-old gets to tell the parent what to do. There is mutual respect. There is mutual obligation. There is mutual treating each other with the love of Jesus Christ. This is a far cry from “dominate your wives,” and you are a bad wife if you don’t do everything your husband tells you to. That is not what this passage comes close to saying.
At the beginning of the summer, I mentioned that I am taking some ideas from sermons that I have preached over the last 15 or 16 years and bringing them back to life. At the time when I originally preached this sermon, the emphasis was on the fact that both sides of the relationship win something. Husbands, if a wife is respectful, win respect. Wives, if their husbands sacrifice, win sacrificial love. It is win-win. Most of the good relationships that I know of in life are that way. Both parties have this reciprocal nature and both sides win. If one side wins and the other side loses, the relationship loses.
The one thing I regret out of the first sermon is not having made a better point about where Christ fits into this in the home. It is only when we start with Jesus and his example and then look at our home relationships and realize that if we are going to treat each other the way Jesus treats us, it has to include humility. It has to include mutual submission. It has to include my responsibilities and your responsibilities that come together in a way where we serve one another. That is what this passage is about.
If we want to say Christ is the head of our home, then we need to understand that the way this is lived out, day in and day out, is by taking any relationship that might look like this relationship to start with (over-under, win-lose) and under Christ, they become mutual. In Christ, they become full partners. My responsibilities may be different from your responsibilities and my obligations may be different from your obligations, but we both have them. If we cannot serve one another in our homes, where on earth do we demonstrate the spirit of Christ and serve someone else?
Do you see where this passage takes us? I challenge you to go back and read it again. This emphasis on being subject one to another out of reverence for Christ rears up and it is the dominating theme of the passage. Paul is not putting someone in an under position, and someone else in an over position, he is putting it right so that, under Christ, we are mutually responsible for one another.
Let us understand what Paul is really saying here. Sometimes our homes take a different shape than the usual family relationship. I have two great aunts, Josephine and Pauline, who never married that lived together most of their lives. You can apply the same thing in their lives together. No matter what shape your family may take, this sense of being mutually responsible under Christ can be the way to peace. This is the way Christ would have us live in our homes.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.