What a title, huh? OK, today we come to one of the most controversial passages of Scripture. In fact, aside from the parts about homosexuality, I can’t think of any more countercultural aspect of God’s word. People try to explain these verses away, saying that Paul didn’t mean what he obviously said. Or they just reject it entirely, taking a “cafeteria” approach to the Bible, picking out the parts that they like (e.g. “Love your neighbor”) and discarding the rest.
But Paul—under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit--said it. He told wives to submit to their husbands “as [they] do to the Lord.” There are no qualifications in these verses. Supposedly we can rule this out when the husband’s telling her to do something that violates a clear command from the Lord, just like with our relationship between us and government. But leaving aside obvious exceptions like that, we need to deal with this.
Before we get to the really controversial part, I’d like to point out something very important, which I’m going to note again and again over the next few days. I purposefully included verse 21 in today’s passage, as per the NIV and several other translations. Of course, the chapter and verse divisions aren’t inspired by God—they’re just for our convenience. As such, some translations put verse 21 at the end of the vss. 1-20, linking it with the section on being filled with the Spirit. They’re not wrong. That’s a completely legitimate translation decision to make.
But since the 5:20-6:9 deal with hierarchical relationships (parents/children, slaves/masters, etc.), it seems to make a little more sense to link vs. 21 with the section following, more than the section before. In other words, vs. 21 is the overarching principle in dealing with all our human relationships, especially in those in which a hierarchy of authority is involved. And as we’ll discuss further later on, I think this verse applies (in a sense) both ways in hierarchies. More details on that to follow.
Now, let’s talk about vss. 22-24. I guess the best way to clarify how I interpret these verses is with a question and answer format:
· What about extreme cases, such as abuse? Under extreme circumstances, if a wife is being abused by her husband, then that calls for intervention from the local church and legal authorities. And as a last resort, our Lord allows (not encourages, allows) divorce in the case of adultery, and several pastors have testified to me that in all their experiences—with no exceptions whatsoever—an abuser is also a cheater. But if not, I'd never interpret this to mean that a wife needs to stay home to be abused.
· Does this mean unilateral submission? What if the wife vehemently disagrees with the husband’s decisions? What if he’s just not following the Lord at all? Like I noted before, there aren’t any qualifications listed in the verses. The only limitations I could make on this would be in the context of the rest of Scripture.
When writing something like this, I feel a little weird. It’s similar to how I’d feel if I had to teach on passages like Mark 8:34-48 to Christians who live with a real threat of persecution. I can just imagine them saying something like “That's easy for you to say, isn’t it? You don’t have to worry about soldiers knocking on your door to haul you away, or about mobs coming to burn down your church with you inside it. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever experienced, the worst persecution you’ve ever faced? Someone making fun of you? Someone not inviting you to their parties?” To face someone like that and teach on a passage about how we need to be willing to suffer for Christ, see persecution as a blessing, etc., would be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. My inclination would be to think “Who the heck am I to be talking to anyone about persecution, much less these folks?”
In that case, I’d have to buck up and tell them “This is what Scripture says. I can’t change it. It says that you need to be willing to undergo anything, including death, rather than deny your Lord. It says that you should see persecution as a privilege of suffering for the Name. Whatever my circumstances, that’s what it says. If you have a problem with it, then I respectfully have to refer you to the One who wrote it.”
I have to say this to all my sisters in Christ: I know that this seems awfully easy for me to say. Just a reminder: The Bible tells me to submit to governing authorities, whether I agree with them or not, as long as they don’t tell me to disobey my Savior. Scripture also commands me to submit to the leadership in my church--again, unless they’re telling me something that flatly contradicts Scripture.
· So when my husband says something or makes a decision I disagree with, I’m supposed to just meekly sit down and say nothing but “Yes sir,” is that it? Um, no. That’s the world’s caricature of what we’re talking about, mirrored (unfortunately) in how a lot of traditional-minded Christians have interpreted it. We’ll get into the man’s responsibility tomorrow, but for now, let’s just say that’s the furthest thing from the true picture we see here. Of course you can speak your mind and attempt to persuade him to go in another direction. If he’s not a fool, he’ll A) Listen very carefully to what you have to say, and B) Look at his and your respective strengths and weaknesses and work together with you to “divvie” up the responsibilities of the home and family. If the husband is horrible with finances and the wife’s good at it, then it’s obvious who needs to be in charge of that.
· So what do you really mean here? A pastor of mine interpreted this pretty well several years ago for me. Both the wife and the husband have around 50% of the vote, and if an issue absolutely cannot be resolved any other way, he’s the tie breaker. I mean, if the husband wants to go in X direction and the wife wants to go in Y direction, and 1) they’ve both prayed about it—separately and together—and 2) they’ve both made the best arguments they can make, and 3) they’ve tried their best to come to a mutually agreeable compromise and failed, then what are they supposed to do? As Amos put it in another context: “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” Any two people (in any type of relationship) have to agree with each other on the major issues, or eventually they have to part ways. So unless you’re trying to convince me the opposite--that the wife should (as a general rule) be the tie-breaker—then what exactly are you proposing? What's the alternative?
Now that we’ve gone over the caveats and explanations, and I’ve probably ticked off a whole lot of women, let me a make a final appeal. If you think I’m putting a heavy burden on you, please hear what I have to say to the guys over the next few days. That’s right: In keeping with Paul’s pattern in Ephesians 5, I’m going to spend a lot more time pressuring the brothers than the sisters. But today’s passage is what God through Paul is saying to you. The Lord has plenty to say to your husband, and the standards placed on him make anything we’ve read today look like a day at the beach. But I’m going to tell you the same thing I’m going to say to your husband: God’s standards for you are not dependent on what your spouse does. Whether or not your spouse is doing what he/she is supposed to do, that in no way exempts you from doing what you’re supposed to do.
I want to make one final point on this: From the rest of the Bible, you can easily see the perfect pattern. Your Savior, the Son of Most High God, the object of worship of countless angels, submitted to his Father’s plan. He joyfully and purposefully gave up his rights and submitted his own personal human desires to what the Father wanted. This was true even when very iota of his natural inclinations went against it (e.g., in the Garden). Like all of us, you’re called upon to imitate your Lord and put your own instincts and “rights” and natural desires aside in submission to another. You’re called to act in ways which are really counterintuitive. But as I’ve said so many times ad nauseum, “No one ever did things God’s way and ended up regretting it.” Please, take this to heart.
Lord Jesus, I pray right now for any women reading this. Please give them wisdom and guidance, and most importantly, help them to trust you enough to do things your way instead of what the world tells them to do. Help all of us, men and women alike, submit to you more than we do. Please.
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