“Well, I’m not going to preach on THAT.”
That was my initial thought for today’s sermon, earlier this week as I scanned through the second half of Ephesians. And then I thought again (I hope it was the Holy Spirit that made me think again) because obviously that’s not a very healthy approach to any passage of Scripture. So I took a second look and realized that – once I get beyond my initial reaction – I really like this passage. Actually, I love this passage.
But before I tell you what I love let’s go back to my first reaction, which started right about here:
“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” (5:22).
This gives me the sinking feeling that I’m supposed to be barefoot and pregnant, cooking with one hand and hipping a toddler with the other. All you have to do is taste my cooking to know that something is wrong with that picture. More seriously, this verse makes me think of women who are “subject to their husbands” in a belittling way, as though they aren’t smart and capable of decision making themselves, or in a dangerous way, taking abuse that should not be taken.
“Be subject to your husbands.” Come on now, Paul.
Obviously as a woman I’m a little personally invested in this, so I sought a little objective distance through historical context. As I studied, the People’s Bible Commentary reminded me that the societal structure of Paul’s day clearly put slaves subject to masters, children subject to parents, and wives subject to husbands. It was the working order of the world they lived it.
With that in mind I could take a deep breath and go in for a second look. And as I read it with fresher eyes – without some of the baggage it carries – I realized something shocking.
I agree with it.
I don’t mind being subject to my husband. In fact – could this be true? – I love being subject to my husband… especially when I’m subject to him like I am to my Lord, Jesus.
Being subject to Jesus means that Jesus loves me and forgives me, and that unconditional love sets me free to live a life more like what Jesus would want. (We explored this in more detail last week, remember?) This is very much how I feel “subject” to Alan. He loves me in a kind of astonishingly unconditional way. That love makes me want to change my life for Alan – take on chores I dislike or hobbies I’m lukewarm about or whatever else.
But I’m far from the first woman to love her husband this way. Let’s turn to an expert.
Alan’s grandmother is a lovely woman I know as “Gram.” She and “Pop” – who passed away a few years ago – have been married for “only” 70 years, she says. I asked her this week if she ever made a sacrifice for Pop.
When she stopped laughing she told me immediately about packing his suitcase. Pop loved to fly small private planes, like Cessnas. This struck me as an unusual hobby when I first came into Alan’s family. Planes make for a particularly pricey hobby; although Pop had a successful auto repair business, that’s not exactly how someone makes their millions. Pop and Gram also had four children, so a solo flight for Pop meant solo parenting for Gram. Every time Gram packed that suitcase, it was an act of loving sacrifice.
The necessity of this makes more sense if you know how much Pop LOVED flying. When I met him he was grounded due to old age. When he told airplane stories (which was often) he’d get a twinkle in his eye and a sparkle in his soul. Pop wasn’t Pop without a plane to fly. Gram loved him, so she gave up time and money to make that possible.
This is what I want to do for Alan. I want to be married for “only” 70 years. I want to be subject to my husband in the same way I’m subject to Christ – set free to make sacrifices for his sake. I want to love Alan like that.
As beautiful as that is, it has the danger of being distorted. If this the only part of Paul’s Scripture we hear – a message about how wives ought to be subject to their husbands – this is the picture it paints:
The husband is up high, like a king. The wife is down low, his obedient subject.
Not exactly a healthy relationship, right? This is the kind of dynamic that leads to belittling, abuse, treating each other as less than human.
If this picture makes you uncomfortable, then here’s some good news: Paul keeps writing. Let’s see what he says next…
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”
Think about what Christ did for the church: Christ was betrayed, abandoned, humiliated, tortured, and killed. As Jesus himself said it, there is no greater love than that – to give one’s life up for someone else (John 15:13).
Christ made great sacrifice for the church – and that’s how husbands are to love their wives. I know this because I get to live it; I have an amazing husband who loves me like Christ loved the church. He makes small sacrifices every day and large sacrifices in general – without complaint – for me and our family and our ministry together. But Alan isn’t the first husband to treat his wife this way.
Let’s go to another expert.
Many of you know that my mom passed away this year. In August of 2013 her doctors discovered a brain tumor, and our worlds changed in a period of just a couple hours. The woman who had been smart, strong, funny, and a natural leader – of our family and any room she entered – became weak and dependent.
The biggest change came for my dad. Dad is an attorney; if you don’t mind my obvious bias, I’ll add that he’s really good at what he does. He also loves his job – he’s a happy 60-hour-a-week kind of guy. But when mom was diagnosed all that changed without any kind of warning.
My father did not hesitate to sacrifice for his wife.
Dad immediately cut back on his hours. He worked from home. He did the grocery shopping and made my mom breakfast almost every day. He cared for Mom like I care for my small children. He never complained; he said it was his joy to do this.
That’s a husband loving his wife as Christ loves the church.
But as beautiful as that story is (especially for this daughter), even that beauty can be distorted by a limited reading. If a marriage was built solely on the idea that the husband should always sacrifice for his wife – and not the other way around – then the relationship would start to look something like this:
This is also not a healthy marriage, right? This marriage results in belittling, abuse, treating each other as less than human.
Paul is calling us to see the whole picture. In fact, the whole picture was there all along, in the first verse of today’s passage:
“Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
What Paul is asking of husbands and wives is that wives be subject to their husbands… AND that husbands make sacrifices to love their wives. When we follow both of those instructions, it changes our picture of marriage again:
For an example of how this looks in three dimensions, let’s go to one more expert.
“Pappap” is my mom’s dad. He’s Greek, and proud of it. He’s a doctor, and still practicing at the age of 83. He’s married to my “Grandma,” who is Scots-Irish, Pennsylvanian, and Methodist by birth. They’ve been together for 61 years.
When I asked Pappap about what sacrifices he had made for Grandma, he reminded me that he left the Greek Orthodox church to be a Methodist when they got married. “Oh, that’s right!” I said. “That’s a big deal!”
“Not really,” he answered quickly. “The services were all in Greek. I didn’t go very often.”
(Well, so much for that example.)
“And it didn’t seem like a big sacrifice because I loved her and wanted to do it for her.”
If his memory of his own sacrifice was brief, he made up for it with a detailed recollection of what Grandma did or him.
Grandma grew up in a well-off home. I’m confident that she want for much. Pappap’s family, on the other hand, was literally from the other side of the tracks. So when Grandma decided to marry Pappap she left all those comforts behind. She went with him through a Master’s in Biology and medical school. During this time Grandma had three of their four children. Things were lean.
Later, Pappap would do well for himself as a general doctor in Florida – but those years of sacrifice were the cement of their marriage, Pappap said. Grandma knew how to sacrifice for him.
And Pappap knew how to sacrifice for her, I would add; he worked around the clock between school and work and internships to take care of his little family. He barely remembers his part of it because it didn’t feel much like a sacrifice, because of his love for my Grandma.
I share all this about marriage knowing that many of you are not married. If you’re still listening then stay with me a little longer, because this is a lesson for all of us.
“This mystery is a profound one,” Paul says, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:32).
This doesn’t just apply to grandparents and parents and married couples. This has to do with Christ’s “marriage” to the church… and our “marriage” to each other. This is how we’re called to love one another: not with me up on a pedestal and you down below, and not with you up high and me your subject, but in a relationship of shared sacrificial love. Sometimes you will need my help and sometimes I will need yours. Sometimes I will need your forgiveness and sometimes you will need mine. When we do church together, we share that together – much like an ideal husband and wife, Paul says.
So wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.
And husbands, love your wives like Christ loves the church.
And all of us, be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Credit to the Peoples’ New Testament Commentary for the socio-historical background. I also listened to Rob and Kristen Bell’s book The ZimZum of Love this winter – although I didn’t draw on it specifically, it did help with the visualizations. If you’re interested in this topic and would like to dig further, I’d recommend it.