Ephesians 5:21-6:9 – A New Way of Relating 21/6/15
There are some sections of the Bible that would be better of sealed. If you thought last week’s passage, with its mention of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll was one of those, perhaps you should read, or re-read Song of Songs. Today’s passage should likewise come with a warning! Not because it’s too racy or explicit, but because it deals with topics that if misunderstood have the potential to cause widespread damage. As we’ve worked through Ephesians, we’ve seen that Paul’s concerned that the Church be united and pure, not just for our own sake, but so that we can be light and witnesses for Christ. In today’s passage Paul shows what that means for our most intimate relationships. So if we get this wrong, not only will our family lives be messed up, so too will our witness to the world.
There’s just two words or concepts in what Paul says in this passage that we need to be careful about. If we get them right, the passage shouldn’t cause us any trouble. But if we get them wrong, we’ve got a recipe for disaster! What are those two words? ‘Head’ and ‘be subject’.
In our thinking head implies superiority or leadership. So we have heads of government, headmasters or headmistresses. We think of the head of the table as the place of honour. In our work places we have head offices. Our concept of head has to do with rule or authority. While we might’ve been taught to respect and obey authority, we’ve also been conditioned to be sceptical of it. We’ve seen far to many cases of abuse, not the least through the royal commission, to blindly accept authority. This is especially true when it’s combined with the idea of subjection. Our modern, liberated world rejects submission and any hint of oppression.
We could very easily ignore or dismiss Paul’s instruction that wives be subject to their husbands, as advice from a bygone era. The kind of advice we might find in this book from 1974, which I found in the old church library. For those who can’t see the title is ‘You can be the Wife of a Happy Husband.’ I should say, there might be some good advice here, but in today’s age the title doesn’t help! But Paul ensures his instruction is timeless, by grounding it in a timeless truth. He says,
22Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
As long as we are to be subject to Christ, wives ought to be subject to their husbands. In his instruction to husbands, Paul likewise grounds marriage being between a man and a woman in creation, not culture. But there’s a few things we need to keep in mind, when we hear Paul saying a wife should be subject to her husband.
Firstly, our primary subjection is to Christ. Before any person or organization, our allegiance, our loyalty, our love and obedience is to God. Following that, we’re to subject ourselves to others, inasmuch as they wield their authority in accordance with God’s rule. If a husband were to abuse his wife, or a parent order their children not to worship God, our responsibility would be to respectful disobedience.
Secondly, the submission of a wife to her husband is one made willingly not under compulsion. She’s entering into a free, voluntary partnership. There’s no sense of inferiority or inequality here. In fact you could argue that if you’re not free, acting as an equal, it isn’t submission it’s oppression.
Thirdly, a wife’s submission to her husband is just a particular example of something we’re all called to do! We mustn’t skip verse 21, ‘Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.’ By the way, that’s why this passage is useful for everyone here and why I haven’t said that those who aren’t married, don’t have children or don’t work any more could tune out! Our submission to one another is part of our response to the gospel. It’s to be done out of reverence to Christ.
Finally, a wife’s submission is not to an ogre but to a lover. Paul makes that very clear in the instructions to husbands. He doesn’t say rule over your wives, be the boss of your families, but rather, ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.’
Before we go any further I should actually go back and clear up that other potentially dangerous word, ‘head.’ I’ve already said that it’s a word that we associate with authority or rule. But Paul uses it a very different way, as we’ve seen already in Ephesians. Way back at the end of chapter one we read that God,
22And he has put all things under his [that is Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
At first glance it might sound like Christ has been made head of all things, in the sense of rule or authority. But the thing to note is that he’s not the head for his sake, but ours! If Christ is the head, we are the body! His headship, his rule, is for us!
We saw a fuller picture of headship in chapter 4;
15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Do you see how Christ being the head has less to do with direction or rule and more to do with resourcing and enabling growth? Christ as head enables the body to do what it’s made for.
If the husband is to be the head of the wife, it’s in this way. If headship implies a sense of leadership or initiative, it’s not absolute or domineering. It’s a sacrificial, self-giving for the sake of the other. If headship involves power, it’s power that’s to be used not to crush but to care. It’s power that’s not meant to dominate but to serve. Our power isn’t to be used to frustrate or destroy the self-fulfillment of the other, but to facilitate or enable it. If the husband does his part correctly wives should be empowered to use all the gifts they have to the greatest degree so their partnership, their family, and even the church grows from strength to strength.
That’s the kind of headship that Paul has in mind. Can you see now, why Paul instructs husbands to love their wives, just as Christ loved the church? This is just as confronting and challenging as the instruction to wives. Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. That love which knows no bounds, whose height and depth and length and breadth is beyond comprehension, is the love that a husband should have for his wife. You’re to love your wife by doing what Jesus did: by giving up your life for her. Now I’m sure everyone one of you would willingly step in front of a bullet to save your wife, if the situation ever arose. Fortunately though that sort of heroic action is not often required of us, is it? But then he isn’t talking about heroic action. He’s talking about everyday life. He’s talking about giving up our rights for the sake of our wife. He’s talking about doing all we can to nurture and care for her, to love her the way we love ourselves.
Now I’ve focused on husbands and wives, so let me make just a few observations about Paul’s instructions regarding parenting and employment.
Did you see that when it comes to children Paul goes further? Children are not just to be subject to their parents, but to obey them in the Lord, for this is right, chapter 6, verse 1. There is a sense of inequality, which means children are under compulsion to obey their parents. That’s part of the natural order, what’s right as Paul says. Children are not yet able to understand everything they need to know about the world. It’d be ridiculous if Sarah and I treated any of our boys like our equals, gave weight and consideration to all of their requests! When it comes to our children we need to give them clear directions on how to live and not be swayed by their claims that they’re old enough to decide for themselves! But a child’s obedience to their parents is also based upon God’s command and promise. Obedience to parents will result in a blessing for children, just as obedience to God will result in a blessing for adults.
But parents, and when Paul says fathers in verse 4, it applies equally to both parents, are not to use their authority carelessly. Parents are not to be domineering, in a way that will provoke their children to anger. Rather we’re to bring them up in a way that will help them to live lives that are pleasing to the Lord. The model for our parenting is our heavenly father isn’t it? We need to treat our children the way our heavenly father treats us. Parents are called to treat their children with the sort of love and patience and forgiveness that God shows us over and over and over again.
Finally, Paul’s instruction to slaves and masters can be applied to employees and employers in our age. Those who work are to do so faithfully, even when no-one is watching. Because the reality is God sees. And we’re to serve with enthusiasm and joy, doing the will of God from the heart. Masters, or employers are to treat their staff as though they are fellow workers for Christ. Really what Paul is saying is the same as the golden rule that Christ endorsed, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ I know many of you are no longer in the workforce. But Paul’s instructions can be extended to even minor ‘work’ relationships. I have to remind myself of these words when I’m at a café or restaurant and the service is terrible. In those cases I have to remember that the person serving is a fellow image bearer of God, and so I have to show love and compassion!
If we’re truly united with Christ then our basic approach to our relationships will be one of mutual submission, working together to do Christ’s work. For wives that means working together with a partner, not toiling for a master, nor acting as a rival. For a husband it will mean not dominating his wife but sacrificing himself in order to serve the one who is joined to him in a unity that reflects the unity between Christ and the Church. For the child it’ll mean obeying parents because God has placed them in families. For parents it’ll mean providing a loving environment where children will grow to independence loving and serving Christ. For employees it’ll mean serving our employers with enthusiasm and commitment, while for employers it’ll mean treating employees the way we’d like to be treated ourselves.
We can only do all this if we are filled with the Spirit as Paul says in verse 18. It’s only then that we’ll be able to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Let’s pray that Christ’s Spirit living within us would help us to change so we can be more Christ-like.