Monday, January 11, 2010

The Spirit-Filled Marriage (Ephesians 5:22-33)

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The first Southern Baptist Convention I ever attended was in 1998 in Salt Lake City. You might say that it was a baptism by fire. Internally, it was one of the best Conventions I have ever attended. Externally, however, Southern Baptists were ridiculed in the media, in the culture, and even by other Christians over an amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message, our confession of faith. That amendment sought to set forth a biblical understanding of the Family. At that crucial juncture of American history, many Baptists were aware that the Christian understanding of family was under fire from many sides, and it seemed important for Baptists to set forth exactly where we stand. Of course there were many who took exception to the statement’s wording, because it speaks against homosexuality, divorce, sex outside of marriage, and abortion. It should not surprise us to know that the secular media and cultural forces who advocate for all those things disagreed with Southern Baptists on these plain Biblical teachings. But what was surprising was the outcry of criticism launched against Southern Baptists from unbelievers, Christians, church leaders, even some other Baptists and Evangelicals, about the statement’s position on the roles of husbands and wives in marriage. Overlooking a majority of the surrounding context, critics focused on one sentence which reads: “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.” As noted in a recent article in SBC Life, “The outcry was immediate, profuse, and often vitriolic. Secular and religious critics alike accused the SBC of embracing male chauvinism and promoting misogyny.”

The wording of that amended article, which remains unchanged in the present, 2000 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message, did not fall out of the sky. It is a precise restatement of what the Apostle Paul writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the passage before us today. And, much to the chagrin of our critics, the controversial sentence of the BFM does not occur in isolation, nor does Paul’s statement here. There is a surrounding, supporting context in both which, when properly understood, helps us understand exactly what is being taught here about Christian marriage.

Before we dive into the text, though, I want to address a common misconception whenever we talk about specific roles for males and females in society, in the family, and the church. There are two primary schools of thought on this subject: the most popular position held by most people today is that of Egalitarianism; the other is Complimentarianism. There are Christian people in each camp. What is interesting is that both groups look at the exact same Scriptures. Those Scriptures include Genesis 1-3; Galatians 3:28; and Ephesians 5. The Egalitarians, whose label is rooted in the word “equal”, see no distinctions in gender roles at all. They say that Genesis 1 and 2 teach that God created male and female equally in His image, and that gender roles were introduced after man’s fall into sin. But, because of what Christ has done in redeeming us from the fall, the roles are now erased, as stated in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Therefore, what matters now is not the gender roles specified in Ephesians 5:22-33, but the general principle of Ephesians 5:21, “Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.”
That sounds convincing, and seems to be supported by an abundance of biblical support. But I am not convinced that the egalitarian position does justice to those texts in either interpretation or application. First of all, we complimentarians agree with egalitarians that both male and female are both created in the image of God, and are therefore of equal worth to God. Neither is more important or greater than the other in essence, dignity, or value. However, we disagree on the origin of gender roles. While the egalitarian says that specific roles for males and females are a product of sin, complimentarians find Scripture affirming that God created man and woman with unique roles. In Genesis 2:15 we find that God gave Adam a specific job description: “to cultivate and keep” the garden, before ever Eve was created. In addition, Adam had a responsibility to name all the animals. This naming places Adam in a position of authority, exercising the dominion that God had given him over creation. But Eve, we are told, was created to be “a helper suitable for him” (Gen 2:18). Though Adam recognized that they were equals in substance and worth, saying “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23), he also recognizes his own headship in giving her a name as well: “She shall be called Woman” (Gen 2:23).

So, complimentarians do not see gender roles as being created in the fall, but rather as being corrupted by the fall. This is precisely what Genesis 3:16 is speaking of when God says to the woman, “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.” This means that sin has now corrupted their relationship and complimentary roles by introducing an element of usurpation, control, and competition between them. The “desire” is not a romantic one, but is one like that which sin is said to have for Cain in 4:7, a desire to control or to undermine. This is the desire that sin has infected Eve with. And rather than lovingly guiding as a family leader, Adam will now “rule” over her because of sin, in the same sense that Cain is admonished to “master” sin in 4:7. So, sin did not create gender roles, but corrupted them radically.

But thanks be to God, in redemption, Christ sets us free from sin and its effects. Galatians 3:28 does not promise us that Christ has come to erase gender roles when it says that there is “no male nor female but we are all one in Christ Jesus.” Rather it means that God does not show preferential treatment to one over the other in terms of who may receive His saving grace. The Jews have no advantage over the Greeks; the free have no advantage over slaves, and the males have no advantage over females. All have equal access to the grace of God offered in the gospel. And once set free from sin and indwelled with the Holy Spirit of God, we are able to live our lives in the way God intended us to live as we surrender ourselves to His control. This includes proper and harmonious service to God and each other in our specific roles as Christian men and women. So, while Ephesians 5:21 states a general truth that all Christians should be willing to submit to one another in the fear for Christ (another way of saying, “love your neighbor as yourself”), Paul goes on to say in the verses immediately following that there are specific implications for this in the home. Because sin has so radically affected even the most intimate of human relationships, we are under biblical admonition here to allow the Spirit to control us in our relations within marriage. This means that each one has a specific role to play in the Spirit-controlled family.

Now, with that lengthy introduction out of the way, we are ready to dive into our text. This text follows two specific statements that are important to a right understanding of the passage. The first is in Ephesians 5:18, which says “Be filled with (or controlled by) the Spirit.” The second is in Ephesians 5:21, which says, “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” And verses 22-33 now deal specifically with how this works in a marriage when both husband and wife are walking in the Spirit’s control. The implications include the specific responsibilities of the spirit-filled husband and wife, but also go beyond this to speak of the importance of a spirit-filled marriage. Because so much of the criticism and controversy surrounding these verses center on what it says to wives, I have chosen to begin with what it says to husbands because these verses are often ignored in the discussion when in fact they are perhaps the most important truths contained in the passage.

I. The Spirit-Filled Husband is a Loving Shepherd of His Home (25-31)

It should go without saying that husbands are expected to love their wives. It would be hard to imagine a couple ever proceeding with marriage in the first place if there was not mutual love between the partners. However, our society has so maligned this word “love” that it has become relatively meaningless, and nowhere is this more evident than in marriage.

Some of us have just completed a reading of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. It may have come as a surprise to anyone reading this book on the essentials of the Christian faith that Lewis devotes an entire chapter to the subject of marriage. More surprising perhaps is that Lewis was not married when this chapter was originally written, and wouldn’t be for another 14 years. In this chapter on marriage, Lewis sets forth a helpful and much needed distinction between “being in love,” and “loving.” While couples may originally decide to marry because they are “in love,” an ecstatic state accompanied by all sorts of wondrous sensations, they also make a promise to love one another even should the day come when those sensations subside. Lewis even says that this kind of love, that is exercised in spite of feelings and in faithfulness to this promise, is a better kind of love. He says that this kind of love “is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by … the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other.” Lewis says that being “in love” was the explosion that started the engine of marriage running, but that this kind of love is the fuel on which marriage runs.

And this is the kind of love that Paul is commanding Christian husbands to have toward their wives: not one based on how he feels at the moment, but a love that is born of a decision and an action. And there is a model for this love. Paul says that we are to love our wives “as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” The love that Christ showed us on the cross is our model for how we are to love our wives. He put our needs above any need of His own. He could have determined to preserve His own life and spare Himself the misery of the cross, but He endured the cross for our sakes, so that we benefit from His great sacrifice. By His “giving up” of Himself, we are “sanctified” and “cleansed” (v26), meaning set apart and made holy, in order that the bride He presents Himself with is a glorious church without spot or wrinkle, but holy and blameless. This is the way spirit-filled husbands are to love their wives. We are to put her needs above our own, and love and serve her in such a way that she benefits and thrives as a person under the shepherding care of our loving leadership in the home. Notice that Christ is the model for all that the husband does. Christ makes the church holy by the washing of water with the Word. Husbands, you are the representative of Christ in the family structure—the pastors, if you will, of your homes. How much time is spent in your home discussing God’s word with a view toward bringing those under your care into spiritual maturity? This is our job, and it is one I fear too many of us often neglect.

So Paul says, “husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies” (v28). Just as we nourish and cherish our own bodies, preserving and providing for the needs of our bodies, so we are also to nourish and cherish our wives by preserving and providing for them in love. And there is a biblical basis for this. Paul cites Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So, you are no longer two separate individuals, but one unified whole, and we give to our wives the same kind of treatment that we would give to our own bodies, for we are one flesh.

Now there are two errors which a husband may commit in the exercise of this leadership in the home. First is to become dictatorial, and this is why so many people fear the admonitions of this passage. However, if Christ is our model, how can this happen? He did not come into the world to find the most comfortable seat and demand to be waited on hand and foot. He came to serve and to make those whom He loved better by meeting their needs, including their greatest need of salvation from sin. So, this is in no way a license for husbands to become dictators in the home, and any attempt to justify such an attitude will surely be taken into account at the judgment, for Christ has been heinously misrepresented by these husbands. But I fear that the second error, which is seldom discussed, is in fact more commonly practiced. This is the error of passivity. Here, husbands make one authoritative decision – that they will not make any more decisions or take any more leadership in the home at all. As one Christian wife said to me a few years ago, “I know what the Bible says about submission, but there can’t be no SUB-mission where there ain’t no MISSION.” By necessity, she and countless wives like here are thrust into leadership roles they were never intended to occupy because their husbands refuse to lead in the Christ-like way. Remember that Jesus’ leadership which we are called to emulate was not one of comfort, ease, and the path-of-least-resistance. It was hard and costly. So will our leadership be in the home. We will have to make difficult and costly decisions, we will have to sacrifice for the benefit of others, and we will have to love and forgive even when we don’t feel like it and when everything in our human nature is telling us not to. But if we keep Jesus at the forefront of our minds and remember that as husbands we are following in His pattern of shepherding, loving, leadership, we will avoid these errors.

Does that sound like a difficult task. It is. In fact it is impossible. That is why it can only be done when we are yielded to the control of the Holy Spirit in our lives. That is the reason why this command for husbands follows the command in Eph 5:18 to be filled with the Spirit. We cannot love this way and lead this way in our strength. We must have the Spirit’s power working through us and continually be being filled by Him to be effective at what God has called us to do in the home.

Now, with these things set forth, we come back to the opening verses of this section, vv22-24. Here we see that …

II. The Spirit-Filled Wife Submits to Her Husband as to the Lord (vv22-24)

Having said what we have about the expectations of the husband, we are able to understand that these verses are not calling Christian women into some kind of degrading servitude or slavery. Any husband who would use these verses to justify that kind of attitude is in sin and will be held accountable by Christ. But when a husband loves and leads like Christ, like what is spelled out in this passage, submission is not something that has to be demanded of his wife. She recognizes his Christ-likeness, and as one who is devoted to Christ, so she will surrender to her husband as to the Lord if she is also walking in the Spirit’s control.

It is said here that the husband is the “head” of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the Church. There has been much ink spilled by scholars over the meaning of this word, with a popular common view being that it means “source” or “origin” rather than “authority,” and refers to the fact that Adam was created first, and then Eve created from Adam. However, there is not one shred of evidence in the ancient language to indicate that this is what this word means. The best argument for this interpretation comes from an appeal to a lexicon of Classical Greek edited by the scholars Liddell and Scott. However, scholars have concluded that if this word ever had this meaning, then it has only surfaced in once ancient writing, and there it is a similar word, but not the exact same word, as is used here. In every other existent ancient Greek writing, the word seems to carry the sense of “authority.” This is undisputed when we deal with other New Testament passages which speak of Christ as the head of the church, and it should be undisputed here as well. Yet, as we have seen, this authority is not one of cold and cruel tyranny, but like Christ’s is one of loving, shepherding nurture.

In 1998, when our statement on the family was being debated at the SBC, one well-intentioned messenger approached the microphone to object to the wording of the wife’s submission, offering instead to change it to “mutual submission” between husbands and wives as supported by Ephesians 5:21. This was countered by the late Dr. Adrian Rogers, who cited v24: “But as the church is subject to Christ.” Dr. Rogers said, “My dear brother, Christ is not subject to the church.” So, as the husband has a model to follow in Jesus Christ, so the wife has a model to follow in the Church of Christ. Like the church, the wife does not follow in a servile way as a result of domineering dictatorship, but willfully out of devotion and trust, believing that the husband will care for her needs and lead her responsibly in the right direction.

Now, two needful words here to undergird this. First, does this idea of headship mean that one is of greater importance or worth before God than the other? Absolutely not. Both are co-equal bearers of the divine image. In fact, what is called for in marital harmony is the same thing demonstrated within the Triune Godhead Himself. Theologians speak of intertrinitarian functional subordination, which is a fancy way of saying that though the Father, Son, and Spirit are co-equally and co-eternally God, there is a submission which is voluntarily rendered by each member of the Trinity. The Son submits to the Father and the Spirit to the Father and the Son. Is one more important or better? No, but each has a specific role in the outworking of the divine will. So it is with marriage. Neither partner is more important or qualitatively better, but each has a specific role. Leadership is necessary, not for those moments where everyone is in agreement, but particularly when husband and wife cannot reach an agreement. At this point, a husband’s role is to evaluate his own position and make sure he is taking a Christlike direction, and a wife’s role is to trust him even if she disagrees with him.
This brings us to the second needful word. What if she doesn’t trust him or disagrees with him, or what if he turns out to be wrong. We all know that this means the wife gets the eternal satisfaction of saying to her husband, “See, I told you so.” No, in fact, that would be counterproductive to whole enterprise. The wife is in a position of great liberty here, for she is not accountable to God for the decision or its outcome. Having stated her concerns, her responsibility before God is now to yield the decision making over to her husband. If she does that, she has nothing to answer for. But the husband has a much weightier burden of responsibility, for if he misleads her or violates her trust, or if he stubbornly refuses to give ear to her input, then he is accountable to God for his poor leadership in the home. Ladies I can assure you that this is a much more severe consequence than hearing you say, “I told you so.” So, having submitted, you can leave your husband in God’s hands with the outcome.

Does this sound difficult for you to do? It surely is, and that is why you must be continually Spirit-filled to live out this mandate in your marriage.

Alright, now finally we come to the crux of the matter. It’s all well and good to talk about husbands and wives and their roles in marriage. We need to hear that. But Paul is getting at something far more important here.

III. A Spirit-Filled Marriage Communicates the Gospel to the World (v32-33)

After reading verses 22-31, the most practical teaching on Christian marriage in the New Testament, we come to verse 32 in which Paul surprises us by telling us that his primary point here is not marriage. His main point is the relationship between Jesus and His Church. In v33, he reassures us that the instructions for marriage hold true: a husband is to love his wife even as himself, and the wife must respect the leadership of her husband. But when this happens, something greater than simple marital harmony is taking place. When Spirit-filled husbands and wives live out this marriage mandate, marriage becomes what God truly intended it to be: an earthly picture of the spiritual reality of His loving relationship with His people.

When a Spirit-filled husband leaves the comforts of his parent’s shelter to take a wife into union to himself, he is acting out a parable of Jesus Christ, leaving the glory of heaven to come and dwell among us to bring a bride, the church, into union with Himself. When a husband lovingly leads his wife and his family by putting their greatest needs above his own earthly desires, he demonstrates in a small way the sacrifice Jesus made for us, giving up the comforts of earthly life for the death of Calvary’s cross in order to save us from sin. When a husband shepherds his wife into spiritual maturity and personal growth, he reenacts before the watching the sanctifying work that Jesus is carrying out in His people through the ministry of His Spirit and His Word. And when a Spirit-filled husband unconditionally loves his bride with an unbreakable faithfulness, he demonstrates to the world the unbreakable covenant with which God has bound us to Himself through Jesus Christ. And as Spirit-filled wives submit in love and trust to the leadership of their husbands, they are showing the world what it means to be a follower of Jesus. His ways are seldom our ways, and we often misunderstand His purposes, but we yield to His Lordship over us because we love Him and trust Him. This is depicted when godly wives carry out the principles of this passage.

As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “A Christian marriage thus has great evangelistic power in and beyond the home. Among other married couples a Christian marriage can witness to the grace of Christ on which it is based. Christ’s love for us is displayed through the husband’s love for his wife, our submission to Him in faith through the wife’s loving submission to her husband. Children should be able to see the Gospel in their parents’ lifestyle. By God’s grace the Christ-like love and Christ-centered devotion seen in their parents will encourage them to trust and obey Him as Savior and Lord.” I would add to what Dr. Ferguson has said that in addition to one’s children, one’s neighbors, coworkers, and others who observe a godly marriage see an illustration of the gospel which will awaken them to their need for Christ and open their hearts to receive the gospel we speak to them.

Recent studies have shown that the divorce rate is as high among professing Christians as it is among any other segment of society, and that Southern Baptists in particular have a higher rate of divorce than any other group of Christians. This tells me two things: First, and most obvious, we are not living Spirit-filled lives. He is not controlling us. These alarming studies are a wake up call reminding us that we cannot live the life God has called us to on our own resources. We need the daily, moment-by-moment empowering of His Spirit if we are to live out His mandates for our lives and Christian service, including our marriages. But secondly, it seems that these realities may have some correlation with the fact that people today seem uninterested in the Gospel. When they look at our lives, they do not see any qualitative difference between the way we live and the way they live. So, we must pause to consider these questions: What does my way of life in general, and my relationship with my spouse in particular, say to people I know about Jesus Christ? Do they see the power of the Holy Spirit transforming my life to a higher plane of living than the rest of the world? What changes need to be made in my life?

If we are married Christians, perhaps we need to be reminded again that we are desperate and dependent upon the filling of the Holy Spirit. We must yield control of our lives over to Him and stop living according to our natural instincts, impulses, and inclinations. That is spiritual bankruptcy! We must live in the power He has provided. Secondly, it may mean that this afternoon, we need to have a long, Christ-centered conversation with our spouse about our own sins in this area, and seek his or her forgiveness and prayerfully seek the transformation of our marriages as we surrender ourselves afresh to the Spirit. Thirdly, unmarried Christians here see as well the need for a continual filling of the Spirit, because God uses the ordinary things of our lives that we take for granted to make Himself known to others as the Spirit works in and through us. Finally, perhaps someone today realizes that they have never come into a relationship with Jesus Christ, accepting Him by faith as Lord and Savior. Therefore, this day, we would invite you to believe upon Him who died for your sins, so that you could be forgiven and united with Him in a relationship that will last for all eternity.

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