A New Way of Relating - Mutual Submission audio
God has instituted an amazing plan, a plan that involves you and me in showing the world how great is his wisdom and glory. Not only has he instituted this plan but he's carried it out and continues to carry it out generation after generation. He's restored our spiritual life. He's put us in churches where the gifts he's provided for growing those churches will build us into a unified body as we become mature in our faith. Those gifts will provide us with stability, he says in Eph 4, so that we can grow up into Christ and build up one another in love as we each do our part.
Over the last two weeks we've seen a little of how we can do our part. We can learn to speak the truth in love. We can learn to put away falsehood, wrath, anger and malice. We can earn a living so we can give money away. We can tame our tongues so that everything we say is gracious, uplifting, life giving. We can live lives that are counter-cultural, in that they shun immorality, obscenity and greed. Instead we can seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that others are blessed by our presence among them. And today we discover how we can do our part in the context of our household and work settings.
This isn't an easy passage to preach on in these days of liberation and individuality, but that's the advantage of preaching through a whole book: you're forced to grapple with the difficult passages that you might otherwise skip over.
Well before we look in detail at the passage let me just affirm what we understand about the Christian worldview that we work from. Paul has spent a lot of effort so far in this book reminding his readers of the essentially unity they enjoy as God's people. Despite the differences in their background, despite not coming from a Jewish heritage as children of Abraham, they've been given an equal status with the Jews. Elsewhere Paul teaches that this common heritage of the children of God removes all distinctions: of race, gender and economics (Gal 3:28).
So the teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ allows us confidently to affirm 3 truths:
- the dignity of womanhood, childhood and servanthood as shown in the ministry of Christ himself
- the equality before God of all human beings, irrespective of race, rank, class, culture, sex or age.
- and the even deeper unity of all Christian believers as fellow members of God's family and of Christ's body.
So there's no hint here of inferiority. Submission does not equal subjection or subordination. In fact you could argue that you can only submit yourself to another if you're free to do so. That is, if in fact you're an equal. If you're not free, if you're not acting as an equal, then it isn't submission, it's subjection.
Paul begins this section with a simple instruction that underpins everything that follows: "21Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." In Philippians the instruction is to let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God didn't consider this something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Submission here means giving up the rights you have in order to serve others. This is an instruction for wives, for husbands, for parents, for children, for employers and employees. And it's a very confronting a very counter-cultural instruction in a culture where rights are so important.
But notice this is not an arbitrary rule. No. it's an instruction to give up your rights for the greater good of God's kingdom.
He begins by talking to wives. Now at this point I could suggest that husbands get out the news sheet and read the notices for a while, because this isn't written to you. Your turn will come in a couple of minutes. These instructions are for wives.
He says "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior." (NIV)
I think we find that so hard to deal with because we live in a fallen world where our natural instinct leads us in the opposite direction. Let me take you back to Gen 3, to the fall; to the source of our difficulty. Here's what God said would be the result of their disobedience: (Gen 3:16 NRSV) "To the woman he said, 'I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.'" Now the term desire there is the same word that's used in the next chapter where God warns Cain that Sin desires to have him. In other words her desire for her husband isn't necessarily a physical desire, rather it's a desire to control him. At the same time he warns that her husband will rule over her. So the result of the fall is that men rule over women and women desire to have it the other way around. Rather than to love and to cherish, our inner desire is to dominate. Our natural inclination isn't to submit to one another but to rule one another. So that makes it doubly difficult for us to deal with a verse like this. Wives find it hard because they don't want to submit to the rule of another. Husbands find it hard because it gives them a perfect excuse to exercise their sinful urge to dominate. But neither response is a Christian one.
Paul has been telling us about how God has renewed us in his image through Jesus death and resurrection, and part of that renewing of us in the image of God is the ending of the contest between men and women. No longer are women to vie with men for supremacy. God wants women and men to work together in harmony the way he intended it in Genesis 2; i.e. to build one another up. In the marriage relationship this will mean women accepting the role of their husbands as the head of the family and not trying to usurp that role. This doesn't mean that they need to be doormats or lose their individuality; nor does it limit their use of their God-given gifts. In fact, as we'll see in a moment, 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, grows from strength to strength.
But that brings us to husbands. You can put the news sheet down now. This is your turn.
I want you to notice something important here. Husbands are not instructed here to be the leaders of the family. You're not told to be the decision maker or the bread winner or the disciplinarian. Here's what you're told to do: "25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." I'll give you a few seconds to take that in. 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 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. It saddens me when I see men using a passage like this to put down their wives, to stop them from exercising the gifts that God has given them, to lessen their value in their own eyes and in the eyes of others in the church. I don't see that as nourishing and tenderly caring for them at all.
Well let's think for a moment about what it means for the husband to be the head of the wife the way Christ is the head of the church. I've already commented that there's no mention here of husbands making all the decisions (the big ones at least) or being the bread winner or the disciplinarian of the family. We're just given this metaphor of a head. So what does it mean?
We need to go back to the previous chapter to get some idea of what Paul has in mind. In Eph 4:15-16 we read this: "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." What's the role of the head in that image? Is it to make decisions? No. Is it to lead the body on the right path? No. So what is it? It's to be the uniting force within the body, the focus of the body's life. Notice that the head doesn't make the body grow. The body has been supplied with everything it needs for that already. It's equipped with ligaments to tie it together, it has a variety of parts that all do their bit in building it up.
The role of the head is to help the various parts of the body work together to promote bodily growth for itself. What it does is to set the parts in the correct alignment. So the husband's role in the family is to free up its members to do the best they can to bring unity and harmony to the whole.
Which brings us to parents and children.
If children are to grow to maturity and contribute to the harmony and well-being of the family they need to learn to obey their parents. Notice that the instruction here is stronger than it was for husbands or wives. Children are not equals with parents. They're to obey their parents in the Lord.
And notice that he gives two reasons why children need to obey their parents.
The first is simply that this is right. That is it fits the natural order of the world. Children are not yet able to understand all there is to know about the world we live in and so they need to follow the instruction of their parents. It always worries me when I see parents who don't seem to be able or even willing to discipline their children. Especially I get worried when I see parents who seem to be dependent on their children, looking for approval from their children. When I do, I feel like asking them who are the parents in that relationship? Who's making the decisions, you or your kids? Your kids will have plenty of time to make their own decisions, and their own mistakes, once they're grown up. In the meantime give them clear directions how to live their lives and ignore their complaints that they're old enough to decide for themselves.
Second, he points out that this is God's command and the first commandment with a promise. In other words the motivation that God gives for obedience on the part of children is a positive one. Obedience to parents will result in blessing for children just as obedience to God will result in blessing to adults. For children the parents stand in the place of God. We saw this when we looked at the fifth commandment in more detail earlier this year. Obeying parents is part of a child's duty to God
But having said that, notice the instruction to fathers to make sure they don't go beyond the authority that God has given them. "do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." Be careful how you discipline your kids, what constraints you place on them, how you speak to them about what you're telling them to do. If all you do is provoke them to anger you'll just make it harder for both you and them. Rather make it clear that you're seeking to raise them in a way that will help them live lives that are pleasing to God. And as your children get older the way you deal with them has to change. You can't treat a 15 year old the way you treat a 7 year old. You need to take into account their growing maturity. You need to spend more time explaining why you put boundaries on their behaviour. You need to care for them the way God cares for you.
In fact 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. Just as a husband is called to lay down his life for his wife, so 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. Jesus' parable of the prodigal son is an important lesson for all parents to study.
Finally slaves, or in our context, employees, are to work with enthusiasm, even when no-one is watching, as though they're working for the Lord. Now it seems to me that that is so contrary to the Australian work ethic that it'll take some doing. But again he promises that God will reward those who work like that. Similarly masters are to treat their slaves, or their employees, as though they were fellow workers for Christ. This is an outworking of the golden rule: "Do unto others what you would have them do to you." If you want respect, show it to your employees. If you want to receive service, give it, just as Christ did. Don't threaten. That is, they're not to misuse the power they have over their servants - and in some cases that's quite considerable. And remember that God, who shows no partiality, is watching. The reason that people in power get away with abuse of power is that too often there's no impartial judge to check their actions. Abuse becomes OK if you're on top. Dishonesty is OK if you get away with it. But Paul says there is an impartial judge, your Master in heaven, and he's watching how you behave.
So how we can do our part, in the context of our household and work settings, in building one another up in love? Well, 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 an adversary. 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.
The key to all this is in vs 18 & 21: "Be filled with the Spirit" and "21Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Let's pray that Christ's Spirit living within us would help us to change our natural inclinations so we can be more Christ-like.