The Lord’s Day
August 6, 2006
“God’s New Family: An Exposition of Ephesians (XLVII)
Household Rules: Marriage and Family (2)”
Obey?! Submit? You’ve got to be kidding!
Dr. J. Ligon
I invite you to turn with me to Ephesians 5, verse 22.
We’re going to look at verses 22-24 today, but let me admit at the outset we’re
not going to get out of verse 22. We’re going to have to come back and look at
verses 22-23-24 next week. This whole section is so important in our day and
time that it bears sitting down on and listening to carefully.
We are going to be dealing today with, as I said
before the service, a very politically incorrect subject. We’re going to be
broaching the “S” word…Submission. And that seems quaint to some,
outdated to others, and downright oppressive to still more, and so we need to
pay close attention to what the Apostle Paul says.
I do want to remind you before we even get to the
Apostle Paul’s words to Christian wives in Ephesians 5:22, in Ephesians 5:18-21,
the passage we’ve spent a few weeks on, the Apostle Paul has made it clear that
the filling of the Holy Spirit, that ongoing work of the Holy Spirit whereby He
matures us in Christ and assures us in Christ, is absolutely essential for
growing in grace, and that there is no better index of the effect of the Holy
Spirit’s work in us than mutual subjection. That’s the participle, that’s the
word that we talked about in verse 21, all last week. It’s something that the
Apostle Paul expects all Christians to manifest to one another: a mutual
subjection, a service of one another.
And we said three things about that mutual
subjection that the Apostle Paul expects all Christians to manifest.
First of all, we said that it is corporate…that
mutual subjection is corporate. In other words, it can only be expressed in
the context of the body in relationships. Very often we think of individual
holiness, and individual holiness is important, but what the Apostle Paul wants
to stress here is that though God wants us to be holy individually, it is
impossible for us to express the holiness that God wants us to have
individualistically. It must be expressed in the context of relationships. It
must be expressed in the context of the communion of the saints. It must be
expressed in the context of the body, the corpus, and so it is corporate. It has
to do with our relationship, the whole fellowship; and so the kind of holiness
God wants us to express is holiness in relationship, and so the Apostle Paul
first of all says that this mutual servitude, this mutual subjection that he
calls all Christians to show, is something that we show in the context of our
relationships with one another in the Christian church, and, of course, in our
Christian families and in all our relationships.
Secondly, we also said that this call to mutual
subjection is radical. It’s just downright radical. As I drove to church
this morning, I was behind someone who was turning into the hospital parking
lot, no doubt to serve in the hospital in some capacity today. But on her back
license plate, around the back license plate it said “It’s all about me.” I
thought, “Bless their hearts, whoever is having to relate to you, sweetie!” But
that is quintessential America today. We are individualistic, we are
narcissistic, and it is all about us. And the Apostle Paul bumps right up
against that and says ‘No, it’s not. It’s not all about you. It’s all about God,
it’s all about Christ, it’s all about His kingdom, it’s all about His people.
And the glorious freedom that He gives to us is the freedom from this wretched
bondage of self-focus, self-preoccupation, narcissism, so that we’re freed to
love and serve others.’ And so what he’s calling us to is just downright
It’s grace-based…we couldn’t do it apart from
God’s grace; it’s gospel-empowered…only a life changed by the gospel is able
to manifest what we’re going to talk about today. It’s not only grace-based
and gospel-empowered, it’s self-denying. It’s other-focused. We’re giving
ourselves away in a joyful, deliberate, willing subjection to one another. We’re
committing ourselves to the service of one another, and it’s a very radical
thing. It’s something that is to become so woven into our life that the world is
to see it in our relationships, and the world is to say ‘You know, they are
acting very differently in their relationships to one another with the way that
they serve one another than we are.’ It’s to be a gospel witness to the world
around us. So we said last week that our whole attitude was to be “How may I
Now I need to pause right there and say that that
goal of serving one another can be a terrible playground for controlling people
to try and use against those who are sensitive and those who are less assertive,
and so I want to pause for just a second and say that mutual subjection does not
mean that you can never say no to someone. Mutual subjection doesn’t mean that
you can never refuse a request.
I have a group of elders that meets with me one
breakfast every month just to help me say no to things. And they do that not
because they don’t want me to serve, they do that because they do want me to
serve. They want me to serve the right way, they don’t want me to kill my family
in the process, they want me to make sure that I’m serving you in the way that I
need to serve, and so they help me say no to requests not because they are not
aspiring to the goal of helping me serve, but because they are aspiring
to the goal of helping me serve.
And it’s going to be the same thing with you.
Your service is going to require you sometimes to say no, or to turn things
down. Mutual subjection is not about somebody else getting to run your life.
You know, mutual subjection doesn’t mean that there gets to be one person in the
congregation who knows what God’s will is and has a wonderful plan for your
life, and then you just get to say “yes, sir, yes, sir; yes, ma’am, yes ma’am.”
That’s not what mutual subjection is about.
Mutual subjection requires that you do some thinking
about what God’s gifting is to you, and what your present obligations are.
You’ve got to prayerfully approach how best you can serve others, but it’s not
about other people getting to run your life. It means, in fact, that there are
some times that we have to say no. When somebody is asking us to help them to do
something that is wrong, the way we serve them is we say, “NO! I love you too
much; I want to serve you, brother; NO is the answer!”
When someone is wanting us to enable their
irresponsibility, the loving, serving answer is “NO! I am not here to enable
your irresponsibility. I love you too much to do that. I’ll be happy to help you
be responsible, but I won’t take your responsibility for you.”
Mutual subjection is not acceding to abusive
behavior or inconsiderate behavior. That’s not what we’re talking about. Mutual
subjection doesn’t mean that our personal choices and our prior obligations and
the reality of our schedule and commitments and our own distinct gifting don’t
matter in terms of our service. No, they do. We take all of those things into
consideration, but our goal is in everything — in absolutely everything — to
serve one another.
And so with all those qualifications let me just say
that there are times when we will feel like saying no, and when we will want to
say no, when we should say yes, because our desire is to serve.
Now. So we said that mutual subjection is
something that’s expressed corporately, it’s a radical call, and we also said
last week that it is Christ’s model and Christ-motivated. That is, when we
look around in the Christian life and ask who is the person in the Bible who
best manifests mutual subjection, the answer is easy: Jesus. Here He is, the One
of whom the Lord God says every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the one true God. Every knee will bow, whether it
wants to or not. Every tongue will confess that. And guess what He says to His
disciples: “I am among you as one who serves.” So when we are seeking to live
out a life of serving one another, our great example is the Lord God of the
universe, who gave His life in service to us and who ever lives to intercede for
us even now, when He is at the right hand of God ruling the world by His word
and Spirit. He’s the perfect picture of service and that motivates us, because
we long to be like our Savior. We want to be like our Savior in our
relationships with one another.
Now, all of that about mutual subjection I hope will
help you understand what the Apostle Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 5:22,
because, dear sisters in Christ, before Paul under the inspiration of the Holy
Spirit speaks to you God’s word that you subject yourselves or submit yourselves
to your own husbands…that you respect your husbands…before he says a word of
that he says that it is the hallmark of every Christian (your husband included)
to seek to serve other Christians. And he is going to say in this very passage,
and when he turns to speak directly to the husbands in verse 25, that the model
of the husband’s service of you is the model of Christ laying down His life for
His people. So this is not some sort of an agenda designed by a hopefully
tyrannical and domineering husband to keep women in their place: this is a
radical gospel call which is sent out to all Christians, men and women, to seek
to be serving one another; and then, within that, it is a direction on how
Christian women are particularly to express that global gospel challenge in
their relationships with their husbands.
Now: no poking ribs today! This is not about “her” —
this will be about you. And men, you are next.
Let’s look to God in prayer before we read His word.
Heavenly Father, thank You for this word. This
word is so uncomfortable for some people to even read aloud in this culture. It
may seem hopelessly traditionalist to some. It may seem to be giving an excuse
for all kinds of abuse, but we know, O God, contrary to the lies of Satan in our
ears, that You never tell us to do something that isn’t for our own good. We
know that Your word is good. You have proved it to us over and over, so help us
stop our ears to the confusion of the world and to the lies of Satan and believe
that every word of Scripture is good and true. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear God’s word:
“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the
husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is head of the church, He
Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so
also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
I’ve given you in the outline a three-part outline
where first we look in verse 22 at the command, and then in verse 23 we look at
the context of that command, and then in verse 24 we see the comprehensive scope
of that command. But we’re not going to get to the second two, so let me just
outline verse 22 for you. I just want to look at what submission is; what it
isn’t; I want you to look at the significance of the phrase to your own
husbands — that tells you a little bit about the context of what Paul is
asking; and then, fourth and finally, I want you to look at the phrase as to
the Lord, and see its significance as to what God is asking in this
I. What submission is.
If you are at a marriage at First Presbyterian Church, during
that marriage service (generally early on) there will be a moment called The
Declaration of Intent, where a bridegroom and a bride publicly say ‘I want
to marry that woman’ — ‘I want to marry that man.’ And in the course of their
saying publicly that they desire to marry one another, they declare their
intentions before all those witnesses to be married for the rest of their lives;
they take a vow which they answer in our order of wedding service with the words
“I will.” The husband promises that he will love and honor and cherish. In our
vow, if you are there to hear a wedding service, the bride answers this
“Will you have this man to be your wedded husband; to live with him after God’s
commandments in the holy estate of marriage; and will you love him, honor and
obey him, so long as you both shall live?”
Now you should be asking yourself the question: “So
what’s up with that? What? It that obey him thing…is that some sort of
left over vestigia from the Neanderthal era? What’s the deal at First
Presbyterian Church?” You know, one local author because of this said that the
elders of First Presbyterian Church like to keep their women under their thumbs.
Whenever I read that local author, I think of him sitting at the strip mall
bookstore in D’Lo selling his self-published books while the women of this
congregation run the city of Jackson! But that’s another story for another day.
What is the deal? Well, all that language is trying
to do is in a capsule form express what the Apostle Paul says to husbands and
wives in this passage, so let’s look at it together.
Note first of all in verse 22 that Paul gives a
command, and here’s the command. The command is: “Wives, be subject to your own
husbands, as to the Lord.” What does that mean? Well, Paul is saying here that
God calls Christian wives to a sincere respect and a glad and willing submission
to their husbands. Now where did I get that “respect” idea? Well, let your eyes
flow down to the bottom of the paragraph (verse 33), look at the second half of
verse 33, and notice what Paul says there: “The wife must see to it that she
respects her husband.” So notice how Paul brackets the paragraph with those two
ideas: the wife giving herself in submission — or service or subjection — to her
husband; and, the wife respecting her husband.
So what does this command mean? It means that
Christian wives are to give appropriate respect to their husbands. They’re to
acknowledge and submit to their spiritual leadership in the home. In particular
I want to draw your attention to three things which are entailed in this
The first thing is simply recognizing that God
has established an order in Christian households, and acknowledging that and
embracing that, not fighting against it or resisting or resenting it. In
this passage we’ve just been told that all Christians are to subject themselves
to one another. They’re to serve one another, and some people have argued this:
Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:21 that there must be a mutual subjection of all
Christians to one another; therefore, there are no longer any distinctive roles
that husbands have that are different from wives in the context of Christian
marriage. But the Apostle Paul clearly says the first part of that argument’s
right, the second part of it’s wrong. Yes, we’re all to serve one another, but
that does not mean that there are no longer distinctive roles for husbands and
wives in the context of Christian marriage. In fact, in this very passage, if
you’ll look at verse 24, Paul will speak about a different role that the husband
has from the role of the wife that he speaks about in verse 23 and 25. So the
first thing that submission means in this context for a Christian woman is that
she acknowledges that God has established a divine order in the Christian home,
and that order is for her good as well as the good of her husband.
The second thing that submission means is simply
this: The recognition of her husband’s spiritual leadership in the home, under
God. Notice what Paul says in stark terms in verse 24:
“As the church is subject to
Christ, so also wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.”
He draws an analogy between the relationship between the
church and Christ and the wife and the husband. Why? Look back at verse 23: “For
the husband is the head of the wife….” In other words Paul is saying that
husbands have been given by God a unique spiritual responsibility for which they
are accountable to God and with which they must exercise spiritual leadership
for the well-being of their wives and families in the home, and so submission to
one’s husband entails practically recognizing one’s husband’s responsibilities
in that area.
Thirdly, submission involves a voluntary
sacrificial, self-giving, long-suffering loyalty to one’s husband. Why do I
say long-suffering? Because he’s a sinner. You know, it’s one thing for the
church to submit to Christ. He’s never let us down; He’s never failed us; He’s
never made a mistake; He has never sinned. None of those are things that any
husband in here has even remotely gotten close to! We fail, we sin, we make
mistakes, we can be selfish…it’s hard to submit to someone like that,
and therefore it takes Christian forbearance to do; but it’s a voluntary,
sacrificial, self-giving, patient, long-suffering loyalty to one’s husband.
I love the way that John Piper and Wayne Gruden
describe this. Here’s their short paragraph definition of what Paul and Peter
and the rest of the new Testament teach about submission:
“Submission refers to a wife’s divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s
leadership, and help carry it through according to her gifts. It is not an
absolute surrender of her will; rather, we speak of her disposition to yield to
her husband’s guidance and her inclination to follow his leadership. Christ is
her absolute authority, not the husband. She submits out of reverence for
Christ, as Paul said in Ephesians 5:21. The supreme authority of Christ
qualifies the authority of her husband. For instance, she should never follow
her husband into sin; nevertheless, even when she may have to stand with Christ
against the sinful will of her husband, she can still have a spirit of
submission, a disposition to yield. She can show by her attitude and behavior
that she does not like resisting his will, and that she longs for him to forsake
sin and lead in righteousness so that her disposition to honor him can again
produce harmony in the marriage.”
It’s a very helpful paragraph describing what we’re talking
about. That’s the quote that I have on the web log for you, if you’d like to
pick it up there.
II. What submission isn’t.
Now we need to pause and say for a few moments what submission
isn’t before we can conclude with what it is.
Submission is not putting the husband in
the place of Christ as if the husband is some sort of absolute authority.
Christian husbands are accountable to God, they’re accountable to the Bible,
they’re accountable to the government, and they are accountable to the church in
their conduct as husbands towards their wife and as fathers towards their
children. That’s just a fact. Men are under authority.
Secondly, submission does not mean giving up
independent thought. First of all, notice here that Paul doesn’t say ‘Now,
husbands, go home and tell your wives that they’re to submit to you.’ He
directly addresses his Christian sisters and he says ‘By God’s authority I’m
asking you to exercise your independent thought…you’re perfectly smart enough
to understand this conversation, you don’t have to have your husband to relate
this to you. You’re perfectly capable of understanding what I’m going to say.’
He speaks directly to his Christian sisters and understands that they are
capable of independent thought, and he’s asking them to embrace this, just as he
has just asked all Christians to embrace a mutual servitude to one another.
Submission does not mean that a wife should give
in to every demand of her husband. Submission will sometimes require
precisely that she does not. Our current President is very clear on the fact
that when he was struggling with alcoholism that his wife put the foot down and
said, “It’s me or that bottle.” And he’s thankful for that, and it is a very
comforting thought to me to know, as I understand it, that it is the practice of
the leader of the free world every morning to get up and serve his wife
breakfast in bed–not made by the White House stewards, but made by himself for
her as a way of serving her because of the way she served him in saying ‘No.’
Submission does not mean that a wife should give
up her efforts to influence and guide her husband. In the very passage in I
Peter 3, when Peter is asking wives to submit to their husbands, he takes up the
case of a wife who is married to an unbelieving husband, and he makes the point
‘I want you to influence that unbelieving husband. I want to see him become a
believer in the one true God. And I want you to be the influence on him through
the way you relate to him to draw him to Christ.’
Submission does not mean that a woman has less
intelligence or competence than a man. I’ve told you many times before that
my mother is an intellectual powerhouse, and when it came to theology she had
read a lot more of it and was far more articulate than my father. She could
teach a class as well as anyone, and when my father got near a podium he got
nervous–and you can best believe that when he did get near a podium, my mother
had written whatever it was that he was going to say! And so it has never
occurred to me — it has never occurred to me! — that Christian women have
less intelligence or competence or theological ability than men. I’ve seen that
lived out, and that’s not what’s occurring to Paul here, either. He’s speaking
to these sisters as sisters in the Lord.
And submission does not mean being fearful,
intimidated, cowering before a husband who can strike out in an arbitrary
fashion at any point. No, that’s not what we’re talking about when we speak
about submission. But let me remind you positively that the wife is here being
asked to give a particular expression of a general Christian duty. In other
words, the Apostle Paul isn’t asking this Christian woman to do anything in
principle that is different from anything that he’s asking every Christian to do
in terms of our service of one another. It’s just a specific, particular
application of that general principle that we serve one another.
Secondly, notice that in this context the wife’s
submission is to be towards someone who does —what? Who loves her. Isn’t it
glorious how Paul sets this in that framework? You’re to give yourself in
service not just to any old person, but to a person who loves you.
Thirdly, notice it’s not just that a person who
loves you in general, it is a person who loves you in the way that Christ loved
the church, so this is a person who is told by God — who is commanded by God —
to love you in the way that Jesus loved you, which is to lay down his life for
Fourthly, notice that the husband’s love and
self-sacrifice for his wife’s wellbeing is his expression of the duty of mutual
subjection. How is it that the husband serves the wife? By expressing that
loving, self-denying…if necessary, life-ending…love for his wife.
And fifth, and finally, notice that the wife’s
subjection or submission is again just an expression of an aspect of Christian
love in general. Every mother in here knows that in your love for your
children there are many, many times when your children do not understand how
much it is that you are giving up for them. They have no idea. And yet you love
them. And Christian love always entails in one measure or another, in one degree
to another, someone showing a love and a self-sacrifice to other people who have
no idea how much that costs. And of course, that’s exactly what the Lord God did
to us in His grace.
And so in this passage we see this call to
submission which recognizes the order that God has established in the household,
which embraces the authority of one’s husband and which gives a voluntary
sacrificial, long-suffering loyalty and respect to one’s husband.
You know that leads me to the third point that I
wanted to draw to your attention, and that is this phrase to your own
husbands. Isn’t it interesting that the Apostle Paul’s word here is a
call for a voluntary submission of a wife to her husband, not of women in
general to all men in general? And whatever implications there may be for the
creation order, Paul is saying that this special expression of service is to be
reserved for the context of the marriage commitments.
Why do you think that he spoke to women first on
this? Have you ever wondered that? Was he just following the normal order of
household teaching in his day? Maybe. I suspect there’s probably another reason,
though, and that reason is because first of all the Apostle Paul has already
said that it is his general principle for every Christian to be in a posture of
wanting to serve every other Christian, and so he knows that Christian women are
not being asked to serve on a one-way street. It’s a two-way street. They
already know that.
But secondly, I suspect it’s this: The Apostle Paul
has already articulated the enormous privileges of the Christian life and
Christian freedom in such a way that Christians could think that that new
freedom that we have in Christ frees us from the responsibility to serve one
another in radical ways. And I suspect that the Apostle Paul wants to start
right off to say that this freedom that you have in Christ frees you to
serve, not from service. The freedom is real, but it’s not from service
and responsibility, but to service and responsibility. And I suspect he wants to
get that clear right at the outset.
Finally, when Paul says “…as to the Lord” what
in the world is he saying? Well, he is saying that there is no possibility
of a Christian woman manifesting her true embrace of the lordship of Christ
without showing respect for her husband in the context of the home, just as he
will say later that there is no possibility of a Christian man showing a
practical expression of the lordship of Christ in his life unless he loves his
wife as Christ loved the church.
This is stout stuff, folks. And we’ve spent most of
our time today looking at general principles. Next week we will really try and
get through the whole passage, but we will try to get down into practical
specifics of what this looks like. I’ve been ranging over literature written by
godly Christian women this week, and they have given me hundreds of good ideas
which I will try and pare down into a doable unit when we gather again next
Let’s look to God in prayer.
Heavenly Father, it stuns and convicts us that
our embrace of the lordship of Christ is manifested in our relationships as
husband and wife, because we suspect that sometimes our actions in those
relationships do not bear the marks of a heart that has embraced the lordship
and service of Christ. So change our hearts, show us our own sin, help us to
serve one another. And grant that the Christian women of this congregation would
gladly and joyfully embrace Your order for the family, and would seek to serve
their husbands. But, Lord God, grant that the husbands of this congregation
would make it easy for their wives to do so. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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