You can listen to the audio of this sermon from 6/12/16 titled “Marriage” here.
As we jump into the sermon today, let me begin with a few introductory words. First off, this passage we are looking at it probably deserves to have a couple months of sermons dedicated to it, and I don’t have that. That means that I am going to have to give a very general overview and may say something that really should be given more attention to explain. I am anticipating that this will probably raise a whole host of questions about a hundred other issues regarding marriage, and if you have more questions let me point you towards the fantastic book The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller. I could not more highly recommend a book on marriage – this is, hands down, the most practical, Christ-centered book I have ever read on marriage. Plus, it also is now available in a small-group study format, so if your GROW group wanted to go through this study together, you could, and it would be a tremendous blessing.
Secondly, as we talk about marriage and what it means to be a husband and what it means to be a wife, be wary letting cultural stereotypes define manhood and womanhood. While we can never shed our cultural lenses, we can be aware of them, and actively strive to let God’s Word define what it means to be a husband and a wife. What comes to your mind when you think of a husband leading his family? What comes to your mind when you think of a wife submitting to her husband? If we let cultural stereotypes define what those words mean, then we will be prisoners to our culture. Typically, in America today, when we hear of a wife submitting to her husband, it almost always makes us think of some sort of unbalanced relationship where the man is more important. And if we let our understanding of headship and submission stop there, we will either become domineering husbands who view ourselves like kings, our wives our subjects, and our La-Z-Boy’s our thrones, or we will be repulsed by that idea and assume that there is no difference whatsoever in the roles of husbands and wives and that headship and submission is dangerous and must be overcome. But the Bible actually rejects both of those views.
So here is what I am asking you to do: think deeply, and scrutinize the conclusions you draw as I speak. Ask yourself, “Where am I getting my understanding of what marriage should look like from? Why do I believe what I believe about the roles of husbands and wives?” May I encourage you to strive to let God’s Word define what those things mean?
The Ground of Marriage
When my wife and I were first married it did not take long for me to realize that some of my expectations about marriage were a little off. I spent a great deal of time in our engagement reading books on marriage and what it meant to be a good husband, and really felt very well prepared to do this whole marriage thing. But it didn’t take long before I found out that the idealized husband I pictured myself being in my mind did not line up with the actual husband I was being. I always tell young guys that marriage, if you’re doing it right, is probably the hardest thing you will ever do (at least until you have kids), but it is also the greatest thing you’ll ever do.
But God has not left us alone to try and figure this out, God has a design for marriage, and there are few places that more clearly lay out the specific roles and design for husband and wives than Ephesians 5. But before Paul launches into that, he lays a fundamental principle, “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (Eph. 5:21). Paul is concluding his description of what it looks like to be “filled with the Spirit,” (Eph. 5:18), and his description reaches its crescendo with submitting to one another, to the other believers in the church, out of reverence for Christ.
Why do we not like the idea of submission? Just the word “submit” sounds almost inherently offensive. Why is that? We hate the idea of submitting to anyone because it feels so radically offensive to our pride. “I have to submit to him? To her? I can’t do that! I’m so much better than them!” Paul elsewhere defines the sentiment of this verse in even more explicit and shocking terms, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,” (Phil. 2:3-4). What does it mean to submit to one another? To do nothing with a self-seeking motive because you consider other people and their needs as more important than you and your needs. And friends, if that applies to the relationships within the church, than that most certainly applies to the relationship between spouses! Husbands, treat your wife’s needs as more important than your own. Wives, count your husbands as more significant than yourself.
Last week we said that humility is the starting point for true unity within the church, and the only true place humility can be given to us is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:21 is simply reiterating this truth. The reason that the idea of submission is so hard to swallow for men and women is because truthfully, honestly, functionally we believe that we must earn our standing. If I submit to someone who is, frankly, a person of less character, integrity, and maturity than me, then it looks like and feels like I am saying that this person is above me on the totem pole. Why do we do this? Because we have become so accustomed to the world, and in the world you only submit to someone else if they outrank you in power, popularity, or good looks. The idea of submitting to someone that we feel like we are above is just crazy-talk. We hate it when someone that we just know is “below” us acts as if they are above us. We may submit to some people that we deem worthy to submit to, people we respect, people who are clearly above us on the social ladder – but we simply cannot truthfully, un-sarcastically submit to someone “below” us.
But friends, the gospel is the great equalizer. It comes in and simultaneously humbles us and builds us up. It humbles us by pointing out that we are all sinners, but builds up by showing that we are all loved in Christ. The gospel comes in and says, “Don’t you see, you don’t have to earn your standing anymore – Christ earned it for with His perfect life, and erased all your flaws with His atoning death. You don’t earn that, but receive it.” So now, your ranking in life is not attached to what others think of you, or even what you think of you, but is attached to what God thinks of you. And you can submit to others, because not only is your righteous standing secure, but you also are free to be honest about your own flaws and failures. You couldn’t before because you were still trying to look as impressive as possible, but now you are free! And when that happens, other people’s flaws, errors, shortcomings and sins against you start to look smaller and smaller.
This is the ground of marriage: Freedom from the notches on the totem pole, the rungs on the social ladder, and the carefully balanced scales of self-righteousness. The gospel comes and hurls all of that to the ground and gives you the solid foundation of the love of Christ. So now, you are free to make your life about others, and especially your spouse. Ever catch yourself comparing your best qualities against your spouse’s worst? That is a display of your heart’s functional belief about the reality of the gospel – the gospel eliminates comparison. You always are most aware of your own sin, certainly more than other’s.
The Roles of Marriage
When you approach a passage with the depth of verses 22-33 you either can move at a slow, methodical pace, mining every nugget of golden wisdom, or you can fly over it in a few minutes. Sadly, we are relegated to the latter of those two.
With both husbands and wives practicing the humble submission that the gospel brings to us all, there is a unique role that husbands and wives are called to, and it in no way negates the first call to mutual submission.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands, (Eph. 5:22-24). In this passage we see both the calling of a wife and a husband to their unique roles in marriage: headship and submission.
We will return to Paul’s words to wives and ask some questions about what submission means, but I think it might be more productive to first look at his exhortation to husbands, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” (Eph. 5:25). Notice the word-choice – Paul switches from addressing wives and exhorting them to “submit” to their husbands, but then when he turns to the husbands he does not say “Husbands, lead your wives,” or, “Husbands, direct your wives.” No – he says, “love.” Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that a husband is not to lead his family. If a husband were not to lead his wife it would be non-sensical for Paul, after exhorting Christians to submit to one another, to go on to explain that wives are called to uniquely submit to their husbands. It also would make Paul’s comparison of a husband’s love and a wife’s submission to be modeled after Christ and the Church – surely Christ has a unique role of headship over the Church. When Paul summarizes husband’s role with loving their wives as Christ loved the Church, he is saying that a husband’s leadership in the home is to be defined primarily by a Christ-like love.
So, if a husband is ever at a loss for what leadership in his marriage looks, he simply needs to ask the question: How did Christ love His Church? How did Christ love me? Did Christ use His authority and power to take advantage of His Church? To use her for His own means? To expose her flaws and faults and shame her? To insist on His own way? No – Christ uses His authority, power, resources, and body to do everything He can to exalt and love His Bride, the Church. Christ left His throne in Heaven so that He could come down to be a humiliated, mocked, scorned, and crucified by the very people He created – so He could redeem His Church. Jesus uses His authority to become a servant – Husbands, what do you do?
Paul gives us three specific examples of how a husband is meant to lead in his home: spiritually, physically, and emotionally.
Spiritually: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish,” (Eph. 5:25-27). One aspect of a husband’s headship in the home is his calling to be a spiritual leader. Christ’s model for us is seen in his cleansing the church with the washing of water with the Word. What does this mean? This means that a husband never says anything like, “I just focus on my relationship with God and leave my wife to herself.” A husband bears the primary weight and burden of responsibility for the spiritual temperature of the home. In 2000, there was a study done in Europe where an organization examined the role fathers played in the transition of faith to children. They found that if a father and mother are weekly attending church, nearly three-quarters of the children will continue with their faith into adulthood. However, if only the mother attends and the father does not, only 2% of the children would have faith that persisted into adulthood. If a wife is a believer in the family, and the husband is not, she has a 23% chance to lead her husband and children to the Lord. On the other hand, if a husband is a believer and the wife is not, he has a 94% chance of leading his wife and children to the Lord. What does this tell us? Husbands, whether we want it or not, we are leading, all the time. The only question is how we are leading.
Now, practically, what does this look like? I don’t think this means that a husband needs to preach a sermon to his family every night, but rather he joyfully accepts the mantle of spiritual responsibility in the home. This means that he is asking questions like, “In what ways can I actively be cultivating an environment where the reality of God, the dangers of sin, and the beauty of the gospel cannot be ignored?” Practically, for me, I think that I am leading best in my marriage when I am most aware of my sin and my need for repentance, and am most serious about enjoying God. If you think spiritual leadership means that you are the chief exposer of your wife’s sin, then you have completely missed it. Husbands, lead your wives in being the chief repenter, in being the first person to apologize, in being the first person to own up to your sin, in being the first person to confess that secret sin you haven’t told your wife yet, in being the person who trusts most radically in the grace of Jesus so you don’t have to pose and pretend or put on a show. This certainly also means that a husband is responsible for leading the family in times of prayer, Scripture reading, and gathering for corporate worship.
Physically: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body,” (Eph. 5:28-30). I will cover this quickly, but this passage teaches us that men are responsible for being the providers in the home. We are told in 1 Timothy that if a man does not provide for the needs of his family, he has denied the Christian faith (1 Tim. 5:8). I do not think that this means that a wife can never work, or even that husband has to be the primary breadwinner – what I think this does mean is that the husband bears primary responsibility for the physical needs of his wife being met, and not the other way around.
Emotionally: “…but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church…” A husband is not only to provide spiritually and physically, but also emotionally. Just as an aside, isn’t it fascinating to see here that Christ “cherishes” us? What a powerful word. Husbands, if your wife were to pick 5 words to describe how you make her feel, would “cherished” be one of them? If not, it should be. Romance your wives, men. I am not saying that you need to become some guy from a Nicholas Sparks novel, but simply figure out what fills your wife’s love tank, and make sure that you are making regular deposits into it.
In John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s seminal response to Evangelical Feminism, “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood”, they describe headship like this, “Headship is the divine calling of a husband to take primary responsibility for Christ-like, servant leadership, protection, and provision in the home.” Husbands, our leadership is to be hallmarked by “love” – so today, ask your wife, “What do I do, or what could I do that makes you feel most loved?”
Now, let’s return to the role of a wife, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord,” (Eph. 5:22). Now, I defined the role of a husband first on purpose. When we hear that wives are called to submit to their husbands, as to the Lord, there might be a host of red flags shooting up in our minds saying, “Sexist! Misogynistic!” Ladies, if your husband was passionately pursuing the calling that is laid out for men here, if he was saying to you, “I want to lay down my life and sublimate my own desires for your good and to make you feel cherished and loved,” then wouldn’t coming under that kind of headship be a delight?
So, what does it look like for a wife to submit to her husband? I desperately want to go through what submission is not – but I simply do not have the time, but we will post an article today on our Facebook page from John Piper on “Six Things Submission Is Not,” and I would highly encourage you to check that out. But suffice to say, if you think that submission has anything to do with fear, intimidation, or being dominated in any way – physically, emotionally, verbally, or spiritually – then you have a very un-Biblical idea of submission. Remember friends, our pattern for headship and submission is Christ and the Church. Does Christ intimidate or shame His Bride? Does He ever manipulate her or degrade her? No – never!
Rather, submission is a wife lovingly honoring and trusting her husband’s role as the leader of the family. Piper and Grudem’s definition of submission is, “Submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.” In the Garden of Eden, when Eve is created she is described as a “helper fit for Adam” (Gen. 2:18). Now, “helper” sounds demeaning, but that is just our own cultural connotation – the Hebrew word for helper is actually a title that God uses to describe Himself (Hos. 13:9). When God gave Eve to Adam it wasn’t so that he could have a nice new toy to entertain himself with, but rather she is given to Adam so that together they accomplish the mission of God to fill the earth and subdue it. So Eve, though under the headship of Adam, is gifted and strengthened in unique ways that Adam just isn’t, and Adam needs her to accomplish his calling in life. Ladies, God has put you in your husbands life to accomplish His great purposes, which now in the Church is laid out for us in the Great Commission. So now under your husband’s initiation and leadership and with your unique gifting and role, you together serve the Kingdom.
And if a husband’s leadership is to be defined by love than a wife’s submission is to be defined by respect. A wife is by far the most powerful person in a husband’s life. My wife can either build me up, or my wife can totally decimate me. If my wife is with me, it doesn’t matter if the whole world is against me, I feel like I can do anything. But, even if the whole world is with me, if I don’t feel like my wife is with me, I feel like I can do nothing. So, wives, today ask your husband, “What do I do, or could do, that makes you feel most respected and supported by me?”
You’ll notice, that both a husband and wife’s roles are other-centered. A husband’s primary focus is to be loving and serving his wife. A wife’s primary focus is to be submitting to and respecting her husband. Neither of them are called to a self-centered mindset of, “What can I get out of this?”
So, what does this actually look like when it comes to making decisions in marriage?
Here’s a helpful example I got from a blog I read this week on marriage, “In a complementary marriage both of us assert our desires, and the wife submits. In a recent decision my wife and I made, it became clear that our desires were in conflict. The position being offered to us would have been a wonderful fit for one of us, and a terrible fit for the other. Sparing you the details, it became evident to both of us the beautiful irony of the situation: Brenna was insisting that we do things my way. And I was insisting we do things in a way that was best for her. And because we are complementarian, I “won out” in the end: I asserted her desires over mine.”
Is every decision as nice as that? Of course not. There are times when a husband, after speaking with his wife, listening to her, taking her opinion seriously, still believes that the best thing for the family is a different direction than what his wife thinks. That happens – but it honestly rarely happens (I can think of less than 5 times something like that has happened in my own marriage).
The Purpose of Marriage
Maybe you are listening and are thinking, “Okay that sounds great Marc, but you don’t know what my wife is like! You don’t know what my husband is like! I can’t love her…I can’t respect him!” Or perhaps you are thinking, “I don’t feel qualified to be a leader! I’m not a submissive sort of person, I could just never do that.” Those are two powerful and honest responses. If there is anything that hinders us from fulfilling God’s design for marriage, it probably has something to do with those two challenges. Is God’s design for gender roles in marriage dependent upon the character of our spouse, or our own personality/ability? I would confidently say “No”, because of what this passage teaches us the purpose of marriage is.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband,” (Eph. 5:31-33). Paul directly quotes Genesis 2:24, grounding his teaching on the roles of husbands and wives in the pre-Fall creation narrative, not in some sinful hierarchical structure that can be ignored. The passage he is quoting is directly from the mouth of God in Genesis as He is officiating the first-ever wedding ceremony in the history of mankind, establishing the essence of marriage. A man, as the leader and head, leaves his home (implying that he can now provide for himself), initiates a relationship with his wife, and then marries her. But what is shocking is what Paul says next, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” What? What does Paul mean?
Paul is saying that Genesis 2:24 isn’t just a passage that is describing the nature of marriage between a husband and a wife, but rather is actually describing Christ’s relationship with His Bride, the Church. See, Christ left His Father and came to Earth to pursue His Bride and hold fast to her, and now through faith and by the Spirit we are united to Christ, so the two are now one. Friends, this is telling us something revolutionary for your marriage. Jesus’ relationship with you is not a metaphor for your marriage, your marriage is a metaphor for Jesus’ relationship to you. All the times that Paul was telling us to model our marriage after Christ and the Church, he wasn’t thinking, “I need an illustration that can really help husbands love their wives well and wives to submit to their husbands well…Oh, I got it! Christ and the Church!” No, no my friend. This little passage is telling us from the very first marriage ever, God was planning for it to be a display of the gospel. How a husband treats and loves his wife and how a wife treats and loves her husband has infinitely more weight behind it than just their self-esteem or relational health – it has to do with displaying the glory of God as seen in the gospel, so that anyone could look at your marriage and see a picture of what the gospel is.
This has almost unlimited practical implications for our marriages. I’ll list off three:
- Say I am a wife who simply feels like she cannot submit to her husband because I feel like my husband is just too incompetent to trust. If I see that my marriage is intended to be a display of the gospel, than I will know that the roles I am called to have nothing to do with capability, intellect, or talent, but instead are about displaying the drama of the gospel rightly. So I trust the Lord’s design more than my own and strive to cultivate a heart of respect and admiration for my husband.
- A wife does not submit to her husband because she is a dumb, and a husband does not lead his family because he is smart. As John Piper says, in the dance of marriage the wife falls into her husbands arms, not because she is weak, but because the dance is more beautiful that way.
- Say I am a husband who feels that he cannot lovingly lay down his life for his wife because he feels like she is unlovable. If I see and believe the true purpose of marriage it will do two things for me:
- First, I will see that my model for loving my wife is the degree of Christ’s love for me. Did Christ wait to love me till I was lovable? Does He pull His love back as soon as I become unlovable? No, never. His love is constant.
- Second, I will see that the purpose of marriage was never about me, but about God. Marriage was never intended to fulfill me, but was instead meant to be a means by which more of God communicated Himself to me. So the log jam in my heart of frustration that my wife isn’t satisfying my needs is cleared because I am finding my satisfaction Christ, and I suddenly have resources and freedom to love my wife in a way I never could before.
- Say I am single and bitter that the Lord hasn’t given me a spouse yet. I can be encouraged, because the purpose of marriage is to be another channel of God simply revealing Himself, and I have just as much access to God as the married person does.
Marriage is a blessing and a gift from God, may we steward it well.