(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on May 10, 2015)
Anyone here taken the written driver’s test lately?
I thought I’d start today with a little DMV quiz. Take a look a this.
Assuming these cars arrived at the same time, which of the cars gets to go first? A or B? [ASK] Yes, A. You’re supposed to yield the right of way to the car on the right.
Now the thing that really threw me when one of our kids was studying for their driving test was the actual law about right of way. Right of way in one sense doesn’t really exist. You cannot “claim” or “take” the right of way…you can only yield it.
I don’t know if I ever had that sink in myself when I was learning to drive and cramming to take the driver’s test. The more I think about it, the more intrigued I get about this idea. And it’s got me wondering if we would do well to take this changed perspective outside of driving and to our relationships with others.
In some ways, today’s message is “Marriage, part 2”.
But in other ways, this is broader than marriage. It’s about how we relate to each other. It’s about how God chose to relate to us, as shown through Jesus. It’s about a word that needs quite a bit of work to rehabilitate after centuries of damaging teaching…about the word “submission”.
I think what I think is that the Oregon DMV has done a better job with interpreting “right of way” as something you yield, than the church has done with interpreting “submission”. Submission is something you choose to offer another as a way of following Jesus Christ; it is not something you demand or take from another.
Turn with me to Ephesians chapter 5. I was tempted to only look at Ephesians 5:21 today, and we will emphasize that strongly…but we’ll also eventually make our way to verse 28.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (TNIV, Ephesians 5:21)
Submit to one another. Yield the right of way.
There is absolutely no doubt that this is the dominating instruction of this entire section, and there is absolutely no doubt that it is given to every person who follows Jesus. Men submit. Women submit. Leaders submit. Everyone. It so dominates the entire section that the next verse, about wives submitting to husbands, depends on verse 21 to have a verb in the sentence. To put that another way: there is no verb in verse 22. The verb translated “submit” in verse 21 is such a grammatically strong part of this section that verse 22 depends on it for its meaning.
We are to submit to one another, “out of reverence for Christ”. The root of the word includes fearing, obeying, following the example. Submission is not a random thought thrown into Ephesians here at this spot. One could argue that submission, humility, yielding, sacrificing…one could argue it is the most common theme we are asked to follow as disciples of Jesus.
We are to follow Jesus’ example, as it says in Philippians 2, by “valuing others above” ourselves. We are to take “the very nature of a servant”, resisting selfish ambition. We are to “outdo one another in showing honor” to each other, it says in Romans 12. Jesus said in Mark 10 not to “lord it over” others like was so common in Gentile culture.
This way of life has always been counter-cultural!
I don’t like submitting and serving others, valuing others above myself. But submission and service were so integral to Jesus’ mission, so tied up with God’s love for all of us, that you could easily make the argument that it is the definition of love. The agape love that God demonstrated in Christ and wants to exhibit through us… agape love so values the other person, that it cannot help but serve and honor and submit.
This is the love that led Jesus to live in a way that led to the cross. This is the love that gives life to God’s redemptive power! This is the love and unity and oneness that Jesus prayed we would experience.
This is why we are all, everyone, male and female, asked to submit to each other.
But we’re afraid of submitting in relationships, because we might be taken advantage of. We’re afraid of submitting on a national level, afraid to appear weak, afraid that if we do…terror and evil will be more powerful and win.
I’ve come to think that maybe the most frightening part of being a Christian is that we commit to modeling our lives after someone who gave up his rightful power and whose life ended in a violent, horrible, unjust death. This may be the biggest step of faith: to believe and trust that in relationships from the personal to the international, God’s love is “all in” on sacrifice and submission.
We would rather “take the right of way” than submit.
In so many ways, the way we relate with others betrays the fact that it is so hard to really trust that God’s way is the right way. Love is a giant risk. We must be vulnerable. And we can and do get hurt. But when we take the risk, there are times when we see the transforming, redemptive power of sacrifice and submission at work in the relationships we are in.
In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean steals from the bishop who showed him grace. When caught, the bishop shows submissive love by covering for him with the police, and even giving him more silver candlesticks to take for his own. That act of submitting, of being taken advantage of is what changes the course of Jean Valjean’s life. Sacrificial love can and does multiply!
On a bigger scale, world events can be changed by submission. In 1989, protests in Tiananmen Square in China were being ruthlessly put down by the military. One man chose to submit to death by standing in front of a tank.
And the tank stopped.
When I was looking for this image through Google, I found one I had never seen before.
This gives a sense of how threatening the power of the military was. It was stopped, at least for a bit, by someone willing to submit to it. In one sense, you could say this is another example of the failure of submission in the face of power. No one has been able to find this man. The protests were shut down.
But in another sense, China is far more open today than it was then. I stand on the side that says power and might and retaliation never stop each other, but escalate more and more. Yet God’s loving submission through Christ, that kind of love in us which submits rather than demands submission…this is the only thing with the power to end the cycle.
Christ showed us the way.
God could not force us to submit to God’s way of life. Instead, God’s love for us led Christ to submit to us. This is the secret of the power to transform us, and Ephesians 5 puts the secret front and center: we all are to follow Christ’s example and submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
So as I read these next verses, where this way of sacrificial love is applied specifically to marriage…think about how often the church has missed the central point. Think about how men have tried to force wives to submit, while being quiet about the sacrificial love husbands are asked to demonstrate to their wives. As I read, try this on for size: how are the words to wives and the words to husbands equivalent examples of living out the submissive love we are all called to offer each other?
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:21-28)
Being a husband myself, I’m going to talk about the part addressed to husbands first. I hope it is clear from the time I spent earlier defining God’s love through Christ as sacrificial and submissive, I hope it is clear how I see the call for husbands to love your wives as a specific example of submitting. Christ loved the church by giving himself up for it. By sacrificing his own life for the good of another. By submitting to ridicule and unjust accusations and being tortured and killed.
The word “submit” isn’t used here, but remember that it dominates the section as verse 21 covers it. The word “submit” isn’t here, but how is loving our wives as Christ loved the church anything but a love that sacrifices and submits? I don’t believe it is. To love is to submit and sacrifice for the good of the other…whether the other is husband or wife or friend. Chrysostom, from the early church said it well:
“Have you noted the measure of obedience? Pay attention to love’s high standard. If you take the premise that your wife should submit to you, as the church submits to Christ, then you should also take the same kind of careful, sacrificial thought for her that Christ takes for the church. Even if you must offer your own life for her, you must not refuse. Even if you must undergo countless struggles on her behalf and have all kinds of things to endure and suffer, you must not refuse.” (Found in Ancient Commentary on Scripture)
Two brief things about the section addressed to wives.
The church submits to Christ, because we trust that Christ loves us and wants what is best for us. That’s the way marriage is supposed to work in the ideal form. We know it isn’t always ideal. Christ’s love for all wives is such that I believe Christ advocates for and supports women who are mistreated by husbands. This isn’t a blanket endorsement of submitting to abuse.
Second is about the word translated “head” in verse 23. The word is “kephale”, and the best thing to happen in recent decades is careful scholarship by many people around that word. The word “head” in English does not overlap very well with the spectrum of meaning that “kephale” has in Greek. For one thing, in the Greek and Hebrew mindset, it was the heart that controlled and made decisions of will, not the head.
Elaine Storkey is one who has carefully examined this word in the bible and in other common Greek usage of the time:
“This word…is used to describe Christ’s relationship to the church. He is viewed as the head of the church, but this is different than saying Christ is the authority of the church. He is the one who began the church, bringing it into existence. If the original authors had intended to imply authority by calling Christ the head of the church they would have used the word ‘arche’.”
That’s very different than head as authority, to interpret this as source. Christ as the one who brings the church into existence. But we also have to be careful, remembering what I said last week. The point here is not that women find their source in men, because the woman was created from the rib of the man. God is the source! Rather, the point is that when this all works well, just as Christ organizes a church and helps it find new growth, husbands can be a source of new opportunity and growth for their wives.
So Christ’s love, the love we are all called to offer to each other, is not “arche”…it is not a love that lords it over another.
It’s not a love that demands submission, but that offers it willingly, that yields rather than demands the right of way. And with that, I want to close with a practical way of yielding that has been scientifically proven to help marriages thrive and last.
My wife Elaine shared a recent article with me from The Atlantic, summarizing psychological research on what makes a marriage last. John Gottman is one of the researchers, who invited 130 newlywed couples to a retreat where they were then observed. In a nice bed and breakfast environment, they were asked to enjoy time together like they normally would on vacation. Psychologists observed that throughout the day the partners would make request for connection, what Gottman calls a “bid”.
“For example,” the article says, “say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, ‘Look at that beautiful bird outside!’ He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife-a sign of interest or support-hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.”
When one of those bids is made, the spouse has a choice. The spouse can either turn toward the one offering the bid, or turn away. The ones who turned away would do this by not responding, or responding minimally and then keep watching tv or reading their book. Some would actually respond with hostility: “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”
It won’t shock you to find that when they followed up with all the couples after 6 years, the ones who were divorced had originally been observed turning toward their spouse an average of 33 percent of the time. Only 3 out of 10 times did they engage their spouse when asked for attention. Those who were still married six years later were the ones in the original study who turned toward each other an average of 87 percent of the time; 9 out of 10 times, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
Can we yield what we are doing, even just for a moment, when our spouse gives us a bid for attention?
There’s a really practical example of living out Ephesians 5:21. Can I give up my “thing” I want to do when my spouse asks for attention? It’s a tangible act of submissive love, one we get an opportunity to do often…and psychologists have proven it actually makes a difference in making marriage last and be more enjoyable.
Contempt, they have discovered, kills marriages. Not responding to each other, or worse responding with hostility, is a sign of contempt rather than kindness and love. Kindness glues couples together. Kindness and attention and engagement, as found in many studies of marriage…kindness is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in marriage.
The article goes on to say:
“There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise.”
So here’s my thought.
Pick a relationship that is important to you-your spouse if you are married, a good friend or family member if you are not. Make it your intention this week to exercise your kindness muscle. Submit to that person, and begin with something easy, like putting down your phone or turning off the tv when that person gives you a “bid” for attention.
The great thing is, I’m not “dumbing down” the bible here to make this application. This is exactly what it means to submit to one another, to love as Christ loved the church. Beginning by sacrificing what we want to do in a moment for the good of a relationship that is important to us is a way to live out God’s sacrificial love.
And it looks like it’s good science, too.