Mutual Submission

Ephesians 5:21-6:9

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

6 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— 3 “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

Last week I felt compelled to share about a difficult topic. We addressed one of the main passages from the Bible that has historically been used to support slavery. And I think I argued the pro-slavery position pretty well, if I do say so myself. I then turned around and showed why those arguments don’t hold up today, offering three different principles for reading these difficult texts.

But after the service I was challenged to do more than just refute those historical arguments, and to go further in asking what Paul’s purpose might have been in writing passages that say things along the lines of “slaves, obey your masters.” So what we are going to do today is to broaden the subject a little more, because often the passages that encourage slaves to obey their masters are a part of a larger body of texts that encourage wives to submit to husbands, children to submit to parents, and slaves to submit to their masters.

I think that it is really important to discuss all of these submissions together, because while most of us would probably consider slavery an act outside of God’s will, and therefore not require slaves to submit to their masters, the concept of women submitting to their husbands is still very dominant in some church communities. So today we will look at this text, consider why Paul instructed the church to submit in such a way, and ask how this should be carried out. Because, like slavery, this teaching has been abused, and continues to be abused by many today.

First, and perhaps most importantly, we need a language lesson to start this discussion. These passages that we find throughout the epistles that offer commandments to submit to someone else are often called “The household codes.” But because much of modern theology began in the German-speaking world with people like Martin Luther on through Karl Barth, you will commonly hear these passages referred to by their German name. So no Greek or Hebrew today. Instead, our word for the day is the German word “haustafeln.” I’ll use the phrase haustafeln to refer to all of these “x submit to y” teachings collectively.

When we men talk about the haustafeln, we tend to start, and end, with verse 22, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” I have heard some very bad interpretations of this passage, and I’ve repeated some of them as well. Let’s agree right here and now that this is not saying that the husband is the Lord over the wife. That “as you do to the Lord” part is not suggesting that the husband is the Lord of the wife. This is Paul’s way of addressing Christian women in particular. Since you have submitted to the Lord, also submit to your husband.

What this clearly means is that women must do everything that their husband wants. This means that it is the woman’s job to cook, clean, do laundry, and raise children, while men cut down trees and build buildings out of them.

Absolutely not, that’s not the point! If you are married and you and your spouse hold more traditional roles, that’s fine. As long as it is something that you agree upon together, I have no problem with that arrangement. But when I hear people talking about traditional roles being defined in the Bible, I often get a little confused. People will cite Genesis 3, which says that because of the sinfulness of Adam and Eve, women are to be homemakers and men are to work in the fields, providing for their families.

But if you read this text, it doesn’t say that this is God’s plan for men and women. It says that the pain of childbirth is the result of sin, and it says that the thistles and thorns that grow are the result of sin. How anyone arrives at the interpretation of this passage as saying that therefore woman is the one who does the dishes and the men are the main breadwinners is baffling to me. The only divinely-appointed household chore that we find in the Bible involves who makes the coffee. In fact, we have an entire book of the Bible named after this role: it is called “Hebrews.”

What has happened, in my opinion, is that we are falling into a familiar trap, taking our cues as a church from the broader culture. It was our western culture right up through the end of the 20th century that said men make the money and the women keep the house. Again, if that is your agreed upon relationship, that’s perfectly fine. But please don’t say that Ephesians 5-6 is a clear teaching that women should be doing the laundry and the dishes. That is not what Paul is talking about when he says that women are to submit to their husbands.

So gentlemen, as much as you might want this to be about chores, it isn’t. This isn’t your key to getting out of cleaning the toilet. In fact, this text probably tells us the exact opposite, and we will get to that momentarily. We should be trying to be the one scrubbing the toilets, especially, if we are being honest, gentlemen, because we are probably the ones making the toilets dirty in the first place L. But again, we will come back to that shortly.

One of the things that we must consider when we think about the household codes is that Paul, like most of the New Testament writers, assumed that Jesus was coming back soon, likely in their own lifetime. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Paul writes, “According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Paul assumes that he will still be alive when Jesus comes back, and he says something very similar in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. It is only in the later letters, like the epistles to Timothy, that Paul starts to recognize that he will not still be alive when Jesus returns. That’s why in the letters to Timothy, you find things like “I am being poured out like a drink offering,” and “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.”

If you read the gospels, you will find that Jesus himself said that he didn’t know when he would be back. But several times throughout the New Testament, we have these little suggestions from the disciples, the writers of the text, that they expect it to happen soon. So it shouldn’t surprise us that even though Paul didn’t have a clear word from God on this, he assumed that Jesus would come back soon. And while I believe the Bible to be inspired by God, it is also pretty clear that each author writes stylistically different; there is a human component as well! Paul tells the same story as Peter, but he tells it differently. Mark tells the same story as Matthew, but each includes elements of their own personality and style.

I wonder if Paul had known that it would be at least 2,000 years before Jesus came back if he might have worded things slightly differently. If Paul would have known that slave owners would use his words to justify owning another person, or if he had known that husbands would use this passage to rule over their wives, maybe he would have said things differently.

New Testament scholar NT Wright says that while we read these passages and shutter, Paul simply couldn’t imagine a world where slavery wasn’t normal. And if Paul believed Jesus was coming back soon, we shouldn’t be surprised that Paul didn’t argue for the abolition of slavery.

But notice what Paul does do, something quite subversive in his 1st century context. He gives rights to those who were traditionally without any. Maybe Paul doesn’t go as far as we would like him to, but notice that he doesn’t just tell women to submit to their husbands. He tells all Christians to submit to one another. He tells husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (vs. 25). This isn’t eros or philia, this is agape love. This is self-sacrificial love. He goes on in 6:4, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” And then in 6:9, “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way [serving them as if serving the Lord].”

Paul may not go far enough for some of us, but this was huge in his time and place. For a husband to sacrifice for his wife, or to treat his children or a slave with respect was countercultural in his time and place.

I believe that the underlying point that Paul is making is just as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. What has changed is how we practice these acts of submission.

Let’s oversimplify things for the sake of illustation and ask what Paul understood his calling to be as a follower of Jesus Christ. I would place Paul’s teachings in two different categories. The first is ethical. Paul talks a lot about sexuality, helping the poor, stewardship of money, and other matters of ethical concern. But even more than his role as an ethicist, I would say is Paul’s role as a missionary. He went from city to city, nation to nation, preaching, teaching, and starting churches. Remember that what we have today as books of our Bible started as Paul’s letters to new churches, filled with first-generation believers. While the act of submission was likely in part an ethical practice, I think it was meant to be more of a missional practice. This was to be done for the watching world to see that Christians lived differently. We submit to one another because Christ submitted himself to us.

This is why we must begin at verse 21, not verse 22. Verse 21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The rest is commentary on how this might look.

When I think of submitting to one another, I often think of an Albanian woman named Agnes. Agnes was born into a middle-class family, the daughter of a politician. Agnes had money, and she led a comfortable life. At an early age, Agnes became infatuated with the stories of missionaries who would share their experiences of travel and serving the poor around the world. Agnes decided that she wanted to do something similar with her life as well.

In 1929, Agnes moved to Calcutta, India, where she served as a teacher. She served in that capacity for close to twenty years. During those 20 years, this region of India was hit with a severe famine. Agnes experienced what she would label her “call within a call,” as she sensed that she was supposed to dedicate her life to working with the poorest of the poor, the “untouchable” class among the people of India. In 1950, Agnes began an outreach out of a small church plant in Calcutta. With a total of 13 members, Agnes began caring for the poorest of the poor. And by the time of her death in 1997, Agnes’ little church plant had grown “to more than 4,000 [members] running orphanages, AIDS hospices and charity centers worldwide, and caring for refugees, the blind, disabled, aged, alcoholics, the poor and homeless, and victims of floods, epidemics, and famine.” (Wikipedia)

Of course, we know Agnes by the name she chose when she entered her role as a missionary. We know her as Mother Teresa.

Why would a middle-class, daughter of a politician dedicate her life to serving the poorest of the poor in India? She was submitting herself to another out of love for Christ.

I always hesitate to mention people like Mother Teresa because people lift her up as a saint…literally! But let’s bring it down to our level. We have people right here in our church that regularly serve the poor among us. We have people here who volunteer their time and their money to serve the residents of the Valley Mission. Why do you go in there and serve these people? Why do you tutor the children, serve on their board, and provide meals for people who sometimes don’t even bother to show appreciation? We are submitting to one another.

I always come back to Philippians 2 because this is so powerful. Verses 1-6: “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

The way this is written in the original text suggests that this was a song that the early church sang to emphasize the role of a Christian as servant. What, you’re the daughter of a politician? You’re an educated teacher? A doctor? A lawyer? You think you’re too good to scrub a few toilets? Remember that God came down and took on the role of a servant, becoming obedient, even to the point of death on the cross.

Why did Paul encourage the church to submit to one another? Is it because men are superior to women? That might be true, but that wasn’t why he said this J. We are to submit to one another, just a Jesus Christ submitted to us, giving his life for us. In our submission to one another, we show the world what God is like.

But here is a very important aspect of this entire concept of submission. You cannot submit to someone in the same way that Jesus did if you are forced. It must be voluntary. The haustafeln are predicated on voluntarily serving one another. Jesus was not forced to take on the role of a servant. He did it out of love. Even when he was captured, he could have called down legions of angels to free him. But he didn’t. Likewise, we cannot force a person to serve us. Forcing someone to serve is not the same thing as Christian submission; in fact, it is the opposite of the voluntary nature of mutual submission.

So wives, if your husband is forcing you to do something, claiming that you must do it because Paul and the Bible say so, please know that this person is abusing the text. And you actually have the obligation to call out a brother or sister who is sinning against you. That is not what Paul is calling us to.

What Paul is calling us to is to offer ourselves as servants. To wash the feet, or scrub the toilets of others. Even though society may tell you that person is below you socially, ethically, financially, or any other way, we serve one another. We wrap a towel around our waist, fill a basin with water, and wash one another’s feet.

Not because we have to. But because that is who God is.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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