Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Watching Movies Through The Eyes of Faith

Sermon podcast for download and listening is available here

Let’s have a show of hands: Who hasn’t heard of Nicole Kidman? Brad Pitt? Shahrukh Khan? Or Andy Lau? Karl Barth? Probably more people here know more about these movie stars than about famous theologians. For those of us in their teens or twenty-something’s, movies are just a part of life. Our young people are more up to date with what’s coming soon from Hollywood, TVB or Korean drama than perhaps, any other topic.

Because we live in an image-driven culture, a film-watching culture. Otherwise Tanjong Golden Village and Golden Screen Cinemas would not be jam packed during weekends. Or if you need more evidence, try to find a home that does not have at least one television set. Or walk around the neighborhood and count the number of homes now installed with Astro satellite dish that can transmit more than 50 different channels to your living room at the press of a button. How wonderful is that?

When the lights dim and the silver screen is lowered, something magical happens. Movies are a magical portal that transports us into another world. To the grand fortresses of Gondor in Middle Earth. Or the wonderful ecosystem of Pandora. Or a galaxy far, far away where Jedi knights roam amongst strange alien creatures. Movies can enchant us and thrill us, make us laugh out loud or scare the living daylights out of us. They can change the way we think and how we feel. They convey values and meaning, what is good and what is important.

A good movie takes raw materials from the stuff of life – friendships, conflict, our quest for significance and redemption – and turn them into an experience, creating characters and a picture of reality that we can all relate to. It’s a visual storybook that could show us new insights about our world that would otherwise remain hidden from our untrained eye.

Like the short clip we watched a moment ago from the Pixar movie “Up”… It not only makes you smile and draws you emotionally into the story. It drives home gently some lessons about life too. It’s not just a cartoon for kids, I tell you. The scene where Ellie lost her unborn baby especially brings back memories of a similar episode in my own married life. Combining the ancient art of storytelling with cutting edge special effects, movies are, of course, very entertaining. But at the same time, they have also become a powerful medium by which people today discover and interpret meaning in their daily life.

Let me show you how different patterns of communication have evolved in human society: at the dawn of history, stories are passed down by word of mouth, focusing on the ear: an oral culture. Think of our grandfather’s stories or the penglipur lara. Then we move into a literate age where the focus is on the eye: Think of libraries, reading books, the Renaissance, the invention of the printing machine. About a hundred years ago, we crossed over to a post-literate age that focus on both the ear and eye: think of television, movies, and news broadcast. And now with the Internet, Youtube, smart phones and social media, perhaps we are coming to a digital age where people not only consume culture, they also want to actively create arts and culture. People want to share stories, create music videos and short motion picture of their own. In fact, some talented youths in CDPC are already doing that, aren’t they? Have you checked out the recent cover songs uploaded by Eugene See and others? CDPC’s got talent!

If that is how people tend to communicate today, how should our Christian faith relate to the movie world? Or put another way, what has Jerusalem to do with Hollywood?

Well, for a long time, the church has a love-hate relationship with movies. They are often frowned upon for promoting worldliness, profanities, violence and sexual permissiveness. And that is quite often the case. And we are right to reject these elements. But sometimes, we can throw the baby out with the bath water.

For some people, movies are sometimes seen as helpful or acceptable when they depict biblical stories like the Jesus film used for evangelistic rallies. Apart from that, some of us don’t see much spiritual value in them.

On the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps more descriptive of us city folks, we may just mindlessly go along and consume whatever is offered at the box office. “All my friends watched it so why I cannot watch? Aiya… I just want to have some fun only. Don’t think so much lar.”. We don’t discern between good and bad movies. We just switch off our brain and allow our minds to “drift” along with the show. Just as a fish in water doesn’t realize that it’s wet; television and movies are so much a part of our lives that we hardly notice their impact on us. For better or for worse.

So I would like to reflect with you today how we can engage with movies with an open mind and yet, to do so in a discerning way. It’s a practical application of earlier CDPC sermons on “being culture maker” and “cultural engagement”. So, here are three ways we can approach movie culture

1) Dare to say no! (Avoidance and caution)

It may sound obvious but there are many movies that we should intentionally avoid. We mustn’t be afraid of saying no. There’s benefit in leaving some films unwatched, some horrible music unlistened to, some junk food unconsumed. We must not worry about being labeled uncool, uncultured, or legalists. It’s more important that we learn to discern what we see in the light of the gospel and know where our own limits are.
For example, food (nasi lemak) like every gift in God’s created world is a good thing. But it can become a bad thing if we eat it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good if we consume it not as something we must have (“My preciousss... Gollum must have it”) but as something we can have, delighting in God’s good creation.
So ask yourself: Am I free to abstain from these good things as much as I am free to enjoy them? Am I able to say no? There’s no clear command in the Bible against watching movies or drinking coffee. But if we are not able to go without television or Starbucks for a whole day, then it has become an addiction. Or if we are so insistent on our Christian freedom to enjoy these things, that we look down on others who don’t like arty films or whatever, that’s also a form of legalism pretending to be “free”.
There are times when we need to say: Yes, I am not forbidden from watching this film. It is not evil, but because of my particular weakness and tendencies in this area and so that it won’t stumble my children and friends, and for the sake of my gospel witness, I think the wise thing to do is to abstain. I choose to, not because I have to. For example, if you give me a remote control I can surf channels for hours. If that’s also your weakness then you need to be extra careful how you exercise this freedom.

Cultural exposure is always related to a person’s spiritual and personal maturity. Even an excellent movie like Shawshank Redemption may not be appropriate for a 12 year-old.

You are in the best position to decide what films you are comfortable with, and where to draw the line. Ask yourself: How is my habit shaping my desires? Are they drawing me closer to God or to self? To holiness or to worldliness?

We all know of the glorification of guns, sex and materialism in some films. But there are less obvious spiritual dangers. French philosopher Jacque Ellul notes that the person who has the power to edits images in sequence chooses for you; he condenses or stretches what becomes reality itself for us. We are utterly obliged to follow this rhythm.”

Remember how our mainstream media covers the Bersih rallies last time? Someone has already decided for us what is “reality”– you don’t get to see a peaceful multi racial crowd of thousands. We are just fed with images of a few scattered samseng walking down an empty street, throwing bottles at police. A movie director has the same power of propaganda by making fun of certain people as stupid or intolerant in an unfair manner. As passive spectators, we are constantly being fed with a stream of images. Reality is substituted with an artificial construct like the Matrix that distorts our perception and manipulates our opinion. 

Kairos research director Dr Kam Weng warns us that this image-driven culture can have negative impact on our education and spiritual health. TV, i-Pads and video games may over-stimulate children with fast paced sights and sounds. If we are not careful, it can stifle their ability to sustain attention on their own, to read patiently and use language actively. They just can’t sit still: Here we are now, entertain us!

CDPC Puchong has a library ministry that seeks to inspire children to be a lifelong reader. Why? Well, reading a book allows you to control the pace of information input. It invites you to think over and connect the words printed on the page. You can sit down and pause to explore this imaginary world of wonder, beauty and adventure that the author describes. Real learning needs patience, careful reflection.

After getting married, having a son and working on projects at the office, I can hardly find the time to watch a lot of movies these days. So I need to choose carefully which movies to watch so time/money are not wasted. One way to do this is to find out what is the genre of that movie: Is it a romantic comedy? Is it an action thriller? Is it a ‘slasher movie’ like I know what you did last summer? If it is a slasher movie, it is usually about a mysterious psychopath on the loose killing a lot people in all sorts of interesting ways until the final girl (it’s always a girl, don’t ask me why?) defeat him or escaped. Once I know the genre, I have some idea what is the formula of the story and I’d say: No, thank you. And that’s just me.

There are also solid online Christian resources that can help us make such decisions. They give you a good summary of what to expect, background info about the production and biblical evaluation of its major themes. Sometimes I would browse around and pick one or two recommended ones

2nd Approach: Dare to say yes! (Dialogue and Engagement)

Having said all that, we cannot totally abandon the movie world that modern folks are already immersed in. Otherwise, we will only let this conversation be dominated by other voices and lose our ability to take part and influence it.

We need to talk about the movies we watch in order to celebrate what is good and perhaps clarify our own position on many of life’s questions. This means that we need to "train" our eye to understand the language of movies and not just offer knee jerk response like just counting how many curse words are spoken in it.

In fact, there are many movies that can be watched “redemptively” – when we enter into a conversation with the film on its own terms. As we listen to the story, to ourselves and to God, we may leave the cinema with fresh insights and new inspiration. But to do that, as with any work of art, we need to lay aside our preconceived ideas and biases and listen fairly to what the film has to say. We must first allow another point of view to enter in, to interact and dialogue with our own view before making any judgment. Theological analysis should come AFTER (not before) the aesthetic experience of appreciating a movie. It’s a kind of open minded/suspend-judgment approach that says: “I hear what you say, but I don’t have to believe all you say”.  

When we do that, we may be surprised by some “A-ha” moments that enrich our outlook on life. I’m sure many of you have encountered magical movie moments like that before.

But let me share with you a real story how the movie Awakenings (1990) can impact the life of young man named Yoke Yeow. It appeared at that time of his life when, as a pre-U, he worked hard to get good grades but he has no idea what to do with his life! In this movie Awakenings, Robin Williams plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a neurologist who ends up devoting his life to victims of a coma caused by degeneration of nerve cells. He accidentally discovered a wonder drug that brings these coma patients back to life! They have a short but exciting timeframe to recapturing their lost youth. But unfortunately the effect is not permanent. They are doomed to slip back into a prison of catatonia again: living zombies, trapped behind frozen, empty stares.
Struggling through the tragedy, Dr Sayer says: "We can hide behind the veil of science,.. but reality is we don't know what went wrong anymore than we know what went right. What we do know is as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place. The human spirit is more powerful than any drug and that is what needs to be nourished."

That movie changed Yoke Yeow’s life. He cried bitterly as he felt for the patients’ suffering and inspired by Dr Sayer’s passion for his work. Unknown to him, a vocation was being defined: to involve himself passionately in the lives of suffering patients and share in their struggle to keep alive their God-breathed identity. He has found his calling to be scientist, healer and friend.  
Good movies can serve as vehicles of common grace and touch our lives just like that. He who has eyes, let him see.  

Of course, the fun part of a movie is not only in finding some hidden spiritual message hidden inside. But many films actually explore and confront us with themes that relate to faith, relationships and important social issues. They convey our society’s myths, symbols and fundamental beliefs about the meaning of human experience. So we are invited to enter into a dialogue over these overlapping themes where the Bible and film meet together. We need to watch with eyes wide open to appreciate them. Here is just a short sample of such films.

Abortion (Cider House Rules)
Death punishment (The Green Mile, Dead Man Walking)
Biotechnology/eugenics (Gattaca)
Faith and Reason (Life of Pi / Contact)
Freewill/consciousness/Artificial intelligence (I, Robot/The Matrix/Minority Report)
Environment/consumerism (The Lorax, Wall-E )
Conflict diamond trade/child soldiers (Blood Diamond)
Social control/Media ethics (The Truman Show)
Nuclear war (The Sum of All Fears, Terminator 2)
Slavery (Amazing Grace, Amistad)
The Holocaust (Schindler’s List, Life is beautiful)

So as parents and Christian leaders, we can wisely select and use some of them to guide and explore such issues with our children or cell groups for group conversation. A movie study may keep more people interested than a book study, right?

To do this effectively, we need to ask the right questions. In almost any movie, the story of the main character(s) is an argument for a way of living or a world view in the form of a drama. Something is lost and needs redemption: But, how? As the hero changes his attitude or assumptions about the world through his experiences in the ‘reel’ world, so we see what the filmmakers are trying to persuade us about how we see the real world.
When watching a movie, ask yourself,
·                      “What is the character flaw or problems of the hero at the beginning?”
·                      “What makes him change his mind in the story about the way he sees the world?”
·                      “What does he learn about the way life ought or ought not be lived?”
·                      “What is different about the way he sees the world at the end from the way he sees it at the beginning?” (Brian Godawa, “Hollywood Worldviews”)

This could be a good way to start a conversation. Asking such questions and offering answers biblically help us to apply and connect our Christian beliefs both in the ‘reel’ world as well as the real world.

3rd approach: Divine encounter  

A lot of people experience a sense of awe and wonder when they are confronted with something heart-stoppingly beautiful – whether it is listening to an orchestra playing Handel’s Messiah, or gazing at a masterpiece painting in a museum or even scuba diving on a breath-taking coral reef. People often come way from encountering beauty with a small glimpse of the divine. 

Have you experienced something similar? In the movie American Beauty, a broken young man from a dysfunctional family came across a plastic bag swirling around in the wind. It was just dancing around, like a little kid begging him to play with it. And he stood there and video taped the whole thing for fifteen minutes. He said:
“That's the day I realized there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Sometimes there is so much... beauty... in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.” It may seem like a mundane event but that encounter with a graceful dancing plastic bag gave him a sense of transcendence.

So it is with a well made film like any great work of art… It can be an opportunity for a burning bush experience if we watch with our hearts open. Common grace is everywhere, ready to burst forth when we least expect it.

Now, let us try to apply these three broad Christian approaches and see how they work with a Steven Spielberg war film “Saving Private Ryan”. Then you can compare and see which one(s) works for you. This is a story of 8 soldiers who were given a mission to rescue one man Private James Ryan from behind enemy lines. Why is he so important? Because his three brothers have all recently been killed in action; leaving him as the only child of a single mother. So the military leaders want him to be brought back alive. At one point, Captain Miller (the Tom Hanks character) says, “This Ryan had better be worth it. He’d better go home, cure some disease or invent the longer lasting light bulb or something.” And it turns out that the rescue mission claims the lives of all these eight soldiers, one after another. At the final battle scene, as the Captain himself dies, his last words to Private Ryan were: “Earn this – earn it”. In other words, look at the sacrifice we have made to save your life. You must earn it. Live a life that is worthy of our sacrifice.

Fifty years pass, and in the closing shots of the film, we see an elderly Ryan returning to the Captain’s grave with his wife, children and grandchildren. He kneels, and as tears fill his eyes, he says: “My family is with me today… Every day I think about what you said to me that day. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope at least in your eyes I’ve earned what all of you have done for me”. Then he turns to his wife and asks anxiously, “Tell me I’ve led a good life… Tell me I’m a good man”. He has lived his entire life with the last words of his savior ringing in his ears. Earn it.

How should we respond? Some Christians may choose to avoid this R-rated film because of the graphic, violent battle on the beach of Normandy at the opening sequence. Or they may be offended by the soldiers’ foul language. That’s one possible response.

But others may recognize that this is a realistic description of World War II. They may be cautious about excessive violence, but they will seek a dialogue on the theme of war. Can war ever be just? Or is war always evil for everyone involved? The discussion becomes less abstract as you ‘see’ the concrete messiness of war. Or we may engage the human values of self-sacrifice and courage portrayed by Captain Miller and his men? How would you feel? How would you live differently if someone really gave away his own life so you may live yours?

Perhaps, some may even be drawn to a divine encounter though it is not be the director’s intention. Jesus says: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. You are my friends if you do what I command.” The fact is, Someone has already died for us and gave His life on the cross so that we might live to the full. And if we really get it, emotionally and personally, how can we live in the same old way again? It’s going to change everything. Your life is not your own. You have been bought with a precious price. How can we not love and sacrifice for others? How can we not live in a way worthy of the gospel? But there is a big difference: The Savior’s last words were not “Earn it. Earn my love”. His last words were: “It is finished!” It is done. The price has been paid. I have earned it for you. My love is costly and yet it is free.

As we talk about the movies we have experienced, we celebrate what is good and reject what is evil. It can serve as a bridge to connect with others who otherwise would never walk into a church or talk openly about their beliefs. Imagine your small group or family coming together to watch a good movie and then discuss and pray about them together. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Movie, like art and culture, is a wonderful thing. It’s a gift immersed with general revelation and at the same time, tainted by sin. So we must be good stewards of it.

Sometimes that means having the courage to say no. Other times, it means we need the courage to engage and have a meaningful conversation. On some rare and sacred occasions, they can even be the humble tools by which the Spirit of God works to change and enlighten us. Or perhaps for some of you gifted young people seated here - you may consider film-making as a calling from God .

Phillipians 4:8 – Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Overcoming Sexual Temptation

Sexual temptations come easy these days. I’m sure they have always been around but with virtual dirty chats, porn downloads and livestreaming video feeds, they are much more accessible to more people, more discreet and so much more deadly, isn’t it? And it’s big business too. I came across an online dating website on Facebook recently. It has 21 million members and growing fast. Its niche market is for married people looking to hook up for sexual encounters. The tagline: “Life is short, Have an affair”.

 In the Scripture passage we read a moment ago, we read of a story about sexual temptation, a story of Joseph’s encounter with a desperate housewife. If we back up a little in the story, we read that Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers for 20 pieces of silver. He ended up in a faraway land, in Egypt, where he worked for Potiphar the captain of Pharaoh’s guards. But God was with him and blessed all that he did. Whatever projects were assigned to him, they were on time, within budget and of such quality that his master was very impressed and put him in charge of everything except his food. We are told that God’s favour was on Joseph and that he was also a good looking young man. “Handsome in form and appearance,” we are told.

Unfortunately that worked to his disadvantage. Because Potiphar’s wife took a liking to him and she tried to seduce him. “Sleep with me,” she offered. She wanted a bit of fun and passion on the side. How bad can that be? But Joseph refused her flat. “Thanks but no thanks. Your husband put me in charge of everything but he didn’t ask me to take care of you. Because you are his wife. Not mine”. And he would be right because sleeping with Potiphar’s wife was never part of his job scope. It would be a breach of trust to his boss.

 But Joseph went beyond that: “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” You see, Joseph could have said, “I’ve been dealt a cruel hand by Fate. I didn’t deserve to be a slave here in Egypt so I deserve this little bit of pleasure.” Or he could have rationalized: “I’m so successful in my career now. My boss will never find out anyway. I’m in charge of everything now. I deserve this pleasure”. Both self-pity and pride would have added fuel to the fire of his temptation. But he saw this choice in a God-centered way. Before adultery is a sin against his boss or his desperate housewife, it’s first and foremost a sin against God himself.

An affair is a betrayal of trust, absolutely. But you cannot commit any sine without first committing the sin of betraying God’s trust, of violating his will, of deriving pleasure apart from Him who is the source of all happiness. And Joseph knew that – How can I sin against heaven? Favour with God and right communion with Him is much better than any sex he was offered. So he refused her not once, not twice… but day after day, as she doesn’t take no for an answer. But one day when nobody’s at home, she caught him by his garment and tried to seduce him again. So he quickly ran away and left his garment in her hand. As the saying goes, “Hell knows no fury like a woman scorned”. With the garment as evidence, she accused Joseph of trying to molest her and her husband got so angry that he kicked Joseph into prison for sexual misconduct. Poor Joseph, he was punished for a shameful crime he did not commit. He suffered for something he did not deserve.

But the Lord was again with him and showed him steadfast love so that he prospered in all that he did even in prison. In the bigger scheme of God’s plan, we can see why He is taking Joseph through this painful route. We can see a huge contrast between Joseph’s life of purity in Egypt and Judah’s sordid family affairs in Canaan (Genesis 38). There are major moral problems in Jacob’s family – his grandsons were marrying pagan Canaanites, they did such wickedness that God had to put them to death. Even Judah the firstborn solicited cult prostitutes. They were becoming like the corrupt culture around them instead of being a blessing to the nations. They are losing their covenant identity. But here in Egypt God is now moving and preserving Joseph’s life in purity, preparing him to be the instrument that will save his family not only from famine but from the spiritual corruption in Canaan that would have wiped out God’s covenant family. Because unlike Judah, Joseph kept his heart pure and God’s favour was with him every step of the way.

So that in the fullness of time, the family line would be preserved from which the Messiah Himself would come. For He too would be sold by his brothers for a few pieces of silver. He too would refuse the lust of the eyes, the flesh and the pride of life for the sake of His Father’s will. He would also be slandered and made to suffer for something He did not deserve. He too was punished for a sin he did not commit. Jesus says: If you look at a woman lustfully, you have already committed adultery with her in your heart. And all of us have fallen short on this score. He died a death on the cross that we deserve so that sexually corrupt and adulterers like you and I could be forgive
n. So that God’s favour and steadfast love could now rest on all who would trust and obey Him as Lord.

 When that happens, everything changes. There’s no room for self-pity because you are unconditionally and dearly loved by God. So much so that He died for you. It costs him everything. There’s no room for pride because all our success is a gift from God who prospered what our hands are working on. It’s His favour. That takes away the fuel that feeds the flame of lust. The problem is not that our desire is too strong. It’s too weak. We settle for far too little. When you embrace this costly love of God, when you see and savour Christ for all He is, you begin to experience the expulsive power of a greater affection, a greater desire that overcomes the lure of sexual temptations.

Picture source is from here

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Homosexuality: Biblical Perspectives and Pastoral Concerns

Dr Ng Kam Weng: While Malaysian Christian leaders have maintained a silent indifference towards the homosexual controversy, young Christians are daily exposed to aggressive homosexual proselytization by the Western elite through the Internet and global entertainment culture. Not surprisingly, young Christians today are increasingly sympathetic towards homosexual practice. To be fair, this tolerance among young Christians is simply reflective of their easy going attitude in moral and religious commitment.

The church does not need to react defensively to these developments and resort to censorious condemnation of homosexuals. It is more important that the church educate and exhort Christians, both young and old to uphold a sanctified life based on scriptural integrity and covenantal faithfulness. Following the full counsel of God’s Word would encourage individuals to maintain respectful, responsible and restraint courtship intimacy, fidelity in monogamous heterosexual marriage and challenge the church to develop pastoral models to address constructively the homosexual controversy.

I am pleased to share with you two papers that provide a scripturally and scientifically informed approach to homosexuality written by my friend Dr. Roland Chia. He is presently Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Dance of Marriage

Sermon audio may be downloaded here

Ephesians 5:21 – 32
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.

The Bible begins with a wedding in the Garden of Eden (with the creation of Adam and Eve in the likeness of God as husband/wife). And the Bible ends with a wedding feast (the union of Christ and His church) at the new heaven and new earth. In between and throughout the Bible, the covenant relationship between Christ and His people is described as a marriage. So, when God’s people sin, the Bible doesn’t just say they’ve been ‘disobedient’ – it says they’ve been ‘unfaithful’. And when God’s people worship false gods, the Bible doesn’t just call them ‘idolatrous’ – it calls them ‘adulterous’. Why? Because the Lord is a husband, who has entered into an eternal, committed covenant relationship with any of us who will trust Him… We now belong to each other. This covenant love is the reason behind everything that happens in heaven and on earth. It is also the reason why CDPC is focusing on building strong families (and healthy marriages) in year 2013. In some profound, mysterious ways, our relationship with our spouse echoes God’s design for marriage in creation and God’s plan in redemption.

But everywhere we turn today it seems that the institution of marriage is in deep trouble. Some activists are pushing to legalize same sex marriages at a time when lots of young people no longer believe that marriage is a desirable arrangement – “I don’t need a piece of paper to love someone”. Living together without long term commitment is very common. Broken marriages carry lots of pain and hurt for all involved – both adults and children. The destructive effect of sin could also be seen within marriages. Husbands can be chauvinistic, abusive and emotionally neglect their wives to climb the corporate ladder. Wives can be overly dependent, sexually manipulative and nag their passive husbands into submission. As a result, we have serious confusion about what it means to be a husband or wife when our daughters need a clear model of what it means to be feminine and our sons need a positive vision of what it means to be masculine.

This is an opportunity for the Kingdom community of Jesus as a whole is to live out a different kind of marriage life, and to mirror another culture in our gender relationships. A culture of forgiveness, repentance and change in the midst of this brokenness… In the midst of widespread confusion, we desperately need to recover a biblical, gospel-centered vision of marriage as revealed in Ephesians 5.

Some of us in CDPC may still remember the wedding of Ken and Shirene by the beach in Penang a few years back. They are now studying in Australia to be environmentalists, learning of ways to best care for God’s creation. It was memorable because the couple started their wedding by enacting their story with God and with each other through Latin dance. They were two strong individuals and their shared passion in salsa was an ideal medium to share their stormy journey and happy destination. There was even a risky move in which Shirene trustingly fell backwards and Ken literally “saved her neck”. 

Rev Wong preached from this same passage on that day. And he observed that in Latin dance, the man is expected to lead and the woman responds best to a partner that she trusts and respects. It was a beautiful picture of the mutually enriching roles of man and woman in marriage. In his e-commentary, Pastor Soo Inn also noted that both man and woman are led by the music. The man's leadership in dancing is to help both him and his partner respond best to the music. In one sense it is the music that leads.

So marriage is like a dance. There is unity in that both man and woman move to the same rhythm and mutually help each other to follow the Divine Music. They keep in step with each other and share a common goal. Otherwise they would step on each other’s toes. Marriage is also like a dance in that both man and woman complement each other in their different roles. Sometimes, the lady would leap into the air and the man would catch her as she lands. It’s beautiful when each knows his or her unique role. So far, I haven’t seen a dance in which the guy leaps into the air, waiting for the lady to catch him. It would look a bit odd, right? In short, there is unity in diversity in the dance of marriage.

1)      Unity in Marriage (What does it mean to be one in marriage?)
2)      Diversity in Marriage (How can we celebrate our differences and complement each other in marriage?)
3)      Practical Applications (How do we practically help each other to dance with God’s music?)

Unity in Marriage

From the Ephesians passage just now, we see that the covenant between Christ and His people (the church) is the model, the pattern for our own marriage. Our marriage is a visual aid that points us to the real thing: Christ’s love for His people. So how a husband and wife should relate to each other cannot be separated from the question of how we both are to relate to God. For those among us who are single, perhaps we can gain some insights into the essence of marriage, how to go about discerning future partners and start learning some of these relationship dynamics. Come Chinese New Year, aunties may press you with questions like “Got boyfriend, ah? When are you getting married and start giving ang pow?” The only thing more important to most Asian parents than their precious children getting married is having grandchildren. But the Christian faith sees singleness as good because the kingdom of God provides the most lasting possible legacy and spiritual descendants through the gospel. Unlike Western society that is obsessed with romance and sex, we see singleness as good because our union with Christ can fulfill our deepest longings. Hopefully, there’s something here for you singles to prepare for marriage or decide if this is really something for you.

So what is marriage, anyway?

In His covenant with us, God says: “I will be your God and you will be my people. I will never leave you nor forsake you”. Marriage is also a covenant when we say to our spouse: “I will be your husband and you will be my wife. I will never leave you nor forsake you. All that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.” It is something exclusive between a man and a woman and permanent for life. It is not a contract. In a contract, we say: “This is my part of the deal, I will do this and you will do that and if you do not do your part, the deal is off.” A contract is basically an agreement between two people for the purpose of protecting their rights and limiting their responsibilities. A covenant is an unconditional laying down of our rights, giving up our own agendas for the good of the other, for the happiness of the family before God.

For a Christian marriage, this covenant is made by three (not two) parties: the husband, the wife and God Himself. So before getting into any fights about ‘who’s the boss?’ in a marriage; let’s start by saying that God is the boss of our marriage. He composes the divine music that leads our dance. First of all, the basis of our unity is: We must submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (verse 21). 

Mutual submission means: husbands also need to submit to their wives just as Christ submitted Himself to suffering and death for the good of the church. The motivation for this mutual submission is out of “reverence for Christ” (5:21). “Reverence for Christ” means that we do not just blindly follow even when it means doing something contrary to Christ’s authority… To submit doesn’t mean you are inferior to the other person either. No, Christ is equal to God the Father in dignity and worth, but He willingly chose to say: “Not My will but Yours be done.” He joyfully subjects Himself and subordinates Himself to the Father. This voluntary yielding to others in love is a mark of the Christian community because we want to honor and respect Christ who is our Lord and Savior. He came to serve and not to be served. In the same way, mutual submission is a sign of obedience and reverence to Christ. It should not be seen as a sign of weakness.

In the days of the apostle Paul as well in some traditional societies today, women were not granted full status as human persons. A Jewish man would wake up in the morning and pray: “Thank you, God, that I am not a slave, Gentile or woman”. The ancient pagan Greeks thought that only males are created directly by the gods and are given souls. If they don’t live properly, they reincarnate in the next life as women. But the Christian faith radically changes all that. In Christ, there is neither male nor female. 

The gospel subverts man-dominated systems by insisting that both female and male were made in the image of God. Therefore both are equal in dignity and intrinsic worth. Both woman and man deserve equal respect and honor. And this is rooted not in modern cultural norms but in the original design of the Creator. Matthew Henry commented about why God made Eve out of a rib from Adam like this: “She is not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be loved.” You don’t find anything more romantic than that in a theological commentary…

Which brings us back to the unity of marriage: The Bible says that husbands and wives are “one flesh”, they share the same body: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” In v28, Paul says that husbands and wives are as integrated as a head is to a body. That’s unity. The two have become one. The implication is: you cannot pursue your own separate agendas anymore. If you do, you will only cause harm. If a head goes off in the opposite direction from the body – both will be unhappy – because they’re one. A head can’t be happy if the body is hurting and a body can’t be happy if the head’s hurting.

A few months into my marriage, this reality still hasn’t hit home. I thought that I could play computer games (Starcraft II) late into the night while Grace was sleeping in another room. As a single, nobody cares what time I go to bed. I thought my computer games had nothing to do with her sleep… You do your own thing and I do mine. Only then did I realize that after marriage, you could not now tell where she ended and where I began. We are now one. My life is now forever bound up with another person. “She is now the bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!”

From now on, after marriage, we must pursue our joy in the joy of each other. I must seek my pleasure in the pleasure of my wife. John Piper says: “If you live for your private pleasure at the expense of your spouse, you are living against yourself and destroying your own highest joy. But if you devote yourself with all your heart to the holy joy of your spouse, you will also be living for your joy and making a marriage after the image of Christ and his church." So that’s unity in marriage… The man becomes independent of his parents and the woman becomes united with him so that they become one flesh. If you really understand that, then you cannot pursue your own individual fulfillment apart from the other. Your happiness is now in the other person. You have no joy now if it’s not a corporate joy. So work hard for your happiness by serving each other like crazy.

It also means that the essence of marriage is a commitment and a promise… that no matter what happens in life, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, when you feel romantic attraction or not, through the years when you both will go through all sorts of changes, one thing remains: that you will be true to each other. That is the context that real intimacy, forgiveness, tenderness and spiritual growth can take place.

Diversity in Marriage

Now, is there any difference in our roles or callings or primary responsibilities as husbands and wives? Husbands and wives are both equals in marriage, but they are not exactly the same. Physically they are different, that’s obvious. But is there a difference of maleness and femaleness in our souls? Is the way we see things, the way we think and solve problems different? Diversity means that the music of our marriage should not be merely the sound of singing the same tune. It should be the combined sound of soprano and bass, alto and tenor. It means that the differences of maleness and femaleness are respected and affirmed and valued. We don’t try to compete or duplicate each other. Rather, we enrich each other with our unique qualities.

Scripture says: Wives are to submit to their husbands just as the church submits to Christ. And husbands are to love their wives just as Christ loves the church. Does that mean that husbands don’t need to submit and wives don’t need to love their husbands? Of course not! But there is a primary responsibility and unique, complementary gift that each of us brings into that dance. Some may ask: “Isn’t this just a cultural household code that the apostle Paul adopts rather than a timeless truth for everyone? After all, we now live in a modern world where this kind of traditional role is outdated”. Well, the Bible never gives specific instructions that husbands should go out to work and wives stay at home. Or wives should do the dishes and husbands are responsible to take out the cockroach... You don’t find any of specific lists of do’s and don’ts like that. Proverbs 31 even describes an ideal wife who works in real estate, investment, trading and takes care of her family. And do you know that Jesus can cook? You didn’t know that ler… (Read John 21) So we should not confuse what Paul says here with stereotypes that are culture-specific. Like men should be Rambo and women should be like Cinderella.

Having said that, it also appears that Paul’s instruction on marriage points to creation and redemption, rather than any specific culture. The key is to remember that the relationship between Christ and the church is the pattern for the relationship between husband and wife. Are Christ and the church mutually submitted? Yes, they are. But submission doesn’t mean that Christ submits to the authority of the church. Christ submits Himself to suffer and die for the good of the church. The church doesn’t die in the place of Christ, but she gladly submits by affirming His authority and following His lead. So mutual submission does not mean submitting to each other in the exact same way… There is diversity of roles in the relationship.

Similarly, the husband’s role is to take the initiative in sacrificial, loving, servant-leadership to protect and to provide while the wife’s role is to shape, affirm, encourage and nurture that leadership. Submission is her distinct calling and unique strength to help carry through his guidance according to her gifts. And we need each other’s unique gifts and strengths to complement each other. It is not a domineering headship nor is it mindless submission. What does ‘head’ mean? Well, it refers to two ideas:

1) To be ‘head’ is to be the “source” of the body. The body gets nourishment from the head (verse 29). The mouth is in the head so nourishment comes through the mouth to the body. The body also gets guidance and protection from the eyes and ears in the head. The husband is to be a source of provision, protection and guidance to the wife.

2) “Head” also implies authority. For example, we speak of the ‘head of this department’. It doesn’t mean dictatorship. It is to be exercised in Christ-like, servant leadership. Not power over, control over. But authority exercised to serve, to love and to sacrifice for the spouse. Obviously husband and wife (as one flesh) need to have conversations, planning things together in decision making. But what if you can’t agree? Don’t make a decision lor… But what if a decision has to be made? Like, where to send your child to school? You cannot afford not to make a decision and let the child stay at home. In those few, rare cases of a real impasse, let the husband accept the burden of making the final choice… even though he may, very often, choose to surrender his own preference to his wife’s where no moral issue is at stake.

There’s a classic case of a pastor who felt called to plant a church in New York but his wife refused to go. It’s too risky. It’s against her ‘nesting instincts’. So the husband (Tim Keller, by the way) said, “Alright if you don’t want to go, then we won’t go. I’m not going to force you”. But then Kathy, his wife, turned around and said: “Hey, wait a minute… What are you doing? You just let me break the tie. What’s the use of you being the man around here? If you see God calling you to do that, for God’s sake, then be a man. Break the tie.” The husband doesn’t want to take the responsibility to lead. Submission takes a lot of strength and courage. It’s not for the weak. But by deferring to him, in a most feminine way, when she says: “I will support you no matter what and I will not say “I told you so” no matter what happens” she is enabling him to do the most masculine thing he has ever done. Both are submitting to their role in the dance of marriage.  

Ok, so there’s unity and diversity in marriage… now how does that cash out practically? How do we play our part in the dance of marriage?

Well, brothers, we have a huge responsibility on our shoulders. Headship is not a privileged position of control. It is a responsibility to serve our family and lead by example. If the family bought too many things on credit, then the financial debt is ultimately our fault. If the family never reads the Bible or seldom seeks the kingdom of God, God holds us accountable. The ‘head’ must answer first. Scary huh? Sometimes, it can be so intimidating that we would often rather run away from it. But if we feel inadequate or overwhelmed, the good news is we can run to God. Our sense of helplessness can drive us to draw near and find resources from God. We need wisdom – that means we need to take God’s word more seriously than ever before. We need grace and divine strength – so we need to humble ourselves and take our prayer life more seriously than we do. We make mistakes and mess up a lot of the times – we need forgiveness, repentance and the righteousness of Christ. Marriage is a powerful means of grace to help us grow into spiritual maturity and apply the gospel in everyday life.

How do we love the woman in our life? Look at Jesus. He loved the Church and gave Himself up for her. He sacrificed Himself in her place even when she is still a sinner. Jesus gave up His rights, His resources, His freedom, His life for the sake of His Bride. And because of this self-giving love, Jesus has created a people who are radiant, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. So husbands, you are not to love your wives just because she’s beautiful (though she is) – you are to love her in order to make her beautiful. When there is cold silence after a fight, like the way Christ loved the church, we need to die to our ego and take the first step towards reconciliation. The first step is the most painful, right? In a conflict, we are to take the initiative even when she is wrong or unlovely to bring reconciliation.

Wives – would you be happy to respect this kind of servant leadership? Sisters, when you see your husband doing his best in this role, would you use your nurturing strength, use your feminine gifts to affirm, shape, support and share in that leadership? Won’t you feel glad that he is not passive? Would you feel yourself honored and freed and secure by his caring strength? Won’t you respect him for that?

That is a profound mystery. When we do that, we get in touch with a deep part of our souls as male and female. When we do that, we imitate the dance of God in creation and the dance of Christ and His church in redemption.

Credit goes to insights from Ps Wong/Ps Soo Inn