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.