Submit to one another, part 1

Not long ago, a friend of mine who pastors a local church emailed me to ask if I’d like to take part in his upcoming sermon series on relationships.  “Relationships,” I thought.  “That’s certainly right up my alley.”  I agreed, and we settled a date.

Later, we got together for lunch to discuss his plan for the series.  As it turns out, his intent was to do a verse-by-verse exposition of the so-called “household code” in Ephesians 5:21-6:9.  I was a bit taken aback, knowing the controversies that have surrounded the passage.  “And which part of the passage did you want me to do?” I asked.  The not-so-surprising answer:

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.  (Eph 5:22-24, NIV)

Hoo boy.  The most controversial part of the passage.  My first gut reaction was, “Gee, thanks.”  But on a moment’s reflection, my second reaction was, “No, really–thanks.”  It was itself a moment of submission.

I have always believed that the verse just prior to this passage is the interpretive key: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (vs. 21).  Mutual submission of all members of the body of Christ to one another is the larger principle, within which Paul then discusses more practical matters of the household.

But over lunch, I realized that I had never really taken the time needed to diligently work through the passage myself.  That’s what I’m doing now, as I prepare for this Sunday’s sermon, and that’s what I’ll play out here over the coming week or so, one post at a time.

Here’s the first punchline: We have no business trying to figure out and implement what Paul means in Ephesians 5–including arguing about who’s supposed to submit to whom!–unless we’re ready to say a full and hearty “Amen” to chapters 1 through 4.

As a teacher and preacher, I regularly encounter the demand for practical application.  Some people seem impatient with ideas that they find to be too abstract.  They want to cut to the chase: “Okay, okay.  But just tell me what to do.”  We feel more comfortable, more in control, when we have concrete rules, guidelines, structures.  And don’t misunderstand me: I think preachers are remiss if their sermons never come back down to earth, never get around to daily matters of Christian living.

But there is an equal and opposite error: to so focus on enforcing standards of behavior that we neglect the transformation of our imaginations; to argue so self-righteously about how to behave like Christians that we neglect what it means to have the mind of Christ.

Put differently: we are not ready to deal rightly with Ephesians 5 unless we are able, with Paul, to be amazed by the wonder and mystery of God’s plan, and in response, to sing out this heartfelt prayer:

Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us; glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always.  Amen.  (Eph 3:20-21, CEB)

That is where we must begin.  More on that in the next post.