Preaching the Word of God is the most joy-producing vocation I can conceive of. I cannot imagine doing anything else. I would also submit to you that preaching the Word of God is one of the most frightening exercises a person can engage in. It was said of Martin Luther that he could face his enemies, but he could not ascend the pulpit stairs without his knees knocking.
The dread that a preacher feels usually comes from being mindful of the magnitude of our task at hand. It is a humbling and awe-inspiring thing to remember that the Lord intends on using the words spoken from the pulpit to bring about change in the lives of His people.
It is sometimes the case, however, that the dread a preacher feels comes from contemplating the offense that our work might potentially cause. The end of Ephesians 5 provokes that kind of dread in Bryn MacPhail—“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (5:22).
I confess to you that my responsibility to preach the whole counsel of God is currently at war with my people-pleasing tendencies. I do not like to bother and offend people. And because this text has a history of being misinterpreted and misapplied, I must be particularly careful. When I left my home this morning, I left a happy place, and I would like to be able to return to that same happy environment this afternoon.
And yet, in my attempt to bring you a balanced rendering of this text, I do not want to water down the importance of the exhortations found therein.
The first thing I would like to do is back up to the beginning of chapter 5. Paul begins this passage by telling us to “be imitators of God, as beloved children; and (to) walk in love, just as Christ also loved you” (5:1,2).
First, and foremost, the call upon our lives is to live like Jesus Christ. Everything that follows relates to that call. Admittedly, we need help to love as Christ loves and so, along with the provision of the Holy Spirit, Paul reminds us of our need to be “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18).
Paul then goes on to detail some of the behaviour that should result from being controlled by the Spirit of Christ. Paul says that we should speak to one another in an edifying manner, we should “always be giving thanks (to God) for everything”, and thirdly, we should “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (5:19-21).
We see then, that one of the marks of being Spirit-filled is that we must not merely look out for our own interests, but we must look out for, and defer to, the interests of others (Phil. 2:4).
In other words, there is a level of subjection that every Christian must yield to regardless of gender and social status. And this subjection is something we learn as we seek to imitate Christ “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be held on to, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
If we have some comprehension of what Christ subjected Himself to we will be better equipped to understand Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 5. Paul writes, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church” (5:22, 23). Likewise, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (5:25).
What shall we do with this text? Do we write this text off as the ramblings of a chauvinistic apostle? No, we must not. For starters, it is always a dangerous practice to accept some biblical teachings while rejecting other teaching that we find to be less palatable. Secondly, we must interpret this text in the light of other New Testament teaching.
This same apostle wrote elsewhere that “(in Christ) there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). Paul, far from being chauvinistic, was actually ahead of his time—Paul regarded, long before society ever did, that men and women are equal in the eyes of God.
What Paul is teaching in Ephesians 5 must be understood in light of his other teaching. Elsewhere Paul teaches about the equality of men and women before God, and here, within that equality, Paul exhorts us according to some of the role distinctions that exist between a husband and a wife.
Paul identifies for us a distinction in household roles when he states “the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church” (5:23). If there is anyone present who is squirming under that statement, I implore you to hear again the qualifier: “as Christ is the head of the church”.
So, we ask the question, ‘What does it mean for Christ to be the head of the church?’ Christ explains His mandate in Mark 10:45 when He says, “the Son of Man came not to be served” . . . “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
Let’s look also at John 13:3-5: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given Him all things . . . rose from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself about. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.”
If we bring all of the New Testament teaching to bear on this subject, the issue of husbands giving direction in the home should not be a controversial one. My suspicion is that the reason this text has become controversial is because, in large measure, husbands have failed to lead their wives the way Christ leads His church.
Paul is not giving husbands permission to be domineering in the home. We reject the ‘Archie Bunker’ husband model here. Paul is not giving husbands permission to plop themselves in front of the TV for hours at a time. Paul is not writing husbands an exemption from household chores. Paul is insisting that husbands, following the example of Christ, are not to be served but are to serve.
If husbands are to engage in humble service as they lead the household, what is being asked of the wives here? What are wives to be subject to? Paul is exhorting wives to be subject to the loving service of their husbands.
The reason for this is because, in virtually every age, serving another person was regarded as a sign of weakness. It was true of Paul’s day—if you served another person you diminished your standing before that person.
And the temptation for those on the receiving end of this service is to exploit the work of the servant and to treat them with a diminished sense of importance. Paul, by asking wives to "be subject", is insisting that the service rendered by husbands be neither rejected nor exploited. When a husband serves his wife, he is not diminishing his standing within the household, but rather, he is fulfilling his mandate.
Paul further exhorts, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself up for her” (5:25).
When Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives he is commanding far more than roses, chocolates, and a kiss good night. Christ came “that He might sanctify (the Church) . . . that she should be holy and blameless” (5:26, 27). This is how Paul frames Christ’s love for the Church. Christ’s love was expressed in action for the spiritual benefit of the Church.
And this, Paul explains, is how the husband must love. Our love for our wives must have a view toward nurturing their spiritual condition.
Christ lived and died for the spiritual well being of His Church. So too must the husband live within the household, for the husband will ultimately be held accountable for the spiritual health of the family.
In case there be any here who might doubt the importance of Paul’s instruction for the family, let us remember that this text does not exist in a vacuum. This instruction lies at the heart of Paul’s teaching about the Church’s role within the grand, cosmic, eternal plan of God.
We have said, time and time again, that this world of ours is a mess, but God has a plan. The Christian Church is part and parcel of God’s plan to meaningfully impact this world.
So why all the fuss about the family? Why the instruction to husbands and wives? Why the instruction to parents and children?
Could it be that our ability to be faithful Christians is shaped in large measure by what happens in the home? Could it be that the effectiveness of our witness to the world is closely connected to how we represent Christ within our own household?
I’m not sure that present day Christianity has done well in this regard. It is difficult to discern whether the average Christian household behaves any differently than the average non-Christian household.
Statistics seem to indicate that we live very much the same way. We watch the same television shows, we spend our money on similar things, our children are no less likely to get in trouble, and our marriages are no less likely to become dysfunctional or to altogether dissolve.
By all accounts, the Christian home has shown itself in this century to not be very different from any other home. And, as such, we should not be surprised to find that our impact upon this world has been marginal.
But, of course, this is not God’s plan. It doesn’t have to be this way. With God’s help we can make a difference within our square mile.
Our witness for Jesus Christ must not only shine from this congregation, but our witness for Christ must also shine brightly from within our own homes. Amen.