The Lord's Day Morning
August 6, 2006

Ephesians 5:22-24
“God's New Family: An Exposition of Ephesians (XLVII)
Household Rules: Marriage and Family (2)”

Obey?! Submit? You've got to be kidding! (1)

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

I invite you to turn with me to Ephesians 5, verse 22. We’re going to look at verses 22-24 today, but let me admit at the outset we're not going to get out of verse 22. We’re going to have to come back and look at verses 22-23-24 next week. This whole section is so important in our day and time that it bears sitting down on and listening to carefully.

We are going to be dealing today with, as I said before the service, a very politically incorrect subject. We’re going to be broaching the “S” word…Submission. And that seems quaint to some, outdated to others, and downright oppressive to still more, and so we need to pay close attention to what the Apostle Paul says.

I do want to remind you before we even get to the Apostle Paul's words to Christian wives in Ephesians 5:22, in Ephesians 5:18-21, the passage we've spent a few weeks on, the Apostle Paul has made it clear that the filling of the Holy Spirit, that ongoing work of the Holy Spirit whereby He matures us in Christ and assures us in Christ, is absolutely essential for growing in grace, and that there is no better index of the effect of the Holy Spirit's work in us than mutual subjection. That's the participle, that's the word that we talked about in verse 21, all last week. It's something that the Apostle Paul expects all Christians to manifest to one another: a mutual subjection, a service of one another.

And we said three things about that mutual subjection that the Apostle Paul expects all Christians to manifest.

First of all, we said that it is corporate…that mutual subjection is corporate. In other words, it can only be expressed in the context of the body in relationships. Very often we think of individual holiness, and individual holiness is important, but what the Apostle Paul wants to stress here is that though God wants us to be holy individually, it is impossible for us to express the holiness that God wants us to have individualistically. It must be expressed in the context of relationships. It must be expressed in the context of the communion of the saints. It must be expressed in the context of the body, the corpus, and so it is corporate. It has to do with our relationship, the whole fellowship; and so the kind of holiness God wants us to express is holiness in relationship, and so the Apostle Paul first of all says that this mutual servitude, this mutual subjection that he calls all Christians to show, is something that we show in the context of our relationships with one another in the Christian church, and, of course, in our Christian families and in all our relationships.

Secondly, we also said that this call to mutual subjection is radical. It's just downright radical. As I drove to church this morning, I was behind someone who was turning into the hospital parking lot, no doubt to serve in the hospital in some capacity today. But on her back license plate, around the back license plate it said “It's all about me.” I thought, “Bless their hearts, whoever is having to relate to you, sweetie!” But that is quintessential America today. We are individualistic, we are narcissistic, and it is all about us. And the Apostle Paul bumps right up against that and says ‘No, it's not. It's not all about you. It's all about God, it's all about Christ, it's all about His kingdom, it's all about His people. And the glorious freedom that He gives to us is the freedom from this wretched bondage of self-focus, self-preoccupation, narcissism, so that we're freed to love and serve others.’ And so what he's calling us to is just downright radical.

It's grace-based…we couldn't do it apart from God's grace; it's gospel-empowered…only a life changed by the gospel is able to manifest what we're going to talk about today. It's not only grace-based and gospel-empowered, it's self-denying. It's other-focused. We’re giving ourselves away in a joyful, deliberate, willing subjection to one another. We’re committing ourselves to the service of one another, and it's a very radical thing. It's something that is to become so woven into our life that the world is to see it in our relationships, and the world is to say ‘You know, they are acting very differently in their relationships to one another with the way that they serve one another than we are.’ It's to be a gospel witness to the world around us. So we said last week that our whole attitude was to be “How may I serve you?”

Now I need to pause right there and say that that goal of serving one another can be a terrible playground for controlling people to try and use against those who are sensitive and those who are less assertive, and so I want to pause for just a second and say that mutual subjection does not mean that you can never say no to someone. Mutual subjection doesn't mean that you can never refuse a request.

I have a group of elders that meets with me one breakfast every month just to help me say no to things. And they do that not because they don't want me to serve, they do that because they do want me to serve. They want me to serve the right way, they don't want me to kill my family in the process, they want me to make sure that I'm serving you in the way that I need to serve, and so they help me say no to requests not because they are not aspiring to the goal of helping me serve, but because they are aspiring to the goal of helping me serve.

And it's going to be the same thing with you. Your service is going to require you sometimes to say no, or to turn things down. Mutual subjection is not about somebody else getting to run your life. You know, mutual subjection doesn't mean that there gets to be one person in the congregation who knows what God's will is and has a wonderful plan for your life, and then you just get to say “yes, sir, yes, sir; yes, ma’am, yes ma’am.” That's not what mutual subjection is about.

Mutual subjection requires that you do some thinking about what God's gifting is to you, and what your present obligations are. You've got to prayerfully approach how best you can serve others, but it's not about other people getting to run your life. It means, in fact, that there are some times that we have to say no. When somebody is asking us to help them to do something that is wrong, the way we serve them is we say, “NO! I love you too much; I want to serve you, brother; NO is the answer!”

When someone is wanting us to enable their irresponsibility, the loving, serving answer is “NO! I am not here to enable your irresponsibility. I love you too much to do that. I’ll be happy to help you be responsible, but I won't take your responsibility for you.”

Mutual subjection is not acceding to abusive behavior or inconsiderate behavior. That's not what we're talking about. Mutual subjection doesn't mean that our personal choices and our prior obligations and the reality of our schedule and commitments and our own distinct gifting don't matter in terms of our service. No, they do. We take all of those things into consideration, but our goal is in everything — in absolutely everything — to serve one another.

And so with all those qualifications let me just say that there are times when we will feel like saying no, and when we will want to say no, when we should say yes, because our desire is to serve.

Now. So we said that mutual subjection is something that's expressed corporately, it's a radical call, and we also said last week that it is Christ's model and Christ-motivated. That is, when we look around in the Christian life and ask who is the person in the Bible who best manifests mutual subjection, the answer is easy: Jesus. Here He is, the One of whom the Lord God says every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the one true God. Every knee will bow, whether it wants to or not. Every tongue will confess that. And guess what He says to His disciples: “I am among you as one who serves.” So when we are seeking to live out a life of serving one another, our great example is the Lord God of the universe, who gave His life in service to us and who ever lives to intercede for us even now, when He is at the right hand of God ruling the world by His word and Spirit. He's the perfect picture of service and that motivates us, because we long to be like our Savior. We want to be like our Savior in our relationships with one another.

Now, all of that about mutual subjection I hope will help you understand what the Apostle Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 5:22, because, dear sisters in Christ, before Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit speaks to you God's word that you subject yourselves or submit yourselves to your own husbands…that you respect your husbands…before he says a word of that he says that it is the hallmark of every Christian (your husband included) to seek to serve other Christians. And he is going to say in this very passage, and when he turns to speak directly to the husbands in verse 25, that the model of the husband's service of you is the model of Christ laying down His life for His people. So this is not some sort of an agenda designed by a hopefully tyrannical and domineering husband to keep women in their place: this is a radical gospel call which is sent out to all Christians, men and women, to seek to be serving one another; and then, within that, it is a direction on how Christian women are particularly to express that global gospel challenge in their relationships with their husbands.

Now: no poking ribs today! This is not about “her” — this will be about you. And men, you are next.

Let's look to God in prayer before we read His word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this word. This word is so uncomfortable for some people to even read aloud in this culture. It may seem hopelessly traditionalist to some. It may seem to be giving an excuse for all kinds of abuse, but we know, O God, contrary to the lies of Satan in our ears, that You never tell us to do something that isn't for our own good. We know that Your word is good. You have proved it to us over and over, so help us stop our ears to the confusion of the world and to the lies of Satan and believe that every word of Scripture is good and true. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word:

“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

I've given you in the outline a three-part outline where first we look in verse 22 at the command, and then in verse 23 we look at the context of that command, and then in verse 24 we see the comprehensive scope of that command. But we're not going to get to the second two, so let me just outline verse 22 for you. I just want to look at what submission is; what it isn't; I want you to look at the significance of the phrase to your own husbands — that tells you a little bit about the context of what Paul is asking; and then, fourth and finally, I want you to look at the phrase as to the Lord, and see its significance as to what God is asking in this passage.

I. What submission is.
If you are at a marriage at First Presbyterian Church, during that marriage service (generally early on) there will be a moment called The Declaration of Intent, where a bridegroom and a bride publicly say ‘I want to marry that woman’ — ‘I want to marry that man.’ And in the course of their saying publicly that they desire to marry one another, they declare their intentions before all those witnesses to be married for the rest of their lives; they take a vow which they answer in our order of wedding service with the words “I will.” The husband promises that he will love and honor and cherish. In our vow, if you are there to hear a wedding service, the bride answers this question:

“Will you have this man to be your wedded husband; to live with him after God's commandments in the holy estate of marriage; and will you love him, honor and obey him, so long as you both shall live?”

Now you should be asking yourself the question: “So what's up with that? What? It that obey him thing…is that some sort of left over vestigia from the Neanderthal era? What's the deal at First Presbyterian Church?” You know, one local author because of this said that the elders of First Presbyterian Church like to keep their women under their thumbs. Whenever I read that local author, I think of him sitting at the strip mall bookstore in D’Lo selling his self-published books while the women of this congregation run the city of Jackson! But that's another story for another day.

What is the deal? Well, all that language is trying to do is in a capsule form express what the Apostle Paul says to husbands and wives in this passage, so let's look at it together.

Note first of all in verse 22 that Paul gives a command, and here's the command. The command is: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” What does that mean? Well, Paul is saying here that God calls Christian wives to a sincere respect and a glad and willing submission to their husbands. Now where did I get that “respect” idea? Well, let your eyes flow down to the bottom of the paragraph (verse 33), look at the second half of verse 33, and notice what Paul says there: “The wife must see to it that she respects her husband.” So notice how Paul brackets the paragraph with those two ideas: the wife giving herself in submission — or service or subjection — to her husband; and, the wife respecting her husband.

So what does this command mean? It means that Christian wives are to give appropriate respect to their husbands. They’re to acknowledge and submit to their spiritual leadership in the home. In particular I want to draw your attention to three things which are entailed in this submission.

The first thing is simply recognizing that God has established an order in Christian households, and acknowledging that and embracing that, not fighting against it or resisting or resenting it. In this passage we've just been told that all Christians are to subject themselves to one another. They’re to serve one another, and some people have argued this: Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:21 that there must be a mutual subjection of all Christians to one another; therefore, there are no longer any distinctive roles that husbands have that are different from wives in the context of Christian marriage. But the Apostle Paul clearly says the first part of that argument's right, the second part of it's wrong. Yes, we're all to serve one another, but that does not mean that there are no longer distinctive roles for husbands and wives in the context of Christian marriage. In fact, in this very passage, if you’ll look at verse 24, Paul will speak about a different role that the husband has from the role of the wife that he speaks about in verse 23 and 25. So the first thing that submission means in this context for a Christian woman is that she acknowledges that God has established a divine order in the Christian home, and that order is for her good as well as the good of her husband.

The second thing that submission means is simply this: The recognition of her husband's spiritual leadership in the home, under God. Notice what Paul says in stark terms in verse 24:

“As the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.”

He draws an analogy between the relationship between the church and Christ and the wife and the husband. Why? Look back at verse 23: “For the husband is the head of the wife….” In other words Paul is saying that husbands have been given by God a unique spiritual responsibility for which they are accountable to God and with which they must exercise spiritual leadership for the well-being of their wives and families in the home, and so submission to one's husband entails practically recognizing one's husband's responsibilities in that area.

Thirdly, submission involves a voluntary sacrificial, self-giving, long-suffering loyalty to one's husband. Why do I say long-suffering? Because he's a sinner. You know, it's one thing for the church to submit to Christ. He's never let us down; He's never failed us; He's never made a mistake; He has never sinned. None of those are things that any husband in here has even remotely gotten close to! We fail, we sin, we make mistakes, we can be selfish…it's hard to submit to someone like that, and therefore it takes Christian forbearance to do; but it's a voluntary, sacrificial, self-giving, patient, long-suffering loyalty to one's husband.

I love the way that John Piper and Wayne Gruden describe this. Here's their short paragraph definition of what Paul and Peter and the rest of the new Testament teach about submission:

“Submission refers to a wife's divine calling to honor and affirm her husband's leadership, and help carry it through according to her gifts. It is not an absolute surrender of her will; rather, we speak of her disposition to yield to her husband's guidance and her inclination to follow his leadership. Christ is her absolute authority, not the husband. She submits out of reverence for Christ, as Paul said in Ephesians 5:21. The supreme authority of Christ qualifies the authority of her husband. For instance, she should never follow her husband into sin; nevertheless, even when she may have to stand with Christ against the sinful will of her husband, she can still have a spirit of submission, a disposition to yield. She can show by her attitude and behavior that she does not like resisting his will, and that she longs for him to forsake sin and lead in righteousness so that her disposition to honor him can again produce harmony in the marriage.”

It's a very helpful paragraph describing what we're talking about. That's the quote that I have on the web log for you, if you’d like to pick it up there.

II. What submission isn't.
Now we need to pause and say for a few moments what submission isn't before we can conclude with what it is.

Submission is not putting the husband in the place of Christ as if the husband is some sort of absolute authority. Christian husbands are accountable to God, they’re accountable to the Bible, they’re accountable to the government, and they are accountable to the church in their conduct as husbands towards their wife and as fathers towards their children. That's just a fact. Men are under authority.

Secondly, submission does not mean giving up independent thought. First of all, notice here that Paul doesn't say ‘Now, husbands, go home and tell your wives that they’re to submit to you.’ He directly addresses his Christian sisters and he says ‘By God's authority I'm asking you to exercise your independent thought…you’re perfectly smart enough to understand this conversation, you don't have to have your husband to relate this to you. You’re perfectly capable of understanding what I'm going to say.’ He speaks directly to his Christian sisters and understands that they are capable of independent thought, and he's asking them to embrace this, just as he has just asked all Christians to embrace a mutual servitude to one another.

Submission does not mean that a wife should give in to every demand of her husband. Submission will sometimes require precisely that she does not. Our current President is very clear on the fact that when he was struggling with alcoholism that his wife put the foot down and said, “It's me or that bottle.” And he's thankful for that, and it is a very comforting thought to me to know, as I understand it, that it is the practice of the leader of the free world every morning to get up and serve his wife breakfast in bed–not made by the White House stewards, but made by himself for her as a way of serving her because of the way she served him in saying ‘No.’

Submission does not mean that a wife should give up her efforts to influence and guide her husband. In the very passage in I Peter 3, when Peter is asking wives to submit to their husbands, he takes up the case of a wife who is married to an unbelieving husband, and he makes the point ‘I want you to influence that unbelieving husband. I want to see him become a believer in the one true God. And I want you to be the influence on him through the way you relate to him to draw him to Christ.’

Submission does not mean that a woman has less intelligence or competence than a man. I've told you many times before that my mother is an intellectual powerhouse, and when it came to theology she had read a lot more of it and was far more articulate than my father. She could teach a class as well as anyone, and when my father got near a podium he got nervous–and you can best believe that when he did get near a podium, my mother had written whatever it was that he was going to say! And so it has never occurred to me — it has never occurred to me! — that Christian women have less intelligence or competence or theological ability than men. I've seen that lived out, and that's not what's occurring to Paul here, either. He's speaking to these sisters as sisters in the Lord.

And submission does not mean being fearful, intimidated, cowering before a husband who can strike out in an arbitrary fashion at any point. No, that's not what we're talking about when we speak about submission. But let me remind you positively that the wife is here being asked to give a particular expression of a general Christian duty. In other words, the Apostle Paul isn't asking this Christian woman to do anything in principle that is different from anything that he's asking every Christian to do in terms of our service of one another. It's just a specific, particular application of that general principle that we serve one another.

Secondly, notice that in this context the wife's submission is to be towards someone who does —what? Who loves her. Isn't it glorious how Paul sets this in that framework? You’re to give yourself in service not just to any old person, but to a person who loves you.

Thirdly, notice it's not just that a person who loves you in general, it is a person who loves you in the way that Christ loved the church, so this is a person who is told by God — who is commanded by God — to love you in the way that Jesus loved you, which is to lay down his life for you.

Fourthly, notice that the husband's love and self-sacrifice for his wife's wellbeing is his expression of the duty of mutual subjection. How is it that the husband serves the wife? By expressing that loving, self-denying…if necessary, life-ending…love for his wife.

And fifth, and finally, notice that the wife's subjection or submission is again just an expression of an aspect of Christian love in general. Every mother in here knows that in your love for your children there are many, many times when your children do not understand how much it is that you are giving up for them. They have no idea. And yet you love them. And Christian love always entails in one measure or another, in one degree to another, someone showing a love and a self-sacrifice to other people who have no idea how much that costs. And of course, that's exactly what the Lord God did to us in His grace.

And so in this passage we see this call to submission which recognizes the order that God has established in the household, which embraces the authority of one's husband and which gives a voluntary sacrificial, long-suffering loyalty and respect to one's husband.

You know that leads me to the third point that I wanted to draw to your attention, and that is this phrase to your own husbands. Isn't it interesting that the Apostle Paul's word here is a call for a voluntary submission of a wife to her husband, not of women in general to all men in general? And whatever implications there may be for the creation order, Paul is saying that this special expression of service is to be reserved for the context of the marriage commitments.

Why do you think that he spoke to women first on this? Have you ever wondered that? Was he just following the normal order of household teaching in his day? Maybe. I suspect there's probably another reason, though, and that reason is because first of all the Apostle Paul has already said that it is his general principle for every Christian to be in a posture of wanting to serve every other Christian, and so he knows that Christian women are not being asked to serve on a one-way street. It's a two-way street. They already know that.

But secondly, I suspect it's this: The Apostle Paul has already articulated the enormous privileges of the Christian life and Christian freedom in such a way that Christians could think that that new freedom that we have in Christ frees us from the responsibility to serve one another in radical ways. And I suspect that the Apostle Paul wants to start right off to say that this freedom that you have in Christ frees you to serve, not from service. The freedom is real, but it's not from service and responsibility, but to service and responsibility. And I suspect he wants to get that clear right at the outset.

Finally, when Paul says “…as to the Lord” what in the world is he saying? Well, he is saying that there is no possibility of a Christian woman manifesting her true embrace of the lordship of Christ without showing respect for her husband in the context of the home, just as he will say later that there is no possibility of a Christian man showing a practical expression of the lordship of Christ in his life unless he loves his wife as Christ loved the church.

This is stout stuff, folks. And we've spent most of our time today looking at general principles. Next week we will really try and get through the whole passage, but we will try to get down into practical specifics of what this looks like. I've been ranging over literature written by godly Christian women this week, and they have given me hundreds of good ideas which I will try and pare down into a doable unit when we gather again next Lord's Day.

Let's look to God in prayer.

Heavenly Father, it stuns and convicts us that our embrace of the lordship of Christ is manifested in our relationships as husband and wife, because we suspect that sometimes our actions in those relationships do not bear the marks of a heart that has embraced the lordship and service of Christ. So change our hearts, show us our own sin, help us to serve one another. And grant that the Christian women of this congregation would gladly and joyfully embrace Your order for the family, and would seek to serve their husbands. But, Lord God, grant that the husbands of this congregation would make it easy for their wives to do so. In Jesus' name. Amen.