Submission and Marriage
by Jack Wald | September 12th, 2004

Ephesians 5:21-33

A woman accompanied her husband to the doctor’s office.  After his checkup, the doctor called the wife into his office alone.

He said, “Your husband is carrying a tremendous amount of stress and is suffering from a very severe disease. If you don’t do what I’m going to tell you to do, your husband will surely die.”

“Each morning, fix him a healthy breakfast.  Be pleasant, and make sure he is in a good mood.  For lunch make him a nutritious meal. For dinner prepare an especially nice meal for him.  Don’t burden him with chores when he comes home at night, as he probably had a hard day.  Don’t discuss your problems with him, it will only make his stress worse. Please him in all ways. Make sure he goes to sleep with a smile on his face.”

“If you can do this for the next 10 months to a year, I think your husband will regain his health completely.”

On the way home, the husband asked his wife.  “What did the doctor say?”

“You’re going to die,” she replied.

What makes this joke funny is that we are all aware of how difficult it is to love someone and to sacrifice for someone. We are by instinct selfish creatures who think first of ourselves and then others. If you doubt this about yourself, think about when you look at a photograph in which you are one of several people in the photo. When you look at the photograph, to whose image do your eyes go first? You look first at yourself and then others, am I right? If you say, “This is a nice photo,” chances are it is nice because you think you look good in it.

We are by instinct selfish creatures which is why when we hear the word submission, we cringe. Submit is not a word we like to hear. It carries with it the image of the knights of old battling in their armor and with a sword at your throat, you hear the word, “Yield!” Or fighting as children and with an arm twisted behind your back, being forced to say “I give up”. It is a nasty word. It is having been defeated and being forced to do something we do not want to do.

We prefer not to submit. We prefer to do what we want to do when we want to do it. The results, when we have the chance to live as we wish, are not pretty and in the Bible we see what happened when people lived as they wanted to live.

The book of Judges in the Hebrew Testament is one of the more bizarre books of the Bible. (Ecclesiastes comes a close second but for different reasons which we will see when we begin a short series of sermons on Ecclesiastes in November. Stay tuned.) But Judges is bizarre. There is Jephthath who is made one of the judges because he and his gang terrorized the community and they figured it might be better for them if he used his energy to fight their enemies. There is Samson going from woman to woman and killing people because they offended him. And there is the Levite that allowed his concubine to be raped all night long while he slept comfortably in bed and was shocked to discover her dead at his doorstop in the morning.

I read Judges and wonder how this could be in the Bible and then there is the last sentence of the book of Judges and it all makes sense. This sentence is repeated earlier in the book and explains all the bizarre behavior we read in its pages:
Judges 21:25
In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.
In other translations this phrase reads:
everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

Why do we choose to marry? Why not just live together? Why not marry more than one person? Why not have several wives? Or several husbands? Why not marry someone of the same sex? If you do marry someone of the opposite sex, why not just make a commitment before God and ignore any role the state has in legalizing the marriage commitment?

I have read secular Darwinists who say that when men have multiple sexual relationships, they are merely practicing evolutionary behavior in which a man who sows more seed than others has a greater possibility of perpetuating his species.

When everyone does what seems right in their own eyes, the result is chaos of the order we read about in Judges. It is when we submit to God that society becomes a more pleasant place to live. The history of Christian awakenings in the west is that after the awakening, not only did those who became Christians in the awakening benefit, but all of society benefitted. So when William Wilberforce in 1787 began to fight for the abolition of slavery, he declared also a campaign to fight for the reform of manners and not only slaves benefitted when slavery was abolished in 1825 but all of society benefitted from the religious revival.

In a discussion of marriage and submission, it is essential that we begin with submission to God. Our nature is to do what seems right in our own eyes but when we turn to the Bible we discover that it opens in Genesis with these four words, In the beginning God, and that is where it always begins for us.

God created us and has worked with us to create the institutions that allow us to live together in peace and harmony. God gave us the gift of sex for the purpose of having children and put that gift safely in the institution of marriage so we could find pleasure with this gift. Society is based on this foundation. A strong society is based on strong families and a strong family is based on a strong marriage. Tamper with marriages and it is like pulling out the bottom block in a tower of blocks. They will all collapse. A marriage covenant is the foundation for the family which is the foundation for society. Destroy marriage and society will collapse.

So we submit first and foremost to the one who created us and the institutions in the society in which we live. As we submit to God, we begin to move toward the order that is intended in our lives.

Because we submit to God, we submit to the institution of marriage.

What does it mean to submit to the institution of marriage? What this means is that the institution of marriage is more important than the couple in a marriage.

This means that if you are married and you are not happy in the marriage, submit to the institution of marriage and stay in the marriage. If your needs are not being met in your marriage, don’t seek a divorce, submit to the institution of marriage and work for the health of your marriage. Although Jesus taught that divorce is possible if adultery has been committed, submission to the institution of marriage means that you forgive and work to rebuild the marriage that has been devastated by adultery rather than leave, even though the Bible allows you to leave.

To say that marriage is more important than the couple in a marriage sounds harsh and cuts against the culture in which we live. It seems cruel and insensitive to say such a thing, but this statement would not have sounded as harsh fifty years ago as it does today. There has been a change in our culture.

Fifty years ago people were more willing to sacrifice themselves for greater causes. Compare two movies: Casablanca filmed in 1942, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and The English Patient filmed in 1996, starring Juliet Binoche and Ralph Fiennes (Rafe Fines). In Casablanca Humphrey Bogart sacrificed his love for Ingrid Bergman for the greater cause of WWII. He walked away from her, giving up the great love of his life in support of the effort to defeat Nazi Germany. 54 years later in The English Patient, Ralph Fiennes betrayed his country for his love of a woman. His life and his love was more important than his country and the effort to defeat fascism.

Movies reflect the culture in which they are made and The English Patient reveals that we live in a culture of individualism in which I am more important than anyone or anything else. My relationships are what matter and take priority over everything else.

So when someone says that the institution of marriage is more important than the couple who are married, it strikes us as the statement of a cold, uncaring, insensitive person.

Let me explain why it is not as harsh as it sounds. Submission to God is not like submission to the local bully. The local bully uses us for his own advantage. He does not have our interest at heart. He cares only for himself. When we submit to the local bully or dictator, we do so out of fear and hope that we might benefit from him.

But when we submit to God, we submit to someone who loves us, who seeks out what is best for us, who died for us so we might benefit and have eternal life lived in his presence. Submission to God is where we find what we most need. Submission to God is where we find what brings us peace and joy.

By submitting to God’s design, we find the greatest reward. Let me give you an example.

We live in a world that celebrates sex as one of the most basic of human rights. The 1960s were a bold jump out of a world of restrictions into a world of freedom. Sexual freedom was celebrated and that sexual revolution has carried into today.

And so it came as a great surprise when a US magazine, Redbook, in 1970 reported the results of a sex survey taken from 100,000 of their readers and announced that religious women and their husbands were among the most sexually satisfied people on the face of the earth. Common understanding was that religious people were sexually repressed. Was this report true?

This was not a flash in the pan study. Researchers at the University of Chicago released in 1992 the results of the most “comprehensive and methodologically sound” sex survey ever conducted and they reported that religious women experience significantly higher levels of sexual satisfaction than non-religious women.

Their study verified the results of a 1940s Stanford University study, the  l970s Redbook magazine survey and at least one other study from the early 1990s. All these studies found higher levels of sexual satisfaction among women who attend religious services.

Does this surprise you? Why should it? If God is the one who gave the gift of sex to us and we enjoy it as he intended for us to enjoy it, why should it not be within the covenant of marriage that it is most richly enjoyed. Why should it not be that when we live in submission to God that we find the deepest and most satisfying life?

The studies present four factors that appear to be responsible for the link between spiritual commitment and sexual satisfaction.

First, church-going women appear to benefit from their lack of sexual experience prior to marriage. The studies show that women who engage in early sexual activity and those who have had multiple partners are less apt to express satisfaction with their sex lives than women who entered marriage with little or no sexual baggage.

Second, churchgoers appear to benefit from a commitment to being faithful in marriage and persevering in marriage. Most major studies show a strong correlation between marriage in which the couple are faithful to each other and sexual satisfaction.

Third, church-going women typically enjoy far greater sexual freedom because of the absence of sexual anxiety. Monogamous couples do not need to worry about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, fear of rejection, or performance anxiety.

Finally, church-going women appear to benefit from the belief that God created sex. The 1993 Janus Report on Sexual Behavior found the nonreligious “have a tendency to focus on the more technical or physical performance aspects of sex, while the religious pay more attention to the mystical and symbolic dimensions of one’s sexuality.”

To put it another way, churchgoers are more likely to delight in what Genesis describes as the state in the garden of Eden: “being naked and not ashamed”, celebrating what can be found only in the marital bed.

Doesn’t this flip on the head the understanding that drives much of our world? People think that by exploring their sexual freedom they are enhancing their pleasure and enjoyment when in fact they are working against their goal of seeking pleasure.

This is Paul’s argument in Galatians, that as we obey Christ we are set free to live.

Submission to God and his plan for us is where we find our greatest pleasure and the couple that perseveres in marriage is the couple most likely to find the pleasure they seek.

If you are not married, you still need to submit to the institution of marriage. When someone is sexually active outside the covenant of marriage, they attack the institution of marriage. When a couple decides to live together without being married, they attack the institution of marriage.

Singles who remain celibate honor the institution of marriage and defend its place in society.

We submit to God, we submit to marriage and we submit to each other.

Here we arrive at the most contentious part of this discussion of submission. When the passage from Ephesians is read Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, what comes to mind is a husband or a church insisting that wives obey their husbands because that is what the Bible says. This passage from the Bible is often used to justify the domination of men over their wives.

The problem is that this is not what the Bible says.

Paul’s discussion begins with this phrase:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

We submit to each other. It is not the wife who submits to the husband and the husband who lords it over his wife. Husband and wife are to submit to each other. As Paul goes on, he describes how that is done and because men and women are different, their submission in a marriage relationship is different but they submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit to your husbands as 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.

I don’t have time this morning to talk about what it means that the husband is the head of the wife. What it clearly does not mean is that the husband does all the thinking in the family and makes all the decisions in the family. It does not mean that the husband tells his wife what to do and she must submit. It does not mean that the husband is top dog and the wife eats the crumbs from the table.

What is the husband to do?
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 his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—  30 for we are members of his body.

Do you see in here anywhere that gives the husband the right to lord it over his wife and tell her what to do? Not at all. Husbands are to love their wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy.

How did Christ do this? He voluntarily went to Jerusalem and was crucified. He laid down his life for the church. This is the model for husbands.

The husband who demands that his wife submit to him because this is what the Bible tells her she is to do has not spent enough time reading his Bible. If he reads his Bible and seeks to obey God, he will love his wife even when she does not love him back and he will sacrifice for her to encourage the development of her gifts.

Every four years Annie and I have some intense arguments over the US presidential elections. A couple nights ago we were talking and she made some rather intense statements that I felt attacked me. My initial reaction was to want to get away from her as far as I could. But then I remembered what I’ve been reading in preparing for these sermons on marriage.

How does God react when I say something in anger or frustration against him? Does God distance himself from me? Or does God draw near to me to love me and care for me? And so I resisted my impulse to put distance between us and continued to love my wife.

Loving my wife as Christ loved the church means I need to sacrifice myself for her. I need to seek out what is best for her and encourage her to use her gifts.

In a healthy marriage there is a wonderful give and take that develops. Over time, the husband learns how to trust and rely on the strengths of the wife and the wife learns to trust and rely on the strengths of the husband. When you observe the dynamics of a healthy marriage, you can see the mutual love and respect that has developed over the years.

I have learned that God very often speaks to me through Annie and so I pay a lot of attention when she tells me she thinks we should give something to somebody or do something for someone.

What do you do when you are married to a woman who will not submit to you? You love her as Christ loved the church. You care for her, pray for her, encourage her, build her up. Day after day, month after month you love her and when you care for your wife in this way, you will see her open up to you like a bud that turns into a blossom and she will choose to submit to you because she feels loved and protected.

What do you do if you are married to a man who does not love you and work to encourage you as Christ loved and worked for the church? You die to yourself and love him day after day, month after month and year after year. Men are slow learners but they eventually get it and your love will transform them.

Annie and I had a very rough first 15 years of marriage. Only the fact that we were stubbornly Christian and had children prevented us from getting divorced. In those years we had some very good times and we had some very bad times. We went for marriage counseling for two separate periods of time. We dealt with some of the demons of the past that kept us from having an emotionally mature relationship but what really turned our marriage around about twelve years ago, was that Annie decided she would love me even if her needs were not being met. And I began to love her, even when she was angry and not loving me. Our marriage was transformed and the most amazing thing has happened. The strong, independent woman I married chooses to submit to me. I am humbled by this. It is a gift of her love that overwhelms me. I, in turn, have made it my goal to help her develop in the use of her gifts. We decided about two years before we came to Morocco, that whatever happened, we would make the sacrifices necessary for her to quit her job and write full-time and I continue to encourage her and protect her use of her gift.

Our relationship is testimony of the difference that mutual submission can make in a marriage and it is testimony of God’s grace in our lives.

I said earlier that it is when we submit to God’s design that we find our greatest reward. We all want to be happy. We all love pleasure. We all need peace. The way to find what you need and want is not to go and grab what you want without regard to God’s plan. We submit to God and when we submit to God, we move onto the path where pleasure and peace can be found.

Husbands, I call you to love your wife as Christ loves the church.

Wives, I call you to love your husbands. Choose to love even if your husband is not loving you back.

Singles, I call you to protect the institution of marriage by living pure and holy lives.