Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 11/7/99
Today we arrive at Eph. 5:22-24. Perhaps no passage of Scripture has been more misunderstood, more disastrously applied, and hence more feared by both congregation and preacher than the one before us today. The traditional (hierarchical) understanding is so tainted by misapplication and abuse that it can hardly be heard without distortion; and the new (egalitarian) understanding is so skewed by reaction against the traditional--or how it is perceived--that it is equally unable to help us hear the Word clearly. Therefore, a new beginning is needed, a fresh start. This I will attempt today--or at least the beginning of this new beginning. I will attempt to provide a framework that will allow the wise and sane Voice of Scripture to be heard constructively once again. And I will do this by propounding five theses about this passage.
The biblical concept of hierarchy is modelled by the Trinity itself. In John 4:34, 5:19-23, 30, 10:30, we see the Father and the Son equal in nature, power, glory, dignity, and honor, but differentiated in role. The Son obeys the Father; the Father does not obey the Son, though He may grant His requests. The Higher does not dominate the Lower, but seeks the honor of its subordinates (Jn. 5:23). This is called by theologians the "economic subordination" of the Trinity--a subordination not of value or nature but of function, voluntarily adopted through love. It is reflected in the Church, where there is a universal priesthood of believers, and yet where within this spiritual equality elders are set aside for rule and given double honor if they rule well (1 Tim. 5:17). There is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28), yet the male is head of the female as Christ is of the male and God of Christ (1 Cor. 11:3). (Traditionalists would like to ignore one of these verses, and feminists the other--but neither option is open to us.) And it is reflected in the home (Eph. 5:23).
But this is different from the human perversions of hierarchy created by Man to feed his pride. In these human and worldly hierarchies, a difference in authority implies a difference in value, is assumed to be based on a difference in ability, and leads to a difference of prestige. None of these things is at all true of the biblical model.
Our model for leadership is Jesus, and his kind of leadership is defined in Mat. 20:25-28, which contrasts the "Gentile Paradigm" (lording it over one's subordinates) with Christ's notion that the greatest should be the servant of all. This principle is incarnated in John 13:13-15, where Jesus washes the disciples' feet and goes out of his way to make the point that this is in fulfillment of his role as LORD and teacher. Remember this phrase, "Gentile Paradigm." It is a mode of understanding leadership and headship that has infiltrated the traditional position and caused it to be utterly unChristlike and unbiblical. So how does Christ lead the Church? Even He does not follow the Gentile Paradigm, though He of all people would have a right to. How does He lead? Eph. 5:25-28. Why do we follow Him? Why do we hail Him as "Lord"? Because He first loved us and gave up His life for us.
The assumption that he is flows from the Gentile Paradigm. In studying for this message I was disappointed to see how many conservatives defend male headship by trying to argue that men are inherently better leaders. I do not care to dispute this claim, but simply to point out its irrelevance. Even if it is true as a generalization, that would still mean that lots of women would make better leaders than lots of men. We all know marriages in which the wife has tons more sense than the husband. Nor does Scripture teach this. It is not mentioned in Eph. 5, and even the verse often quoted in support of it (1 Tim. 2:12-14) merely says that Eve was deceived--not that women are generally more gullible than men. The key to this passage is verse 13, referring to Adam's position of responsibility. Besides, if the Trinity is our model, there is no way to argue that the Son is less qualified than the Father to be the initiator of the plan of Salvation.
There is no verb in v. 22, nor a period at the end of 21 in the original. It is. "Being subject to one another, ... wives to their own husbands." V. 22 is then a continuation of v. 21, and there is a close connection between them. In other words, before there is any submission of wife to husband, they must already be submitting to one another in the Lord. This means that they are designed to lead the family as a team. The wife should be consulted, and she may initiate. She need not put up with any and every stupid and idiotic idea her spouse comes up with just because he is male. But the bottom line is that if the family is not being led in a godly direction, it will be the man who is first and most severely called on the carpet by God--just as it happened in Gen. 3:9. They are to lead together, but God holds the husband responsible for taking the family in directions pleasing to God. And, like Christ, he is to do this not by barking orders but by setting an example of loving service, of godly living, of loving sacrifice. Otherwise, he is leading by the Gentile Paradigm, and that is NOT what God is commanding the wife to submit to.
I promised you a new paradigm: here it is. God wants the family to be a Drama Company in which the husband is assigned to enact the role of Christ so that the Church and the world might understand who He is. Why is this role assigned to him? Not because he is more qualified for it or worthy of it. Who could be? Perhaps because Christ was male, as Adam was. And, looking at today's Church, I cannot help but wonder if it is not because the male is the least inclined to take this role. The Gentile Paradigm comes natural to us males. We would not learn to lead like Christ unless we had to. And the ironic tragedy is that Satan has succeeded in so permeating the traditional hierarchical view with the Gentile Paradigm that men do in fact take on the role of Head with precisely the opposite results that God intended. But Scripture is plainly opposed to this as much as to egalitarianism and the erasing of role distinctions.
What then does submission mean for the wife in this paradigm? It does not mean the husband has the right to give orders--any orders-- and she must simply carry them out. It means she is willing to let the man lead the family in a godly direction. She will in fact encourage him to take on this God-assigned role. If she is more qualified for leadership herself, she will not usurp this role but graciously help him learn to grow into it, if he is willing. (If not, she may be forced to take it herself by default, but that is never her purpose or intention or preference.) She will support and encourage him whenever he moves in that direction. She will be willing to be the straight-man--er, person--that he plays off of in developing the part. And if he is playing the part he has been assigned, he will not be imposing his agenda on her, but they will be finding Christ's together. It means allowing someone who is your equal, not your superior, to lead in the dance. But it must be the dance tune Scripture is playing, not just any whim he happens to have.
Well, Martin Luther had 95 theses to my five. But if I am one 19th the Reformer he was, that will be enough. Have I modeled what I am teaching here in my own marriage? Not always. Not as well as I wish I had, especially early on when I was myself more tainted by the Gentile Paradigm than was at all good for the relationship. Where, I hear some of you asking in despair, do we see such a thing as you are talking about? I would like to say, here. At Trinity Fellowship. Already the foretaste, increasingly the fullness. From now on. By the grace of God, let there be a new beginning inthis vexed matter, in your family and mine. For this mystery is great: I am speaking of Christ and the Church.
Here endeth the lesson.