The "S" Word (Submission)

Series: Holy Matrimony

 “Mutual Submission”

 Message @ Jericho Ridge Community Church – Sunday, May 6, 2012

Text: Ephesians 5: // New Series: “Holy Matrimony”


Well good morning, friends.  It’s good to be here with you after being away for two weekends.  Two weeks ago, I was gone for a holiday weekend for a course over on Vancouver Island, and then last weekend, Meg and I were in Fresno meeting and training with the team of now almost 40 young people and adults who will be joining us on a summer mission team and helping to run our Go Big Summer Day camp.  You are going to enjoy getting to know as many of you will be billeting them in your homes that first week of July so watch for an application form coming next weekend.


Well when we travel, one of the things that we rely on is text messaging to communicate with each other.  It’s quick, usually less expensive that roaming with a cell carrier in the US and can get the information you need to get quickly and easily.  But it has it’s downsides as well, doesn’t it?  How many of you have received a text message that you couldn’t decipher or perhaps wasn’t even for you?  I was with Pastor Dave McTaggart at pastors prayer this last Wednesday and he asked me “does your wife text?”.  I said “yeah, she has an iPhone and some texty friends and a plan that allows for a certain number so yeah, she texts”.  At which point he pulled out his phone and said “I just got this text from my wife, who is new to texting… can you help me make sense of it”.  And it was just a series of random consonants spread across 7 lines on his phone that actually began with a question.  So unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything for him.  I’m finding the same with my folks…  They will text things but they split it up into messages that come in at different times and so often, they will have no context and I have a hard time figuring them out.  Then there’s this text message, where perhaps both the content and the context are clear but the recipient hears it in a different way: Slide 1


Text messages can be like that can’t they?  We can easily miss what the person is trying to communicate either because we don’t have proper context, or we think we know what is being said but in reality the content is quite different than our expectations.  But this experience isn’t limited to your cell phone.  Reading the Bible can sometimes feel like this as well.  You look at a passage and think “what in the world?...” or you might read just a small verse and think ‘well, it’s pretty clear what the Bible is saying about x or y” but further study and familiarity with the context, reshapes your perspective on the content. 


This morning, we are going to look at what is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and the challenging sections of the New Testament.  We’re going to try and discern together how both the context and the content have become some distorted as to create confusion and even abuse of this text.  In order to take any steps forward with what God has for us here, we’ll have to take three steps back: we’ll have to go back and hear it again through the ears of the first recipients, we’ll have to take a step back and look at the wider counsel of Scripture on the topic, and we’ll have to take a step back and analyze our cultural biases and blind spots to allow God’s word to challenge and call us to radical obedience today.  Let’s pray as we look into God’s Word this morning. 


Here at Jericho Ridge, we’ve been exploring a spring series on relationships entitled “Holy Matrimony” where we’ve been attempting to build an architecture for relationships, and particularly healthy marriages, not by talking about 3 tips for better communication, but rather by studying the Scriptures to see what God has to say about the design and purpose of marriage.  We’ve rooted ourselves in Ephesians 5, with some helpful excurses into passages like I Corinthians 7 last weekend where Pastor Keith lifted up the value that the Bible and our community places on singleness.  I’m not going to repeat all of my disclaimers on the series, you can go back and listen to the audio online from previous weeks to hear those, but I will add one specific disclaimer for this week’s text in Ephesians 5.  And that is that this section of Scripture describes an ideal for us to aspire towards, but not all relationships fit this architecture, as we’ll see in a few minutes.  You have your Bibles with you or on your handheld devices, so take them out and take out your Momentum Journal, the notes pages this morning is on Page 32. 


I’m going to read the text and you’ll likely see immediately how a person could look at this and go “say what?!” Look with me at Ephesians 5:21-27   


The title of this message is “The ‘S’ Word”, because the word submit which shows up 4 times in these short verses, is a loaded concept.  It is now, it was then and it likely almost always be because it is so counter cultural in its implications.  So I want to walk us through this passage of Scripture carefully and with humility so that we can hopefully hear with clarity what God is saying to each of us.


The first thing you will hopefully notice is something profoundly unhelpful.  And that is that the NIV translation begins a new paragraph in verse 21.  The New Living, which I read from, hints that this is not the case by beginning verse 21 with the phrase “and further…”, meaning that “submission to one another out of reverence for Christ” is connected back to something earlier in the passage, but it still chucks a heading in there which makes it seem disconnected.  So let’s begin by taking our first step back to ask ourselves how the original listeners hear these instructions? 

Step 1: How Did This Read in the 1st Century?

Because one of the principles of biblical interpretation is that it cannot mean something today that it didn’t mean to the original audience.  So here we have to do a little detective work and place ourselves into the shoes of the first readers of this letter to the church at the city of Ephesus.  You’ll remember from our series on the book of Acts, that in the first century, the message of the saving work of Jesus Christ began to spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean world.  And it began crossing cultural and soci-economic and political barriers as it began to unite previously separate groups of people into God’s new family, the church.  And so part of the occasion for writing the book of Ephesians is to tell this little group of people how to live together in a new way.  The way of Jesus.  And so here is where its helpful for us to ask “what is verse 21 connected to”?  The sentence actually begins in verse 18 with the instruction to be filled with the Spirit and then continues with 5 evidences or what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like, which carries right through into verse 21 (read). 

  • Mutual submission is a necessary mark of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life (5:18)

The intriguing application for single adults is that the use of the word submission in verse 21 isn’t even connected to the discussion of marriage.  It’s a mandate for every person who has chosen to give their lives to Jesus and become a part of God’s family.  We’ll define submission more specifically in a few minutes, but for now, it’s important to understand that my willingness to exercise humility and to put the needs of others ahead of my own, is an evidence of discipleship.  And it’s a

  • The call to mutual submission is a call that applies to all Christians (5:21)

What have you given up for another person lately?  Perhaps you have made a financial sacrifice, perhaps you have given up something that you were entitled to…  but out of reverence for Christ and for the advancement of God’s family, you accepted the call to mutual submission.  We could spend a lot of time here but we need to keep moving through our text. 


You’ll notice that verses 22-27, then, are further expressions of examples of something that we are all called to: mutual submission.    

Remember, now, we have put on our lens to think of what this meant to the first listeners in the first century.  In that era of history, marriage was not generally based on love and mutuality.  It looked more like property ownership.  Cultural feminine inferiority is built into the system.  First century husbands had no responsibilities other than providing shelter and food and anything else was a bonus.  Women in general and wives were treated horribly, and along comes Paul and writes that mutual submissiveness ought to be the dominate characteristic of a marriage relationship!  Biblical scholar Kyle Snodgress, who’s Application commentary I am indebted to for much help on this, notes that 

“The submission of wives to husbands and the love of husbands for their wives are examples of strong and free

acts of the will based on real love of the other person”

This was radical stuff!  We hear the “s” word and we freak out because it sounds like subjectgation…  They heard the “s” word and they freaked out because it sounded like in Jesus, women were being affirmed and their status lifted up like never before to a place of mutuality with men. 

  • These were (and are) profoundly positive words for women

There is so much more than could be said about this, but we have to keep moving.  So we’ve established a few things, one, that this call to mutual submission applies to everyone who is part of the church because it is a pillar of personal and corporate discipleship.  And two, that the cultural status of women in the first century was so poor, that this was a radical call that began to break apart some cultural stereotypes of male-female relationships.  In order to understand this more, let’s take our 2nd step back and look very quickly at Step 2: What does the whole Bible say about this? theme of mutuality.  Here we’re looking not at one text message, but we’re trying to get the stream of conversation to help us with application. 


One thing we keep bring up is that whenever biblical authors bring up the topic of marriage, they keep going back to the book of Genesis.  Paul does it here in verse 31.  And they do that for a unique reason: They want us to see and understand God’s original design and intent for marriage before the fall, before humanity got involved and screwed things up.  So if you rewind the clock to Genesis 1-2, we see that  

  • God intended mutuality for men & women modeled on the inter-relationship of the Trinity (Genesis 1-2; see also Exodus 18:4, Psalm 33:20)

Part of the implications of being made in the image of God is that our human relationships ought to model the level of respect, deference, humility, and self-giving love that is ever-present within and between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Greek Orthodox Theologians call this periochorisis, or the Divine Dance.  Have you ever tried to dance where both partners want to lead?  It doesn’t work, does it?  But before time began and throughout all eternity, we see the three persons of the Trinity are engaged in a beautiful, humble and eternal relationship where one leads at points and the others follow suit.  This was the picture God had in mind for human relationships, but, as we saw in our Lent series on the Gospel,    

  • Sin distorted that mutuality with domination and manipulation

Look with me at Genesis 3 and the specific implications of the curse:

–     “And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)

God’s intention for mutuality was interrupted by sin and there are specific temptations for the women – desiring to control through manipulation; and very specific negative implications for husbands: inappropriate exercising of authority by seeking to rule over their wives.  What God designed as a beautiful relationship of mutuality, turned into an all-out war of the sexes using the tools of control, manipulation and others in highly toxic ways.  Here is where some of us need to take a look in the mirror and ask if we are living out the DNA of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in our own relationships. 


The good news, however, is that we can break this cycle of domination and manipulation. 

  • In Christ, mutuality is restored (see for example, Matthew 11:28-30; Hebrews 4:1-11; Romans 6:23; 8:18-23; 1 Peter 3:7; 1 Timothy 2:15)

When we are filed with the Spirit, we can choose to let another person lead in the dance, and we can follow without losing our individuality or being fearful of having it crushed by another person.  Your marriage can be a wonderful and powerful and positive place for God to reverse the effects of the curse because it is such a powerful place of discipleship, as we talked about three weeks ago.  But you have to choose this path.  If you are a wife, you have to intentionally choose to love and to trust, not to use manipulation and behind the scenes maneuvering to get your spouse to do what you want them to do.  If you are husband, well, let’s go there now, because if we take our third step back and ask


Step 3: What Do we do with (the ‘s’ word, the concept of) submission?  We find a surprising reality in the text. And that is that

  • The majority of instruction in this passage is directed to husbands (5:25a, 28-29a, 31, 33a)

Here is where we really begin to see the definition of mutual submission working itself out.  For too long, Ephesians 5:22-23 has been read as a snippet text message kind of thing, usually by husbands who are in an argument with their wives, and who, in a pitiful attempt to pull rank or win the argument say something stupid like “No, I am not taking the second week of July off to go and visit your family this summer.  This is the end of this discussion.  I am the head of this house and wives are supposed to submit to their husbands.  It’s biblical!”  You smirk, which makes me think that some of you have thought about this or perhaps experienced it.  But by linking our marriage relationship to the model of Christ’s sacrificial love for us as his church, Paul takes that kind of headship off the table for good. 

  • Focus is not on privilege & dominance (but on service & sacrifice)
  • Paul never suggests that wives are inferior or servants – the Greek word for submit doesn’t even appear specifically in verse 22, it appears in verse 21 and must be inferred or carried into in verse 22 which means that what wives are doing in a marriage relationships is simple an example of or extension of what everyone in the church is called to.  Wives and husbands. It is also intriguing to note that    
  • The text does not tell wives to obey their husbands – headship does not mean everything the husband says goes.  I can’t even imagine what a disaster my home and family and marriage would be if every idea that came into my head went uncontested by Meg.  But some Christians have been guilty of interpreting this text to mean that the wife is to go through married life saying “whatever you think, dear”.  Submission and obedience are not linked together in this or other texts on the relationships of husbands & wives.  They are always linked together in the discussion on our relationship with God, but using this text to build a power differential in marriage is in appropriate and theologically sloppy.  Because nowhere in the text       
  • It gives no license for husbands to force submission

In fact, quite the opposite!  Paul’s definition of headship comes back to his primary model and exemplar for us: the person and work of Jesus Christ. 

  • Paul defines headship as having a responsibility to love, give oneself and to nurture (5:21) – just as Christ did for you and me.

The Scripture says that God loved us so much that he GAVE himself, coming to earth to suffer and die on a cross.  To pay the penalty for your sin and mine so that we might be able to be adopted into His family. 

So it’s its here that we can move into thinking about some of the applications of this conversation to our lives today, the first one being that    


  • None of this is possible without the Spirit

If you are here today and you’re thinking “I want that kind of marriage” you need to know that this text is describing two people who have submitted their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ and who are therefore joined at the deepest level possible: they are walking in spiritual unity.  Some of you don’t have that in your homes or relationships. Some of you have family member who do not know Jesus personally and therefore the Spirit is not filling their lives and so, let’s be honest, you can’t love in this radical life-giving mutually submissive kind of way without the work of the Holy Spirit in your life.  And so today might be the day for you.  This might be why you are here today, not to hear about marriage, but to hear about God’s deep and eternal love for you.  In a few minutes I am going to pray and I am going to ask you to make a decision to come into God’s family today.  So if you are feeling like God is speaking to you today, that is the Holy Spirit and you need to know that TODAY is that day of salvation for you.  Today is the day when you get started living life in the power of the Spirit.


For those who have been Christians for some time and whose relationships are pretty healthy, let me encourage and challenge you as well.  In our world, just as in the first century, when you start living differently, people take note.  The radical love and trust and mutuality that husbands and wives show each other as people of faith ought to be so counter-cultural, so intriguing and so unique that it causes others to take notice that we have been with Jesus.   

  • Healthy Christian relationships have apologetic potential (Titus 2:5; Colossians 4:5)

The very reason that these instructions were given was so that we can live with wisdom and so that the Christ’s name can be exalted in our homes and in our city.  People ought to look at the relationships that Christians have with each other and say “it’s not perfect, but there is something there that I am missing.”  This is not just applicable to marriage relationships, this applies to how we conduct ourselves as a church community when we gather for our AGM ministry meeting on May 27.  It applies to how men here at Jericho treat women with respect, not just their wives but all women – even those they encounter online.  Men who live out the principles of mutual submission don’t objectify women, they work for justice and dignity and peace and love in all aspects of male-female relationships.


I’ve been speaking to men a lot today, and that’s OK because next week is Mother’s Day.  But let me again emphasize that when it comes to submission, it is a mutual project.  This means that both men and women

  • Reject self-centredness & work for the good of those around you (deeper than equality)

This is deeper than working for equality, which is good, but which is usually achieved with a person working hard and protesting to achieve their rights.  In mutual submission, I give up and lay down my rights, which is why the context of a loving, Christ-honouring relationships is important (otherwise the door is open for the potential of abuse or being a doormat, which is not an appropriate expression of mutual submission).  Rejecting self-centeredness is not merely achieved in our minds or wills, however.  It has to be demonstrated and lived out in our growth as disciples.  So I ask again,  

–     What have you given up for others lately?

We often think about this in the season leading up to Easter known as Lent, but the attitude that underpins mutual submission is one that is modeled for us by Jesus.  (Philippians 2, Gentiles lord it over but not so among you.  Whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all)  

  • Mutual submission is rooted in & grows out of the soil of true humility

The team is going to come and we’re going to respond in song, which provides I think, a perfect final image for us to consider on this topic.  In their excellent book “Resonant Witness: Conversations between music and theology” authors Jeremy Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie argue that singing together is in some ways, the perfect example of mutual submission.  They remind us that whenever we gather to sing together in a setting such as this, that we are practicing mutual submission.  We are submitting to synconicity – no longer singing our own tunes, we submit to a common tempo, structure and rhythm.  We submit to a unique melody and harmony and a common key.  Which reminds us helpfully that while some can view submission as a dirty word, as we submit musically one to another, something beautiful and melodic is born.  As I choose to limit my freedoms to sing however I want, we grow in freedom to express something beautiful.  Mutual submission is music also necessitates genuine participation.  They write “It is not and cannot be the silencing of a weaker by a dominant voice.  The chorus is a society whose life depends on members contributing their voices.”  So I’d invite you to stand with me as we pray together and respond by joining our hearts to God and our voices to each other’s.  Would you bow your heads and pray with me?


(Remember to call for salvation)


Submission has become a dirty word in our culture. But it was a shocking concept to the first listeners, as well. Join the people of JRCC and see why mutual submission is not just about marriage, but about discipleship and being filled with the Spirit.

Speaker: Brad Sumner

May 6, 2012
Ephesians 5:21-27

Brad Sumner

Lead Pastor

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