Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Submission and Sacrifice: Or, When Grace Gets Touchy

Last night in the Element Bible study we covered Ephesians chapter 5, which includes the (in)famous passage about wives submitting to their husbands.
What was really interesting, and impressive actually, is how a group of young, mostly single folks treated the discussion with sincerity and intelligence and, as a few began to share their hearts, surprising vulnerability.

In Jesus, grace has a face. And as BCC has learned over the last several months, the practice of being the Body of Christ, the working of grace included, can get messy. So I thought I'd bring the husbands/wives conversation to this blog, since there are likely to be more married readers here than there.

Grace sounds nice. The practice of grace in a messed-up world can frequently be less than nice, though, can't it?

An initial objection is that Paul is being a chauvinist. I think this is a reflection of a recurring idea in New Testament scholarship that Paul somehow “invented” Christianity. Some scholars allege a disconnect between Jesus’ message and Paul’s instructions. I think that’s nonsense.
The more I read Paul, the more I see practically explicit connections between Jesus’ teachings on and proclamation of the presence of the Kingdom of God and Paul’s writings. As one of my favorite scholars, N.T. Wright, suggests: It is as if Jesus gave us the sheet music for a masterwork symphony, and Paul is now teaching the Church how to play it. I love that imagery, and I think it’s true.

In Ephesians, for instance, Paul continually refers to an “inheritance,” which echoes more than a few of Jesus’ parables. And of course whenever Paul talks about the exalted Christ (king) and the kingdom, he could not make a more clear connection between his teaching and that of Jesus. In Ephesians 5, Paul also talks a bit about light and darkness, which is a recurring dichotomy in the Gospel of John. It also appears as one of the similitudes (salt of the earth, light of the world) in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

I'm about to start talking about wives submitting to husbands and husbands leading their wives, which I know is like clog dancing through a minefield, but I really think we ought to keep the Sermon on the Mount in mind here, because what Paul appears to me to be doing is taking the kingdom ethic mandated by Jesus in that sermon and saying “This is what the kingdom life looks like in real life.”
So he begins by contrasting kingdom behaviors with worldly behaviors. And he continues by, in the latter part of Ephesians 5, teaching us what the Kingdom life looks like in a typical household. And the whole submission/service dynamic is all over the Sermon on the Mount.

I won’t try to state the obvious or say all that can be said about the contrast of a wife’s obligation with a husband’s obligation, but I do want to briefly touch on something – something that is perhaps a little . . . . well, touchy.

We (rightly) say that when a husband is truly emptying himself out, cherishing his wife, sacrificing as a servant leader, and loving her as Christ loving the Church, it inclines his wife to want to and enjoy submitting to his headship. Certainly “submit” does not mean “become a doormat,” just as “love your wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it” doesn’t mean “treat your wife like a poorly paid maidservant.”

But notice that the text never says to either husband or wife “do this if your spouse does that.” In other words, neither wifely submission nor husbandly sacrifice comes with conditions. Please hear me out on this: I am NOT saying, just as extreme examples, a wife should submit to an abusive or adulterous husband or a husband should be obligated to continue serving an adulterous wife. What I am saying, however, is that in a “normal” household, making one’s biblical responsibility to one’s spouse contingent upon the spouse’s “worthiness” misses the point entirely. We have to, ideally, get to the point where wives submit out of reverence to God to husbands they don’t always agree with, and husbands lead through service and sacrifice despite their wives’ response to such service.
In other words, “I will submit . . . but only when he agree with me” and “I will serve sacrificially . . . but only when she starts putting out” (or whatever :-) is the exact opposite of what it means to be “in Christ,” because it is the opposite of grace. Grace is divine favor given to us even though we do not deserve it.

The irony in making our own responsibilities conditional upon someone else’s fulfillment of theirs is that we think we are insisting upon improvement or “doing our best” when really we are setting up an exchange that is actually settling for less than God’s best. When we make our efforts always about rewarding someone’s efforts toward us, we are, as C.S. Lewis says, “far too easily pleased” (but, honestly, somehow always displeased, right?).

Grace. That is what we need more of. In our workplaces, friendships, churches, homes, and lives. We need more grace.

And in our marriage relationships – as in all relationships -- God is glorified and the Kingdom life is really demonstrated as the brilliant, life-changing counterculture it truly is when we are constantly cooperating to cover each other’s sin and hurts with grace and love.

Grace and peace to you.


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