About 30 miles from Belfast, Northern Ireland, close to the shore of Strangford Lough, is a stately home that tourists can visit called Castleward. The house was built in the 1760s, and its original owners were Bernard Ward, the first Viscount of Bangor, and his wife, Lady Anne.
One of the most striking features of the house is it displays two quite different styles of architecture. The rear of the house is built in Gothic style, while the front is neo-classical. Why the different styles? Because Bernard and Lady Anne could not agree. In fact, not only did they differ in their architectural preferences, they apparently had other differences, because Lady Anne eventually walked out of the marriage. Depending on your point of view, the house is either a celebration of diversity or a monument to stubbornness.[i]
How tragic that in many human relationships neither party will submit nor back down and the end result is fragmentation. Some marriages are like that. A constant source of conflict and contention. Both parties striving to have their way. Healthy families are the ones where all the members learn to submit one to another. This attitude of mutual submission is a work of the Holy Spirit. It comes as we yield to the Holy Spirit.
One of the fruit or results of a Spirit-controlled life is a life of submission, first to God and then to others. How many realize that insecure people have to have their way? People who are secure in their relationship with God are not putting their trust in their own abilities or their ability to control life’s situations. They are confident that God is in control and that God will have His way.
It seems that one of the great challenge in our present culture is our struggle in our most meaningful and intimate relationship. Families today are disintegrating all around us. Why? One of the primarily reasons is that we are not living a life controlled by God, the Holy Spirit, which is reflected in a life of willful submission to those God places in our lives to lead us.
In the book of Ephesians we discover a brief overview of what a Christian family should look like and how we can live like that. In the last two chapters of Ephesians, we find a marriage and a home controlled by a power greater than the sinful nature producing an incredible environment. This environment becomes a place where love can blossom. How can this kind of a family develop?
Do not get drunk with wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.[ii]
It is in this context of being filled with the Spirit, that we find the most sublime reference to marriage in the entire Scriptures. Ephesians 5 goes on to describe the Spirit controlled family. The greatest metaphor to explain our covenant with God is marriage. On God’s part, we see this amazing expression of submission and yielding of rights in order to bring redemption on behalf of the church. Jesus’ selfless surrender for the sake of you and me. You cannot fully understand a Christian marriage and a Christian family apart from Calvary’s love: God’s redeeming, restoring, reconciling method and message. One word best summarizes what a Christian marriage and family and that word is submission. We don’t have a Christian marriage and home because we are Christians, but because we are submitted to God and each other.
When we gain an understanding as to the nature of biblical submission and begin to yield to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives our homes will be transformed. There are three things we need to understand and apply in order to develop a thriving, healthy family in a fragmented culture.
THE FIRST THING WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND IN ORDER TO DEVELOP A HEALTHY FAMILY LIFE IS WHAT SCRIPTURES MEAN BY SUBMISSION.
Submission speaks of yielding to another. Submission can either be forced or willingly given. People who are forced to submit live in resentment, bitterness and anger. There has been far too much exploitation and humiliation of people in our world. What does it produce? Nothing but resentment and rebellion. That is not what the Scriptures are talking about. Here the idea is a willful submission. It is something we willingly give to another. I love the distinction that Warren Wiersbe makes between submission and subjugation.
Subjugation turns a person into a thing, destroys individuality, and removes all liberty. Submission makes a person become more of what God wants him to be; it brings out individuality; it gives him the freedom to accomplish all that God has for his life and ministry. Subjugation is weakness; it is the refuge of those who are afraid of maturity. Submission is strength; it is the first step toward true maturity and ministry.”9
A spirit-control life expresses itself in certain attitudes: As you read in verses 19-20 we find words like: joyful, thankful, having a song in the heart.
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord,
always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the home arena it is expressed as mutual submission.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
“Husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants have equal dignity as God-like beings, but different God-appointed roles. As
J. H. Yoder succinctly puts it, ‘Equality of worth is not identity of role’. The husband, the parent and the master have been invested with an authority to which others should submit. John Stott points out:
Two questions immediately arise about this authority: Where does it come from? And how is it used? In answer to the first question we reply that it comes from God. The God of the Bible is a God of order, and in his ordering of human life (e.g. in the state and the family) he has established certain authority or leadership roles. And since such authority, though exercised by human beings, is delegated to them by God, others are required conscientiously to submit to it. The Greek words imply this, for at the heart of [the word submit is the word order] hypotassomai (‘submit’) is taxis; (‘order’). Submission is a humble recognition of the divine ordering of society.”1
Authority then must be seen as a responsibility and an opportunity to serve others. It must be used solely in this way. It is easy to submit to Christ when we know that what He asks is for our good, motivated out of His selfless love. It certainly takes faith to submit to imperfect human beings, but that is a reflection of our submission or lack of submission to Christ. In a moment I’ll make some qualifying statements so don’t write me off yet.
II. THE SECOND THING WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND IN ORDER TO DEVELOP A HEALTHY FAMILY LIFE IS THE MOTIVATION FOR SUBMISSION.
Why should I willingly submit? What prompts a person to surrender willingly to another? Emotions ebb and flow in relationships. There are wonderful moments and challenging and difficult moments. There are times when we agree and it is easy to yield or submit and then there are times when we disagree and it is difficult.
1. The first reason that we submit is clearly stated as out of reverence for Christ.
This is what ought to motivate us.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Notice what it didn’t say: Out of love, or respect for each other. Even if our society thought that mutual submission or willful surrendering of our lives for each other was a wonderful idea, their motivation for doing so ends with their own human capacity to love and respect each other. However, when problems arise they have no greater motivation or resource then themselves. Here we find a higher call and a greater resource. Our reverence for Christ. Christ is our motivation. That is why we submit to God and others. It is out of our love for Christ. This love is founded on our trust in Him. Often the issue why we don’t obey and submit is that we don’t truly trust Christ. This generally only comes to light under pressure. That is one reason why God allows pressures, trials and difficulties in our lives, is to help us discover where our trust is. What we often discover is that we are trusting ourselves, rather than God.
At the heart of much of our struggle is that we are looking in the wrong place for help. We expect our spouse and our children to change. We expect others to do for us, what only we can do and that is to fully trust Christ and submit to His word. That is what it takes to make a marriage and a family thrive… Often it takes crisis moments for us to call out to Him, and fully trust Him.
B. Another reason we should submit is because that is God’s way of building meaningful community, and healthy relationships.
It is obvious from the passage we read that wives are to submit, it is clearly stated. But what about husbands? How do husbands submit? By loving their wives. To love means I willingly give up my rights for the sake of another. That is the essence of submission.
III. FINALLY, WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND IN ORDER TO DEVELOP A HEALTHY FAMILY LIFE IS THE PRACTICAL METHOD OR APPLICATION OF SUBMISSION.
We may agree with the passage of Scripture, but the question inevitably arises, “What does submission look like in a practical way?” What does submission look like for a wife? Is it the same for a husband? How about children? If not, how does this submission express itself differently for husbands and parents? Paul in writing to the Ephesians continues to apply this in the different roles in the family. He begins with the wives.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.
The Holy Spirit directs Paul in relating three thoughts regarding this submission by wives to their husbands.
1. A wife is to submit to her husband as to the Lord.
Jill Briscoe points out, “So, why did Paul tell wives to submit to husbands when they were in
submission already? The clue is in the grammar. The verb ‘submit’ is in the middle voice. Literally, it means “place yourself in submission.” Sit down on the inside as well as the outside.
[I remember the little first grader that Patty was once teaching. She had been acting up and was disruptive in the class. Patty asked her to sit down. As she sat down, Patty heard her say under her breath, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.”
What she was saying is that her obedience wasn’t total. She was internally rebelling. Too many Christian, have an outward form of obedience to God, but are still unrepentant in heart. They are battling within their will. They still want it their way.]
You’ve been sitting down on the outside because you had no choice. Now we give you this voluntary choice, this act of will rather than this legal requirement. Paul was after a heart attitude, a spirit of humility by choice, not coercion. Paul is for a woman ability to choose: the choice [for women] to lay down [their] lives for [their] brothers, sisters, husbands, and children, because [they] have laid it down for Christ.
Richard Foster says, “[Paul] made decision makers out of those who were forbidden to make decisions.” What an incredible opportunity for
the Christian wife in Paul’s time. The letter to the Ephesians elevates the concepts.”5 I would add that this is equally true for today. Paul doesn’t stop there. He paints this wonderful portrait of marriage. It answers why Christian wives are to submit.
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.
Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
The wife reflects the role of the church in her relationship towards her husband. Just like the church submits to Christ, so wives are to submit to their husbands. It is a relationship of willful and loving submission.
2. The wife should submit in everything…
What is meant here? John Stott points out: “We have to be very careful not to overstate this biblical: teaching on authority. It does not mean that the authority of husbands, …is unlimited, or that wives,…are required to give unconditional obedience. No, the submission required is to God’s authority delegated to human beings. If, therefore, they misuse their God-given authority (e.g. by commanding what God forbids or forbidding what God commands), then our duty is no longer conscientiously to submit, but conscientiously to refuse to do so. For to submit in such circumstances would be to disobey God. The principle is clear: we must submit right up to the point where obedience to human authority would involve disobedience to God. At that point ‘civil disobedience’ becomes our Christian duty. In order to submit to God, we have to refuse to submit to human beings. As Peter put it to the Sanhedrin: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ This is the exception, however. The general rule on which the New Testament insists is humble submission to God-given authority.
To the second question about the use of divinely delegated authority, we reply that it must never be used selfishly, but always for those others for whose benefit it has been given.”2
3. Submission is evidenced by her attitude towards her husband.
There are wives who do what is asked, but there is a lack of respect. There is an outward conformity to the Word, but an inward rebellion of heart. Let us remember that God looks at our hearts, our attitudes, and our motivations. What is your attitude toward your husband?
…and the wife must respect her husband.
You might argue with me, but he doesn’t deserve it. I don’t see that qualification here. Most women don’t understand the true power that they have. A man longs for his wife’s respect. A wife’s words and actions that convey this to her husband will not only impact her husband’s sense of worth, but will affect how her husband will value his wife. Start showing respect and eventually you may come to respect him more and more.
B. How does this submission apply to the husband?
The husband must love his wife and give himself up for her. That is what submission is: a willingness to give up our rights and desires for the sake of another.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church… [How did Christ love the church?] and gave himself up for her,
to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
Here the husband is to lay down his life even as demonstrated by Jesus, who gave His life for what is best for his wife. The underlying issue in conflict is over control. I would say that even though we have rights, the Christian life is to lay down our rights to do what is best for others. That is the highest standard to keep. That is exactly what Jesus did. He laid down his rights in order to die for us. Husbands are called to lay down their lives for their wives. Notice that the goal of the Christian husband is to enrich the life of his wife, even as Christ is enrich our lives. We are His bride in which he is making us better.
Yet, unlike Christ, as a husband we make mistakes. When challenged in an area where we have made a mistake as a husband, men as a gender have a more difficult time to admit when we are wrong. Ego steps in the way. I like how Kenneth Blanchard, author of the one minute manager defined ego, “Ego is nothing more than Edging God Out.”4 Too many men tend to edge God out. Pride rears it’s ugly head. It’s hard to be sensitive when we are being self-centered and selfish. Love moves the focus off of ourselves, to our wives and their needs and desires.
I don’t see Jesus demanding His rights and doing His thing, but rather fully surrendering to His father for the sake of the church. In the same way, we as husbands need to surrender our lives, our rights, our will to our Heavenly Father for the sake of our wives and our children. Husbands, we must give ourselves up for our wives. We must willingly lay down our lives…our self-life down for her. It is not so much what I want, but what is best for my wife. I must ask myself what is best for my family.
C. How does this submission appear in the lives of the children?
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
Honor your father and mother- which is the first commandment with a promise- that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.
What does it mean to obey? Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones states: “Obey means not only to listen to, but to listen as realizing that you are under authority…it means to listen under. You are looking up for a commandment, and you are looking up to your parents to put these things into practice.”8
Jane Austen noted author of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and other notable works would draw witty critiques of contemporary society’s changing values, traditional bias, and individual follies and self-deception.’ Austen brings about various twist of irony to make her heroine realize her own foolishness, pride and critical comments. That is what makes her literary work so enduring. It uncovers human nature that we would rather not see.
Youthful idealism, pride and criticalness of others is only tempered by time, age and personal failures. We know we are growing up, when we realize how weak, and easily self-deceived we have been about ourselves and others. It is a wise young person who learns to listen to the wisdom of older, more godly and experienced people, particularly parents.
Honoring is not just to obey, but respect our parents. It is not just doing what they say, but more importantly valuing our parents for saying it and caring enough to parent us. I am a very fortunate person as I have two daughters who express their love and respect both to their mother and I. There is a sense of deep love, gratitude and respect. This attitude is still there today, even as they are now adults themselves.
D. How does submission appear in the lives of parents?
What I mean here is the submission to the Holy Spirit and to one another. We submit by making Christ Lord of our lives, goals, and agenda.
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of they Lord.
One way that we exasperate our children is if we fail to instruct both through our life and our verbal instruction how to live a godly life. We cannot expect our children to become something they haven’t seen modeled or encouraged from our lives as parents. Folks, we need to live the life. We cannot tell our children that God is the most important person in our life, and then exclude Him from most of our activities. Actions speak louder than words.
God’s word is His will, but we often find ourselves wrestling with God’s will when it does not suit our purposes or desires.
Richard Foster points out: “To applaud the will of God, to do the will of God, even to fight for the will of God is not difficult … until it comes at cross-purposes with our will. Then the lines are drawn.”6 What are some areas that this is true in your life today? What are you contending for, husband? What are you striving for, wife? All conflict is over control. Who’s in control of your home? I trust the Lord is. This can only be truthfully said if we are submitting ourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ. For the wife it means showing respect toward her husband, to the husband it means unselfishly giving his life for his wife. To the children it means obeying their parents, to parents it means explaining your values in your life through word and example to your children. When we do that we are living a portrait of Calvary’s love. What a powerful testimony towards others in our society.
The basis of submission is submitting ourselves to one another, or ‘giving way’ to one another. Submission is giving way to somebody else. Anne Atkins, in her excellent book “Split Image”, says, “Before we can hope to be good husbands or wives, we must learn to be good Christians. We must all become self-sacrificial and submissive.”7 You cannot understand marriage or what a godly home should look like apart from Calvary’s love for you. Filling that void in your life, having your deepest needs meet by God. From that surrender, we can willingly surrender to another person. Our rights are not the issue anymore. Pleasing God is.
1. John Stott, “The Message of Ephesians”, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979) 218.
2. Ibid, 218-219.
3. Preaching Today Illustrations.
4. Kenneth Blanchard, Leadership, Vol. 16, no. 1.
5. Jill Briscoe, “Hilarious Hupotasso,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 117.
6. Richard J. Foster, Christian Reader, Vol. 31.
7. Jill Briscoe, “Hilarious Hupotasso,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 117.
8. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Book House,1973), 238.
9. Warren Wiersbe, Leadership; submitted by Kevin A. Miller, vice president, Christianity Today International.
[i] Preaching Today Illustrations.
[ii] Ephesians 5:18, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.