The Structure of Mutual Submission (Ephesians 5:22-6:9)

In our worship today we have re-enacted an ancient story, the story of God and his relationship with the city and the people of Jerusalem.

The story began with our Call to Worship, where God, speaking to the city, talks about Jerusalem as if it were an unwanted baby girl, thrown out on the garbage heap. But God, passing by, sees her there kicking about in her blood. He saves her life, feeds her, cares for her, raises her up.

Then, a little while later, in our second reading, God passes by again and sees that she has grown up, that she is ready for marriage. So God loved her, and married her. He says, “I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, and you became mine.” And then, because she belongs to him now, God bathes her and dresses her, gives her clothing and jewellery, and puts a beautiful crown on her head — just as, in the city of Jerusalem, at the crown of the mountain, King Solomon build a temple for God to dwell in.

So God and the city of Jerusalem were married. He made her his queen.

But then, in our Prayer of Confession, we saw that Jerusalem was unfaithful to the God who had rescued her, loved her, married her. She took the weath he gave her and used it to commit adultery. She took the crown he had given her, the temple, and defiled it with idolatry.

And because of her unfaithfulness, God pronounced a terrible curse upon her. The evidence of her life said that she did not want to be faithful, she wanted to be a sexual slave; and so, in the end, after centuries of pleading with her to repent, to return to him, God finally said, “Okay, I’m going to let you have what you want.” Jerusalem was destroyed. Her beautiful crown was removed, and she was dragged away into slavery.

And that is normally where that kind of story ends: the marriage is destroyed and cannot be fixed. Nomally the husband, or the wife — whoever has been cheated on — walks away and says, “Never again!”

But our God is greater and more merciful than anything we can imagine. And so we read, in our Promise of Forgiveness, God’s words to his bride, lost in the sexual slavery she thought she wanted, he said, “Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.”

And he did. He brought Jerusalem back from exile. He put the crown back on her head, and he turned things completely around. He made it so that, instead of Jerusalem — the unfaithful wife — going out to all the nations to commit adultery and idolatry with them, he made it so that all the nations would come streaming into a New, Restored Jerusalem to worship the beauty of her faithfulness to her Lord.

And as we have been discovering here in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: the Christian church is the New Jerusalem. The church is the restored temple where all nations may come and freely worship the God who created them.

And in our passage today Paul is going to bring all these images together into one: the church is not just a city. The church is not just a temple. The church is the beloved bride of Christ, married to him with an everlasting covenant.

So let’s get started.

Last week Paul told us that the antidote for sexual immorality is thanksgiving. As we speak thankfully to God and to one another about sexuality — about every good thing we have received! — our minds are made new. We learn contentment. We learn how to live more wisely.

And we learn to worship properly: not with drunken chaos and depravity, but properly filled with the Spirit: the Spirit that gives joy, and contentment, and wisdom. The Spirit who teaches us how to submit to one another out of reference for Christ…because we are all equal in Christ, right?

From the beginning of his letter, Paul has been stressing the fact that every single Christian has every spiritual blessing in Christ. We are no longer Jews and Gentiles, now we are Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ, members of the same race, and so we are all equally valuable in God’s sight. In fact, in other letters Paul has written, he has been so extreme on this point that he has said things like this: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Well…apparently some churches in Greece had begun to take this idea too far. The Corinthian church is the most famous one. In Corinth, they over-emphasized Paul’s teachings that they are all One, and they forgot Paul’s teaching that everyone also has different gifts, different jobs to do. Some of the women started saying, “Since there is no longer male or female, I should rule over my husband!” Kids were saying, “Well, if God is my Father, I don’t have to listen to my dad!” Slaves were saying, “Since there’s no longer slave or free, I think my master should serve me!”

It became a big problem. Paul had to write at least three letters to Corinth to sort it out. So a few years later, as he gets this chance to write to the Asian churches, he wants to make sure there are no misunderstandings. Yes, as Spirit-filled Christians, we are all supposed to learn how to submit to one another. But mutual submission is not supposed to look like chaos, where everyone submits to everyone else in exactly the same way every time. What submission looks like for each person depends upon that person’s gifts, their role, and their calling.

So to help us learn to think properly about these things, Paul gives us six examples: wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters.

He starts with wives and husbands: [22] Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do 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.

Mutual submission has structure, just as the human body has structure. The brain tells the heart to pump, and the heart submits, and by submitting, returns life back to the brain. If your body gets that order mixed up…bad things happen!

In the same way, Paul is saying that, just as the body of Christ submits to its head, the wife should submit to her head, her husband. If your marriage gets that order mixed up…

So far so good. That makes sense, right? Of course submission needs a structure. But the question we ask, these days, is this: why does the male have to be the head? Why can’t it be whichever one is smarter, or more gifted? Surely, as long as a couple has come to an understanding between themselves about who is the head and who is the body, they should get along fine.

Well, it may surprise you to know that we are not the first society to ask that question. I’ve already mentioned the Corinthian church ladies who thought their husbands should submit to them, but they were not the only ones. Macedonian women — that is, Asian women, Ephesian women — had a reputation in the Roman empire for being quite…Tiger Mom. Their husbands were scared of them, their children were scared of them, they were known to be smart, aggressive businesswomen. And in the empire at large there were changes happening in the law that were giving women more independence from their husbands. One hundred years before Paul the Roman husband had absolute power in his household: he could literally kill his wife if she displeased him in certain ways. But by Paul’s day, the law had changed and a married woman was still technically under the legal authority of her father. And many Roman wives were beginning to use this as a weapon against their husbands, saying things like, “Hey, if you don’t do what I say I’m going to tell my dad I don’t wanna be married to you anymore, and he will file for my divorce.”

So the women of the Roman empire were beginning to make noise. And the women of the church would have been asking Paul the same questions: “Why does my husband get to be the head of our marriage? I’m smarter, faster, more long-sighted, why shouldn’t he submit to me?”

That is a fair question!

And Paul begins to answer it in verse 23 when he says Christ is the head of the church, his body, because he is the Saviour.

What does that mean? Well, Paul will come back to that in a minute. In the meantime, though, he is telling these smart, strong, Asian Christian women that yes, Jesus wants them to use their strength to serve their husbands in everything. The husband may be the brain that directs the heart, but the heart feeds and strengthens the brain. Everybody wants a strong heart! But nobody wants a strong heart that takes over and starts doing its own thing. Every part of the body has a role to play, and it needs to play that role for the health of the whole body.

Now in the world of that time this instruction would not have been unusual; it was widely expected — or, at least, hoped — that wives would submit to their husbands. But what sets Paul’s instruction apart is this: it’s not simply that Jesus wants Christian women to use their strength to serve their husbands; it’s that, when they do this, they are actually serving Christ, the Saviour. Even if the husband is not a Christian; even if he is not in any way a Saviour type of guy; even if he is stupid and selfish and lazy and everything that is bad about men — her work, her submission to him, is not wasted. That husband may never appreciate what he’s got — but Jesus sees it. The church benefits from it. The world is amazed by it. Some of the most powerful testimonies ever told are about Christian women who continued in grace and kindness and submission to men who did not deserve it.

Of course — side note to all the single ladies — don’t try to get that testimony. Do yourselves a big favour and marry a strong Christian man, if at all possible. I know, Christian men are, by-and-large, uncool dorks — but at least they are dorks who want to be made more like Christ, dorks who can be held accountable by the church. If you marry a Christian man and he misbehaves, the other men in our community will help you call him to account. But if you marry a non-Christian man…we can’t really tell him what to do.


But enough about that. Now, for the men: [25] 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.

Earlier, Paul told the wives that Christ is the head of his body because he is the Saviour. This is where Paul tells us what “Saviour” means. And we can tell by the words he uses here that he is talking about Ezekiel, Chapter 16. Except that Paul is actually talking about Ezekiel, Chapter 16, The Sequel: The New Covenant.

Under the Old Covenant, God raised up Jewish Jerusalem, married her, and got cheated on. Terrible story!

But now, under the New Covenant, Jesus is raising up the New International Jerusalem — not the city made of stone in the Middle East, but a true global city made up of people from every nation. The church is Christ’s bride, she is being washed and dressed and prepared for a day when she will never cheat on her husband ever again.

But she is not there yet! I mean…she is there, but she is also not yet there. We are living in this sort of time-between-times where we are engaged to Jesus, set apart for him — but not yet married to him. So in one sense we are already holy, because no one else can touch us! We belong to Jesus alone. But in another sense, we are still being made holy. We still have stains and wrinkles, and a tendency to cheat on him! but Jesus still loves us.

This is the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, Jerusalem paid the penalty for her adulteries. She wanted sexual slavery, so after a few hundred years God finally said, “Okay, have what you want.” But under the New Covenant, Jesus’ bride has a new baptised heart which keeps her from desiring the worst, and she has a fiancee who said, “No! I will die before I let you go! I will die to protect you from those who want to violate you!”

Just like Jesus, the Christian husband lives with a wife who is in the “already holy” category, and in the “not yet completely holy” category. And while it might be easier to live as an Old Covenant husband, and say, “Ugh, you are too must trouble, you don’t submit like I want you to, it seems as if you aren’t very happy with me anyway, so go la! If you want out, get out!” — while that might be easier, Christian husbands are called to be New Covenant husbands. Everlasting covenant husbands. Husbands who do not give up. Husbands who would sacrifice everything, even for — especially for — a wife who does not deserve it.

So, being a Saviour means giving up your life in order to give life to another, and continuing to give up your life even when that person doesn’t deserve it, even when that person doesn’t respond the way you might want them to.

In other words, Christ is the head of his body because he has earned the right at the expense of his own life. He deserves to rule because he has proven that he is the most humble, gentle, patient, self-sacrificing husband ever!

Of course, many of you have noticed that most husbands are not like that. Most husbands are very very imperfect Saviours, if at all. So most husbands — all husbands? — have not earned the right to be the head over their wives.

Nonetheless, that is what Christian husbands are called to do: be the Saviour. Give up your life. Prove that you are like the most humble, gentle, patient, self-sacrificing husband ever. Earn the right to be the head over your wife.

That’s just what Paul says next: [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 their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— [30] for we are members of his body.

Brothers, if you have a wife, it is because God has given you that wife. She belongs to you in the same way your body belongs to you. But God has not given her to you simply for your pleasure; she has been given to you for you to take care of and protect, for you to raise up and push ahead of yourself into everything good.

Now, I know that many in our modern world are really offended by that idea of a wife “belonging” to her husband. And rightly so! because men are, by nature, selfish. Nevertheless, this is how Paul describes it here. And he has very good reason for doing so.

See, in many ancient cultures, women were sexually exposed. Depending on their status in society, they were sexually available to men who were far enough above them in rank. Being a woman of high rank meant that you were less available to the general populace — but even then, there were a number of fertility religions that required every married woman, at least once in her life, to go to certain pagan temples and sleep with a random male worshiper as an act of devotion to the gods.

So when Paul says that Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, and that Christian husbands should be like that, Paul was telling Christian men, “Do not let your wives be violated and victimized by society! Brothers, you die to protect your wife from that kind of degradation.”

And, of course, many among us might say, “Oh, come on! That was an ancient pagan practice, our world isn’t like that! Modern women are empowered! A husband does not need to ‘possess’ or ‘protect’ his wife like that anymore!”

No? Well, tell me this: what does our society say an empowered woman looks like? She’s gotta be smart. She’s gotta be strong. She’s gotta be aggressive. She’s gotta be beautiful, and sexy. And what is the pinnacle expression of the empowered woman? She’s sexually available to random men.

In other words, our modern society is telling women, “You better be perfect if you want to be loved! And you’d better be submissive to our definition of perfection, or you will be rejected!”

But a New Covenant husband is committed to loving an imperfect wife. This is why it is so important for a Christian wife to belong to her Christian husband, and why it is so important for the Christian husband to know that God has given her to him: because it is only within the bonds of an unbreakable covenant that true freedom from sexual slavery can be found. Christian marriage is supposed to be a safe haven from sexual availability. It is supposed to be a place where a woman can find healing and discover true empowerment: beyond mere sexuality, beyond mere reproduction.

Christ gave himself up for the church to make her holy, to rescue us from all idolatrous predation. Husbands, you do the same: deliver your wives from the expectations of our corrupt society. Deliver her from that need to perform, that need to earn love and approval through her sexuality or any other means. Love unconditionally. Love sacrificially.

[31] “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” [32] This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

And this is where Paul finishes his answer to the question: why should it be the male, in particular, who is the head of the wife? This is why: because from the beginning of creation the marriage of male and female was an earthly image of a spiritual reality that would one day come true. It was always the design for the husband to sacrifice life to the wife, so that the wife could take that life, turn it into more life, and give it back to the one from whom it came.

This is biologically true: it is literally how reproduction happens.

This is psychologically true: it is literally how men and women work together to build societies.

And it is spiritually true: borrowing the words of Ezekiel that we read in our Call to Worship today, when Jesus passed by the discarded baby church kicking around in her blood on the garbage heap, he said to her, “Live!” He poured out his Holy Spirit upon his bride, and we are even now producing new life for him.

This structure of male and female, husband and wife, head and body is fundamental to the structure of reality. It cannot be simply reversed. And every time we try to reverse it, we are actually trying to live an anti-gospel, where the church is the Saviour, and Jesus the one who needs to be given life.

Now, obviously, the human male is undeserving of this position. We are not like Christ, who earned the right to be the head. Therefore, husbands, live with your wives as if you don’t deserve the privilege of living with your wives. Because you don’t deserve it!

It is equally obvious that the human female has not attained perfection. She does not deserve to be loved any more than the husband deserves to be respected. Therefore, wives, look at your husbands through the lens of Jesus Christ. Your husband has not loved you very well — but Jesus has. He is the Saviour who loved you before you were attractive. He is the Saviour you want to honour with your lives. And how does Jesus your Saviour want you to honour him? He says, “Start with your husband. Treat him as if he is me, and we’ll go from there.”

[33] However — in other words: even though neither of you deserves it — each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Now, Paul moves on to talk to one of the products of marriage: [1] Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. [2] “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— [3] “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

Again, Paul’s instruction here is not unusual: it is pretty obvious to every culture that children need training, and for that they need to listen and obey. And, in general, if children have godly parents, and if they listen to their parents, it is more likely for life to go well with them, just as Commandment Number 5 says.

But that is not the real motivation. The real motivation is this: that by honoring their parents, children — even grown children — are serving Christ.

But then Paul gives a rather unusual instruction: [4] Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Roman fathers had legal authority over their children even after they had grown up, gotten married, and had children of their own. If a grown son disobeyed his father, that father had the legal right to have his son put to death — even if that son was a senator or parliament member or something. A father’s authority was absolute.

But Paul is saying, “Fathers, be humble, gentle, patient with your kids. Don’t rule with an iron fist. Raise them up, train them well, and then let them live for the Lord’s glory, not yours!”

And he doesn’t mention the spiritual foundation to this here because he has already talked about it way back in Chapter 1. Christian fathers should parent in the style of God the Father: pouring out every blessing they possess upon their children, revealing to them the mystery of God’s will, loving them and giving them life. Fathers, God has given you children not as a boost to your ego or as a way for your to assert your control, but as a gift that you return to the Lord.

But no one remains a child forever. Parents die. Roles change. And most of us, in life, end up ruling over someone else, or being ruled. So Paul addresses slaves next: [5] Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. [6] Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. [7] Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, [8] because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

And here, again, Paul’s instructions would not have been a shock to the culture at that time. What is shocking, though, is the way Paul talks to slaves as if they could actually understand and respond at a heart level. Greeks and Romans thought of slaves as living machines. Even well-educated slaves were viewed more like advanced computers rather than living beings. But Paul speaks to them as human beings, made in the image of God.

The other unusual thing Paul says here is very similar to what he said to wives: it’s not just that Jesus wants Christian slaves to use their strength to serve their masters; it’s that, when they do this, they are actually serving Christ, their Saviour. Even if the master is not a Christian; even if he is not in any way a Saviour type; even if he is stupid and selfish and lazy and everything that is bad — the Christian slave’s service is not wasted.

And then Paul finishes with instructions to masters: [9] And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

Just like Roman fathers, masters had the power of life and death over their slaves. Paul is saying to them, “Don’t use that power. These are fellow human beings who, spiritually speaking under God, are your equal. So be careful how you treat them, because on Judgement Day God is not going to care if you were a master or a slave on this earth. You are not going to get bonus points for being a higher rank. You are not going to be able to say, ‘But it was my right to be harsh!’ So be careful.”

And the model for the master to follow, again, is the model of God and man. Masters are to rule the way God rules: gently, patiently, kindly.

And there’s been a lot of discussion of whether this means that Paul supported slavery. The answer is no, he did not. But just as in the case of marriage, Paul knew that chaos can be even more deadly than slavery. There were several slave revolts during the age of empire, and none of them led to anything good.

But you know what did lead to something good? Paul’s teachings here. Paul played the long game. He was not in favour of slavery, but he knew it was not something that could be wiped out overnight. Instead, he planted this idea here that masters and slaves are actually brothers, and it is wrong for brothers to treat one another like slaves. This idea spread like a virus along with Christianity. Over the centuries, Christian leaders argued more and more strongly that slavery is immoral, and even though it took almost one thousand years, they finally abolished slavery in Europe — the only society in the history of the world that has managed to do this (until modern times). Slavery was non-existent in Europe for five hundred years! until the rise of secular super-corporations, which began travelling to Africa and South America and Asia and started the whole slave thing all over again.

Modern culture is different in many ways. Modern marriages, modern parenting, modern master/slave relationships all have significant differences from the context Paul is writing to. So how are we to apply Paul’s teaching on mutual submission to our own time?

Well, the underlying principle holds true: in Christ, every Christian is equal to every other one. But every Christian has been given different gifts, different roles, different callings. Submission requires structure. A wife submits to Christ by allowing her husband to lead. A husband submits to Christ by giving away his life to the woman. A child submits to Christ by learning from parents; a father submits to Christ by teaching his children as carefully and as gently as if they belong to Christ. Modern employment does not have much in common with the master/slave structure of the ancient Roman empire, but we can still adapt Paul’s teaching to our situation: in whatever position or role we find ourselves, while we are in that role we must consider carefully what submission to Christ looks like: strong obedience, or humble direction?

But now, in closing, we have to acknowledge that there are always some among us who don’t fit comfortably into these categories. You may be unmarried for a variety of reasons, you may not have children to raise, or parents to honor, you may run your own small business so there’s no real manager/employee structure in your life, and you’re wondering: what does this have to do with me?

There is something important we need to remember: all these roles described here are temporary. Marriage is going to pass away. Parenthood is going to pass away. Right now I am the father of my children, but that is not actually my primary relationship with them. We are actually brothers and sisters in Christ. I just happen to be the brother who gave life to these particular sisters and brother. Because I gave them life I have authority over them, but that authority is strictly temporary. It is meant to grow less and less over the course of this life, and in the next life it will be non-existent. We will be just brothers and sisters with one another.

And this is true of every Christian relationship. My wife is my wife now; but she is my sister forever. I am her brother forever. And what this means, friends, is that you don’t have to be married to experience the joy of mutual submission. You don’t have to be a mom to experience the joy of motherhood. All these intense relationships that we rightly long for in this life and grieve over when our Father tells us no, all these intense relationships that Paul talks about here will be summed up and completed in Christ. Marriage, parenthood, the joy of fulfilling work…these things are just the seeds of the life to come.

So if you are sitting here today and you’re feeling like you don’t really have a distinctly defined role in our Christian community because you don’t fit into one of the categories listed here, please allow me to assure you through the Word of God: you’re role is the most defined role given to us in scripture, the role of brother or sister, the one role that is real, the one that is eternal. Your submission to your brothers and sisters, your service of your brothers and sisters is not wasted. Your role here in the community of Christ is every bit as foundational, every bit as essential as those who are married, who are parents, who are engaged in the hierarchy of work relationships.

Christ is the Saviour who lifted us from the garbage heap. He has bound all Christians together under an everlasting covenant. He has made us his bride. So let’s do this: let’s each do our best to live out that beauty by discoving the roles God has placed us in, and delighting in those roles — always looking forward to the day when we will be nothing more than brothers and sisters living in delight in perfect marriage with our King. 

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