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Finding Freedom in Marriage and Church

Finding Freedom in Marriage and Church

Paul has a famous passage about marriage in his letter to the Ephesians. Some people love it. Others think it should be torn out of the Bible. It’s provocative and dangerous and, well, one of a kind. He begins by writing, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This word submit is hypotasso in Greek, and it can be translated “respect” or “yield” or “defer” or “put another’s good ahead of your own.” It does not mean “do what you’re told.” It means “give your feelings, desires, and trust over to another.” And both men and women are called to do this. The word hypotasso is used all over the New Testament epistles. Children are to submit to parents. Followers of Jesus are to submit to the elders of the church. Citizens are to submit to the government. Angels are to submit to God. This word has to do with order, with the way God set creation up to thrive. That’s why it gets Paul into so much trouble. Right after calling all followers of Jesus to submit to one another, he writes about what this looks like in marriage. This is the most in-depth teaching on marriage in the whole Bible, and the first thing Paul states is, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 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.”

Wow. Sisters, take a deep breath. Before you freak, keep reading. Paul’s not done. Next he writes to the husbands,

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved 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 . . . In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body . . . This is a profound mystery— but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

We read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and think the part about wives is scandalous, but in the first century, it would have been the exact opposite. The part about husbands would have been staggering for the men in the church. This is the Roman Empire in the AD 60s. All you owed your wife was a roof over her head and sperm for her children. If you’re a husband, you’re thinking, “Now you’re telling me that I actually have to love her? To put her good above my own? To give my life for her? My time, my money, my freedom, my desires for her? To nourish her? To feed her physically and spiritually?” Trust me, this letter would have created drama in Ephesus. It’s interesting that Paul says twice as much to the husbands as to the wives. The wives get three verses, and the husbands get nine. Why? Because the men are the leaders. God holds the men responsible to lead a healthy marriage. To God, authority is about responsibility, not bossing people around. Think of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Eve is the first one to take a bite from the fruit of the tree, but Adam is the first one to get in trouble. God says, “Where are you?”— as if to say, “What have you done?” God holds Adam responsible. But notice to whom the commands are written in Ephesians, because it’s crucial. “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands . . .” “Husbands, love your wives . . .” Nowhere is the man called to enforce the wife’s role. “Husbands, make sure your wives submit to you.” It doesn’t say that. The husband is called to love, give, sacrifice, nourish, and put his wife’s needs ahead of his own. That’s all. And frankly, if men actually did that, I think there would be a truce in the gender wars. And Paul never says, “Wives, make sure your husbands love you and treat you well.” He just says the wife is called to submit, to yield, to come under the authority of and entrust herself to her husband. But submission is her choice. It is a gift that a wife gives to her husband of her own free will, with no force or coercion. And just to clarify, these roles are for marriage, not for culture at large. It’s a gift she gives to her husband, not to all men.

Marriage is a safe place for men and women to return to the garden and work together to show the world the image of God. To show the world how captivating God really is. Maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, I get that God is loving, but God is submissive?” Yes, in a way. At the end of the passage, Paul writes, “I am talking about Christ and the church.” This whole thing is a picture of Jesus. Jesus is the example for both the man and the woman. For the man, he’s the picture of self-sacrifice, giving away his life on the cross, all in love. But for the woman, he’s the picture of joyful, eager, trusting submission to the Father. Remember Jesus in Gethsemane? After venting his feelings to God, he says, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” It’s hard, but he submits— he yields. When a man doesn’t want to give up his life for his wife, and a woman doesn’t want to submit to her husband, then both of them are saying, in essence, “I don’t want to be like Jesus.” But the reverse is also true. Men and women both get a chance to play the Jesus role in marriage. Women through submission, and men through loving in a self-giving way. This is why Paul says marriage is a “profound mystery.”

When a man is actually like Jesus in a marriage—when he loves, gives, nourishes—who doesn’t want to submit to that? And when a woman is actually like Jesus in a marriage—when she submits with joy and respect—what man on the planet doesn’t want to make sacrifices for that?

Marriage is a place where Jesus’ healing power is at work to set people free from thousands of years of fighting between the sexes and from all the wounding we carry from the war. The same is true of the church. The church should be a place of freedom. A place where men are free to be men, and women to be women. With no guilt. No shame. And no pressure. Where the sexes are free from the culture’s overpowering, hypercontrolling, oppressive view of what a man or a woman should or shouldn’t be like. The church should be a safe place to be who God made you to be. Sadly, rather than a place of freedom, the church has often been a place of strife and division and anger and angst. Some in the church have used the Bible to oppress women, to keep women out of so many things. The word hierarchical comes to mind. As much as I want to deny it, it’s been true of the church for a long time. But others have been sucked right into the temptation to eradicate gender roles all together. Listen, gender is something we should celebrate, not bicker and grumble about. Remember Mark 10? Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees about divorce? Don’t forget what Jesus said. “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law . . . But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’” To Jesus, one of the reasons marriage is breaking down all over the place is that we lost sight of the fact that we were made male and female. When we jettison God’s vision for relationships, we pay a steep price. That’s why the message of Jesus is good news. In and through Jesus there’s a re-creation going on. Men and women are finding a new way to be human by living Jesus’ way. It’s anything but easy. Sometimes it’s three steps forward and two steps back. But we’re on the way out of the gender wars and into the kingdom of God. And if you’re not, well, feel free to come along.

— John Mark Comer, adapted from Loveology

How to Use This Study

What do the Scriptures say about sexuality, relationships, and marriage? In the Loveology video curriculum, author and pastor John Mark Comer shares what is right in male/female relationships—what God intended in the Garden. And about what is wrong—the fallout in a post-Eden world. During this time of year when you and your people are thinking about love and romance, dive into a theology of love from God’s point of view. Learn more at here.