Sunday, August 16, 2009

Subject or Object?

Subject or Object?

Fourth in a series of sermons from Ephesians

Robert J. Elder, Pastor
20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
August 16, 2009

Ephesians 5:15-33

One summer, I was riding through the Scottish countryside with my cousin, Malcolm and his wife, Muriel. They have a highly kinetic relationship, so a good deal of good-natured bantering was going back and forth between them. Finally, Muriel had spoken maybe a little more sharply than she might have intended, and there was a moment or two of uncomfortable silence. Then Malcolm spoke up, “Muriel, I know you love me; you told me so five years ago.” Without missing a beat, Muriel replied with mock seriousness, “That was then; this is now…” Referring to marriage in a sermon in our day, even in an oblique way, is among a preacher’s greatest fears...and with good reason!

Several years ago, on Orientation Sunday in Duke University Chapel, the text assigned to the preacher ... was ... Ephesians 5:21. The preacher’s heart sank. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands...”

“I can’t preach that,” the preacher thought. “Only the likes of Jerry Falwell would preach such a text! Especially is it an inappropriate text for a progressive, forward-thinking, university church. Forget Ephesians 5. The word for our day is liberation, not submission. But the preacher decided to let the Bible have its say. He began his Orientation sermon this way:

“[We] despise this text. No one but Jerry Falwell (may he rest in peace) or some other reactionary would like this text. What an ugly word! Submission. And yet we know that, taken in the context of the day, this is a radical word. Women had no standing in that day. The writer of Ephesians 5 expends more words giving advice to husbands, telling them about their duties to wives, than words to wives telling them what they are to do for their husbands...this is not a text about women’s submission in marriage, it is a text which urges mutual submission in a strange new social arrangement called the church.”

“And that is why we despise this text. Our word is liberation.”[1]

While scripture’s word is submission.

There is so much modern misunderstanding about this passage of scripture that our lectionary suggests preachers skip verses 21-33 altogether. Even less likely is a modern day sermon on the first 9 verses of chapter 6, with their emphasis on obedience in children and slaves. The use – and abuse – to which these verses have been put in many places and circumstances over the centuries, makes any preacher less than enthusiastic about preaching on them.

So, we have a whole section of scripture, much of which sounds immediately distasteful to modern ears, with words about subjection and submissiveness, directed at wives, children and slaves. Aren’t these verses a perfect example of the need to use the Thomas Jefferson method of scripture analysis, cutting out the passages which offend us in order to leave us with a Bible that is not only more agreeable, but which more closely reflects modern sensibilities?

Well, no, I don’t think so, though you are welcome to disagree with me, and if you do it certainly wouldn’t be the first time in my ministry! What is needed is the recognition of a few crucial principles in reading these verses.


Only a community of faith which receives these words

can hope to understand them correctly.

These words were not directed at the culture in general, but to believers whom together Paul calls the “body of Christ.” So, a real understanding requires, first of all, a life within the community of faith. These are not general human principles which would make sense to any thinking person whether they were believers or not. They sound crazy to non-believers, and, truth-be-told, to quite a few believers as well, and probably for good reason.

It makes no sense to urge non-believers to allow themselves to be subject to others, because in the world outside the family of faith, where power is the motivating force in most relationships, to suggest that people assume a powerless and subjective position would be tantamount to suggesting that they become permanent victims. There is no guarantee of mutuality there. Being subject in a world that treats people like objects doesn’t sound like good news but more like a prescription for servitude. No one in the world can assume that submissiveness on their own part will be met with mutual submissiveness from others. Quite the contrary. The world is entirely likely to victimize anyone who makes themselves so vulnerable.

We must grant that pursuing all relationships with a sense that they are about power is a way that leads to death, not life. But only a community of faith organized around a different standard can understand submissiveness in a way that leads to life and wholeness.


These verses may legitimately be understood

only with deep humility, convictionally and confessionally.

They are intended to be understood so that a spouse, for instance, may ask himself for herself from time to time, “Am I working toward loving my spouse as Christ loved the church, sacrificially, unselfishly?” They may legitimately be used reflectively, subjectively. They may not be used legitimately as a blunt object to threaten the opposite person, but rather as a personal moral guide.

So when, in Paul’s letter, husbands, for instance, are advised concerning their behavior, they are not permitted to ignore the verses directed at them while berating their mates concerning the verses Paul wrote regarding wives. Similarly, wives ought not read the verses directed at husbands as part of a riot act, while overlooking the admonitions Paul wrote to them.

There are those interpreters who attempt to show that these verses reveal a divinely ordained order for family relationships, with God at the top of the organizational chart, then husbands directly under God, with wives appearing under the rule of their husbands. I have seen this type of structure referred to with various headings like “God’s Chain of Command,” as though loving relationships among faithful people had mostly to do with organizing a power structure in which some give commands and others obey them. The odd thing is, the chain of command idea already existed in Paul’s time, though not as a guide for Christian living, but as a pagan listing of household responsibilities. In Ephesians, Paul called upon everyone’s familiarity with that idea in order to help believers break free from it, to move human relationships beyond the banal questions of who will be giving the orders and who is destined to take them.

The discipline encouraged in this passage is meant to be internal, chosen, not external and enforced; it is to be subjective, not objective. No one may legitimately use these verses to force subjection on an unwilling spouse, and neither may one use them to require sacrificial love from their “better half.” I recently read about a Christian speaker who was approached by a married couple with the husband asking, “I want to know who should be in charge of a Christian marriage?” The speaker looked at them and said, “But that’s not a Christian question! The Christian question is: ‘How can I serve my spouse…?’”[2]

These are principles which must be freely chosen to have any meaning at all. And the operative principle in all of them is announced in verse 21.


“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

It is true that every home needs a leader, but the contest for that position should not be between one spouse and the other. The leader of every believer’s home should be Jesus Christ: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” Paul declared. It is Christ who is the one deserving reverence in Christian homes.

All the things Paul encourages in his letter: that husbands love their wives as fully as Christ loves the church, which is to say, as fully as one who was willing to face death on a cross for the sake of his love; that wives should subject themselves to their husbands, which anyone who has been around our culture lately knows has about as much human chance of getting a hearing these days as a shellfish in a oyster bar; all these things should be things we hear with amazement, not with nodding heads. They are incredible, from a human point of view. But before we can hold up our hands and say, “No way!”, before we even hear words about submissiveness and sacrificial love, Paul predetermines our view of his instructions with the first instruction, the one that supersedes them all: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

He explains further, “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” This isn’t an exhortation about how we can be if we just work at it, but about how Christ is. Christ was submissive even to the point of death, Christ loves his church – loves us – more than he loved his own life. It is only because we know that’s how Christ is that we can begin to see the mystery that Paul mentions as it applies to our own commitments – how we can be. We begin to see that the commitments we make to one another – not just as husbands and wives, but as lovers, as friends, as families in the fellowship of the church – these commitments are going to be hopelessly control driven unless we submit them to the one who was totally submissive in giving himself away for us all.

Christ will not fail to honor those who reverence his submission for our sakes. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” For Christ has made himself subject for our sakes. May God bless us richly in him, and may each of us strive in every way to be a blessing for each other.

[1] William Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Abingdon, 1989, pp. 152-153.

[2] Stephen Knox, “Becoming One Christ’s Way,” Best Sermons 2, Harper & Row, 1989, p. 179.