March 17, 2015
If we’re going to think properly about submission within marriage, we need to think about it within the context of the sacrificial love for Jesus.
“Only if God’s love is the most important thing to you will you have the freedom to love your spouse well” —Timothy Keller
Jesus spent part of his earthly ministry dialoguing with the religious leaders of his day. Often times that took the form of these leaders trying to trip up Jesus. The Apostle Matthew reports on one of these times. “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians” (22:15-16). Now this first round was about paying taxes to Caesar. He subverted their silly question by answering, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (v. 21). Just as we pay taxes to Caesar because his image is imprinted on the coins; we must give back to God what’s imprinted with his image. “They were amazed” (v. 22). Round two. The Sadducees tried a riddle about who gets the wife in resurrection if she had several husbands. Jesus answers their question, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (v. 30) then takes a simple verb is and makes the point God is not the God of the dead. “They were astonished” (v. 33).
Round three. You might think the religious leaders might have learned their lesson, but the Pharisees get together and think they may have found a sticky question about fulfilling the law. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (v. 36). As with the previous question, Jesus doesn’t just answer their question, but goes further.
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (vv. 37-40)
All the law hangs on love. That’s a tough pill to swallow. All the law doesn’t hang on righteousness or justice or mercy? Those things are certainly central, but they aren’t the nail in the stud. Early in a private moment with his disciples in Matthew 20, the sons of Zebedee approach Jesus and ask if they can sit next to him in his kingdom. The other disciples are angry, but Jesus says,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (vv. 25b-28)
It shall not be so among you. Those in authority in the Church are not tyrants, but servants loving those under their authority. Jesus connects this to his future cross-work (“to give his life a ransom for many” v. 28).
When discussing how Christianity informs our home, people inevitably ask me about submission and headship. Why should a woman have to submit to her husband? Why should men have authority? Doesn’t this lead to abuse?
The underlying assumption most of the time is the one subverted by Jesus in Matthew 20. These people have in mind a type of headship and submission in the vein of the rulers of the Gentiles—one that lords over people. My question is almost always, “Would you have a problem with a wife submitting to someone who loved, led, and served like Jesus?”
In one of the touchstone passages for issues in the home, Paul says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22) and “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). In Ephesians 5, the foundation is love. He uses a root of that word at least nine times. The chapter starts, “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” By the time Paul is finished speaking to husbands this root of love has snowballed as he drives home what Christian homes should look like:
In Ephesians 5 then, Paul employs an inclusio bracketing everything he says with the law of love and Christ’s sacrificial love for his Church that intensifies as he makes his arguments.
Timothy Keller explains in The Meaning of Marriage,
“In Ephesians 5, . . . [i]f God had the gospel of Jesus’s salvation in mind when he established marriage, then marriage only ‘works’ to the degree that approximates the pattern of God’s self-giving love in Christ.”
So what now? As husbands and wives wrestle with what headship and submission should look in your home look no further than the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. Headship and submission in marriage are not a ball and chain preventing us from flourishing, but freedom in Christ. They provide a context for our love of God to overflow (Eph. 5:25-27). This kind of love subverts lording, power plays, quid pro quos, demeaning servitude, and abuse. It’s mutual submission and loyalty first to God because the greatest commandment is to love Him with all our hearts. It’s a family following Christ.
The challenge then isn’t headship or submission, but loving God and allowing His love to transform our homes. Like Christ loved the Church, the husband must love and sacrifice for his bride. Like Christ submits to the Father, the wife must submit to her husband. This kind of home excites me. I imagine the Son lovingly submitting to the Father who has only ever loved His Son. They have had perfect fellowship for eternity and the Son delights to do the will of the Father. The Son then displays this intense love to his Church as he dies on the cross. Kathy Keller makes this point in The Meaning of Marriage when she says that both husband and wife get to reflect Jesus in their marriage. This kind of mutual Christ-likeness provides dignity, honor, love, and respect for husband and wife.
Mathew Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He’s the Managing Editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He’s married to LeAnn and they have three daughters. They enjoy traveling, relaxing at the beach, and wandering in the woods. Mathew regularly blogs at Grace for Sinners. The Sims are members at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.
You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.