“The Most Hated Verse in the Bible” (Ephesians 5:22-33)

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2018

“The Most Hated Verse in the Bible” (Ephesians 5:22-33)

A couple of weeks ago I ran across an article on my news feed with the headline: “North Carolina GOP Candidate Preached Extensively on. . . .” Now I’ll tell you in a moment what he preached extensively on, but first let me give you an idea why this was even a story. You see, there’s a candidate in North Carolina running for Congress, and he used to be the pastor of a church. And of course his opponent and those who are backing him are looking for any dirt they can find on the guy. Well, apparently they went through his old sermons. And what did they discover? That he had preached, more than once, on something they found particularly distasteful, very incriminating–shocking, really. “Ah, here is what we’re looking for! Surely this will sink the man and doom his candidacy!” And of course this is why the news media all across the country ran with the story. So what was it that they found? What was so awful, so terrible, so outrageous? OK, now I’ll read you the full headline: “North Carolina GOP Candidate Preached Extensively on . . . Wives Submitting to Husbands.”

“Wives Submitting to Husbands”: Whoa! There it is! This evil man, this misogynist, this sexist bigot, had the gall, the audacity, to actually preach that wives should submit to their husbands! Where’s the rope?

Now it should come as no surprise these days that a Christian minister preaching on what used to be a traditional, commonly held belief–that this now is regarded as inflammatory hate speech, that it’s anathema, beyond the pale. The tolerant Left can’t tolerate such a thing!

But it’s not just the liberals and secularists who are aghast that anyone still thinks that wives should submit to their husbands. There are even Christians, church-going Christians, who don’t understand and even reject this biblical teaching. Perhaps even you have had some questions about this topic. And that’s why we’re going to take a look at it this morning.

The idea that wives should submit to their husbands is indeed taught in the Bible, in a number of places, most famously–or should I say, infamously–in today’s Epistle reading. The words come straight out of the first verse of that text, where it says, “Wives submit to your husbands.” And now you can see why I call Ephesians 5:22 “The Most Hated Verse in the Bible.”

If there were a contest for the most hated verse in the Bible, I think this verse in Ephesians might win the prize. Listen to what Paul says here and in the verses that follow: “Wives, submit to your own husbands. . . . The husband is the head of the wife. . . . Wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” How this must sound to our contemporary culture! Think of how people today react to what Paul is saying: “Oh, this is just some old dead white guy, calling for the oppression of women. This is just Paul the woman-hater, who was captive to the culture of his day. I’m glad we don’t have to listen to what he says.”

But this focus on Paul is too easy of an out. You see, Paul isn’t saying anything different from what you can find elsewhere in the Bible. St. Peter, for example, in his epistle says essentially the same thing: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands.” What’s more, Paul, like Peter, is an apostle of Christ and an inspired writer of Holy Scripture. He doesn’t speak just for himself. He speaks with the Lord’s own authority. “This is the word of the Lord,” we said after the reading of the Epistle, and rightly so. Also, Paul was not afraid to go against the culture of his day when that was called for. Then remember that this is the same Paul who says in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There in Galatians Paul is speaking of our equal standing before God, all of us, as baptized Christians. Here in Ephesians, though, he is speaking of our differing roles within our various callings in life, our differing vocations.

So in order for us to understand what is being said here–and for us to accept it, gladly and willingly–it’s important to come to the Scripture with the proper attitude. We need to hear it as God’s word, receiving it humbly. And we need to hear these words carefully–not pulling out isolated phrases here and there, out of context. Rather, we need to understand these words according to the sense in which they were written, getting a full and balanced picture of what Paul is saying. So now let’s go back and hear those little snippets or “sound bites” again, the ones about submitting, only this time within their context, including the parts that I left out:

Ephesians 5:22-24: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” Now, in context, the message sounds a bit different. The “submit” part is still there, but it takes on added meaning–this “as to the Lord” business. Paul is writing to Christians here. That’s the key. This is about Christian marriage. That alone puts this passage in a new and transformed light, one that the world really doesn’t understand.

The relationship of husband and wife here is compared to that of Christ and the church. Now I ask you: Does the church hate to submit to Christ? Is that an odious burden, too heavy to bear? No, the church delights to call Christ her Lord, to put herself under his headship, that is, his leadership, protection, and provision. So also, in the same way and with the same attitude, Christian wives are to willingly put themselves under the headship of their husbands. Notice, by the way, that this direction is written to the wives. “Wives, submit to your own husbands.” This is not addressed to the husbands. It does not say, “Husbands, make your wives submit, force them into submission!” No, this is a word to the wives.

And just as there is a word to the wives, so there is a word to the husbands. And these two follow one upon the other. So often we focus only on wives submitting, and the discussion stops there. We forget to move on to the balancing word addressed to husbands. In fact, Paul has as much to say or more so about what the husbands are to do as he has about the wives.

So let’s listen to what the husbands are called to do: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. . . . In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church. . . .”

Now I ask you, which is harder: the wife submitting to her husband or the husband loving his wife, “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”? Which is harder? Answer: Both are equally hard. Both callings are deadly to the flesh. Both go against our sinful human nature, our old Adam and our old Eve. These words to wives and husbands put to death our pride and our selfishness. Both callings–the wife voluntary submitting to her husband and the husband giving himself up in love for his wife–both are equally hard.

Indeed, both are impossible on our own! We need the help of the Holy Spirit. Even Christians stumble and fall. Wives, do you always submit to your husband in everything–like you’re supposed to do? Husbands, do you always love your wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her–like you’re supposed to do? No. Sometimes husbands are domineering. Sometimes wives are rebellious. So we seek the Lord’s forgiveness for our sins. And we pray the Holy Spirit will continue his work in us, to renew our minds and transform our attitudes.

How can husbands learn what it means to be a Christ-like head for their wife? Some wisdom from the past on this. The early church father, St. John Chrysostom, writes: “Do you want your wife to obey you as the church obeys Christ? Then care for her as Christ cares for the church. If it be needful that you should give your life for her or be cut to pieces a thousand times or endure anything, don’t refuse it. Christ brought the church to his feet by his great care, not by threats or fear. So conduct yourself toward your wife in like manner.”

Likewise, Martin Luther writes: “You are not to use the authority you possess just as you please. You are her husband in order to help, support, and protect her, not to destroy her. . . . The husband should not consider his wife a rag on which to wipe his feet; and, indeed, she was not created from a foot but from a rib in the center of man’s body, so that the man is to regard her not otherwise than his own body and flesh.”

Then from C. S. Lewis: “God has crowned man in the relationship of marriage, bestowing–or should I say, inflicting?–a certain ‘headship’ on him. This is a very different coronation. The husband is the head of the wife just in so far as he is to her what Christ is to the church. He is to love her as Christ loved the church–read on–and give his life for her. This headship, then, is most fully embodied not in the husband we should all wish to be, but in him whose marriage is most like a crucifixion: whose wife receives most and gives least. The sternest feminist need not grudge my sex the crown offered to it. For it is a crown of thorns.”

Of course, there are those hard-edged feminists who abhor any talk of the headship of husbands or of wives submitting. And at the other extreme are those swaggering, self-centered men who don’t want to hear about laying down their lives for their wives. But don’t be influenced by either of those extremes. You don’t want to be subjected to a kind of cultural brainwashing.

But when we approach this text as those who have received a different kind of “washing”–Christ’s baptismal washing–then we can hear this word aright. Now there is something that truly does apply to all of us–whether we’re husbands or wives, married or single, widowed or divorced. All of us have had the baptismal water wash over us. St. Paul writes: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

So much did Christ love the church–so much did he love you–that he gave himself up for you on the cross. There he died to make you holy. And here at the font, in the cleansing waters of Holy Baptism, that holiness was applied to you. All your sins were washed away. You were given the free gift of Christ’s righteousness. Now, as the church, we together are the bride of Christ, a radiant, beautiful bride, awaiting the coming of our King. Christ loves his bride, the church. He feeds and cares for us. In his Holy Supper, our Lord gives us a foretaste of the heavenly wedding banquet, the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which has no end.

With Christ our loving Lord as our head, we the church are ready to hear whatever he has to say. We willingly and gladly submit to his headship, his leadership. And he will not bully us or domineer over us. May the Lord help us, then, to be the kind of husbands and wives he wants us to be. May he help us to be godly fathers and mothers, obedient sons and daughters, committed church members, honest citizens, students, workers–faithful, godly people in whatever vocations we have. Cleansed by Christ’s forgiveness, transformed and renewed by the Spirit, we will grow into the people God would have us to be.

One day a little girl was telling her mother what she had learned in preschool that day. She started telling her mommy the story they heard, the story of Snow White. The little girl was getting toward the end when she said, “And so, Mommy, do you know what happened then?” “Of course, I do,” said the mother. “Snow White and the prince lived happily ever after.” The little girl quickly corrected her: “Oh, no, Mommy! No, they didn’t! They got married!”

Well, in spite of all the sin and the conflict that can enter into a marriage, marriage still is an honorable estate established by God, bestowed by our Creator as a gift and a blessing. Let us receive it as such. And the relationship of husband and wife is a mirror of the relationship between Christ and his church. So there is real joy in a marriage where both parties are living according to God’s design: the wife submitting to her husband as to the Lord, and the husband loving his wife as Christ loves the church. What’s more, in the life to come, with Christ as our heavenly bridegroom, and we as his bride the church–then we truly will live happily ever after.

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Published in: on August 25, 2018 at 5:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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