Making Relationships Work
EPHESIANS 5: 21-33
How do you make relationships work in light of the text for this morning, "Wives, be subject to your husbands?" A newcomer to heaven was surprised to see two lines for men. The sign over one line read "Heads of the House." The sign over the other line read, "Henpecked Husbands." There was a long line of men standing in the "Henpecked Husbands" row, but only one standing in the "Heads of the House" line. So the newcomer asked the lone man, "Why are you the only one standing in the "Heads of the House" line?" The man replied, "I don't know. My wife told me to stand here."
In a former church a married couple shared the Associate Pastor position. The wife did not take the husband's surname, but kept her own. I remember one of the tenors leaning over during choir practice on a Sunday morning and asking me, "What do you think of her not taking his name?" I said, "It doesn't matter to me. They can do what they like." He persisted, "Isn't there something in the Bible about wives taking the husband's name?" I said, "No, in fact in Bible times they didn't have surnames." "Well, but the Bible does say that the husband is the head of the house." Looking at him, who was somewhat physically smaller and far less assertive than his wife, I asked, "Do you mean to tell me that you are the head of your house?" Flustered and agitated, he stammered, "Well, I would if I had to!"
What about husband and wife relationships? What about all your relationships? Is there a time and place to be submissive? We often misread the Ephesians passage, and do Paul an injustice. Certainly he was limited by the vocabulary of his day, as well as the patriarchal system of structuring marriage and family. Paul lived in a day when women did not have powerful positions in society; but, to Paul's credit, he did put women in leadership positions in the churches. And, in this Ephesians passage, Paul gave us a picture of relationships that is far broader than wives being subject to their husbands.
We usually take verse 22 out of context, "Wives be subject to your husbands." However, the preceding verse (Ephesians 5:21) reads, "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." That verse sets the context for the unfolding passage on relationships. Many of us are uncomfortable at the idea of subjecting ourselves to someone else. But, don’t relationships work better when we know when and to whom to submit?
We had Australian guests from Queensland visit us. He marveled at how smoothly our traffic runs, particularly at stop signs. "Why," he said, "No one honks the horn, or roars the motor, trying to beat out the other guy." I explained how we alternate at stop signs. "We take turns," I said, "and when two cars arrive at the stop sign simultaneously, the car on the right has the right-of-way." "How simple!" he exclaimed.
Our traffic system does work well, except in two instances. 1) When one driver is pushy, and tries to take advantage and beat the other car. 2) When one driver is unsure, hesitant, insecure, and doesn't quite know when he/she is supposed to go. So the other driver finally decides that the hesitant driver isn't going to go, so starts out, only to discover that by that time, the slow one has decided to go too.
In other words, traffic moves smoothly and orderly when we know who submits to whom and when. Interpersonal relationships are likewise difficult when one person is pushy and tries to dominate, tries to act like the head of the house, or the head of the group, or the head of the conversation. Interpersonal relationships are likewise difficult when one is a doormat, unsure, insecure, always yielding. Don't you get irritated with friends who never have a suggestion but say, "Oh, whatever you want to do" Or, "Wherever you want to go." "I don't know; it doesn't matter to me." Relationships work better when you have someone solid to whom to relate. Relationships work better when you know who submits to whom and when.
Society probably ran a great deal smoother in the old days when everyone knew his/her place. Where there was a caste system, people knew their places, but it was quite uncomfortable for those on the lower rung of the ladders. I listened on the radio to a sermon preached in a large, growing, conservative church. I couldn't believe my ears. He had relationships all neatly ordered. The lines of authority were crystal clear. In that church, everyone knew to whom they submitted. He told wives to submit to their husbands, husbands to submit to their employers, all of them to submit to the minister, and the minister is accountable to God! He even said that when a husband mistreats his wife, or an employer is unfair to the employee, the one who is mistreated still must submit, and endure the suffering. Enduring suffering then is one's lot in life. With that philosophy, there would be no United States of America, no revolution. We would yet be a colony today submitting to Queen Elizabeth. And his church puts up with that nonsense!
A few years ago a group of women organized a woman’s counterpart to Promise Keepers. They hold rallies for women around the country. One of their early pieces of literature included this sentence, "We women have received permission from those in authority over us—our husbands and pastors." What is assumed is a pyramid structure of a patriarchal system, dominated by males. But, is there not a better way? Rather than submitting to someone on the basis of structure, or caste, or gender, or the color of skin, is there not a better basis on which to subject ourselves to one another?
In the Ephesians passage, Paul uses traditional language to tell wives to be subject to their husbands, but he completely changes the meaning of the traditional patriarchal system. He changes the meaning of the word "subject." He tells husbands (v.25) to "love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." Paul likens the husband-wife relationship to the relationship Christ has with the church and the church has with Christ. Out of compassion for us, Jesus gave up his life. Jesus laid down his life for us on the cross. Husbands are to give up their lives, lay down their lives, for their wives. There is no sense of lordship, or head and foot of the house, but loving, self-giving service. Interpersonal relationships are based on sacrificial, self-giving service, one being willing to give up, to submit, for the sake of the other.
Dody Donnelly, a Catholic sister with whom I studied several years ago, gives us a practical model of human relationships in her book, Team, Theory and Practice of Team Ministry. She replaces the pyramidal structure of authority and accountability with a circle. In a circle, no one individual rules at the apex, but the responsibility to serve, to submit, is shared. Serving is based on need. Laying down your life for someone else means that you are willing to do whatever you can to meet the needs of the other person. But the other person is not always the one in need; sometimes you are the one in need.
"Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" means to seek to meet the needs of others, while at the same time, letting others meet your needs. Relationships are circular. Sometimes you are the stronger one and can reach out to the other. Sometimes you are the needy one. You are both giver and recipient. Rather than subject yourself to someone on the basis of structure, submit on the basis of need. A father will subject himself to the needs of his daughter, and give up TV to be with her, or help her with homework, or take her to a nice restaurant to dine and talk. A husband will subject himself to his wife when she is in need of attention, time and affection. A wife will subject herself to her husband when she is sensitive to his moods, his weariness, and give up something she would like to do, in order to be with him. A friend will submit, when you are blue, and go out of the way to smile and give a word of affirmation.
Notice, this model of the circle in which no one is dominant, and no one is a doormat, presupposes that it is okay for you to have needs. In fact, it is your right to admit you have needs, and to make those needs known. You deserve the respect of those around you, and you deserve the respect of yourself. You are not the slave of your spouse, your children, or your friends. Sometimes you have needs, and it is your right to speak out, and take your turn at the stop sign. You do not always yield to the other driver. Sometimes it is your turn to take off first from the stop sign, and let the other submit to you.
Relationships work better when there is submission. Not everyone can leave the stop sign at the same time. Relationships work better when the submission is mutual, and when the submission is based on need, rather than structure, position, or gender.
2001 Douglas I. Norris