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Begin With Marriage
April 27, 1975

St. Paul's United Methodist Church


On the occasion of a sixtieth wedding anniversary, the wife was being interviewed. She was asked, “Now tell me, in all these sixty years of marriage, how many times did you get close to divorce?” She answered, “Why never, never once did we even think of divorce.” “You’ve been married sixty years, and you never once even thought of divorce!” She said, “That’s right. Murder a few times, but never divorce.”

Today we look at marriage. Last Sunday, I developed the fifth commandment’s assertion that respect must be a basic entity in the relationship between children and parents. I tried to make the point that children learn how to respect their parents, teachers, community by first of all being respected by their parents.

Honor is a two-way street. A child who shows no respect for his parents perhaps never received, or rarely received respect from them. The ques­tion was asked, “But, how do parents respect their children? How do they create the kind of climate, the environment, where respect can be ex­perienced and learned by the children?” 

We begin with marriage. It has been said that the greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother. The relationship between husband and wife, the attitudes they display towards each other, the respect shown between them is crucial in any family. The marriage relationship determines the quality, direction and environment of the family. As we consider in this difficult age how families can make it, we begin with marriage. What kind of attitude between spouses is the best for the family, one in which respect is maintained and taught? 

I realize there are many of you this morning who do not find yourself in the marriage relationship. Lest you are tempted to fall asleep, or feel that this sermon does not apply to you, let me make this rationale. Some of you are looking to marry. It is imperative for you to do some serious thinking about what marriage is and should be all about. Some of you have been married, some of you are concerned about someone’s marriage in your family, some of you have a general concern for marriage in our nation today. Besides a general concern, however, I feel that the prin­ciples I am going to discuss apply to any relationship. So, if you are not in the marriage relationship, please apply my message to a relation­ship you do find yourself in at the moment. 

A good marriage must begin with self-respect. Marriage should never require one partner to give up his or her individuality. Each must have the freedom to develop one’s potential as a person, to become a better person and develop a more fulfilling life. Each has a contribution to make to this world that is more than just being a wife or husband. A success­ful marriage is one in which each partner develops what God has given him or her to become. To have self-respect means to have a high regard for your own ideas, dreams, goals, aspirations, to not to think of yourself too highly, nor to think of yourself too lowly. For if you do not have self-respect, how can you respect the children, and teach them to honor and respect? 

A visitor in a home witnessed the lack of respect. The mother was out in the garden weeding and visiting with the caller. Her 12-year old daugh­ter called, “Mother, where is my green blouse?” “In the utility room, dear.” “Well, I can’t find it.” “Look again, dear.” “I found it, but it’s all wrinkled.” “Iron it, dear.” “I don’t want to. You come and do it. You have to come and do it. Now.” As the daughter neared a tantrum, the mother in exasperation, dropped her weeder, left her visitor standing alone and went to wait on the daughter. Mother is a slave. She has no rights, no self-respect. She is at the mercy and call of a spoiled, obnoxious daughter who will cause a great deal of misery in life, for she has not learned respect. How can the daughter learn how to re­spect when her Mother has no self-respect? How can the mother respect the daughter when she has no respect for herself? 

A parent has the right to one’s own life. I was talking this week with a woman who babysits for a three-year-old girl. One day out of the blue, the little girl asked, “What do you with your secrets?” “Well,” the woman pondered, “I put them in my head and keep them there.” “Oh, my mother puts hers under her arms.” Parents have a right to secrets, to a private life, to their own entertainment. Children need to ex­perience the fact that parents have a vigorous life of their own to pursue. Adults were not put on earth solely to administer to the needs of children. 

Children are not first. When children are first in a family, when their desires, their tantrums, their program is first, they are not respected. They are indulged. Happy is the child who is raised in a home where the parents first of all have self-respect, for then children can learn there are limits, other people have rights and privileges, and they cannot infringe upon the rights of other people in the family. When a child is involved in a relationship with a person who has self-respect, he is enabled to learn respect, respect for a person who has rights to his/her own life.  A child can then learn what it means to have self-respect by learning from
a person who has respect for her/himself, and is not the slave of the family. 

Children are not first in a family. Who is? In a Christian home, Christ is first. When Jesus is Lord of the family, when his will, his teachings, his values are first, then in him, through him and for him, we can all learn respect. When you accept God’s love of you, when you accept your creation as a good creation, when you accept God’s high estimate and opinion of you, then you can relax. You don’t have to prove yourself anymore. You don’t have to compete with your spouse, anyone else, or your children. You can relax and accept yourself, respect yourself, and then you are enabled to look out for the interests of others. When you love your­ self, accept yourself, accept God’s love of you, you can stop proving
and pursuing, and respect and accept yourself. I heard a song on the radio this week, “Nobody wants to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus; everybody wants to be lead singer in the band.” When you accept God’s love and estimate of you, you don’t have to be the star. You can play rhythm gui­tar behind Jesus, find your place where you belong, and then reach out to others. 

A good marriage begins with self-respect. A good marriage, one in which children can learn respect, is one where there is mutual respect between the spouses. The New Testament reading both last Sunday and this morning were of the same passage, the famous Pauline writing on marriage, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. Husbands, love your wives.” Don’t get hung up on Paul’s language. Those into libera­tion, into equality, reject the passage totally as an example of an auto­cratic, patriarchal style of marriage that is irrelevant and impossible today. Those who are at the other extreme, those use the passage to support the old worn-out thesis that a wife is a help-mate to her husband. I assisted in a wedding last year where the minister told the couple such drivel. I’m amazed the bride stood for it; that her role in the marriage is to help her husband, and that the husband has the authority in the marriage. 

Both positions miss the real point of this passage, of what Paul was attempting to say. Of course he used ancient language. He used the lang­uage of the day, language which reflected the male-dominated, male-cen­tered culture; but the significance of what he was saying behind the words he used is beyond even our generation’s comprehension of marriage. Few if any marriages in our day or in any day approximate what Paul was presenting. He urged wives to be subject to their husbands, and he urged husbands to love their wives. How? How does he love his wife? “As Christ loved the church.” How does Christ love the church? Does Christ force his will on the church, on people? Does Christ force his will on you? Does Christ make the decisions? Does he dictate? 

How does Christ love the church? Paul goes on, “and gave himself up for her.” That is how Christ loves us—he gave his life. Out of the depths of his love for people, he laid down his life and died on a cross. On that cross, he sacrificed himself, emptied himself, gave of himself for you and for me.

Wives are encouraged to be subject, but husbands are told they are to lay down their lives for their wives, give themselves up for the wife, lay down your life for your wife, sacrifice, surrender, give, die.

Paul goes on, “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” He explains what he means by saying, “he nourishes his own body, cherishes it.” Men do love their own bodies. Ever watch a teen-age boy comb his hair in a mirror, or any man of any age, look at himself in the mirror? “Oh, you beautiful doll; what a he-man!” He cherishes his body. He takes care of his body, nourishes it, that it may grow. As he cherishes and nourishes his body, so he loves his wife. Paul says husbands should lay down their lives for their wives, so their wives may be nourished and grow. The fulfillment, personal fulfillment, growth of the wife is the goal of the husband’s role in the marriage and vice-versa.

Mutual subordination, mutual subjection, mutual respect is what Paul is talking about. Out of reverence for Christ, with Christ in first place in the marriage, the husband and wife can be subject to one another, can look out for the interests of the other. Paul wrote, “Let each one of you love his wife as himself and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Respect is mutual. In a good marriage, it’s mutual subjection, mutual subordination; each looking to the interests of the other, each is concerned with the other’s growth, each is concerned with the other’s development as a full human being. Each is concerned that the other keep her/his mind growing, get new ideas, stretch, develop the talents within, each being happy and proud of each other’s success; not competing, not being threatened because in God we find our recognition and can enjoy the other’s success and help the other attain success. A marriage in which respect and subjection is mutual, where there’s cooperation and not authority, where neither is the boss, but where each leads in the areas where he or she is strong. And the other one steps back and follows.

This is the context, the environment in which healthy families are reared—self-respect, mutual respect, mutual subordination. In this environment, children can learn respect—respect for themselves, respect for their parents and others.

© 1975 Douglas I. Norris