Wifehood, Motherhood and the Gospel

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Wifehood, Motherhood and the Gospel

This is not primarily a discussion of womanhood or of what it means to be a wife or a mother.

It is important that you know this from the outset, because what I intend to write is both controversial and viewed with some disdain within some quarters of evangelicalism. If you misunderstand the intentions of this post, you will most certainly misunderstand my heart.

My primary interest is in the gospel and what it means to live out the life that Christ has called us to lead. As a husband and father, it is impossible for me to think about how to live a Christ-honouring life without thinking about how this impacts upon the way I love my wife and raise my children.

It is important to know that self-examination begins with myself.

For this reason, if you are a fella, this is not a good place for you to begin. You should go back and read the first post in this series, Husbandhood, Fatherhood and the Gospel (click here to read). But before we arrive at the matter in hand, we remind ourselves of the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to husbands,

Husbands, love your wives, as 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. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself (Ephesians 5:25-28).

This is heavy and should be read, understood and applied with care and sobriety. Paul understands that Biblical manhood involves service, self-sacrifice and dying for the good of our wives. This is the starting place for any discussion of what it means to be a Christ-honouring wife.

Any discussion of what it means to be a Christ-honouring wife begins with me and, if you are a husband, with you.

Husbands, we begin with the gospel call to imitate Christ in the way in which we love our wives.

What then does Scripture have to say about what it means to be a godly wife? Paul addresses this earlier in the passage,

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 (Ephesians 5:22-24).

First, note the shape of the passage (remembering that this will flow into verse 35, above). Paul draws an analogy between the husband and Christ and the wife and the church.

I deal with the first part of this analogy more fully elsewhere (click here to read), but we must ask whether the analogy between husbands and Christ is a perfect analogy? Clearly not. There is no husband who has ever walked the earth or ever will walk the earth that resembles Christ perfectly. Christ is the sinless Son of God. You and I are not sinless. Neither you nor I are God.

Turning to the second part of Paul’s analogy, we should similarly ask whether a wife is perfectly and precisely analogous with the church? Again, clearly not.
What then is the purpose of Paul’s analogy? Paul is, in effect, drawing attention to the relationship between the church and Christ, and Christ and the church, and uses this to illustrate what marriage should look like in essence and in practice.

Scripture exhorts husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. The picture is stark and bloody. We are called to put our own selfish wants, needs and priorities to one side and die for the good of our wives.

This is the starting point: husbands die for the good of their wives, that their wives might know Christ more fully, love him more deeply and pursue him wholeheartedly.

But how does the analogy of the church’s relationship with Christ help us understand what godly wifehood looks like? Paul urges wives to respond to their self-sacrificing, loving and Christ-resembling husband in the same way that the church is called to respond to Christ.

Paul then uses a difficult, unfashionable, inflammatory word to describe the nature of this response: Paul calls the Christian wife to ‘submit’ to her husband.

I’ll allow you a moment to catch your breath.

I’ll now type that word once again, ‘submit’. And the call becomes more difficult, even more controversial when we ask the question, ‘What does Paul truly mean in calling wives to submit to their husbands?’ Paul expands on this, ‘Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord‘ (Ephesians 5:22) and, later, ‘as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands’ (verse 24).

This is astonishing and I suspect that if the ‘submit’ made you angry, the ‘as to the Lord’ has most likely resulted in you swallowing your tongue and passing out cold and blue. You see, what Paul says is that shocking: ‘Wives, in the same way that you submit to Jesus, you should likewise submit to your husbands’.

I passionately believe that this passage, as with all Scripture, is breathed out by God and useful, but even so, I feel the force of resistance to this. I understand that in order for you to accept what Paul is saying, I will need to unpack this so that you are able to see not only the truth, but also the beauty in this exhortation. I will, therefore, methodical chap that I am, give you three reasons as to why we can trust and celebrate this call to ‘submit’,

1. The gospel-call to submit

The gospel calls believers to submit.

We start then with the understanding that Christians, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic background or ministry, are called to submit.

We see this in Paul’s exhortation to believers everywhere,

[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:20)

Often we speak and think about church in loose terms. I am going to church this Sunday, this is a lovely church: by which we mean the building… you get the picture. Such a conception of church would have been utterly alien to the 1st Century church, meeting in rented buildings, local homes and even in fields.

Through the lens of Scripture, the church is clearly understood to be a community of believers united under, through and in Christ.

For Paul, therefore, the church is like the household of God being grounded on, built upon and held together by the cornerstone which is Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:19-21). Elsewhere Paul speaks of the church in the language of the body, held together by spiritual ligaments growing into and to increasingly resemble the head, Christ Jesus (Ephesians 4:15-16).

For Paul this unity and conjoined-ness in Christ has a practical outworking: we are called to submit to one another. But more than this, in our submission to one another, we are revering Christ. Flip that on its head, arrogance, selfishness and greed dishonour Christ Jesus.

This submissive attitude of the servant putting the needs of others before his or her own extends into every area of life.

So, too, the gospel calls believers to submit to parents.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. (Ephesians 6:1)

Again, note that this call to obedience is bound up with our relationship with Christ, ‘obey your parents in the Lord‘. What does it mean to be ‘in the Lord’? For children, in part, relationship with Christ is reflected and evidenced in the way in which we submit to and honour our parents.

The gospel calls believers to submit to their employers.

If Paul’s exhortation calling wives to submit to their husbands feels anachronistic, consider Peter’s call,

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. (1 Peter 2:18)

Just in case we are unclear as to what Peter means when he addresses servitude, he continues,

For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. (1 Peter 2:19-20)

It seems then that Peter is actually talking about  what we would consider to be slavery. You and I do not turn up for work on a Monday morning expecting to receive a beating. The position of the slave is entirely different.

This is why Peter’s exhortation seems so distasteful to our 21st Century sensibilities. Peter is urging servant/slaves to submit to their masters even if they are beaten and mistreated.

This requires us to think carefully and clearly as we ask whether Scripture is then defending (or worst still, advocating) slavery? I think not, indeed, elsewhere Paul encourages Philemon (a wealthy believer) to receive Onesimus (his slave) ‘no longer as a slave’, but as ‘a beloved brother’ (Philemon 16).

So what then is Peter’s purpose here? Peter is encouraging believers to live out the gospel call even in the most difficult and hostile of circumstances. The point is this, that even when enslaved to an unjust master who mistreats his servants; one should strive to live an exemplary Christ-like life characterized by submission and respectfulness.

Consider the gospel call to submit to church leaders.

The writer of Hebrews urges believers to,

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Hebrews 13:17)

The double-whammy of obedience and submission is utterly at odds with the mood in much of modern evangelicalism. The idea that believers should be held accountable to church leaders is flippantly dismissed the moment we disagree with a decision or dislike the style of a particular service. The idea that we would allow a church leader to correct us if we should fall into sin seems utterly bizarre to our Oprah-derived-21-Century-I-believe-I-am-a-winner mentality.

Nonetheless, Scripture calls us to both obey and submit. The weight of this is most keenly felt when we believe we know best (and we may) and when we most strongly disagree (and we will). Nonetheless we are called to submit, for it is church leaders who will be called to give an account.

The gospel calls believers to submit to the government.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1)

Remember, when Paul writes this, the church is on the brink of the most horrendous persecution by the Emperor Nero, yet Paul urges believers to ‘be subject to the governing authorities’. How can this be? Paul understands that all authority and all power ultimately proceed from God. God’s purposes in permitting despots to rise to power may be hidden from our eyes, but we faithful believers trust that God is in control and that his purposes are altogether good.

The highest call is to submit to God.

Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. (James 4:6-7)

Note the first part of the exhortation first, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” For James, the exhortation to submit is underpinned by an attitude of heart: humility. It is easy to fake humility (particularly in the short-term), but James understands that the gospel call is altogether deeper. Submission to God is born of humility; an understanding that God is God and we are not. That He is holy and we are not. An understanding that he is altogether powerful and we are not.

Paul writes elsewhere,

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3)

Truly our willingness to submit is grounded upon a right understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to his might, his holiness, and his glory. This is why the call to submit begins and ends with ‘sober judgement’.

Now let us return to the matter in hand and to Paul’s exhortation, ‘Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.’ (Ephesians 5:22).

I write this to show you that this exhortation that wives should submit to their husbands fits within a broader principle running throughout Scripture. The truth is that all believers are called to submit. It makes no sense whatsoever to say, I will submit to my church leaders, but not to my husband. Or I will submit to the government, but not my church leaders. Or, again, I will submit to my employer, but I will disregard any law with which I happen to disagree.

You see, the call to submit is grounded upon the greater call to submit to God himself. To refuse to be subject to the government is, therefore, an act of rebellion against God who permitted the government to come to power. To criticise, gossip against and oppose church leaders is to rise up and challenge the very people that God has entrusted to care, correct and shepherd the flock.

So too, when wives lovingly support, encourage and submit to their husbands they are, in fact, honouring the God who has placed them in such a position.

2. Christ models and patterns true submission

Christ patterns true submission.

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Corinthians 11:3)

Now I want you to follow Paul’s train of thought for a moment. Paul argues thus: Christ submits to God (‘the head of Christ is God’), men are called to submit to Christ (‘the head of every man is Christ’) and wives are called to submit to their husbands (‘the head of a wife is her husband’). This helps us answer the most common assumption when one considers the call to submit.

It is important that we understand that submission to one another, to parents, to governments, to church leaders is in no way grounded upon inferiority.

Consider Christ. Is Christ in any way inferior to God the Father? Scripture clearly testifies that God the Father and God the Son share total and perfect equality.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).

He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15)

He [Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Hebrews 1:3).

Jesus is coequal with God. This is why Jesus and Christians can confidently affirm that ‘God is one’ (Mark 12:32).

And yet…

Scripture affirms that God the Father sends God the Son (John 3:16, Galatians 4:4-5), God the Father commands what God the Son should say (John 12:49-50). And so too, God the Son does only what he sees God the Father doing (John 5:19), God the Son learns obedience (Hebrews 5:7-10) and God the Son humbles himself (Philippians 2:5-11).

What we see in the affirmation of Jesus’ equality with the Father is what theologians describe as the ontological Trinity. This is the Godhead as it truly is in essence.

We see in Jesus’ humility and submission to God the Father what theologians describe as the economic Trinity. This is the Godhead as the three persons of the Trinity relate to one another.

But how does any of this help us with regards to the matter in hand? Let us begin with the question; do men and women share ontological equality? The answer to this is a resounding ‘yes’.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).

Men and women are created as equal image bearers of God and as such are equal in dignity, value and worth before the living God.

What then do we see in Paul’s charge that wives should submit to their husbands? What we see is a gospel call to show forth the gospel as modeled by the Son of God in his relationship with both God and men,

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

The call to submit, wives to husbands, husbands to church leaders, church leaders to governments, is a call to a Christ-likeness most clearly seen at the cross.

This is fundamental. Wives are not called to submit as a sign of inferiority or because they are compelled, but because they love their husbands (who are modeling Christ-like sacrificial love towards them) and because they love Christ and want to be more like him.

This leads me to my final point.

3. Christ-like submission brings glory to Christ

Where do I find this in the Scriptures? The answer is ‘everywhere’, but let me show you two places that specifically relate to wives glorifying Christ within marriage.

The first example is found in Peter’s first epistle,

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.  Do not let your adorning be external-the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear- but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening (1 Peter 3:1-6).

We have thus far primarily considered marriage as God intends it to be: men and women seeking to honour Christ and loving one another in a way which is sacrificial and seeks the other’s good. But here, Peter introduces a new dimension.

How should a wife behave towards an unbelieving husband hostile towards the gospel? Peter, like Paul, exhorts the believing wife to conduct themselves respectfully and with purity (verse 2). Peter argues that this is the most effective form of evangelism in this particular situation, his hope is that the unbelieving husband might ‘be won without a word by the conduct of their wives’ (verse 1).

Here we must exercise some caution for there is no excuse for a husband either physically dominating or behaving harshly towards his wife. Husbands who physically, emotionally or sexually dominate or abuse their wives are guilty of a most grievous sin. Scripture bids husbands to treat their wives gently and with honour, ‘husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel’ (verse 7).

For submission and subjugation are diametrically opposed. Submission is given willingly and Christian submission is given joyfully and lovingly.

Subjugation, however, is the exertion of the will to dominate the weaker vessel. There is no place for subjugation among the people of Christ.

There is, however, an application point to be gleaned from this. There is no promise that submission will be reciprocated, therefore, we cannot use the husband’s failings or sin to excuse the wife from the gospel-call to submit. Equally, a husband should not uses his wife’s unwillingness to submit as an excuse to treat her harshly; to repay wrong with wrong runs contrary to the gospel.

Peter envisages that submission leads to a true inner imperishable beauty that adorns the wife, beautifies the marriage and pleases and glorifies God. The godly wife is, therefore, an effective and persuasive witness.

This leads me to my second point which is found in the conclusion to the passage considered above.

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Ephesians 5:32-33).

Paul’s point quite simply is this: marriage is a mysterious and profound reflection of Christ’s relationship with the church. When a husband sacrificially loves his wife, he displays something of the heart, the mercy and the glory of Christ to both his wife and the world around. Similarly, as a wife submits to her husband, this is a visual demonstration and call to men and women everywhere to turn and submit to King Jesus.

Marriages that honour Christ, display Christ. Marriages that display Christ, glorify Christ.