Text: Ephesian 5: 21-33
Currently the church seems under constant assault from without and within. In modernity the part became more important than the whole. This obsession with the particular resulted in a narcissistic focus on the individual. As a general rule, the church capitalized on that worldview as congregations shifted their self-image from being “the family of God gathered for worship and fellowship” to one of being more of a “God-mart” for individuals to achieve self-actualization. The emphasis shifted from relationships to programs. The missionary vision of the church shifted from outreach and service to institutional growth. The mega-church was seen as the standard for success; Little did we realize we were undermining our very purpose for existence.
Like a sand castle on the beach overwhelmed by the changing tide, we now find ourselves dissolving under the vicissitudes of a new worldview that not only exalts the self but also disdains all things institutional. Postmodernity promotes a challenge to the very existence of the church as a corporate reality in this world. It would have us believe the church exists only as some mystical association of like-minded believers who would gather in small groups and avoid all organizational traits. This assault on the church is from believers and from non-believers. Non-believers see the church as an enemy of social progress. Many believers see the church as the antithesis of true spirituality; it is at best an obsolete channel for the Christian faith.
These assaults on the church fail to consider the value of the church for Jesus; He gave Himself for the church. The incarnation, suffering, and sacrifice of Jesus were not for a collection of individuals. His great plan of salvation centered on His everlasting incarnation within the church. "Body of Christ" is not a metaphor for the intimacy we share with Him. The church is not “like” a body to Christ; it is His body.
I have preached and taught on our text on numerous occasions. To the best of my recollection, I have always focused on the meaning of the text for Christian families with an emphasis on what it says about God’s intentions for husbands and wives. This passage addresses both of these issues and shows them to be interrelated. On this occasion I begin with comments on the family as a starting point for focusing on what it says about Christ and the church.
I can summarize my understanding of what the New Testament says about family relationships as God expects us to be Christian with one another. Whatever it means to be Christian with other Christians, husbands and wives are to model that. If we are to love one another, husbands and wives are to love each other. If we are to submit to one another, husbands and wives are to submit to each other.
In Ephesians the emphasis is that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church and wives are to be subject to their husbands as the church is to be to Christ. This emphasis does not negate the inverse; if we agree that God expects wives as well as husbands to love their spouse, we should also agree that in Christ husbands are likewise to submit to their wives. Mutual love requires mutual submission.
One of the great mistakes we have made is to read this passage in a manner that projects our experiences onto God rather than to critique our experiences in the light of God’s self-revelation. We read that Christ is the head of the church as if headship should be defined by our family patterns or those of our culture. We should instead ask ourselves how we must change in order to conform our families to fit into the image of God. It is an error to project onto the Godhead our hierarchial concepts of society; there is no subordinate member of the Trinity,
For example, the central point of contention in our text is the concept of submission (or subjection). We read that word through the lens of our cultural heritage which emphasizes submission as a verbal concept or word of action, to submit is to obey. But the Greek word (hupotasso) from which it is translated is more comprehensive than a mere active response. The focus is on relationship rather than activity. Hupotasso is a descriptive word for a pattern, or posture, of relationship; Its fundamental meaning is to exist in conjunction with another. The word is more accurately construed as “to stand attached to another.” The prefix hupo does convey the image of being "beneath" but in the sense of integrated.
Our modern inclination toward understanding submission as behavior is derived from the Latin translation of the New Testament. The Greek word hupotasso was translated into the Latin word submissio, sub-mission. In the translation the core image of "standing in connection to" is replace by an image of obedience or at the very least conformity to the wishes of another.
Whatever the immediate context being addressed by the Apostle Paul, the general problem appears to be that wives were living as though they were independent of their husbands. They are conducting themselves without regard for the effects of their behavior on their husbands. More accurately, they are positioning themselves apart from their husbands. Paul’s response is simple, wives and husbands are to be one as Christ and the church are one. In Christ they are to live out the reality of their union in all things.
This expectation of Christian unity in marriage is grounded in the certainty of the unity of the Godhead and the unity of Christ with the church and not vice versa. The relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit is one of perfect unity. They are one in essence and in being while eternally existing as three persons. Chapter four of Ephesians makes it plain that union with Christ, and by implication participation in the Triune life of God, is the destiny of the church. We will "all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (V. 13). We are to “grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (v. 15).
With that background I turn now to my central text, Ephesians 5:25-27 which reads “25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.”
Christ loves the church. He does not just love the collected members of the church; He loves the church with all its members. His love is so great that He gave Himself up for her. The passion of Christ was not splintered into rays of grace aimed at a limited multitude of separate individuals. The passion of Christ was for the redemption of His bride, which is the church. His eye was on the whole and on the parts. Furthermore, His mission was not just to free persons from sin; His mission was to prepare for Himself a bride fully suited to be joined with Him as His body. He gave Himself so that she might be sanctified, cleansed by the fountain of His sacrifice and continuing to be perfected by Him until she is without spot or blemish or any imperfection. The church shall be holy and blameless. Notice the past and future tenses of the text. The church is and the church is becoming. It has been cleansed and it is being made blameless.
When I think of His love for the church, the closest analogy that I can make is the love of a parent for a new born child. We often say to the infant “I could just eat you up.” We hunger to inhale not just the aroma of their undefiled bodies; we wish we could inhale their very beings. We love them so much we imagine swallowing the whole, taking them into ourselves to be cherished and honored and protected. Christ is "eating up" the members of His church, taking them into Himself. But what we cannot do because it would limit and destroy our child, He is doing so that His children might have life and have it to the very fullest. This is abundant life, to know Him and the Father, to be one with them. And in them we are one with each other.
Thus our text amplifies and applies what was laid out in Chapter Four. The process of the church being brought to completion, or perfection, is a process characterized by offices, order, discipline, and varieties of functions. The church is a living organism with Christ as its head; Like every other living organism it has structure, order, and purpose. Thus the church is a living organization.
Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers to the church. They function to equip or furnish the saints for works of service for the building up of the body until we all come together “to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (4:13).
I know our experience says the church has failed tremendously in this mission of unity and conformity. My own testimony would be that the greatest wounds in my life have come from within the church. Often the institutional nature of the church has been the stronghold of sin, suffocating the life-giving breath of God and robbing the church of the awareness of Christ’s sovereign presence. But we must never allow our experience, or our interpretation of our experience, to limit the purposes of God. Peter and Paul had “no small dispute” between them and that over the authority to appoint a co-missionary. But they worked through it.
The church exists in many forms and under many polities. It disagrees over doctrines and decrees. But it is one church with Christ as its head. The reality of His headship demands that we ever labor to be faithful to Him and to one another. The reality of our disagreements does not exempt us from always striving to give full expression to what it means to be the Body of Christ.
He loved the church so much that He gave Himself for it. I have from time to time been tempted to walk away from the Church of God. [I am using the upper case “C” here, referring to the Church of God with headquarters at Keith and 25th Street in Cleveland, Tennessee. I must admit I am troubled by the lower case “c” in reference to the universal church as if it is somehow a less proper name, but that is beyond this message.] But how can I walk away from that for which Christ died? How can I allow its imperfections, yes, even its sins, to separate me from that which Christ has joined to Himself? If I was to leave the Church of God I would be bound by the Word of God to find another group existing as the church. I am convinced I would find no more perfection farther north on Keith Street, or in Springfield, or in Oklahoma City than I currently experience in our fragile expression of the church. Neither would I find perfection in an uncomplicated but emaciated house church.
The challenge before us is not to perfect the church as we know it. The challenge is to live in full submission to Christ so that He might perfect us personally and corporately. Submission to Him demands submission to His body, the church. This is not the submission of blind obedience (sub-missio), but rather the submission of full participation (hupotasso) within the life of the church. He is perfecting us in, with, through, and by our unity in life and mission. To withdraw from full devotion to the church is to withdraw from that which Christ loves, indeed from Christ Himself, and it is thereby to work against Christ.
Let us love the church as Christ loves the church.