Summary: The key to relating in God’s church is mutual submission. This aplies to everyone in the church, young and old, male and female and affects all our family relationships.
God has instituted an amazing plan, a plan that involves you and me in showing the world how great is his wisdom and glory. Not only has he instituted this plan but he’s carried it out and continues to carry it out generation after generation. He’s restored our spiritual life. He’s put us in churches where the gifts he’s provided for growing those churches will build us into a unified body as we become mature in our faith. Those gifts will provide us with stability, he says in Eph 4, so that we can grow up into Christ and build up one another in love as we each do our part.
Over the last two weeks we’ve seen a little of how we can do our part. We can learn to speak the truth in love. We can learn to put away falsehood, wrath, anger and malice. We can earn a living so we can give money away. We can tame our tongues so that everything we say is gracious, uplifting, life giving. We can live lives that are counter-cultural, in that they shun immorality, obscenity and greed. Instead we can seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that others are blessed by our presence among them. And today we discover how we can do our part in the context of our household and work settings.
This isn’t an easy passage to preach on in these days of liberation and individuality, but that’s the advantage of preaching through a whole book: you’re forced to grapple with the difficult passages that you might otherwise skip over.
Well before we look in detail at the passage let me just affirm what we understand about the Christian worldview that we work from. Paul has spent a lot of effort so far in this book reminding his readers of the essentially unity they enjoy as God’s people. Despite the differences in their background, despite not coming from a Jewish heritage as children of Abraham, they’ve been given an equal status with the Jews. Elsewhere Paul teaches that this common heritage of the children of God removes all distinctions: of race, gender and economics (Gal 3:28).
So the teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ allows us confidently to affirm 3 truths:
the dignity of womanhood, childhood and servanthood as shown in the ministry of Christ himself
the equality before God of all human beings, irrespective of race, rank, class, culture, sex or age.
and the even deeper unity of all Christian believers as fellow members of God’s family and of Christ’s body.
So there’s no hint here of inferiority. Submission does not equal subjection or subordination. In fact you could argue that you can only submit yourself to another if you’re free to do so. That is, if in fact you’re an equal. If you’re not free, if you’re not acting as an equal, then it isn’t submission, it’s subjection.
Paul begins this section with a simple instruction that underpins everything that follows: "21Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." In Philippians the instruction is to let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God didn’t consider this something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Submission here means giving up the rights you have in order to serve others. This is an instruction for wives, for husbands, for parents, for children, for employers and employees. And it’s a very confronting a very counter-cultural instruction in a culture where rights are so important.
But notice this is not an arbitrary rule. No. it’s an instruction to give up your rights for the greater good of God’s kingdom.
He begins by talking to wives. Now at this point I could suggest that husbands get out the news sheet and read the notices for a while, because this isn’t written to you. Your turn will come in a couple of minutes. These instructions are for wives.
He says "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior." (NIV)
I think we find that so hard to deal with because we live in a fallen world where our natural instinct leads us in the opposite direction. Let me take you back to Gen 3, to the fall; to the source of our difficulty. Here’s what God said would be the result of their disobedience: (Gen 3:16 NRSV) "To the woman he said, ’I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’" Now the term desire there is the same word that’s used in the next chapter where God warns Cain that Sin desires to have him. In other words her desire for her husband isn’t necessarily a physical desire, rather it’s a desire to control him. At the same time he warns that her husband will rule over her. So the result of the fall is that men rule over women and women desire to have it the other way around. Rather than to love and to cherish, our inner desire is to dominate. Our natural inclination isn’t to submit to one another but to rule one another. So that makes it doubly difficult for us to deal with a verse like this. Wives find it hard because they don’t want to submit to the rule of another. Husbands find it hard because it gives them a perfect excuse to exercise their sinful urge to dominate. But neither response is a Christian one.