It was my worst nightmare. On February 14th I entered the church and saw that the bulletin announced that the day’s sermon would be on “Εφεσἱοθς 5:21-33.” Great. Valentine’s Day AND the Ephesians passage on marriage. Always theologically paranoid where gender roles are concerned, I prepared myself to be righteously (and selfishly) annoyed.
Although the pastor taught a differentiation between the roles of husbands and wives, he preached a vision closer to egalitarianism than complementarianism. In the end, the practical application was “both of you put the other first,” although he never quite said that in such explicit terms. We had two weeks of sermons on this topic (one addressed to husbands, another to wives), and I wrote down some of the ideas that stuck out to me most. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I was fascinated and excited (eventually) to see another culture’s perspective on the issue.
The pastor mostly stuck to the language of “husbands love/wives submit” although the ideas he taught were quite a bit broader. He adamantly said that if husbands loved their wives as Jesus loves, then all the changes she will experience (growth, overcoming sin, etc) will be the result of her husband loving her and doing everything he can to make her flourish. The pastor said that a lot: husbands are to make their wives flourish and blossom. I really like that. It reminds me of that amazing picture of Will Smith showing off his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. That’s a love that shows off and encourages the beloved to be awesome.
I was also SO PLEASED to hear the pastor address abuse. He made it clear that although husbands are called the head, like Jesus is the head, we must always remember that husbands are not sinless like Jesus is sinless. He said, “If a sinner tries to change another sinner, that is not sanctification. That is unhelpful at best, and abuse at worst. Husbands are not supposed to change their wives, only love them.” AMEN.
There was also this delightful little turn-around: “People ask me who should make the ultimate decision. Well, they should talk together. If they still don’t agree, then they should pray about it. If they still don’t agree, then the wife should be allowed to choose, because the husband’s job is to put her first.”
Similarly, he said: “We all know why brides wear white. But why do grooms wear black? I think it is because it symbolizes death. They are reminding themselves, and telling the world, that they are prepared to die first. Not in the big ways we like to imagine, but in the little daily things. He is choosing to die to his desires and choose his wife’s best before his own.”
The next week the pastor talked to the wives in the room. After the previous sermon, I was looking forward to it, but I got kind of nervous when he started by talking at length about tradition. Finally he got around to the point that tradition is not always good, and he said this lovely phrase that I think could apply to a great many topics: “I am not interested in the church being an arc to save tradition from new ideas. I’m interested in figuring out God’s truth.”
I didn’t write down full quotes from this sermon, but there were a few ideas that I really liked. First, he talked about how submission does not equal obedience. He mentioned that there are some Americans who write books telling wives that they honor the Lord by obeying their husband in all things, when clearly this is nonsense! He pointed to how Sarah obeyed Abraham’s orders to join a king’s harem to save Abraham’s skin, which was clearly a bad idea at best and a sinful idea at worst. She would have honored God by disobeying her husband.
He also touched on Genesis 1:27 (aka my favorite verse), reminding us that women were not made in the image of men, but were made equal to men in the image of God. He also talked about the dreaded “helper” label and how it doesn’t mean Adam needed a wife to clean and cook and have babies for him. Adam had a huge job, and he needed a collaborator to share the load. This was actually the first time I heard this term used in this context, and I love it. I love it so much. Marriages are collaborations: two people who know that life is hard and that it’ll be easy if they help each other out.
The one thing I didn’t really agree with was when the pastor talked about women needing a protector. This was also when my translating headphones started fuzzing and falling in and out of the signal, so I know I missed some important points. But this terminology felt like a step back from the rest of the conversation. Why do women need a protector in this day and age? In biblical times, women couldn’t vote, own land, or do pretty much anything on their own, so it makes sense that they needed a man to protect them (Ruth and Boaz was his example here). But today, women are often equally self-sufficient to men. I am a single woman who pays her own bills and makes her own decisions. I’d like to be married, but not because it would open up some aspect of life that is currently closed to me or because I am currently unsafe. I wish I’d fully heard this part of the sermon, because as it stands, I didn’t really understand his point.
Both weeks were uplifting sermons that encouraged spouses to love their marriage partner and do everything possible to support the other. Although there was still a definite husband/wife differentiation in language if not in application, and although same-sex marriages were not even mentioned in passing, I left feeling really encouraged. Here was a vision of marriage that definitely appealed to me. I do not want to give up my dreams to help a man achieve his. I DO want to find someone who has awesome goals and to help him accomplish them while he works to help me accomplish mine. That’d be really nice.
Still, I’m waiting for the day when a sermon on marriage takes less than one minute and goes something like this:
The pastor stands behind the lectern. “Look,” he (or she) says. “You chose to marry this person. Support them, help them, encourage them, and strengthen them. Let them support, help, encourage, and strengthen you. Don’t play power games with each other. The end.”