The Rev. James Nutter: Be Subject to Each Other

Today we are going to look at a piece of scripture that often has been misunderstood and misapplied, and that often has been used to justify abusive and demeaning treatment.  When some conservatives use this piece of scripture to muscle-up on women they seem to be ignoring Genesis 1:26-27, which says that men and women are both made in the image of God, and they seem to be misreading that when God gave Eve to Adam as his helper in Genesis 2:18, God was not giving Adam a servant but a partner, and they seem to be forgetting that when the Serpent was tempting Eve, Adam was right there (see Gen. 3:6) and did not speak up, which means that both of them were equally responsible for the Fall, and they seem to be denying that the subjugation of women to men is one consequence of the Fall (see Gen. 3:16), which means that since Jesus came to reverse the Fall, they are working against Jesus when they use these words to put "women in their place."  Even though some conservatives have misused this passage, let me be quick to add that some liberals may be even less enlightened and informed when they want to remove Paul's letters from the bible. 

Let us now go to the text. It begins:  "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."  Please notice that before we get to that infamous line about wives being subject to their husbands, Paul says that wives and husbands must be subject to each other.  Being subject to each other does not mean being servile to each other; instead it means to yield to each other, to relinquish any desire to rule or control, to renounce wanting to win or dominate.  Paul understands that our being subject to each other is an act of faith-it is something we do out of reverence for Jesus.

Next line: "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord."  Let me say it again: we cannot make sense of this line unless we read it in the framework of husbands and wives being subject to one another.  That being said, what does it mean for a wife to be subject to her husband? It means that she will yield her will, her authority, to her husband.  Because this yielding is in the Lord, it must be done willingly, freely, joyfully.  She is willing to yield to her husband because she trusts that he loves her, honors her, and wants the very best for her.  By yielding to her husband she is not saying that he is better or smarter or more important than she is.  Also, by yielding to her husband she is not losing her dignity; instead she will be gaining security and stability.  If her husband exercises his will to stifle, crush, or belittle his wife, she can and should retract her being subject to him.  She can only be subject to a husband who has had his will consecrated and transformed by Jesus.  If the husband wants his wife to be subject to him, while he is not being subject to Jesus, the deal is off.  If he is not willing to be subject to Jesus, he has repudiated the awesome privilege of her being subject to him.   

Although more could be said on this text, let that suffice for now.  Let us return to the passage.  Before we look at any particular words, please see that Paul's admonitions to husbands is nearly three times longer than those he gives to wives-compare verses 22-24 to verses 25-33.  This is an indication that what Paul says to husbands is going to be much more challenging than what he says to wives. 

Look at verse 25: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..." What would it mean for a husband to love his wife in this way?  It would mean he would wipe away the tears of his beloved, while never being dismissive about her hurt feelings.  It would mean that he would kneel before his wife in order wash her tired and worn feet.  It would mean that he would remain pure for his wife for their bed is sacred ground.  It would mean that he would never take his wife for granted and never use her.  It would mean that he would listen to her, while asking God to stifle his temptation to fix.  It would mean that he would everyday pray for Jesus' help to be a good and faithful husband and a good and strong role model for their children. It would mean that he would forgive his wife and not hold grudges and not keep score.  It would mean blessing his wife at the beginning and at the end of each day.  It would mean that he would always encourage his wife and never bully her. It would mean comforting her when she needs to be held and challenging her when she is living small.  It would mean feeling protective, knowing that God has entrusted him with one of his precious children.  It would mean not bringing home a "dead man walking" at the end of the day.  It would mean that after God is first in his life, she is second-not his work, not his hobbies, not his buddies.  It would mean that he would share the work around the house because that there is no such thing as "women's work."  It would mean seeing his wife as his partner, his best friend, and as a gift from God.  It would mean that he would be willing to lay down his life for her.  

I can understand that some wives may struggle with being told that they need to be subject to their husbands, and certainly many husbands have misused this passage.  But wives and husbands, would you see that if husbands really loved their wives like Jesus loved the church, then the husbands are no less being called to be subject to their wives.

Today I have tried to open up the depth and complexity of this piece of scripture.  I do not pretend to have covered all the questions and concerns that this passage elicits. It is my hope that I have talked about this passage in ways that will cause you to think and pray about your own relationships.  This passage certainly causes me to do likewise.  

In thirty years of having the privilege of being intimately involved with peoples' lives, I have not had many wives tell me that they have been hurt by these words, nor have I had many husbands confess that they have misused them. Let me now share some reflections that I have heard many times.  I have heard wives cry out for their husbands to be stronger, not weaker-stronger in the Lord, stronger in faith, stronger at home.  I have heard many men cry out because they do not really know how to be stronger-they did not have a father show them how to love in Godly ways. I have heard many women admit, often after a divorce or the death of their husband, great sadness that they had not given their husbands more room to lead.  They were so determined never to be subject to anyone at anytime, that their homes were not sanctuaries of peace but battle-grounds of competing wills.   I have heard many husbands admit, often after a divorce or the death of their wives, great sadness that they didn't love their wives with a love that would have allowed them to rest and to feel safe.  They were so determined to dominate in the world that they only brought the leftovers of their sorry spent selves to the place that most mattered.  Consequently, their wives were never allowed to let down their guard because they never trusted that they had a real partner at home.   

There is no way I can wrap-up all that I have talked about this morning.  I have been, obviously, talking about very complex and intimate matters, matters that give us the most joy and the most pain, matters that cause many of us to feel very insecure and inadequate.  Maybe the best way to end is to repeat the first line from the passage.  Husbands and wives, "be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."

[Preached at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, TX, August 26, 2012]