So, with some foundational matters in place, what does submission and loving gentleness look like?
Paul is being terse here in Col 3:18-19. His detailed thoughts are found in Ephesians 5.22-33. But, both contexts are similar. He is answering the same question: how does the gospel impact marriage? In Ephesians he is theologically detailed in his answer. There he says that marriage is to be a gospel sermon of who Christ is in relationship to the church. The design of husband and wife works off the blueprint of Jesus and the church. The upshot is that husbands are the head of wives (Biblical words), meaning they are the spiritual leaders who lead like Christ does – lovingly, sacrificially, doxologically, radically. And, wives are to submit to husbands, which Paul describes as respect and trust, as he fills out the picture of submission and as we consider what it means for us to submit to Christ. That is what I think submission is: respect and trust, stemming ultimately from a vision of Christ and security found in him. Let me say it again, because this word is so misunderstood and often causes visceral reactions: Biblical submission is the posture of respect and trust born out of gospel convictions – and the husband is there to cultivate this as the more responsible one before God.
I would tease that out further and say that when husbands love their wives like Jesus loves the church, then that kind of husband captures the heart of his wife. Submission at that point is no longer much of an exhortation but rather a description of what happens when a gospel-saturated husband inspires his wife to make Christ her all by his loving, honoring, sacrificial, and Jesus-magnifying attitude and actions. In fact, take note that in Ephesians 5 Paul spends the bulk of his time addressing husbands. I really do believe that is on purpose. As a pastor who knows the human heart, Paul is speaking to the marriage partner he knows is forensically and functionally the responsible one in cultivating this kind of marriage. Husbands, if you are a bonehead, selfish, tyrannical, unfaithful husband, or simply not reflecting Jesus well, this all breaks down. No wonder many women, and many men, struggle with this! We tend to focus on the women. God focuses on the men! What makes Jesus and the church so wonderful is Jesus, not the church. What fuels a godly marriage, where each person is not only obeying but finding beautiful God’s creation roles in marriage, is a godly husband who is growing in his pastoral ministry with his wife’s heart. Men, when you make much of Christ in how you love your wife, unless there is some radical wound or history there, you are going to capture your wife’s heart. There is an automatic response in most cases to your gospel love wherein you will be respected and trusted…and BOOYAH, your wife is going to cherish your lead and support you in it. She is going to respect and trust you and that is what submission basically means.
Let me get personal. When I am all about Jay, Rebecca can sense it a mile away. It is distasteful and ugly. Of course she is going to resist my lead. I don’t cease to be her husband in my sin, but I am not functionally doing my job. It makes her job very hard. She still loves me and she aims to see the Jay that is hidden in Christ, but it still does not take away the putrid things I can do or say. But, she persists in loving me and being patient. Rather than fleeing or attacking, Rebecca knows her role is to seek my growth and to plead to God for it. She believes the gospel, so she knows God can change me. She looks to God. By looking to God, she is not seeking me to be her ultimate lover, savior, or safety. She is free to love me by feeling secure in Christ. She attempts to honor me with her words and shepherd me back to the safety of repentance and truth. That is submission under pressure. But, it is still submission. She is never to follow me into stupidity, danger, or sin. But, she fights for me to regain my footing in wisdom, safety, and righteousness. This is a covenant, and she seeks to uphold the covenant by neither running from it nor trying to force it into her mold. She knows that when I am God’s instrument of umbrella shepherding in our marriage and family, God’s peace rules. Boy, that kind of posture stops me in my tracts. It is the gospel. It calls me to repent as it ravishes my heart. By God’s grace, I am a work in process and so is Rebecca. We are learning in our less than Col 3.18-19 moments to neither flee nor fight, but to embrace Jesus, to go to the cross again, and again, and again….and again, and to find ourselves bearing the logic of Col 3.18-19 anew.
Let me get even more personal. Rebecca and I are looking for a house. Our Wheaton one has not sold yet (please pray for that!), but our rental lease is coming up and we are wondering if we should go ahead and buy one here and trust God will sell the Wheaton home by summer’s end. So, we have been looking online and seeing a few in person. Rebecca and I have overlapping but different taste and priorities in a home. I want a library wrapped in Kenyan Ipe, walls covered in flannel wool suit fabric from Holland and Sherry, distressed leather club chairs, and the subtle waft of tobacco and cologne. Pictures of hunting dogs wouldn’t hurt. Rebecca…well…that isn’t her biggest priority. Go figure. For me to lead well on this is not to find a house with that library and call it a day. My job is to find the house that Rebecca wants. Plain and simple. Know why? Because that would glorify God, and I know that what Rebecca is looking for is something good for our kids, good for us, and she is going to do her hardest to find something that is a blessing to me. When I comment on things I like, she takes notes and tries to figure those things in. If I have a caution, she is going to take it seriously. If I feel like we are compromising or trying too hard, I will tap the breaks and Rebecca hears me out and is thankful I made the call. I have my tastes (most of which are ridiculous). But, the most important thing is to lead and be strong for Rebecca attitudinally, and to make the way for Rebecca to find the house that would bless her. I love my wife. I want her to have a house she loves. When I am clear about that, she only grows in her respect of and trust in me and will look for the home that will bless me, too. That is a slice of what loving leadership and respectful submission is like.
Rebecca and I are not perfect and have a long, long way to go. But, this is the image we are aiming for, and God is faithful to grow us in that gospel image.
Tomorrow we deal with the “what ifs?”.