Jesus, Marriage and Christian Submission

It’s all about context, as it so often is. More than context, in fact. It’s about context and the well-meaning, not-the-whole-truth, section titles slipped into our sacred text.

Thus …

Rules For Christian Households.

Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife … ” (Ephesians 5:22ff)

It’s that section heading that’s the problem. It’s not what Paul wrote. It was added by someone on the way to the printer. On a horse, probably. It’s meant to help us but too often it controls how we understand the text.

Now that’s not to say that the section heading is intrinsically a bad thing. If you want to find the Parable of The Prodigal Son but can’t remember the reference then it helps to have it in italics at the head of a paragraph. Except, of course, when we come to read it properly. Jesus never gave the parable that title. He just told a story. It’s as much about the (F)father or the elder brother who’d been at home all that time, unaware of the father’s riches that had always been at his disposal. Thus in the case of the parable we don’t so much miss the point as shrink it.

So to submission in marriage, that the husband is the one who calls the shots, is the spiritual leader of the family. That’s how this understood in many Christian circles, especially evangelical ones. I believed it for a little while, because that’s what the text (and other texts) said, right?

Now’s not the time for word studies or extensive theological investigation – others on all sides of the argument have done that much better than I ever could do. Here’s the thing for me, though. The model is Jesus, right? So it says anyway, just the other side of some those pesky and artificial section divides I mentioned earlier. It’s not about marriage first; it’s about Jesus and then it’s about how our relationships can reflect Jesus to others.

The call is to submission out of reverence to Christ … then it’s applied for the original readers in three very particular ways, giving us a way of seeing how this might work in practice. What did Christ, the model and only worthy object of reverence, do? He tossed aside His rights, considered himself nothing, put His Father’s glory and my needs first despite not wanting to drink from the cup. To quote a passage my wife and I had read at our wedding, He:

made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant   (Philippians 2)

It seems to me that in taking texts like this and saying, this then is how marriage should be in all places at all times – wife submitting to husband – we’re missing the point. For the Ephesians it may not have been missing the point. That was a society whose very stability was built on men in charge, women subservient. So Christ’s people needed to be seen as contributing to society, not messing  it up – but still different, still challenging it and calling society to be better. So the challenge was for husbands to actually love wives and not treat them as property; for wives to seek to bless their husband instead of silently resenting one who treated her like dirt. All sorts of change became possible if people did that.  It was a radical kind of way of blessing society but also challenging it.

Things are different now. Society, it seems to me, does not depend on submission of wife to husband; or certainly not any of the ones that I’ve lived in. So we model ourselves on Christ in a different way. We do so by thinking about Jesus in a slightly different way.

I’m going to talk about Jesus here in a way which may offend you so that you can see what I’m getting at.

We might say that Jesus submitted to us. Not that we tell Him what to do; but that if we understand submission as it should be at its best – one laying aside needs for the sake of another – then that’s what He did. He gave up His right to be honoured and worshipped in order to be whipped and mocked. He gave up His right to be understood as truth in order to be gossiped about and executed on a trumped-up charge. So that we could be with Him. At a wedding feast.

So the challenge is for men, women, all of us. To give up what we consider to be our rights for the sake of the ones we’re in relationship with. Might I think, as a husband, of having a ‘right’ to sex with my wife. I suppose I might do (in the days of social media, I feel duty bound to point out the ‘I’ is not necessarily me, and I said ‘might’ not ‘do’). But what if my wife needs an early night? What if it’s better to talk or watch a movie together? I give up my ‘right’ and do what will build the relationship; not to get sex later in the week but because it’s good for the relationship. Because that’s what Jesus did. He gave up rights for the sake of relationship with Father and us, and in doing so gained greater honour, more worship. This, in marriage, is upholding society but still challenging it – liberating men and women alike, but challenging our all to easy fall-back position of rights with something all-together deeper.

Important point, here. Do not misread this, as this text is often misused, as an injunction to those who are being abused sexually, emotionally or physically to submit to that abuse. No. If you are being abused, get help and get out. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

This is about the give and take at the heart of all healthy relationships. Recast that as submission, and yes – husbands should submit to wives because Jesus submitted His right to honour for the sake of relationships with us  – and in the end gained great honour. In that context, wives submit to husbands – it’s the mutual give and take that makes relationships. It’s not about positional leadership; it’s about making a relationship between two unique creations work.

Apply it to marriage, to parenting, churches, to politics, to workplaces, to sports, to paying taxes, to how you treat shop-workers or waiters or people who sleep outside. How might it look to submit to one another in those relationships out of reverence for the one who made Himself nothing?

Exactly.

That’s why I spell Him with a capital H.

Movies that move me 4: Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz

In this article I’ve linked to a few scenes from the films. You should know that these may not be to your taste.

That caught you out, I suspect. You expect a series of posts under the title ‘Movies That Move Me’ to be about emotional, sad, touching films. Especially if you’re one of those who think that people who are into movies in the way that I am only like serious ones.

It’s part of a common misconception – that comedy is lower than drama, that pain is harder to portray than it is to make the audience laugh; so serious drama is the superior form. It’s nonsense, not least from the perspective of the performer. From the very little acting I’ve enjoyed doing myself, it’s the comedy that’s most stretched me and been much harder work. You pretty much know in rehearsal if a drama or tragedy is going to work; a comedy you only really know about once you get the finished work in front of a live audience who’ve paid to be there. Real comedy is hard work; performers sweat blood over making people laugh, often at immense emotional cost to themselves. Really good comedy that’s just plain funny, or is both funny and about something is one of the hardest artistic disciplines you could find.

That’s especially the case, I think, when it comes to the kind of comedy which is using something familiar but ‘serious’ and turning it into comedy. The worst versions of these often make serious money but are scarce remembered. Take for example, the Scary Movie series or pretty much any of the Police Academy movies after the first one (or maybe two). Poking fun at something familiar, using the format of the target for laughs … you may even have laughed when you first saw it. Especially if you saw it in a group at home or in a crowded cinema – people are statistically much more likely to laugh if surrounded by others. Even if you did laugh the first time … can you remember any of the jokes more than a week later? Have you every felt a desire to revisit these? Do you know anyone who actually owns these films or loves them? Exactly.

The key is love. If you don’t love the object of your comedy, then you’re just being a bit cruel. Cruelty can be funny, of course; but if you don’t love the genre you’re laughing at, then you don’t understand what makes it appealing to people, and if you don’t understand that then you won’t get soul-deep laughter.

Which brings me to Shaun Of The Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), prime examples of movies which love the object of their laughs and which still, on repeated viewings by myself make me ache and cry with laughter. Both are British films, written and directed by the same people, starring many of the same actors. Both films mainly feature actors successful in some of the more left-field British television comedies of the last few years. Shaun Of The Dead takes the format of a zombie movie, twins it with a romantic comedy and sets it all somewhere in England. Hot Fuzz goes for action movies and British television detective shows (with a little hint at a few horror films thrown in) for a story of murder and fear in market town England.  The third in this ‘three flavours cornetto’ trilogy (The World’s End) arrives on these shores at the end of the year so these two must keep me going for now.

In both these formats there’s much to make fun of and laugh at. It would be easy – and lazy – to go for cheap and quick laughs of the Scary Movie type. No such get out here; instead it’s clear that Edgar Wright (director, co-writer), Simon Pegg (co-writer, star) and Nick Frost (star) love the originals they’re laughing at. It’s in the perfectly played flat-mate interactions or the scene with the records or the way the rolling news coverage is used in Shaun. It’s only when I stopped seeing Hot Fuzz in the light of Shaun that it made the jump from liking it very much to loving it in my estimation; the love there is in the swift cutting from scene to scene, the supermarket shoot-out, the re-contexualised repeated gags from Shaun

Circumstances conspired against me seeing Shaun in the cinema, so I finally saw it for the first time in the worst possible circumstances: on a plane, in the middle of the night. I couldn’t laugh out loud of course, for fear of waking up the others. Which only made it harder not to laugh. By the time of the fight in the pub with that Queen song playing on the jukebox I was crying with laughter, doubled over in the kind of ecstatic pain only good comedy can provide. At that stage I had a nodding acquaintance with zombie films, not enough to really get the genre. Which made it no less funny. Now I’m more of a fan of this type of film, there’s even more to enjoy. I’ve since seen it 7 or 8 times, and each time I get new pleasures from it.

Hot Fuzz I recently re-watched for the about the tenth time. Again I ached the morning after. In the case of both films there’s a warmth to them, even when they’re violent (Hot Fuzz) or also a little frightening (Shaun). Both have a story to tell and tell them well; both have characters you warm to and want to spend time with; both have good hearts beating at the centre of them. Both take a little bit of the viewer and reflect it back at you, asking you to see yourself as just as funny as the people you’re laughing at. You laugh at characters whom you see yourself in, who show you something of who you are in the sight of others.

If a film moves us, then it’s affected our emotions. Joy is an emotion, laughing a symptom of emotional life. So comedy belongs here; and in these two films that it’s better demonstrated than almost anywhere else.

I rated Shaun Of The Dead 10/10 on imdb.com and 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com. I rated Hot Fuzz 9/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Other posts in this series:

An Introduction

Movies that move me 1: Trainspotting

Movies that move me 2: Fire In Babylon

Movies that move me 3: Pan’s Labyrinth

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey Chapter 12: Rest, dear child (Psalm 131)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday August 25th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the twelfth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 131 It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

Ever done something you’re not really built for? Yes, so have I.

I’m not built to drive, to be honest. It’s a combination of a lack of spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination. So I don’t drive these days, but back in the day when I did I decided to be helpful. I attempted to move our large-ish car into our smallish drive. The result was expensive. I endeavoured not to help again. I’m not built to drive, so I choose not to.

Children often want to be like their parents – they’ll imitate they way they speak, the way they sit, the way they move. It’s a very natural thing to do, and perfectly healthy. As long that child didn’t try to drive, for instance. There are things he or she needs to learn first and ways the child needs to grow in order to do that like Mum and Dad do.

It’s an impulse as old as humanity. Whether you understand the Genesis telling of humanity’s flirtation and affair with sin as literal or metaphorical for this moment doesn’t matter; what it tells us is that we’ve always reached for things that are beyond us. People are given total freedom – just don’t try to be like God, don’t take on the capacity of judgement by eating from that tree. That way the burdens are too great, that way lies work as curse, relationship as a battle for power; we’re not meant to be gods, we’re in the image of God. Too often we don’t rest with what we have and keep wearing ourselves reaching for what we’re not built to carry.

Psalm 131 is a short, simple psalm which shows us what it’s like to rest with what we are and not worry about the rest.

I get on with doing what’s in front of me, as we learned in the previous chapter. The rest is God’s responsibility. Unbearably trite as it could be, there we have it. To know that is to be able to rest like a baby content in mother’s arms. Safe in the knowledge that Mum is there, that Mum will feed him. She won’t just go down the road to the shops, either. She’ll feed from her very self, from her body – and from her soul too. Mum is there, watching over the sleeping child. He needn’t worry. Mum is there.

That’s a picture, an image, a hint of God. So we can rest. we can sleep – not lazily, but safely, knowing that we do what’s in front of us to do, not what we can’t do but what we can. Because God watches, God feeds from us from His very self, of His very self in the shape of His Son and His word. God is Fatherly. He is. God is Motherly too. She is.

So we rest. We, God’s people, can wait and watch and hope like Psalm 130’s night-shift workers with expectation and hope. And we can sleep and rest too (verse 3).

This isn’t a Psalm to infantalise us, to make us forever spiritual babies who never grow up. No. A good parent wants us to grow up, discover who we uniquely are and build on the safety of childhood with meaning and independence. All the time knowing that he can return to Mum and Dad for a meal, for a talk, wisdom, prayer. At their best, our parents let us do that. When Mum and Dad are gone we can return to the best of our  memories and feed on them still.

How much more with our perfect, unfailing, always present Heavenly Parent? Watching, walking, waiting, feeding, watering. Always willing us to grow up, always ready to listen, help and guide – wanting us to go deeper and further than we did last time. Always wanting us to find other children who could be adopted into this family as could.

For our Heavenly Parents isn’t stuck with the kids in this family. These kids are chosen. Desired. Wanted. Adopted.

So we work. But we rest safely too.

Sleep, dear child.

This series will return after a short break of a couple of weeks.

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 25th August 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 11: On the uses and uselessness of planning (Psalm 130)