by Jodie Lyon
Feb. 25, 2015
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Last week I had to teach on Ephesians 5—you know, the passage in which Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands. I can’t begin to tell you how much I dreaded this.
I teach several courses at UGA that discuss Christianity and marriage or Christianity and gender, so a class like this comes up at least once a semester. I usually lose sleep in the days leading up to it.
My stress comes from the fact that I find it nearly impossible to counteract the message that is so predominant in conservative Christianity today: that God created men and with clear gender roles. Men are to lead, and women are to submit. Marriage was created by God to be a hierarchical institution. If you know me or my husband at all, you recognize that this is NOT what we believe about marriage. So I challenge my students to read this passage as Paul’s instructions on how to witness for Christ in a patriarchal culture. In Christ there is no “male and female,” (Galatians 3:28) but in Greco-Roman culture, families are expected to be ordered in the clearly prescribed ways detailed in “Household Codes”: husband over wife, master over slave, and father over children.
In Ephesians, Paul subtly subverts guidelines that trace their history all the back to Aristotle, instructions that detail how a pater familias should rule his household. Counter to all cultural expectations, Paul doesn’t tell men to lead their wives, or exercise authority over them. He tells them to act as Christ, which he explains means to love and give themselves up for their wives. But most of us are too distracted by the word “submit” to see this.
It’s hard to convince Christians today that marriage isn’t about who makes the final decisions because Christianity today is saturated with the belief that God’s most essential attribute is sovereignty. Sovereignty is the current buzzword of conservative Christianity, meaning that God is large and in charge. Nothing occurs outside of God’s will, for God actively controls all things. It’s no wonder then that Christians are so concerned with who’s in charge, whether within marriage or the church. If God works in the world through power, then we must make sure that we have our human institutions ordered correctly—authority and submission are the hallmarks of a proper home, church, or society.
But the Lenten season should challenge this popular view of God. If Jesus’ words are true, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” then God acts not through power but through the willing relinquishment of power. It’s not that Christianity has entirely missed the point: sovereignty is indeed an attribute of God. But we’ve traded the truth for a half truth, for God doesn’t hold tightly to authority and rule. God offers it up to us in an unexpected act of love and submission. God becomes human and gives himself over to us completely, to the point of death. And this was precisely what Paul was asking men to do in Ephesians—give themselves up for their wives, just as Christ gave himself up for the church. Christ may have had the right to rule, but he surrendered that right for the sake of love; Paul asks husbands to do the same.
This is the definitive picture of God for the Christian: a God whose nature is most vividly expressed in the extreme vulnerability of crucifixion, not the sovereign display of power. This God suffers, not smites. This God is not micromanaging the cosmos, predestining the course of human events; this God hanging on a cross at the mercy of others.
This type of God has always been hard for people to worship, because this type of God doesn’t give us what we want. This type of God doesn’t give us justification for our own selfish grasps at power. A God who hangs on a cross in agony instead of climbing down and taking charge doesn’t legitimate chains of authority, but voluntary sacrifices of control. This is a hard message for those of us who are tantalized by offers of power by the church or society, whether it’s men who are told by Christianity that God ordained them for positions of command, or those of us with white skin who are told by society that we deserve the privilege we’re given simply for being born with a particular pigmentation.
But this is the God we meet in the season of Lent, the God who asks us to walk our own path of sacrifice that leads to our own cross. It’s easier to worship a God of power rather than a God of self-sacrifice, but we’re asked to walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, not Rome.
Prayer: May our desire to follow you in love and self-giving overtake our desire for power and control as we meditate on your life and death this Lenten season. Amen.