English service - June 18, 2023
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
“Serve One Another in Love”
Last month in our message series on building strong families, we began thinking about marriage. We focused on the meaning and impact of being married versus not. Today, I hope to continue with you in hearing what God says to us through His word about how those of us who are married can grow stronger as couples. For those who are not, the principles that make healthy marriages possible are ones we can actually apply to other human relationships with great benefit. These include relationships between fathers and all of us, so there is a lot related to Father’s Day here. In other words, this message is for all of us.
There’s a kind of strange story of a man who died and was called to heaven to stand before God. When he got there, he saw two entry points. Over one was a sign, “Men Who Were Hen-Pecked.” There was a long line of men waiting to go in there. Over the other doorway was a sign, “Men Who Were Not Hen-Pecked.” There was only one man waiting there. The man who had just arrived walked up to one waiting alone and asked him, “Why did you get in this line?”
He answered, “My wife told me to stand here.”
Probably everyone who is married has issues we need to keep working on over the course of our lives. So we all are here to learn, right?
As we look at what can help us live in the kind of marriages God wants for His people, I feel it’s important to start very broadly and then narrow our view step by step. We receive some very specific teachings, and some of them can be easy to misunderstand if we don’t keep the larger ones before us. Maybe the most obvious, yet crucial, point is that in healthy relationships, including marriages, the love of God is always present as the force that builds, informs, guides, and sustains the people involved. We are taught in I Peter 4:8, “Most of all, love one another deeply. Love erases many sins by forgiving them.”
The God of love sets before the man and woman in the relationship He calls marriage the goal of “becoming one.” “. . . A man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife. The two will become one” (Genesis 2:24, which we learned last month in Matthew 19 and is repeated again in Ephesians 5). That does not mean only physically, but inwardly, as well. It does not mean we should necessarily have the same opinions and personalities and cultural practices. But above all these areas of life, we can share the same spirit and be firmly linked in heart, mind, and soul. We can share the allegiances, values, and commitments that come from being members of the family of God.
That’s what we are to be working on from day to day in our marriages. How can we move one step closer today to becoming one? That’s a good guiding question to keep in our minds. When we find what divides us, we know what we need to learn to avoid. When we find what joins us tighter together, we need to seek it more, give it more attention, learn about it, build on it. This is all part of what the writer of Galatians 3:28 means when he says, “There is no Jew or Greek. There is no slave or free person. There is no male or female. Because you belong to Christ Jesus, you are all one.”
Next let’s move into the area of serving each other. Submitting to each other is an important part of the Christian faith. In Galatians 5:13, Paul writes, “My brothers and sisters, you were chosen to be free. But don't use your freedom as an excuse to live in sin. Instead, serve one another in love.” In 1 Peter 5:5, we receive the instruction: “Young men, follow the lead of those who are older. All of you, put on a spirit that is free of pride toward each other as if it were your clothes. Scripture says, ‘God opposes those who are proud. But he gives grace to those who are not’” (Proverbs 3:34).
So choosing the lifestyle of following the lead of those in authority, of willingly living in submission, is a matter for the whole Church, and the family, as well. This can, in turn, impact all of society over time. Jesus is our model of perfect submission, of freely choosing to serve. In John 6:38, He says, “I have not come down from heaven to do what I want to do. I have come to do what the One who sent me wants me to do.” A man who commits to being a Roman Catholic priest first promises to live in poverty, chastity, and obedience as part of following Christ. That is a special role to play, but there is some of that in the life of faith for all of us.
Now, with the framework of living in love, becoming one, and submitting firmly in our minds, it is not so surprising that when we get to the specifics of husband-wife relationships, submitting comes into that particular context. The Bible’s God does not tell us through Paul, “Follow your heart. Find your passion and never give up until you have followed it to the end. Look inward, find what you truly feel, and don’t let anyone stop you from living according to it.” In our cultures of expressive individualism, we may receive those messages at high volume every day. But God gives what seems to be an increasingly counter-cultural message: “Follow the lead of one another” (v. 21). Besides that New International Reader’s Version, other English translations have something like “submit yourselves” or “subject yourselves” or “be subject” or “be courteously reverent” to one another.
As we keep reading, we find more specific instructions for the woman, and then for the man. But they all come under the umbrella of serving each other. The writer repeats his main point at the end of the passage (v. 33), as a summary, it seems: “A husband also must love his wife. He must love her just as he loves himself. And a wife must respect her husband.” The types of submission vary, but all Christians are called to willingly submit to others, as part of serving God. When we are truly committed to that and make serving each other our priority from day to day, power struggles and questions of who has what rights become far, far less difficult to work out together.
To see a little clearer what it means for us to “follow each other’s lead,” we can look at the verb the text uses. It is a Greek military term meaning “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader.” It’s interesting that God sees the need to have a clear leadership structure something like this in the human family. Imagine you have soldiers going into battle tomorrow, and today they can’t agree on things like who’s going to make the decisions. You can easily imagine how well they will succeed when the battle begins. “Let’s take a vote on whether we should attack, try to hold the ground, or retreat.” That’s non-sense, isn’t it.
Likewise, family life can be awfully difficult sometimes, even if it’s not a life-and-death struggle like battle. Apparently for the sake of order and stability, God sets a leadership structure in the family. Even when it is not used in a military sense, the word translated “follow the lead,” “serve,” etc. shows “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” If it happens because someone is forced, it’s not the serving or submitting that the Bible teaches. It has to be done freely and willingly. Otherwise, it becomes an oppressor-oppressed relationship, not the kind of love-empowered and -guided relationship that God wants. Serving is a choice, but one God teaches us to make.
The Bible’s teachings are meant to apply to very practical situations. One person said, “In all our years of married life, we’ve only had power struggles two times in our relationship—the two years before we got married and the 20 since.”
What kind of leadership structure does God teach His people? Looking back at the first couple, we get some idea. When Adam and Eve both choose to disobey God, He comes to the man first to hold him to account (Genesis 3:9-19). “Have you eaten the fruit of the tree I commanded you not to eat?” Adam doesn’t take responsibility but tries to blame Eve, and even suggests that God is to blame because He put the woman there in the first place. That’s not great “servant leadership,” is it.
The woman is not just an innocent bystander not intended to take responsibility. God moves to her next. His tough love for her includes the words (v. 16b) “You will long for your husband. And he will rule over you.” For Adam, He says:
You listened to your wife. You ate the fruit of the tree that I commanded you about. I said, “You must not eat its fruit.” So I am putting a curse on the ground because of what you did. All the days of your life you will have to work hard to get food from the ground.
From this episode and similar Bible stories, God’s people have come to understand that God gives the man the responsibility to lead the family—especially as a spiritual leader—and both he and the woman are under His (God’s) authority. For example, I Corinthians 11:3 says, “Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ. The head of the woman is the man. And the head of Christ is God.” In I Peter 3:1a, we likewise read, “Wives, follow the lead of your husbands.”
Notice that the Bible’s God does not teach that men or women are any more important than the other. Every human being is of equal worth in the sight of God as someone who bears the image of God. In fact, that teaching from Christianity is one that has radically transformed the way people understand and treat marriage over the 2000 years since Jesus lived. It has brought much greater freedom to women and appreciation of their abilities, among other things. Still, God chooses to give different roles in family relationships, it seems.
Then continuing in I Peter 3 (vv. 1b-2), we find a practical word directed to the women in the new Christian Church who were becoming Christians when they were already married to non-Christians. About their husbands, Peter writes:
Suppose some of them don't believe God's word. Then let them be won to Christ without words by seeing how their wives behave. Let them see how pure you are. Let them see that your lives are full of respect for God.
Even when one partner is not a believer, Christians are taught that there is a value and power in choosing to support and follow rather than insisting on only directing and controlling. I remember talking with a Japanese man at a home Bible study here in Hokkaido who had recently come to take seriously following Christ in faith. We were discussing how knowing Jesus brings change into your life. He said something like:
The one who sees the change in me the most is my wife. She is amazed and doesn’t know what to think of it. But I’m a lot nicer to her than I used to be. She seems to like the change.
Why should we choose to follow each other? It’s not just because a family needs a stable leadership structure. Verse 21 says it is “. . . because of your respect for Christ.” Other English translations have it something like: “because of your reverence for” or “in the fear of” or “out of respect for.” “For” or “of” whom? Some translations have “Christ,” others “God,” and some “the Messiah.”
In other words, look at your marriage partner in light of the command in Ephesians 5:10. “Find out what pleases the Lord.” When you make it your purpose to discover this and do it, you will treat your marriage partner right, whether you are a man or woman. Does it please the Lord for me to listen carefully to what my partner says and learn what he/she likes, wants, and thinks is important? Does it please the Lord for me to make it a scheduling priority to be together with my spouse every day at least one meal time? Is God happy if I won’t forget about the argument we had last week and go around complaining to my friends about it and bad-mouthing my partner? You know the answers to these questions, don’t you.
If God has put me in the position of leading my family, does it please Him for me to actively seek out the strengths my partner has and encourage her to use them to help the whole group succeed? Does He want me to choose to follow and actively support her in leading in those areas because I know it will help the family? On the other hand, how will God feel if I, as leader of our family, stubbornly insist on my own way, even when it wastes the God-given talents of my wife and the others and damages relationships with them? If I think I am the best at everything and always right (or even that I should be), what will happen when it becomes clear that I’m not? I may easily start to feel insecure and threatened and try to use my power to micromanage others and keep them in their place. If I do, I have to answer to God for that, He says. You see what we are being taught, right?
It makes sense to submit to someone else if you understand that Christ is over that person, and he or she is under Jesus’ authority. That person has to answer to the Lord for what happens that is under his or her control. In fact, no one can even be in a position of leadership in the first place unless God has either actively or passively chosen to make or let it happen. So He is involved in every relationship between leaders and those they lead, whether directly or behind the scenes. He can overrule a leader or take that person out of leadership whenever He decides it is for the best.
So even if the leader I am under is a person I don’t like so much, my preferences and personal opinions are not the only things that matter. God is able to work through whichever people He chooses to do His work. And He only uses flawed and broken people because those are the only ones He has. “No one is right with God, no one at all,” He says in Romans 3:10. When it comes to questions of who should lead and who should follow, whether it is inside a marriage or in other relationships, Christians always need to keep in view not only the people we are dealing with but Christ. He is also at work in that situation. Our first and most important allegiance is to Him. And when He has His hands on the levers of power, so to speak, we have no need to be overly concerned with people in authority over us. Keeping Jesus, the Lord, in view makes it much more natural to submit to them and lead with humility when it is our turn.
When our eyes are on Christ, we are focused on the source of the love we need more than anything in our relationships, including marriage. That brings us back full circle to the starting point of today’s message. God says to us in Ephesians 4:32 (similar to 5:21), “Be kind and tender to one another. Forgive each other, just as God forgave you because of what Christ has done.” And a little later in 5:2, the writer continues, “Lead a life of love, just as Christ did. He loved us. He gave himself up for us. He was a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice to God.” If you are the leader of a marriage relationship or family, that is the standard you are called to live up to. If your particular calling is to follow, you have an equally important role to play in helping the whole group become all that it can under Christ’s leadership.
Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a famous sermon with the title, “The Drum Major Instinct.” He said that human beings often have a feeling in us of wanting to stand out, to be above others. We want to be like the drum major in a marching band who goes out ahead of the others, directing them and getting the attention. But the servant leadership Christ teaches is a different type. King says:
If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized— wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness. By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. . . . You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
Let’s pray that we all will be able to discover and create more and more ways to serve each other as we learn together to live daily out of our covenant commitments to each other and to Jesus Christ.
Father in heaven, your Son, Jesus Christ, showed us what it means to freely submit to your will and serve you and the people around Him. We remember this most vividly through His giving His life on the cross. But throughout His whole life, in the way He gave His time and energy to the people around Him, we see a compelling model of service. Thank you. Help us, like Him, to care enough to deeply commit to meeting the needs of those around us, especially our marriage partners, but all those with whom you have placed us. May your love be our guide and power each day. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
King, M. L., Jr. (n.d.). Travis Hellstrom. Everybody Can Be Great, Because Everybody Can Serve. Retrieved June 12, 2023 from June 12, 2023 from https://travishellstrom.com/articles/be-great
Rosales, D. (2018, Nov. 15). Christian Husbands. Calvary Chapel Chino Valley. Retrieved June 11, 2023 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTIt82A1VaE