My wife and I decided to do something bold for our wedding. Each of us preached while the other person washed our feet, rotating halfway through the sermon. The text we preached on was the controversial Ephesians 5:22-33 passage which says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord.” I’ve been thinking of our sermon lately as I’ve encountered the reviews of megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll’s new book Real Marriage, which apparently takes his views on the divinely ordained inferiority of women to a new level. Rachel Held Evans is gentler in her review than conservative evangelical blogger David Moore. I’m not going to talk about a book that I don’t have time to read, but I thought I would share some of what my wife and I preached about as my contribution to this week’s blogosphere conversation about marriage.
Ephesians 5 compares the husband /wife relationship to the relationship of Christ with the church. In particular, Paul writes that Christ’s role is to wash the church (5:26), which is actually one of the most important (and submissive) acts that Jesus performs for His disciples in John 13, telling them to go and do the same for other people (v. 15). So when Cheryl and I preached, we connected the two passages, particularly focusing on the way that Peter tried not to let Jesus wash his feet.
Peter’s protest brings to light a paradox about foot-washing. It’s unclear who has the power because it’s equally humiliating to wash the dirtiest part of another person as it is to be washed by another person. Only small children and adults who are physically or mentally incapacitated need others to wash them. Washing someone else’s feet is both a submissive and paternalistic act at the same time. Peter isn’t just scandalized by Jesus’ self-effacement; he doesn’t want to be disempowered by being the recipient of Jesus’ servanthood.
So what I said in my wedding sermon is that I can’t play Jesus the whole time in our marriage without committing the sin of Peter. In order to avoid sin, I need to let my wife be Jesus so I can be the church. Sometimes I need to wash her feet and sometimes I need to let her wash my feet. Sometimes I need to be her pastor and sometimes she needs to be my chaplain. In Mark 10:42-45, Jesus gave his disciples the basic Biblical paradigm for understanding servant leadership:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
A Christian leader is supposed to be the “slave of all.” The only thing that holds this in tension is that we are also “slaves to Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:1 and other places). I cannot do whatever other people tell me to do, because my master is Christ, but I exist to serve others. In my church, my goal is to empower every member to be a minister and do the work of the kingdom. The only distinction between me as a pastor and them as ministers is that my call is to empower and equip them to live out their calls. There is no reason for them to submit to me. They’re supposed to submit to Christ just like I am, and they should listen to what I preach or ignore me altogether according to how well I help them do that. So if your pastors try to say that you’re supposed to submit to them, tell them that that they’re being just like a Gentile prince! They should be submitting to Christ and to you.
In the same way that my job as a pastor is to put myself beneath the people in my congregation so that they can do God’s work, my job as a husband is to submit to my wife by encouraging and empowering her to do what God has called her to do. That’s not to say that her job as my wife is any different, but even if I were the “official” spiritual head of our house, there would be no hierarchy if I exercised my leadership in a Christlike way. The only thing I am authoritative about with my wife is I refuse to let her give up her call. There were points when juggling motherhood and seminary got pretty rough, but I would not let her drop out, because I know that she has gifts as a pastor that I don’t have. It’s been hard to let my wife stay at home the last couple of years, but she loves being a mom and she does amazing ministry in our church without having an official title.
So I’m really puzzled as to how true Christian servant leadership can exist in the kind of “complementarian” household Mark Driscoll and other reformed pastors teach their men to run (I hate the term “complementarian” by the way, because it’s such a dishonest euphemism; just say hierarchical). When my wife and I have to make decisions, we sometimes argue, but we always end up coming to some kind of consensus in the end or else we don’t make a decision and come back to it later. There’s never been a point where it would occur to either of us to say, “I have made the decision for this family and that’s final!”
Is that what complementarians think that a husband is supposed to say? What do you do if your wife disagrees? Slap her? The power of the Gentile princes that Jesus talks about in Mark 10:42 is always ultimately derived in the threat or act of physical violence. Servant leaders who emulate Jesus can never impose their will on others by force. Jesus’ power is derived in His complete submission to those who disagreed with Him to the point of letting them crucify Him when He had all the resources of the Creator of the universe at His disposal. If Jesus is my model for how to love my wife like He loved the church, then I can’t see a reason why there would be any gender hierarchy in my household.