By Greg Litmer
Over the years there have been many occasions when I have been asked to talk to different married couples who were experiencing problems in their marriages. On many other occasions my input was not sought or wanted, yet I could stand on the side lines and watch as another family disintegrated. Even those who are Christians are not immune to these kinds of problems and it seems to be happening more and more all the time. Very few congregations of any size and that have existed for very long have escaped the heartache that comes from watching a beloved married brother and sister decide to go their separate ways in violation of God’s word. Very few congregations have escaped the pain of watching a family that is loved by all degenerate into unhappiness, bitterness, and disharmony. These kinds of things take place rather frequently. Sometimes you can see it happening. Other times there is no obvious indication that something is wrong until it is too late to help.
What kind of problems seem to come up most often? I would have to agree with most experts (and I do not put myself in their company; I simply have the benefit of being able to read what they say) that the number one problem in marriages is money. Sometimes problems arise that have to do with the intimate side of marriage. At other times moral issues come up, when one or the other desires to engage in activities that are sinful. There are problems with the children and how they are to be raised. Sometimes couples just don’t talk to each other and when they do talk, it is not about things that really matter. There are a host of different problems that can and do come up.
It has been my experience that in each and every situation that has led to an unhappy marriage, or even to the dissolving of a family, there has been a failure to abide by Ephesians 5:21 where Paul wrote, “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.” The word translated as “submitting” (hupotassomenoi) has an interesting etymology. Originally it was military in meaning, describing the coming together of troups for battle under a commanding officer. Each individual soldier was to understand and stay in his proper place in the formation as instructed by his superior. Eventually the word came to mean subordination in any relationship under discussion. If a person was “submitting,” he was placing himself under the influence of authority and that could be a person or a position, as far as obedience was concerned. There was the subjection of one’s will to that of another.
This could be either voluntary or involuntary. If I were to be captured by an enemy and forced into a life of slavery, there would be submission, but it would not have been entered into voluntarily. But when we talk about the kind of submission required by the gospel of Christ, we are talking about submission entered into by choice. I voluntarily submit myself to Christ. I voluntarily submit myself to the oversight of the elders of the congregation of which I am a member. Indeed, I voluntarily submit myself to my brothers and sisters in Christ.
There is another aspect of hupotassomenoi that needs to be considered. In some instances, and context would make this determination, it goes beyond authority and involves the “motive” behind the submitting. It involves as unselfish concern for the desires and the wishes of another, even when that other person has no real authority over you. It is the antithesis of selfishness. Paul, in Ephesians 5:21, was instructing the brethren to voluntarily “submit” to one another, meaning to always take the needs and feelings of others into consideration even more than ourselves. He was telling them and us not to be selfish, not to always demand our own will and our own way. That kind of attitude was necessary one to another in the body of Christ; can we not see how important it is in the family relationship at home? In fact, Paul goes on in Ephesians 5, and shows how it works in the home. In verses 22-25, we find, “Wives, submit yourselves unto you own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it.” In verse 28 we read, “So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.”
Whenever there is a failure to “submit” one to another in the home, problems will arise, and this lack of submission is selfishness. Yes, money often creates major problems in a marriage, but how? Several different scenarios related to this have been played out in families over the years. Sometimes there is a wife who is not satisfied with what the husband is able to provide monetarily and she becomes bitter. Sometimes there is a husband who will not work to provide for his family. Sometimes both of them work and live way beyond their means or their needs, hence there is constant pressure to make more money. If one of them gets sick or loses his job, then they are in deep financial trouble. You don’t have to look too hard to see that selfishness plays a role in each of these situations.
I have been aware of times when, through no fault of their own, families have gotten into significant money problems. There may have been an accident, sickness, a layoff, or some other unfortunate occurrence. Even as the situation became very difficult, it did not create problems between the husband and the wife because each one was more concerned about the feelings and needs of the other. They were submitting one to another. So instead of fussing and fighting, they pulled together to confront their difficulties.
On occasion, problems will arise in a marriage that have to do with the intimate side of the relationship. If there is no physical cause creating the difficulty, then it seems that most often it is possible to trace the disturbance back to a failure to embrace and abide by Ephesians 5:21, “Submit- ting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.”
In 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, some very basic principles dealing with this side of marriage are set forth. Paul wrote,
Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto her husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer, and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinence.
There have been instances where the intimate side of marriage has been used as a weapon. What I mean by this is that one or the other will defraud the mate, depriving him of his God-given right, until the other one gets his own way about some matter. Surely we can all see that such behavior is as ungodly as can be and in direct violation of the principle of Ephesians 5:21, and many others.
I have had people tell me over the years that they no longer find their mate physically attractive or appealing. Sometimes the mate, thinking only of himself, has allowed his physical appearance to deteriorate, no longer even trying to make himself particularly clean, much less attractive to his spouse. Sometimes it is just that the complainer thinks the grass is going to be greener on the other side. They don’t stop to think that maybe the stretch marks came from the bearing of children or that little bit of a belly, no matter how hard you try to hold it in, is just nature’s way of saying you are getting older. Instead of thinking of what a joy it is to go through all of those stages of life together, they think only of the physical things which are not what true love is all about anyway. So often this kind of complaint and problem has its birth in just plain selfishness and a failure to understand Ephesians 5:21.
How many marriages of brethren over the years have been torn asunder by adultery? More than I care to think about. When all of the rationalization has been done and all of the excuses have been given, 99.99% of the time it boils down to selfishness. How can there possibly be unselfish concern for the desires and the wishes of the spouse when adultery is committed? How can the one guilty of such a thing be considering the feelings and the needs of his mate? This is all part and parcel of “submitting one to another,” and the Holy Spirit through Paul used marriage to illustrate how it is supposed to work in Ephsians 5.
I have known of marriages among brethren destroyed because of moral issues. One or the other decides he wants to engage in some activity that is contrary to God’s word. It might be drinking, or gambling, or pornography, or any one of a number of other things that Christians should stay as far away from as possible. When the one spouse refuses to violate God’s law to placate the selfish and unholy desire of the other, trouble comes. But who causes the trouble? Is it the one who refuses to sin or the one who demands his own way, even to the extent of trying to lead his spouse into sin with him? These kinds of things are the result of a failure to apply Ephesians 5:21.
Problems with the discipline of the children? Why is it that some couples refuse to sit down and talk out their differences about how certain parental responsibilities should be handled? Could it be that one or the other is determined that it will be his way or no way? I understand that the man is the head of the family, yet at the same time I recognize that Ephesians 5:21, “Submitting yourselves one to another” also applies to his relationship with his wife: and not just hers to him. The woman was created as a help “meet” for man. That means complementary and compatible in every way. If her opinion isn’t worth anything, than neither is the man’s. When there is genuine submission, real concern for the desires and the wishes of the spouse, these kinds of problems won’t prove to be problems for very long.