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A Real Marriage

Excerpt from Chapter 7 of Families Where Grace Is in Place by Jeff VanVonderen, co-author of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Jeff has an excellent website, Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources - check out the library of articles.


I am referring to this section as "Families by the Book" because the principles it contains come right out of Scripture. They are offered as a strong structure to be placed under the everyday work you do; the spiritual support-system, if you will, that can help you devise your own "how-to's" as you build grace and empowerment into your own family.

Yes, I will illustrate the principles with some personal experiences. But my prayer is that, as you read, the Holy Spirit will bring to light ways that you can apply what you learn. For that is, in fact, at the very core of what I'm suggesting: As you become rightly related to God, by His grace, He will lead you in modeling the spiritual life, and in training your children how to live happy, free, fruitful lives.

In chapter 4, I mentioned a man who, in a counseling session, wanted to know what I thought Paul meant in Ephesians 5, when he instructed wives to submit to their husbands. It was quite apparent that he wanted me to say something that would support the spirit in which he used this verse--which was to maintain the upper hand. He employed many methods to accomplish this: Sometimes he yelled at his wife. Other times he whined and pouted. At times he would not talk to his wife for days, just to punish her for not giving him his way. This time he was using the Bible.

In a marriage counseling setting, I find it painful and frustrating to see one party using the Bible to try to drive someone. It is more frustrating when they try to get me to help. This man wanted to place himself over his wife by invoking Scripture, and he was also trying to borrow authority from me:  If I agreed with him, he would have "won" again.

Actually, this is a very common occurrence. When I see a couple in marriage counseling, it is typical for the husband to know more about the "wife verses" than the "husband verses," and vice versa. Each party uses a variety of methods and spends all kinds of energy trying to get the other person to obey their verse (and hardly any energy worrying about their own). This is The Curse in operation.

Our job, however, as Christian spouses is not to drive each other to perform well-our job is to learn God's plan. In this chapter we will focus on what Scripture has to say about God's plan for marriage.

Marriage, and God's True Plan

Ephesians 5, verses 22-33, seems to be the most referred to, most quoted passage by those trying to understand God's plan for marriage. But it is necessary to include verses 18-21 in order to get at the heart of God's marriage plan. For a long time these seemed like disconnected passages. Verses 18-21 seemed so spiritual, because they are about being filled with the Spirit. It seemed that Paul abruptly began an entirely different teaching with verse 22.

Not long after starting to counsel couples, I saw the connection. Paul began the teaching on family relationships with the command to "be filled with the Spirit." And the reason he did so is because of how deeply the curse has infiltrated husband-wife, parent-child relationships. In counseling, I see husbands who have tried to get filled from their wives, wives who have tried to get filled from their husbands, and parents who have tried to get filled from their children. This is the Curse.

Paul is reminding Christians to turn to the Holy Spirit as their Source of filling. He is telling them where their filling is to come from-and that is from God. Therefore, I have come to believe it is essential to understand Ephesians 5:18-21 in order to have the correct lens through which to view the teaching on Christian relationships.

Drunk With the Spirit?

Paul says, "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). The contrast between drunk and filled is significant. Let's consider what Paul is not saying. "Filled," here, is not a word denoting quantity; Paul is not talking about how much of the Spirit we have. He is not saying, "You are only half full (like a glass of water), and you need to be completely filled." Romans 8:9 indicates that if you belong to Jesus, you have the entire Holy Spirit dwelling in you. Neither is Paul saying, "Remember how you used to get drunk with wine? Well, now, instead of getting drunk with wine, get drunk with the Spirit"

Unfortunately, there are Christians who do this. They are so "Spirit-filled" that they are like those who are drunk. They don't see, hear, feel, or enter into the pain and struggles of others. They are numb. "Filled with the Spirit" results in new eyes that see more, new ears that hear more, a new heart that cares more, and a new Source through which we have power to enter into the pain of others and make a difference.

Filled With the Spirit!

"Filled" is the Greek word pleroma, which has a couple of meanings that apply here. First, it could mean permeated. Permeated is what happens to a glass of water when you drop an Alka­Seltzer into it. It becomes permeated. There is no part of the glass of water that doesn't have Alka-Seltzer in it.

Pleroma is also the word that would be used to describe a sail when it is full of wind. A filled sail is what empowers or propels a sailboat. (Now this is where what I learned in high-school physics comes in handy.) It is not the wind in the sail that propels the boat--the boat is not pressured forward from behind. In fact, the wind creates a negative pressure--a vacuum--in front of the sail. This vacuum is the force that attracts the boat forward.

So being filled with the Spirit does not mean being power-driven through the Christian life, as if the Holy Spirit were a locomotive-wind behind us. Rather, it means being drawn into godly living by the Holy Spirit, who is in front of us, focusing us on God. I guess God knows about physics, too.

We can learn even more about the meaning of a word by looking at its Greek form. In the case of "be filled..." it is in the present, passive, imperative form. Each of those aspects simply enrich the meaning.

An imperative is a command. The one commanding assumes that you have the power to carry through in your own power. But this command is given in a passive voice, which means it is not something you can do, but something that must be done to you or for you. Paul did not write, "Get (yourself) filled," or, "Fill yourself," which is an active imperative. Instead he wrote, "Allow yourself to be filled," which is a passive imperative.

The easiest way to understand the present tense is to simply think of the phrase "whenever it is now." Thus, one literal rendering of "be filled with the Spirit" is this: "Allow yourself to be continuously filled with the Spirit." It is not something you should, or even can do. It is something you should and can allow to be done to you, whenever it is now. I have heard many people say things like, "My [wife/husband/ child/pastor] is a Spirit-filled believer." In light of what we have just learned, there is no such thing as a Spirit-filled believer. If we remain true to God's Word, it is accurate to say that there are simply believers who are allowing themselves to be continuously filled now... and now... and now...

Therefore, it seems that Paul is instructing Christians to enter the fight that is the essence of the Christian life: "Get your life from God. Remain in a continuously dependent relationship with Him in order to meet your needs. Do it! In fact, if Adam and Eve had remembered to do this, we wouldn't be having this little talk right now."

Reversing the Curse

When we depend on God to meet our needs, it sends ripples through every relationship we have: "Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ" (w. 19-21).

What is extremely noteworthy here is that "speaking to one another," "singing and making melody," "giving thanks," and "being subject" are not imperatives. Paul is not saying, "Speak more kindly to each other, get a song in your heart, be more thankful to God, and be subject to one another!" The only imperative in this text is, "Be filled with the Spirit." All of these other things are what result when we allow ourselves to be filled by God. Even the "be subject to one another" is best read in the original language as result of this filling from God. The ramifications of being filled with the Spirit literally reverse the effects that the curse has on relationships.

Here, for the sake of our understanding of marriage, I want to pay special attention to the phrase "be subject to one another." The word translated "being subject" is the Greek word hupotasso. It means "to arrange yourself underneath." It is a strong word having military overtones, as an infantry person would submit to the com­mand of a general. As we've seen, "being subject" is a result.

And what a result! Remember the dynamics of The Curse, as described in Genesis 3:16. Two people wind up locked in a power struggle. Both are over the other and both are under the other, because both are trying to rule. What Paul tells us in Ephesians is how to reverse and escape The Curse.

Being "Subject"

Now we can talk, in context, about Paul's instruction, "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord." In some versions of the Bible, the words "be subject" are in italics, which indicates that they are not found in the original Greek. They are implied. Therefore, verse 22 literally says, "Wives to your own husbands, as to the Lord." The concept "be subject" is borrowed from the verse before, which tells all Christians to "be subject to one another" as a result of being filled with the Spirit. A literal reading of verses 21 and 22, then, would be, "being subject to [arranging yourselves underneath] one another in reverence to Christ, wives to your own husbands..."

In this passage of Ephesians, then, Paul is actually presenting a major concept that empowers us to live the Christian life, and then illustrating how it works within several kinds of relationships: wife/husband (5:22, 23); parent/child (6:1-4); and slave/master (6:5-9). In every instance he talks about what it means for two people to place themselves under one another. The conversation about submission only begins with wives in vs. 22. So we cannot ignore what Paul has to say about husbands. If husbands are not to be submissive to their wives too, then there is no "being subject to one another."

Paul tells us, "For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He himself being the Savior of the body" (5:23). In other words, if you want to see and understand just what it means that the husband is the head of the wife, you need to understand what it means that Christ is the head of the church.

There are several places in Ephesians that shed light on this. In Ephesians 1:18-23 we see a picture of the powerful, eternal, already-victorious Christ whose headship over all things is a gift to the church. In Ephesians 4:7-16, we see an incredible picture of Christ's headship. It brings about our freedom and results in our enemy being defeated and taken captive. It is the reason why we have the gifts we need to learn, to grow, and to help others. In other words, the result of having Christ as our head is that we have everything we need to become and to do everything God plans for us. And the quintessential expression of spiritual headship was this: He sacrificed of His own physical, earthly life. This is underscored in 5:25, where Christ's love is expressed toward the church in that "he gave himself for her."

If Christ is over you and me (the church), it is not because He placed himself over us. It is because we placed ourselves under Him. In fact, bending your knee to Christ as Lord is how you become a Christian. We submit to His headship. But as you can see from the text, all the activity of Christ, who is our head, is to come under, to serve, to build, and even to die for the church. And the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church! So, husbands, if you are reminding your wife that you are the boss, then you are not the head of your wife as Christ is the head of the church.

In writing about the sad and widespread problem of spiritual abuse, Dave Johnson and I explored what happens when leaders in the kingdom of God use worldly techniques to gain control and power. In this world, leader means boss, the one in charge, the one in front. But Jesus says that leaders are servants. (See Matthew 23:11 and Luke 22:26.) It is the same way with the word head. Paul is saying: "Everywhere else 'head' means boss, chief executive officer, commander. But in the kingdom of God, the head is the person who comes under others, serving and building, and being willing to die for them."

In the church, Christ is more fully seen and experienced when we submit to Him as our head. And in grace-full relationships, a wife can come under her husband, and put to his service everything about herself that is female to enable her husband to become everything God created him to be. And a husband can come under his wife, bringing to bear everything about himself that is male, and in doing so he will enable his wife to become everything God created her to be. When we come under someone, we love and support and we allow God to take the lead in changing and directing. We will see how this attitude has real and powerful application a little later.

If we obey the scripture, "being subject to one another," we will have a relationship in which God can be seen: an image-of-God relationship. "For this cause [that God may be seen in our midst] a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh" (Ephesians 5:31). This is the description of the marriage relationship found in Genesis 2. Paul is using pre-fall, pre-curse language to describe the marriage relationship that results when our filling comes from the Spirit and not from ourselves. We are back to God's plan!

Men, Pay Attention

It is important to understand that this unconventional news lands more heavily on men than on anyone else. You have to hear this as an Ephesian male in order to hear what a significant confrontation this is between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. For Paul to instruct wives to be under their husbands was new only in that now he was telling them how to do this from the heart as a result of being filled with the Spirit. They were already placed under their husbands as a function of their culture. But for a husband to come under his wife? To live as if the life of his wife Was more precious than his very own? For him to nourish and cherish her as he would care for himself? This was unheard of.

Wives were there to keep the house and take care of the kids. Ephesian husbands went to other women for sex, companionship, even heightened religious experiences. This teaching went across the grain of everything an Ephesian man ever learned, every man­woman relationship he ever saw. He could never do this by trying hard; this heart transformation could only result as he struggled to depend on God to fill him.

For Paul to instruct children to be under their parents was also not new. Children were already under their parents as a function of a culture where people sold or killed children who did not live up to parental expectations. But for a father to place himself under his child? For him to stop short in his discipline when further discipline would provoke the child to anger--this was remarkable! The other fathers would think he was insane, less than a man, and not ruling over his household. To learn how to rule the spirit of your children, Paul is insisting, will take a work of the Holy Spirit. And it's important for us to see that Paul knew children could be filled with the Spirit in this way. This would result in a new ability to "arrange themselves under" their parents.

And for Paul to tell slaves to be under their masters was not new, either. By law, slaves were already under their masters and required to obey and render service. This was a culture in which slaves were less than human, and were often killed for entertainment, much less disobedience. This was "new" to slaves only in that Paul was telling them to submit from the heart as a result of being filled with the Spirit. Fear was the old motivation. But what must the Ephesian men (only men could own property) have thought and felt when they read: "And, master, [submit to your slaves], and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him" (Ephesians 6:9). For an Ephesian man to do this would take a filling of the Holy Spirit. At best, his peers would view him as a weakling, at worst--a lunatic.

A Final Confrontation

Ultimately, what Paul has described here is a relationship of grace, freedom, and blessing--one that confronts the curse-full relationship described in Genesis 3. If you took a filled-with-the­Spirit, mutually submissive husband and wife and put them in Ephesus, their witness would confront every relationship in that city. And if you place this kind of marriage today in view of that part of the feminist movement that encourages women to have power by taking power, it will be a confrontation

Then there are those in the body of Christ today who teach that God mediates His relationship with women through men. Look at a filled-with-the-Spirit, mutually submissive husband and wife next to that teaching and you will see quite a difference. And if you placed a mutually submissive, filled-with-the-Spirit husband and wife in a church of today, their presence would confront most marriages in that church.

By opening a different, more accurate understanding of Paul's teaching, I hope you have begun to acquire a new filter through which to view the marriage relationship. In later chapters we will see these principles in operation. Next, we will look at some of the ways relying on God continuously as our Source of fullness, as Paul instructs, will change the way you look at the job of parenting.



Read more on marriage:

• Amazon.com Comments on The Other Side of the Garden  »
• Mature Husbands and Fathers  »
• Examples of Domestic Abuse in the Assembly  »
• Susan M.'s Experience of Domestic Violence in the Assembly  »
•  Discussion about marriage on the Assemblyboard  »

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