I had three little grandsons here recently while their mother, aunties, and I worked on a project. Their presence not only brought delight, but a flood of memories. Noisy, active children don’t fill my days anymore, and it’s admittedly easier to see the kinds of things I’m about to share now than it was when mine were young, but it occurred to me that caring for little ones is a beautiful picture of the love that Jesus showed to us. While it might seem tedious and utterly insignificant to tie little shoe laces, encourage use of the potty again, or distract a tired toddler, the literal bending low and lifting up of vulnerable, needy human beings is exactly what Jesus did for us and what he calls us to do for one another – and he says it will get attention. “By this will all people know that you are my disciples: if you love one another.” John 13:35
As I watched my daughters serve me while they were also keeping tiny boys safe and happy I marveled at how they transitioned not only from one task to the next, but also between high-pitched cries for attention, help, or refereeing. I smiled as I watched them handle all of it with grace and patient love. I was drawn in and warmed by how they treated these three young souls. It was attention-getting love.
I couldn’t help but connect some dots that have been swirling around my own head lately regarding the astounding way that Jesus showed us the unnatural kind of love we are to show one another. I’ve benefited from hearing Diane Langberg say again and again that the Almighty Ruler of the Universe is the author and owner of all power and authority, yet he used it, not to control or manipulate mankind into subservient conformity to his will (which is what we typically think of as power – the ability to pressure, control, or force another to do one’s bidding). Rather, Jesus used his power to rescue us from a sin-filled cesspool of our own making and then issued a gentle invitation to, “Come, follow me.” She’s given me much to think about.
There are many examples in our culture of immoral, unethical, and unloving use of power and authority – governmental agencies that use their position not to protect and defend, but to bully and intimidate. Bosses in the workplace who steal credit for ideas and productivity rather than holding up their employees for honor or recognition. Religious leaders who use the sheep to feed unholy desires for praise or lust rather than protect them from ravenous wolves. Husbands who bully and intimidate their wives to build kingdoms for themselves rather than cherishing and protecting them. But Jesus calls us to do it differently. He calls us to what he demonstrated to us by bending low and lifting up.
Because of this, passages like Ephesians 5 have begun to look different to me, too. I have almost always heard this passage taught with a focus on headship and submission. It has, at times, even focused on the instruction to submit to those in authority even when they are terrible because this honors God.
But this focus is unhelpful for two reasons. The first is that it leaves too many doors open for abuses of power to be tolerated when they should not be. For example, while there may be times we need to stick it out in difficult circumstances, “Wives submit to your own husbands in all things,” does not call a wife to submit to oppressive control or abuse. But this verse is often used by abusers to keep their wives in groveling submission to them. It is incredibly difficult to de-tangle the truth of what Scripture teaches from the distortions wielded by abusers – pastors need to be clearer on this. Without the counter-balancing instruction of when it’s right to stand against sin, submission to power and authority in all circumstances becomes the understood teaching and many suffer needlessly because of it.
The second (and more important) reason this kind of approach is unhelpful is that it misses the main point of the passage. The book of Ephesians is about unity in the body of Christ. In the previous chapters Paul explains how unity and love for one another is even possible through Christ and then in chapter 5 he tells us how. He starts off by saying, “submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In other words, because you love and revere Jesus, you will honor him by loving one another as he did. Here’s how…
Wives, do everything you can to serve your husbands in order to help them thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.
Husbands, lay aside all your selfishness and do everything you can to love your wives in order to help them thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.
Children, your parents have been given to you to help you thrive and flourish – honor them and it will go well for you. Parents – especially fathers – make sure you don’t do anything that exasperates them in that process – your focus is their good.
Workers, work hard and sincerely do everything you can in order to help your bosses thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.
Bosses, help your workers thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.
None of this is about claiming power or authority in these common roles. Jesus turns our ideas of power and authority on their heads! Paul is telling us, “despite any power or authority you might have, don’t act like the world – act like Jesus! Instead of using your power and authority to oppress, use it to serve, protect, and build up.” The point of Ephesians 5 is this: all of you, no matter your role (or what you think it might entitle you to) – use it to serve as Jesus served, love as Jesus loved, honor as Jesus honored, lift up as Jesus lifted up.
As I watched my daughters serve my grandsons in this way it got my attention, drew me in, and caused me to praise God. This is how Jesus loves us. When we serve, love, honor, and lift up the vulnerable, weak, and helpless around us – especially those over whom we have power or authority – we are loving the way that Jesus loves. And that beloved church, gets the attention of a world that is starving for attention-giving love.