Loving like Jesus? by Stewart Perry

One of the privileges I had when I was leading a church in Newcastle was to have the opportunity to speak reasonably regularly on ABC Radio. I was fortunate to be able to build a strong relationship with a few of their regular presenters. I was most often invited to be part of panel discussions about issues of the week. There was a few times I was part of a competition they called “Treasure Hunter” where you had to solve cryptic clues to guide a person in a car to find a “treasure” which was always just a red envelope (it was the ABC after all).  While I think I’m pretty good at trivia, cryptic clues are not my specialty, and I was thankful that people could phone in to help and I’m pretty sure each time I was on we found the “treasure”. There were, however, a number of times where I was invited on air to respond to a particular issue of the time. While I’ve been on both Juice FM and ABC Gold Coast a few times in the last 10 years, I often look back and reflect on how privileged I was to have such a regular opportunity to speak into the public space in that season.

I have recently been reminded of a time when one of the presenters, who cheekily referred to me as “her favourite God-Botherer”, invited me on to talk about an issue that had made the news that involved the Church. While most of my opportunities to speak were on topical issues and I was able to give a “Christian perspective”, this was one of the occasions I had to respond to an issue within the Church. On this occasion there was a stir about a suggestion that part of the Anglican Church in Australia wanted to re-introduce into the marriage vows, for the woman, the promise to “submit” to their husband.

For those who may not be aware the Anglican marriage promises and vows are identical for the man and the woman – the words husband and wife are just interchanged where appropriate. The origin of the invitation to “submit” comes from the letter to the Ephesians. In the translation we use on a Sunday it reads:

“Wives, be subject (submit/obey in other translations) to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)

Part of the problem is that there’s a whole lot of other parts to this passage that you miss when you just read the one verse, such as the call to be subject to or submit to each other, it’s not just one sided and there’s a call for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and as they love their own bodies. This was a radical call in that time when women were most commonly seen as a commodity and most definitely less than a man. We see in Ephesians and in many other parts of the bible, a significant “lifting up” of women and other marginalised people. We also hear a strong criticism of power used to control for a person’s self-benefit.

I had the opportunity on that occasion to explain some of the context on radio but I was careful not to labour the explanation to ensure it didn’t come across as an excuse. My main point, which I hope I conveyed well, was that I expressed my opinion that the Church had lost the right to tell the world what words meant. This was because I felt the Church had not been a good steward of the trust society had put in it as we were beginning to hear horrific stories of abuse within the Church. I shared what I understood that this passage meant and I could see the intention of the writer but I had to concede that the word “submit” meant something very different in our time and context and it had become very much associated with Domestic Violence and coercive control. I felt we needed, as a church, to either find better words (which fortunately the original Greek helps us do on many occasions) or just stop using those words, and especially stop using those words without their full context. So I was opposed to the proposal to reintroduce the word into the marriage vows. I don’t believe the proposal ever went anywhere in the end. There was already many stories of how “Christian” men had used those words as a weapon in their relationship and many stories of how clergy had counselled abused wives to return to their abusers because that’s what the bible said they should do. For this, as a Church, we should be ashamed and plead for repentance.

But part of repentance is change and it saddens me to still hear the horrific stories flooding our news feeds for far too long now of women killed by a man, women’s stories of both abuse and fear. I could not more categorically say that this is so unGodly, this is so sinful and we as Christians should be not only be rushing to support cultural change, and coming alongside victims, but we as the Church should also be modelling another way. I really don’t want to hear a defensive response from the Church or from Christians. I want to hear, and I want to be part of, the change that is needed.

We’ll hear this Sunday that Jesus was pretty clear on his call to love. But do we love as he loved us? Jesus’ love is not coercive, it is not controlling, it is not based on power. Jesus’ love is humble, based on service and could not be more self sacrificing… If only we could and would love this way. I can’t help but think our headlines would be very different if we were actually loving like Jesus loved us. It might seem simplistic but I don’t think this is simplistic in any way, because I am always learning how hard it is to love like Jesus did. It’s much easier to look at the news reports and think it’s not my problem and it’s someone else’s fault and thank God I’m not like that… but Jesus never responded like that and neither should we. I think it’s a pretty challenging mirror to look at the issue of gendered violence through – how would Jesus love us in this situation? Jesus commissioned the church to bring the change that shows Christ-like love. How can we be his hands and his feet in this moment, it’s a question each one of us is called to answer.