GRACIOUS REMINDERS FOR MALE AND FEMALE DISCIPLES
In recent sermons I welcomed the opportunity to set forth God’s design for manhood and womanhood, especially as it relates to a husband and wife in marriage. God’s good and wise design is vital both to healthy families and to human flourishing in general. In those three sermons I sought to be clear, pointed, and focused on foundational principles. I believe this approach is necessary because we live in a culture that: a) has gotten overwhelmed by the enemy’s lies; b) is steeped in confusion about manhood and womanhood; and c) likes to dull the edge of truth by softening and relativizing and qualifying everything to death. In this kind of environment, we need to hear unvarnished truth – and we need to hear it as humble children whose ears are inclined to our good and wise heavenly Father.
That said, if we emphasize the distinctives of manhood and the distinctives of womanhood (which we ought to do) without high doses of God’s empowering grace (outward conduct without grace is neither beautiful nor compelling), or if we emphasize getting the structure of the man-woman relationship right (which we ought to do) without the solid framework of the spiritual growth process (which takes time) and our overall growth in practical holiness (which is the deeper issue), then we will inevitably mishandle the truth. The corrective for mishandling the truth is not to ignore the truth, but rather to learn to handle it rightly. So, I offer you the following ‘gracious reminders’ to advance the right handling and application of precious truth. NOTE: Much of what follows is applicable to every issue, but I think it is especially important to highlight these things as we seek to embody God’s design for manhood and womanhood.
1) Our justification (right standing) in God’s sight, our reconciliation to God, and our adoption into God’s forever family is rooted in God’s free grace through Christ, not in our works of obedience (Romans 3:20-28, Romans 5:1-11). We don’t walk in obedience in order to obtain God’s goodwill. Instead, we rest in God’s grace that is poured out on undeserving sinners at the cross, knowing that this same grace continues to renew us throughout the entire course of our Christian life (1 John 1:9).
2) But God’s grace does not make obedience optional or unimportant. For God sees to it that your fellowship with Him (which is His gracious gift to you) actually succeeds at transforming your character and manner of life. Indeed, one of the purposes of God’s grace is to lead you into obedience to God’s standard of righteousness (Ezekiel 36:26-27, Romans 6:15-19, Titus 2:11-14). Never use grace to excuse disobedience.
3) Some people, when they hear about God’s standard, immediately get uneasy because their background or experience has taught them to avoid a straitjacket stuffy rule-oriented Christianity. If that’s you, learn to slow down and receive God’s instruction as gracious direction for a fruitful life that honors God. (Psalm 1:1-3, Psalm 23:1-3)
4) Other people, when they hear about God’s standard, immediately get excited because they just want to know what they are supposed to do (‘Just tell me what to do!’). If that’s you, make sure that your zeal for right action is not so outward-focused that you’re forgetting about the priority of inward heart transformation by God’s grace. (Romans 12:1-2)
5) Growing into heartfelt and obedient conformity to God’s standard is a process that takes time (2 Peter 1:5-8, 2 Peter 3:18). Apply this truth to yourself: be diligent to grow, but don’t expect to arrive at full-orbed maturity by the end of the day, or week, or month, or year; therefore relax, and take the next step. Apply this same truth to others: be patient as God superintends the gradual transformation of your fellow believers.
6) Twentieth and twenty-first century Westerners have been profoundly misled about the nature of manhood and womanhood, and many people also have personal baggage in relation to it, and relatively few people have had good models to follow. Let this awareness help to produce patience as you and your fellow Christians learn to understand and implement God’s way.
7) Although a husband’s disobedience doesn’t give the wife a pass on submission (1 Peter 3:1), and although a wife’s stubbornness doesn’t give the husband a pass on sacrificial love (Ephesians 5:25-27) – nevertheless, if one spouse is way out of sync with God’s design, this will complicate things considerably for the other spouse. Be tenderhearted to those who might be in very difficult circumstances.
8) Speaking of circumstances, we often don’t know what circumstances other people are in. Circumstances do not cancel truth, of course, but circumstances must be taken into account as we seek to implement the truth. Michael, a dear friend of mine for over twenty years, has been unable to be his family’s primary financial provider for many years on account of a debilitating physical condition. As far as I know, both Michael and his wife embrace God’s design for manhood and womanhood, but they have had to work out those principles within the circumstance of Michael’s physical debilitation. Disabilities, debts, poor decisions in the past, an immature spouse – among other things – although they do not nullify our responsibility to walk in obedience, they do influence our practical implementation of God’s principles. So, instead of rendering superficial judgments, learn to see people within the larger framework of their actual lives. Be kind to other frail creatures of dust who often have very heavy hearts!
9) Although you may have much to learn about God’s specific design for you as a man or woman, if you are in the habit of rolling up your sleeves and working hard to make life work for you and your family, you are to be commended for that. Keep doing that, and also take steps to grow into responsible manhood or virtuous womanhood.
10) Because growing in manhood and womanhood has significant implications for the husband-wife and parent-children relationships, such growth requires us to actually structure (arrange, organize) or re-structure (re-arrange, adjust) certain aspects of our life. Although structure is not everything, it is inevitable and important. It is important to understand that structuring a household takes time, and re-structuring usually can’t be done on a dime. Resolve to be a faithful plodder; take deliberate steps; and enjoy the process! God doesn’t begin to be with His people once they get to a better place; God is graciously and lovingly with His people as they are in the (sometimes long) process of getting to a better place. Press on!
11) Make sure you distinguish core principles from practical applications and cultural traditions. Practical applications are inevitable (because we have to translate timeless principles into hundreds of everyday situations); sometimes people make wise applications, and sometimes not. Cultural traditions are also inevitable (because we do life as part of a larger community); some traditions are beneficial (if they arose out of a desire to honor God’s design) and some are not (if they are at odds with the principles of God’s design). Even so, we must encourage one another to work from the core principles that God has revealed in His Word. Devote yourself to the biblical foundations, so that they transform your heart and mind and outlook. Then, day by day, put those foundational principles into concrete practice by making wise decisions and establishing healthy patterns – and as you do this alongside other Christians in your church community who are pursuing the same thing, some beautiful traditions will emerge. But always stay anchored in the foundational principles!
12) When it comes to putting core principles into actual practice – when we move from core principles to all kinds of applications and implications – we must remember that we are often dealing with matters of prudence. The Bible doesn’t set forth one comprehensive, lengthy, air-tight list of dos and don’ts for men, and another comprehensive, lengthy, air-tight list of dos and don’ts for women. Are there some foundational principles that we must honor? Yes. Are there some boundaries within which we must operate? Yes. But when it comes to a hundred practical matters that a husband and wife will have to work out in terms of the functioning of their household, it is your privilege and responsibility to discern what is fitting and what is best.
13) While some things are cut and dry, a lot of things are on a continuum from permissible to good and wise to better and best. Further, we ourselves are in a growth process that takes us from immaturity at the beginning of our Christian life to gradually increasing maturity to actual maturity (though not perfection) as we grow up in the Lord. Be a good steward of this knowledge by dealing gently and tenderly with people. A relatively immature believer who hasn’t had good discipleship models and has been poorly taught will look like it – and what they mainly need is not bulldozer-style rebuke, but biblical instruction and patient encouragement and winsome examples.
14) Further, even among those of us who are faithful and mature believers, sometimes we will disagree on how to best work out the practical implications of a biblical principle. By all means, let’s call each other to be faithful to Scriptural principles. But as Romans 14:1-15:7 makes so clear, we must be gracious and kind to other believers who have made a different ‘judgment call’ than the one we would have made. As long as their ‘judgment call’ is itself not in clear violation of Scripture, then we must be hospitable and kind to them, even if we think their ‘judgment call’ is imprudent or less than ideal.
15) With the enriching process of making progress in practical holiness wide open before you, don’t turn everything into ‘a manhood issue’ or a ‘womanhood issue’. Of course, our current culture wants virtually nothing to be a manhood or womanhood issue – and this is one reason why our current culture is so broken. As followers of the Word, we know that manhood and womanhood matter a great deal – but they aren’t everything. Even as a husband and wife endeavor to celebrate the different and complementary callings upon the man and the woman, they must be firmly resolved to treat each other Christianly: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12-14 ESV) This, in fact, is the rich and enriching soil in which the wife’s glad submission and the husband’s sacrificial leadership (Colossians 3:18-19; Ephesians 5:22-33) will grow into a way of life that is beautiful, fruitful, and attractive.
In all these ways, stand securely in God’s rich grace!
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