The most transformational teaching in the New Testament related to relationships revolves around the use of the term love. When discussing love, New Testament writers talk about it in terms of something one does as opposed to how one feels. While most of us were content to merely fall in love, New Testament authors instruct us to behave in love. We’re told to make love a verb. In the Gospels, Jesus reiterated the famous Old Testament imperative to love our neighbors as ourselves. But He went a step further. He instructed His followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:44)! Clearly He wasn’t talking about love as most of us know it. He was referring to the verb version: a decision to do something in spite of how we feel. The verb form of love is the hallmark of the Christian faith. It’s also the hallmark of all great relationships. Great relationships are built on good decisions, not strong emotion. Falling in love is easy; it requires a pulse. Staying in love requires more. Specifically, embracing love as a verb.
As commonsense as it may sound, the idea of embracing love as a verb is not all that common. Our culture is not characterized by love as a verb or an imperative. Our culture is characterized by a multifaceted distortion of the Golden Rule:
- Do unto others as they do unto you.
- Do unto others as they deserve to be done unto.
- Do unto others so as to get them to do what you want them to do.
- Do unto others until you are ready to do unto somebody else.
Such are the unwritten rules of too many relationships. The assumption being, “I’ll do my part as long as you do yours.” The results are fragile relational contracts built on conditional agreements that leave both parties focused on the behavior of their partner.
All this is a direct outflow of the “right person” myth. People expect their right person to act the right way. In a relationship where both parties expect the behavior of the other to carry the weight of the relationship, disappointment is inevitable. With disappointment comes blame. Add to this our culture’s low threshold for relational pain and you understand why so many people conclude their right persons weren’t right after all. They cut their losses, chalk it up to a bad decision, and begin looking for the next right person.
But there’s a better way. Namely, make love a verb.
Nobody said it better than Jesus: “A new command I give you, that you love one another” (John 13:34, emphasis added).
The Greek term translated new in our English Bibles connotes “strange” or “remarkable.” What made Jesus’ command strange and remarkable was His inclusion of love as part of a command. He used the imperative form of the verb. Imagine Jesus as marriage counselor. Jesus: “Quit arguing, go home and love each other.”
Jesus didn’t command His followers to feel something; He commanded them to do some things. But Jesus took it a step further. In one statement He dismantled both an ancient and our modern tit-for-tat approach to love. He introduced the world to a concept that would serve as the foundation of what would eventually become known as Christian marriage. He said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). In other words, “Do unto others as I have done unto you.” That’s a whole ‘nother kind of love, one that introduces a new and improved dynamic to any relationship. Here’s why: As long as I love you the way you love me, my love is conditional. I’m forced into the role of monitor as well as lover. But if I choose to love you the way someone else loves me, and that person loves me well, your response to my love becomes almost inconsequential. I’m not doing unto you as you do unto me. I’m doing unto you as someone else has done unto me.
A few years after Jesus took His leave, His first-century followers began contextualizing His teaching for a non-Jewish audience. The apostle Paul, in particular, took Jesus’ teaching on love and applied it to several categories of relationships, including husbands and wives. Here’s what he wrote to the Jesus-followers in Ephesus:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
With these nine English words, Paul introduces us to what I call the principle of mutual submission. I realize the term submit doesn’t play well in our culture. Understandably so. Who wants to submit? But that’s unfortunate because submission unlocks the door to mutually beneficial and enjoyable relationships.
The term submit literally means “to subordinate or place oneself under the authority of another.” Paul wasn’t calling for an unequivocal, unilateral abandonment of personal independence. This is a one another thing:
Submit to one another. … (emphasis added)
In a relationship characterized by mutual submission, both parties choose to submit themselves to the other. This is a two-way avenue. It only works when both parties work it. But Paul didn’t stop there.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Paul didn’t instruct the believers in Ephesus to submit to one another out of reverence for one another. Most “one anothers” you know don’t deserve your submission. Paul takes us back to the dynamic Jesus introduced. The phrase “out of reverence for Christ” suggests that we are to submit to one another out of reverence to the fact that Christ submitted himself to each of us when He leveraged His life to pay our sin debt. His sacrifice is to serve as the inspiration and standard for our submission to one another. What does that look like between individuals who have committed their lives to each other in marriage? Paul knew we would wonder. Here’s what he said: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22, emphasis added). “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25, emphasis added).
Stand-alone submission is dangerous. But mutual submission? That’s different. A relationship characterized by mutual submission is the best of all possible relationships.
Communicator, author and pastor, Andy Stanley founded Atlanta-based North Point Ministries in 1995.