A couple sat in my office that had lived through ten plus years of misery in their marital relationship. He was stone cold. Upon his first visit I described his persona as a concrete wall three foot think and fourteen feet high. He was prepared for a frontal attack with the doorway of his heart fortified against my perceived Bible battering ram. She had let down her walls with me, but her shields would quickly come online if he said anything that even hinted as blaming her. As I subsequently reflected upon this case, it became evident that communication failure could be addressed by what I call the Triad of Triumph: “In brotherly love be kindly affectionate one to another, in honor preferring one another” and “submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Romans 12:10 and Ephesians 5:21).
These three one anothers are intricately connected. To be kindly affectionate a mate must honor the personhood of the other by putting their welfare above their own and, before God, engaging with that mate by trusting God with the outcome (“in the fear of God”).
Let us consider these three interconnected concepts individually and then look at their corporate impact.
The Apostle sets the framework; love one another. Here Paul uses the Greek word φιλαδελφια for love from which we get name of our historic city, Philadelphia. It denotes family love. It is rooted in a choice based in virtue and includes loyalty and equality expressed in a desire for enjoyment of the other. We do not get to choose our family, but we do have to choose to love our family. Sometimes a Christian brother or sister is not a person for whom we have responsive affinity. Sometimes in marriage our spouse can become someone who is no longer attractive to us. Hence, at such times we must choose to love them in the manner here described.
Kindly affectionate is the product of two Greek words. Kindly (Στεργω ) is rendered as to have a benevolent interest in or concern for another. The word affectionate (Φίλος) coveys the idea that one person is on intimate terms with another.[i] By their very nature two Christians should have a benevolent interest in one another since they are members of the family of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. As a married couple two Christians compound this connection as they are not only children of God but stand in a covenant relationship with one another and God. By their family relationship they are on intimate terms, united in the family of God and united in matrimony. The Apostle is challenging us to be what we are; to exercise in daily living the reality that has been brought into being by the new birth; in marriage confirming our covenant by practicing kindly affection. To put this in current terminology, the imperative directs us to action that is founded in the indicative.
The second injunction, in honor preferring one another, rounds out this triad. Honor in the original language conveys the idea of value or worth; the showing of reverence or respect. I Timothy 1:6 clearly indicates that the giving of honor is a choice.[ii] In a noun form it is used to speak of the precious blood of Jesus as well the position of a woman in society. A brief contextual study of the word honor will reveal that it is often used to by humans to recognize the exalted character or position of God. The word preferring simply means giving preference to the other person. It could be rendered going before or putting in first place. Combining these two words as does the Apostle instructs us to choose to honor the brother/sister by putting their interest before our own.
The third injunction of this triad is found in Ephesians 5:21. It is a concept frequently not incorporated into the discussion of the marriage relationship which is unfortunate. A proper understanding of this verse may have protected the evangelical church both from misconstruing the intended concept and being perceived as promoting a kind of Machismo. It simply instructs all believers to submit to one another in the fear of God. This includes husbands and wives, pastors and elders, elders and parishioners. It puts a governor, God himself, on all power (role) relationships.
Mutual submission is an important life component that is applicable to all believers. Being marriage partners does not invalidate it. Marriage partners are first and foremost believers. When they become marriage partners they take on the specific roles that God has assigned to men and women in the marriage. A wife who appropriately lives in submission to her husband and his leadership honors God. A husband who submits to his wife as a sister in the Lord does not abdicate his leadership role, he exercises it. He listens to her input. He acknowledges her confrontation when she lovingly points out where he is in conflict with God’s clear teaching.
Now consider the impact of these instructions for a marital relationship when weaving them together. Begin with submitting to one another in the fear of God as the foundation. The lexicons provide several pages of nuanced definitions for the word fear. It seems that the best way to under the meaning in this passage is to translate it this way. In light of our knowledge of God as the sovereign, almighty, all knowing and ever present Holy One, let us conduct our relationship with one another accordingly. To put it in child’s language, “I will treat Sis respectfully because Daddy is in the room.” The presence of God and my mate’s image bearing of God should motivate me.
Here is the corporate impact of these three instructions. Building on this God-fearing foundation I will exercise this mutual submission by being intentionally kindly affectionate by showing preference–putting the interest of my mate before my own interests. Notice the word mutual. What makes a Christian relationship different from all others is that both parties are expected to operate off the proverbial same page.While no Christian brother or sister does this perfectly, yet alone a Christian husband and wife, there is a common page to which to appeal. The more a couple lives out this Triad of Triumph, the more wonder they experience in the marriage. And, when one does not so live, the other nonetheless is challenged to do so looking to the Holy Spirit for grace and strength to stay the course.