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Any big life updates? It’s a question that I ask old friends when we reconnect over the phone or at a conference or reunion. Taking a new job, moving to a new home, planting a church, getting married, having children—these are among the big life updates that we communicate in catch-you-up conversations and Christmas letters.

We live in especially mobile and transitory times. Now, in addition to the ageless major transitions of human life, many people regularly move from job to job, even town to town and church to church. Added to this complexity is the modern confusion about life’s givens and chosens. Our society has come to feign plasticity in precisely the places where we’re hardwired (such as biological sex) and to pretend hardwiring in the places where we’re actually plastic (desires and delights). We pretend that our desires are fixed while presuming that our stubborn, external worlds should adjust to the preferences of our inner self. In reality, the inverse is true. Our desires are far more plastic than we often assume, and the external world is far more fixed than we care to admit.

How, then, as Christians do we approach the big chosens in life, such as getting married or taking a new job? We want to live with Christ-honoring contentment in whatever station and season we find ourselves. How might we be content in Christ and yet move toward, and through, the various transitions in our lives?

christ assigns our stations

Before addressing the practical question, let’s first establish that Christ, our Lord, assigns us various “subordinate identities” under our primary identity as Christians, and let’s clarify what these secondary identities are. In a generation that likes to play dress-up with our own identities, we do well to regularly rehearse what our actual, objective identities are, rather than those that are aspirational, subjective, and not yet actual.

As Christians, we have our fundamental identity “in Christ,” servants of the Master, assigned to various stations in life. Paul’s orienting word to the Athenians in Acts 17:26 remains true for us today in all the complexities and confusion of the twenty-first century: God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” You live when and where you do by God’s good providence and design. He determines our nationalities, our families, our vocations, and the various “stations” in which we are placed, however temporarily or indefinitely.

Writing to the Corinthians, and for all Christians, Paul says: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches” (1 Cor. 7:17). Paul does not mean that some aspects of our assignments never change (more on that below), but he cautions us against overlooking or minimizing the posts where God has stationed us at this moment. So what are the various identities and stations He assigns?

Humanly speaking, our first identities are those into which we are born, in our homes and families. We are born either male or female, a son or a daughter. Also, many of us were born as brothers or sisters or cousins. Then, while still growing up, we acquired other secondary identities: student, congregant, teammate, employee, voting citizen. Later came leaving mother and father and cleaving in marriage to establish a new home and family—and so we become husband or wife, and then father or mother. With age and maturity come other identities as well: teacher, employer, governor, coach.

Jesus Himself gives meaning and direction to us in our various subordinate identities.

Among these various subordinate identities are peer relationships, such as brother, sister, cousin, teammate, fellow student, and fellow worker. But other identities are ordered, or we might say complementary, even hierarchical: wife to husband, child to parent, student to teacher, employee to employer, player to coach. So, too, in church life we find both symmetrical and asymmetrical relationships: fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters in the faith (1 Tim. 5:1–2).

Many of us today are quite comfortable with peer relationships. We have learned a leveling, democratic instinct, and we expect profound (though not perfect) equality. At least in principle, we understand and appreciate largely symmetrical relationships among friends, brothers, sisters, cousins, and teammates, even as we acknowledge that among these, various small asymmetries are inevitable, depending on age, maturity, and other factors.

But many today struggle with the ordered, complementary, and asymmetrical identities. We have learned the leveling impulse so well. Our noses have been trained to sniff out inequalities in the more ordered and hierarchical relationships. These can make us uncomfortable, and in doing so, they reveal particular places in Scripture where we might freshly recalibrate our minds to be faithful to our callings.

christ orders our stations

The so-called household codes in Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians give focused and extended attention to these ordered and complementary (secondary) identities. Both passages address the subordinate identities of husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant (and for our purposes here, we’ll take master/servant as paradigmatic of ordered relationships outside the home: employer/employee, teacher/student, coach/player, etc.). In considering our own “subordinate identities,” three clear guiding principles emerge from Ephesians 5:21–6:9 and Colossians 3:18–4:1.

First, Jesus rules over all. The drum of His lordship beats steadily in the household codes. Once you see it, you can’t unsee how many times Paul makes explicit mention of “Christ” and “Lord” (seven times in Eph. 5:21–33 and seven times in Col. 3:18–25). Jesus is Lord of all and overarching Head over every human head. Every human assigned some measure of relative authority—whether husband, parent, employer, teacher, coach, or pastor—is subject to Christ’s sovereign “all authority” (Matt. 28:18), as both Lord and Judge. Again and again, Jesus is called “Lord,” reminding us of our primary identity as His servants, and Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 3:25 refer to His justice—that with Him is “no partiality.” Our secondary identities, stations, and callings are indeed, as we’ve said, subordinate. And all of us, those who lead and those who follow, are accountable to Him.

Second, Jesus dignifies our callings. That is, in acknowledging them in these household codes and speaking into them through His Apostles and prophets, Jesus Himself gives meaning and direction to us in our various subordinate identities. These diverse callings are “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:18) and not random or unintentional. Our Lord made a world in which husband and wife, father and mother, parent and child express His good design. These identities are not man-made or products of chance—nor has our Lord assigned them randomly to us as individuals—but come according to His perfect wisdom and great purpose, and so with the promise of His help, we endeavor to fulfill them “in the Lord.”

Third, Jesus qualifies our callings. His authority limits, specifies, and guides our subordinate identities. In these ordered and complementary relationships, Jesus requires more from those in relative authority (husbands, parents, masters) than from those under authority (wives, children, servants). Many today emphasize the perks and privileges of leadership, but Christ plainly expects more from, and lays the harder obligations on, the leading party.

From the husband, He requires love for the wife, in two striking senses: (1) love her “as [your] own bod[y],” as you love yourself (Eph. 5:28), and so nourish and cherish her (v. 29). That bar is high enough, but He also requires (2) love her “as Christ loved the church”—that is, He gave Himself up for her (v. 25). For a Christian, there could be no higher standard of love—not to use or take advantage of the weaker vessel but to make her holy, cleanse her, present her in splendor. From fathers (and mothers), Christ requires that we not provoke our children to anger (6:4) but that we provoke them positively (to love and good works, for example; Heb. 10:24) and that we bring them up in our Lord’s life-giving training and counsel (Eph. 6:4). From masters, Christ requires just and fair treatment of those in their service and care (Col. 4:1). Even as Christian servants are to fulfill their calling “with a good will as to the Lord,” so, too, masters must “do the same” (Eph. 6:9), a strikingly equalizing assertion in any century.

At the same time, for wives, children, and servants, Christ requires real and “fitting” submission to His designated human authorities (Col. 3:18). Submission required in subordinate identities is to be appropriate to the nature of the relationship and performed “out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21) and “as to the Lord” (v. 22). A wife’s respect for (v. 33) and sweet submission to her own husband (not every man; v. 22) are not the same as a child’s obedience to his parents or a servant’s to his earthly master. And the submission required in these relationships is deeply spiritual, flowing from Christian faith. Even children are to obey “in the Lord” (6:1), and servants “as you would Christ” (v. 5) and “as to the Lord” (v. 7). And for children and servants, Christ adds to the picture in 1 Timothy. From children, He requires, in time, an obligation of care for aging parents: it is “pleasing in the sight of God” when children and grandchildren “learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents” (1 Tim. 5:4; see also the sobering warning in v. 8). So also for servants (and workers): regard your own master (or boss) as “worthy of all honor” (6:1), and being a brother in Christ is no cause for disrespect but calls for “serv[ing] all the better” (v. 2).

when changing stations

Let’s return to our original question. Given these subordinate identities assigned by our Lord, how do we approach the big chosens in life?

We acknowledge that some transitions between subordinate identities are impossible, others are expected and natural, and others are permissible. No matter the pretense or presumption, it’s impossible for a son to become a daughter or vice versa. And it’s expected and natural for a son, having grown up, to become a husband and a father and for a grown daughter to become a wife and mother. Other changes are not necessarily expected but permissible: students in time become teachers, employees become employers, etc.

In navigating these expected and permissible transitions, we do well to keep three perspectives in view. First is our holy aspirations and desires. So far as we can tell, do we wantto make the expected or permissible change in the presenting circumstances (this spouse, this job, this opportunity, at this time)? Your heart, sanctified and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, has a part to play. But that part is not the whole. The most important words are spoken by God and others—God through His Word and providence; others through their counsel and need. Second, then, is the counsel and confirmation of fellows in Christ who know us well. We live in the covenant community of the local church and seek the wisdom of those who love us enough to want our good and to tell us if they think we’re making a mistake. Third is the objective open door in reality. Is Christ, in His providence, “opening a door,” so to speak, in real-life circumstances?

Before changing stations with contentment, we learn to walk by faith, with contentment, in the stations that Christ has assigned to us at present, seeking to live out our callings with humility, gratitude, and faithfulness. In humility, we do not despise the various secondary identities assigned to us by Christ but gladly bow before His wisdom. In gratitude, we add joy to our reception of Christ’s assignment. “Giving thanks” brackets the household section in Colossians 3:17–4:2. With thanksgiving to Jesus, we stand at our assigned post with gladness—wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, children, servants, masters, and all.

In faithfulness, we seek to exercise patient endurance when considering life’s expected and permissible transi­tions. Chris­tian con­tent­ment does not mean that we shy away from such changes, but it does lead us to proceed with Christian faith. Such faithfulness both reveals and reshapes our hearts to the objective needs and givens outside us, rather than presuming to adjust the external world to our own preferences.

In Christ

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