Few things bring me more joy than seeing the gospel incarnated in the different cultures of our world, and few things shed more light on the gospel. Each culture has the potential to reveal something of the nature of God and his love. I was reminded of this recently when I read two accounts about Bible translation in Cameroon, both distributed by Bob Creson, the president of Wycliffe USA.
The first story relays the experience of Lee and his wife Tammi, who work as Bible translators among the Hdi people of Cameroon. In the Hdi language, verbs generally end in i, a, or u. But the word for love only seemed to come in two forms, dvi and dva. Why was there no dvu?
Lee asked the Hdi translation committee, which included the most influential leaders in the community, “Could you ‘dvi’ your wife?”
“Yes,” they said. That would mean that the wife had been loved but the love was gone.
“Could you ‘dva’ your wife?” Lee asked.
“Yes,” they said. That kind of love depended on the wife’s actions. She would be loved as long as she remained faithful and cared for her husband well.
“Could you ‘dvu’ your wife?” Lee asked. Everyone laughed.
“Of course not!” they said. “If you said that, you would have to keep loving your wife no matter what she did, even if she never got you water, never made you meals. Even if she committed adultery, you would be compelled to just keep on loving her. No, we would never say ‘dvu.’ It just doesn’t exist.”
Lee sat quietly for a while, thinking about John 3:16, and then he asked, “Could God ‘dvu’ people?”
There was complete silence for three or four minutes; then tears started to trickle down the weathered faces of these elderly men. Finally they responded.
“Do you know what this would mean?” they asked. “This would mean that God kept loving us over and over, millennia after millennia, while all that time we rejected His great love. He is compelled to love us, even though we have sinned more than any people.” (Find the full story here.)
The second story is that of another translator, Patricia, who shared Tammi and Lee’s story with speakers of the neighboring Mbam cluster of languages. They responded to God’s love in much the same way as the Hdi men. She then asked if it was possible to unconditionally love your wife. Like the Hdi men, they laughed. So she quoted Ephesians 5:25:
“Husbands, ‘dvu’ your wives, just as Christ ‘dvu’-d the church.”
She could almost see the thoughts swirling around in their heads. Were they really to love their wives that way? Unconditionally? No matter what the wives did or didn’t do? Impossible. Unheard of. And yet, if the God of the Bible told them to… if He had set the example in Christ… (Find this full story here.)
I wanted to stand and cheer when I read these stories! Westerners like me take it for granted that husbands would love their wives (quite possibly because of 2,000 years of having radical ideas like this one in our sacred texts). So when we read Ephesians 5:21–33, we focus on what strikes us as countercultural: the command for wives to submit to their husbands. We often don’t recognize that this passage is about mutual submission.
But the Cameroonian men recognized it. How could they not? It turned their entire world upside-down. And you can bet it did the same for the Ephesians.
Western culture can blind us to what these Cameroonians (and the Ephesians) saw so clearly in Paul’s directive for husbands to love their wives:
Christlike love is profound submission.
This love is so complete, so pure, so all-encompassing, that it compels the privileged to relinquish their power in submission to those the world despises. This—this surrender of power, this submission—is what it means to love as Christ loved us (read Philippians 2 lately?).
There are plenty of debates to be had about this passage, and they’re worth having (in my opinion they only serve to strengthen the understanding that it’s all about mutual submission). But (maybe this is just me), there’s nothing that drives a point home quite like seeing it from outside our own little box, finding a way to see what the actual impact of Paul’s words would have been on the people he wrote to. They were world-changing.
They still should be.
Husbands, divest yourselves of the privilege your gender gives you and serve your wife.
In fact, in keeping with Paul’s point through the larger passage (Eph. 5:21–6:9), why don’t we all shed the power the world gives us, enter into the world of those the world tramples upon, and embrace mutual submission in all our relationships.
This post was written as a contribution to Rachel Held Evans’ synchroblog series, “Submit One To Another: Christ and the Household Codes” and is adapted from the editorial of Mutuality 20.3, “Equality Across Every Continent,” to be published early September.
Tim Krueger is the editor of Mutuality and is CBE’s publications coordinator. He was raised in the Philippines where his parents served as missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators. He studied history and Bible at Bethel University (MN) and loves to find God’s fingerprints in history, culture, and language. He and his wife, Naomi, live in Saint Paul, MN.