If he’s Jesus and I’m the church, that’s not equal

“Husbands and wives are equal, they just have different roles.” Do you have any idea how many times I’ve heard that? At one point I believed it, but somewhere along the line I realized it couldn’t be true. Why? Because the husband’s role always ends up being “being in charge” while the wife’s role is “doing as told.” I’m sorry, but that’s not equal. That can’t be equal.

But I also remember hearing another constant meme – that marriage is a reflection of the relationship between Jesus and the church. This is why the church is frequently referred to as “the bride of Christ.” In other words, the marriage relationship is an illustration of the relationship between Jesus (husband) and the church (bride). I heard this a lot. I only realized recently how ludicrous it is to make this illustration and then insist that the husband and the wife are equal.

The illustration was generally used to emphasize the importance of the husband loving his wife and being willing to die for her. Christ loves the church, Christ sacrificed for the church, etc. I remember the passage being brought up usually in an effort to urge husbands to “love their wives as Christ loves the church.” Maybe this is why this comparison never used to bother me. I mean, of course I wanted my future husband to strive to be like Jesus! I just never really thought about the converse, I guess.

The church, you see, has to obey Christ. Christ is all knowing, all good, all loving, and the church just has to trust and obey whatever he says, without question. And when you compare the relationship between Christ and the church with the marriage relationship, you infer that that is the orientation the wife is to have to her husband – absolute obedience, unquestioning trust, and complete reverence.

When you set up the relationship between a husband and a wife to be modeled after that between Christ and the church, you are asking for trouble. See, the relationship between Christ and the church is only set up as it is because Christ is (within this religious belief system) completely and absolutely perfect and without error, ever. The fact that the church is required to obey Christ makes sense (within this religious system, at least) because Christ is perfect and will never err. Not so with men.

By framing a marriage in these terms, you put fallible man in the position of infallible God. The church can trust and obey Jesus because Jesus (once again, within this religious belief system) is perfect and without error and will never ever be selfish or make unjust demands or utter an unkind word. But when you set a ordinary fallible man in this position, and then tell his wife that she is to obey him as the church obeys Christ, you are only asking for trouble.

Finally, this comparison makes every assertion that husbands and wives are equal, and simply have different roles, into a lie. That’s right, a lie. See, Jesus and the church are not equal. There is no frame in which you can make them equal. After all, as the story goes, Christ created humankind, Christ is infallible and perfect while humankind is wicked and deserving of eternal torture, and Christ now requires mankind’s obedience to his every word.

And you know what? I’m no longer sure how Christians can get away with saying this. Isn’t it blasphemous to argue that Christ and the church are equals – which is after all what you are implicitly saying when you assert that marriage is a model of Christ and the church, but that husband and wife are “equal”? And isn’t it idolatrous to argue that a woman is to serve and obey her husband as though he is God?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • gillyc

    They’ve been getting away with it for a while now. I think they’re getting away with it for the same reasons they get away with all the rest of it – it’s a ‘sin’ to question the ‘Truth’

    • Steve

      And because people are trained from birth on not to think but obey

  • Gordon

    If marriage really was like “Christ and the Church” then the wives should be out in the world doing things and nobody should have any evidence that the husband exists other than that the wife says so!

    • Sue Blue

      Good point! Wives should also get all kinds of legal and tax privileges, collect tithe from all their friends and family, and be able to interpret whatever their husbands say in their own unique way – and claim it’s the only correct interpretation – without argument from their husbands. There are a few downsides, however. To really be Christlike, the husband’s intent and purposes should also remain inscrutable and open to interpretation. Oh, and the husband will never be around when the wife really needs help – say, for instance, when a tornado or hurricane is on the way, or when vandals rob the place and burn it down…or when the wife just needs some water for the garden when the well’s run dry.

  • http://sarahoverthemoon.com Sarah Moon

    I’d like to believe Christ and the Church are equal–in fact, that might be a good angle to argue with complementarians from. yay for my radical feminist/liberation theology!

    But yeah, they set up this hierarchy of divine—>humanity, and then they place men in the category of divine (while making the divine masculine) and place women in the category of humanity (while feminizing sin, the church, the world, etc) and think we’re dumb enough to believe them when they say that complementarianism makes men and women equal. bullshit.

  • http://brokendaughters.wordpress.com Lisa

    I’d like to argue another aspect of this image of Christ and the Church.
    Within the system, Christ may very well exist without one single believer. Christ will always exist because he doesn’t need a church (but nevertheless it’s convenient to have one). The church, however, is completely and utterly useless without the actual existence of Christ.
    Men (like Christ) have a purpose even without a wife in this metaphor – women, however, aren’t worth the air they breathe when there’s no actual husband (Christ) to follow.

    • Rae

      Yes, thank you! I was just talking on another post (I don’t remember the blog) about one of my problems with complementarianism being that the “woman’s” role is almost entirely dependent on having someone filling the “male” role in her life, and if a woman is unmarried, she, like an unmarried man, is filling a version of a “male” role by providing for themselves.

    • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

      This is a really good point- I am a Christian woman, and I have struggled with the question of whether the bible says women have no purpose if they’re not with a man.

  • Karen

    The Curch worships Christ. Should a wife worship her husband?

    This relates to something that irritates me about the Catholic church, too. Priests are male because males are the Imago Christi and women can never be the Image of Christ. How does that not make males better than women?

    • John

      When you look at the New Testament, it does not explicitly and directly set out all this so-called “theology” as to what one is supposed to practice with respect to Christ, Church, and such. All of this “Imago Christi” stuff is self-serving make-believe that was concocted over the to of the gospels by medieval power-mongers in order to get women to do what men wanted them to do. Just because its been duping people for centuries, doesn’t make it true.

    • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

      For the record, it’s not “Imago Christi” but “In persona Christi” – that is, acting “in the person of Christ.” It’s an official role, like the President speaking on behalf of America.

      Both men and women – or by some interpretations only man-and-woman-together – are the imago dei, the image and likeness of God. In any case, that’s a status of being, not just an official role.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the stretching of the marriage metaphor between Christ and the Church. It always seems like it’s taking the metaphor in the wrong direction. When we say God is like a mighty fortress, we don’t then try to build all of our fortresses to resemble God. When we say a relationship between two abstract concepts (Christ and the Church) is like marriage, why, then do we seem to think that our marriages must resemble the relationship? It’s an abuse of the concept of metaphor, and it’s taking a metaphorical understanding of something and applying it as a prescriptive rule – and that’s just silly.

  • Matt

    Dianna said it very well. The Bible presents a metaphor of Christ and the Church as a marriage, but Christians FAR too often take it way beyond that. This is one of the reasons that organizations like NOM and others that talk about the purpose of marriage being to have children are so messed up because they also over emphasize the metaphor. The Church does not make babies with Christ. Marriage is supposed to be about selfless love and service to each other, not about ruling and obedience and making babies. Selfless love and service is what the marriage of Christ and the Church is about (love and service are to be given to anyone that is lost or hurting in place of Christ since He isn’t bodily here on earth).

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Wow this is a really good point- I’d never thought of that before, but you’re right.

    I think the “Christ and the church” metaphor for marriage is just a metaphor- certain aspects make sense, but it totally breaks down if you take it too far. “Too far” being “and therefore the husband is always the leader, the wife needs to submit” etc.

  • http://www.fromtwotoone.com from two to one

    Great points, Libby Anne. My husband and I had Ephesians 5 read at our wedding because we do appreciate this imagery, but not because we believe it’s about “role” or “equality” or anything. We believe it’s a metaphor about the intimacy, self-sacrifice, and love in a marriage-like relationship. One of my favorite parts about the verses on marriage is Paul’s admission that it’s a mystery: “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” So 1) There is an element of this metaphor that we do not understand fully, and 2) Paul reminds the readers that he’s really talking about Christ and the church. Definitely echoes what others have pointed out above — that complementarians in particular have stretched this metaphor to pre-determined, strict roles while glossing over that it’s a mystery in some sense.

  • http://krwordgazer.blogspot.com Kristen

    Good points. I have a three-part refutation of this mistaken teaching on my own blog, which I am in the process of condensing into a shorter post for presentation on No Longer Quivering– and Rachel Held Evans has also kindly offered to let me guest-post it on her blog as well.

  • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

    There are different kinds of equality.

    I don’t think anyone would expect husband and wife to be equal in, say, weight or height. Other equalities, such as taste in music, or mathematical ability, or maybe cultural background/outlook, might be desirable, but most would say are hardly necessary. Some equalities, such as skin color, most of us would claim should be completely disregarded, even that inequality (aka difference or diversity) might be a positive good.

    So what kind of equality do we mean when we say that husband and wife should be equal?

    I would argue that the first equality is dignity: both must be held equally valuable and worthy in each other’s sight and in the sight of the rest of society. Connected to this is equality of freedom: both must be equally free to choose the marriage, and equally free to be fully themselves within the relationship – and decisions that affect both spouses should be mutually agreed upon.

    Equality in role is difficult. I don’t mind doing most of the cooking if I’m the better cook; I don’t mind doing the dishes if my spouse is a better cook. I don’t see a problem with a division of labor as such, though I do see the problem of one spouse declaring some aspect of their shared life as “not my problem”.

    All this is a bit distant from the Christ-Church/husband-wife analogy. I guess I’d just say that it’s a complex analogy, that it doesn’t imply a literal equivalence in relationship, and that it doesn’t exclude every form of equality.