Marriage as Mystical Union – Ephesians 5:15-33
We’ve come this morning to a difficult passage of Scripture – not difficult because it’s hard to understand, but difficult because it’s hard for us to accept what God wants to teach us. The passage is Ephesians 5:21-33, and in it St. Paul gives us clear commands about the relationship between husbands and wives.
Our passage this morning is part of a larger passage all about submission – and this will help us to see clearly what Paul teaches. Though many of us may choke on the command of wives to submit to their husbands, Paul clearly has real submission in mind. He tells us to be subject to one another (verse 21), wives to be subject to husbands (22), children to obey parents (6:1), and slaves to obey their masters (6:5).
This morning’s passage, then, and the beginning of Chapter 6, is about submission alright. But primarily it is about submission to God and His will, for we all, husbands and wives alike, are to be submitted primarily to the Lord, as we walk in His ways and in His commandments.
Think of Paul’s teachings, then, as a challenge, a test. How willing am I to submit to God, by obeying His commandments? How willing am I to do His will, and not my own?
Paul’s teaching on the submission of a wife and on the headship of the husband is very clear. Wives are to submit to their husbands, as to the Lord. The Greek verb means to submit or make subordinate. It is a word used in Bible of following relationships: angels to Christ, the Church to Christ, Christians to God’s law, women to men, wives to husbands, children to parents, young to old, slaves and servants to masters. No wiggle room there.
“As to the Lord.” No wiggle room there either.
In 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 Paul argues from creation – from before the Fall – that man is the head of woman and that the woman’s submission to her husband was part of God’s plan from the beginning, because He chose to create Adam, man, first, and to make Eve, woman, the man’s helper.
In Ephesians 5, Paul makes the headship of the man clear, arguing not from creation but from redemption. As Christ is the head of the Church, so is the husband the head of the wife. Again, no wiggle room.
Modern women find submission to their husbands increasingly difficult to accept because most of us have bought into the cultural assumptions about radical egalitarianism. Other times women may have difficulty because the person in authority is often wrong. This raises an issue for all of us who are under authority: What do you do if you think the person in authority is wrong? It would be tempting to fly to some sort of theory of civil disobedience: when I know my husband is wrong, I don’t have to submit. But is this really what God teaches?
Suppose we look at the authority of parents over children. Do we expect them to obey
only when they feel like it, only when they think we are right? If so, then it is really the children who are in charge, because they are calling the shots. They are the ones determining the rules and when to obey and when not to obey. In a similar way, the wife is not to simply decide she disagrees with her husband and then go her own way
Another problem is that somehow people assume that if you really believe in the submission of the wife to her husband that you must mean a “caveman”, unthinking, submission and a wife who totally submerges and sublimates her unique talents and wisdom. But good grief! Who wants a wife like that?! In fact, I’d feel insulted and cheated if Jackie were nothing but a Yes-Woman, mindlessly rubber-stamping everything I said. How would that cause me to see more and to grow more wise? How would that manifest our one-fleshedness?
But there is a problem with the recent decades of feminism. Women insist on exercising the headship God has given to men, and this has caused many problems. There is a Great Pendulum of History that swings back and forth. For decades – no centuries – husbands mistakenly took these verses, and others like them, as a license to be petty tyrants. In the 60s and 70s the pendulum swung quickly past the middle to an extreme on the other side where these verses mean nothing. God didn’t say them or mean them, and we don’t have to obey them. Women are like men in every way: there is no divine difference.
I find that women are often more competent, and in a wider variety of contexts, than men. But should we then argue based on human abilities? Precisely because women are capable and fully human and yet are called to submit (as are all of us in various relationships), they have a special opportunity to display the humility of Christ by submitting themselves to their husbands.
Watch out, men – you knew this moment was coming! St. Paul has even more to say to the husbands! The husband is to be the head, the authority. This is assumed and taught all throughout the Bible. Though there are different models of leadership he may legitimately use, he must take the authority God has given him and lead. In the house, husbands, especially, are to govern the household, to rule it. They should provide vision and leadership and should shape and protect the family.
In addition to women trying to usurp the authority of men, husbands’ abuse of their headship is a chief reason wives don’t submit to them. In the past, Jews considered a woman not a person, but property: in their morning prayer service, Jewish men gave thanks that God had not made them a Gentile or a woman. The Greeks were just as bad. The “enlightened” philosopher Demosthenes once said, “we have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for daily cohabitation; and we have wives to bear children and manage the household.”
But today, probably even more often than men have abused their authority over their wives, men have abdicated their headship. We see the consequences in young men adrift, who were not fathered except in a biological way and who have no good model of husbandly leadership.
Men commonly make three mistakes in avoiding God’s command to be heads. They confuse real courage and masculinity with machismo. Others become milquetoasts and in a cowardly way just give in to the world and people around them.
But the most common kind of abdication of godly headship that I see in men is being childish and cowardly. How many guys care more about their latest toys than anything else, whether it’s tech gadgets or cars? It bothers me when I witness a wife working hard all day (and the husband may have too), yet when the husband comes home he assumes that somehow he’s “Off Duty” regarding the household and the kids, while the wife is “On Duty” 24-7.
To me, the real courage in being a godly man is in serving my wife and others. That cuts against the grain of my own selfishness, as well as against the grain of our culture. It takes no guts whatsoever to sit in the easy chair and let the wife serve you and the kids incessantly. What takes courage is to drag your butt off the chair and go help for a change and “command” your submissive wife to take a break!
Instead of being tyrants, instead of abdicating their headship, husbands are to love their wives, as Christ loved the Church. You guys thought you got off easy? Hah! You’ve got the harder task!
Husbands, yes God commands you to be the head of your wife, but you will search in vain to hear Him command you to by tyrannical or domineering or cruel. Your specific commandment from God is to love. You lead by your love, and if you want to lead as a Christian man, then you cannot lead without love. Love is doing what is best for another person. It requires sacrifice. You have been given headship for a reason – so that you can love and sanctify your wife – not so that you can satisfy your ego or become a little Napoleon or Stalin.
The real problem is that often we think of husbands and wives as 2 separate things, and therefore they are in competition and conflict. The solution is to think of marriage as a sacrament, an outward sign of an inward grace. Marriage is to be a means of grace, and a husband and wife are one flesh, even if they refuse to acknowledge this. There is a mystical union, just as there is between Christ and His Church. Paul’s point here is that marriage mirrors an even deeper mystery: how we live as husbands and wives teaches about and reflects the marriage of Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church.
Sometimes people talk about a 50-50 marriage, meaning each gives and gets 50%. But that’s not good enough for me. Jackie and I strive (but never reach) to have a 100-100 relationship where we each share all that we have and are and where giving and receiving are virtually indistinguishable. I believe that if husbands and wives walked with each other in love, then the lines between headship and submission and service and love and head and body would become almost seamless in the unity created by love.
Wives and husbands, if you want a simple guideline to keep in front of you all the days of your life, you can do no better than the example of Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church.
Wives, how does the Church submit to her Master? Use that as your example.
Husbands, how does Jesus Christ love and serve His Bride?
Prayer: O God, who has so consecrated marriage that it represents the spiritual marriage between Christ and Church, bless all Christians who are in marriage that they may so love, honor, and cherish each other and live together in godly love and unity that their homes and lives may be a haven and blessing of peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
Wives: Examine your attitude toward your marriage in light of Paul’s teachings. In what ways are you rejecting the Lord’s Word to you and do you need to learn submission? Meditate on the relationship of the Church to Christ.
Husbands: Examine your attitude toward your marriage in light of Paul’s teachings. In what ways are you rejecting the Lord’s Word to you and do you need to learn love? Meditate on the relationship of Christ to the Church.
Single People: Consider Ephesians 5:21-33 in light of either your call to be a godly leader or to serve in love.
Resolution: I resolve to meditate on how I can be a husband or wife as the Lord has commanded me to be. I resolve to find one practical way I can show my submission (wife) or love (husband) to my spouse today.