In ‘What Are People For’, an essay in his 2002 The Art of the Commonplace, Wendell Berry writes, “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be asserted and defended”.
In today’s climate of cultural change what is the future for marriage? Today’s views contrast sharply with the joys of marriage found in the Bible – a relationship that is framed by a husband’s and wife’s experience of God’s love and forgiveness.
In his Letter to the Ephesians chapter 5, verses 21 through 33 Paul the Apostle takes up the theme of marriage which he frames in a most unexpected way – Christ’s love for the church. The complex and costly relationship between Christ and his people provides the ultimate picture of marriage – something that is a great mystery (5:32).
Consider Paul’s surprising words to husbands – lengthier than his words to wives. Husbands, love your wives, he writes, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,…
This radical injunction would have shocked the ancient world. And, to stress the point, Paul says three times that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved his people (verses 25, 28 and 33).
Significantly, the New Testament never uses eros, especially about marriage. Rather than eros, which is about self-gratification, the New Testament uses agape, a word without rapturous, mystical experiences. It’s the word used to express God’s love for us – as in John 3:16. Rather than wanting to take, agape speaks of a selfless, self-giving love, committed to making sacrifices in the best interests of others – and, in God’s case, bearing the pain of the sins of the unlovely.
So, when Paul says husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, he isn’t speaking of some passing infatuation, let alone a domineering, controlling attitude. He’s talking about a faithful, trustworthy and lifelong love that is committed to serving his wife’s best interests – not her selfish whims.
Consider what Paul further says, In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband (5:28-33).
Let’s think about it. When we become a Christian, we become part of Christ’s body. When a man and a woman marry, they become united: one new flesh. For his part, Christ loves his body, feeds it, cares for it, promoting its maturity. In the same way a husband is to love his wife, nourishing her, and promoting her maturity.
As Paul says, this is a profound mystery, because the parallel is itself profound. It means that the very best model we have for the relationship between Christ and his people, is marriage. Or to put it another way, the very best things we enjoy about marriage – intimacy, trust, confidence, understanding – give us just a tiny glimpse of the intimacy, understanding and love that Christ has for his people, stretching into eternity.
What might this look like in practice? When disagreements occur, a husband needs to take the initiative in resolving them. It also means husbands taking responsibility in the spiritual realm – encouraging Bible reading and prayer in the home and attendance at church. The spiritual health of a family is important. Like Christ, a husband wants his wife to be spiritually radiant (5:27).
Which brings us back to verses 21 and 22 and God’s words to wives through Paul. How important it is that we read these words in context, for the word to wives flows in a tight construction out of the words to all God’s people: submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands as you are to the Lord.
Now today, the very mention of submission arouses anger and hostility. And we need to be honest here. In too many cultures women have been, and are exploited and treated as chattels by their husbands. We need to remember that a radical feature about Jesus of Nazareth was the fact that he treated women with courtesy and respect in an era when women were treated as second-class citizens. And, it was Paul the Apostle who wrote that there is no inequality between men and women: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
So, to return to the words, wives to your husbands, let me say what they don’t mean. With the qualifier, as you are to the Lord can’t mean submitting to anything that God forbids, such as abuse, or moral, physical or emotional control.
We can now begin to see how Paul’s words to wives and to husbands go together. He is setting out a relationship where the wife delights in honoring and respecting her husband, and where a husband makes loving his wife his life’s work so that she can become the person God intended her to be.
Anne Atkins in Split Image (1987) observed: “The husband gives up everything, not only to please his wife but to make her beautiful, holy, happy, fulfilled, and reaching her maximum potential. They are like an actress and her agent; if she has a good agent she will put herself completely in his hands; if he is a good agent he will spend his time developing her talents and furthering her work. He exists to serve her”.
Last Wednesday we touched on the previous section in Ephesians chapter 5 where we read that God’s people are light in the Lord not because they now follow a new set of rules, but because of their new relationship with Jesus Christ. No marriage is perfect. In the same way that God has forgiven us we need to be able to forgive one another. We are to shine the light in the Lord that we are. Our lifestyle is a vital part of our witness in a world of darkness. How important it is that, if we are married, we display the light of God in our relationship.
Prayers. Lord God, you have consecrated marriage to be a sign of the spiritual unity between Christ and his Church; bless all your people who are married that they may love, honor, and cherish each other in faithfulness, patience, wisdom, and true godliness; may their home be a place of love and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty God, we thank you for the gift of your holy word. May it be a lantern to our feet, a light to our paths, and strength to our lives. Take us and use us to love and serve all people in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.