“Holy matrimony,” declares the Book of Common Prayer, “is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.”
The Church of England thus upholds three important truths about marriage. First, it is a good thing — indeed, it is more than a good thing, it is an “honourable” thing. Coming at a time when the Church had for centuries advocated the virtues of celibacy and virginity, this was a profound affirmation of the truth of 1 Timothy 4:4, that “everything God created is good”. As the same passage observes, it is the demons who are behind doctrines that forbid marriage (4:3), for that is to negate something which is part of God’s original ‘good’ in creation.
The latter point is also affirmed by the Prayer Book, for it says secondly that marriage belongs to “the time of man’s innocency”. The first human couple were not merely made by God but, in Jesus’ own words, “joined” by him. In the Garden, God created not just humankind but human marriage. Moreover, as Jesus’ teaching on the subject shows, that original creation was meant to be determinative for the future and to be exemplified in the Church.
This is also, of course, why the gospel standard for marriage is much higher than that set by the law; for marriage originally belongs in the time of ‘innocency’, and is therefore somewhat unsuited for this sinful age. The law allowed for divorce because, as Christ put it, “your hearts were hard” — meaning not that people were uncaring, but that they were unbelieving (cf Mk 16:14). To undertake marriage Christianly, therefore, is to enter into a world were the law is not enough: the world of turning the other cheek or going the extra mile.
And this brings us to our third point, which is that although marriage is made for our blessing, it is not made for our convenience, for marriage finds its origin not in sociology but theology, and not in the doctrine of man (and our needs), nor even in the doctrine of God (and his nature), but in the twin doctrines of creation and salvation.
Marriage, as the Prayer Book says, is a sign: “signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.” Another way of thinking about it is as an image: imaging to us the relationship between the Creator God and his creation, and the Redeemer God and his redeemed.
These two ideas converge in Isaiah 54:5:
For your Maker is your husband — the Lord Almighty is his name— the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth.
And what the Old Testament foretells, the New Testament reveals in the person of Christ:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Eph 5:25-27)
In Christ, we experience the ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17), and at the end of time (as at the end of our Scriptures) the new heavens and the new earth are ushered in with the marriage of Christ and the Church. Hence we read,
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. (Rev 21:2)
Indeed, we have an echo here of the presentation of Eve to Adam in the Garden, for just as the man greeted his bride then with an acclamation, so a heavenly voice hails the arrival of the Church:
Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev 21:3, cf Gen 2:23)
In Scripture, however, the salvation of humankind is termed a ‘mystery’, and it is so on two levels. There is, on the one hand, the ‘mystery’ of how it will be accomplished — the mystery which, like the grace of God itself,
... has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Tim 1:10, cf 1 Tim 3:16; Col 4:3, etc)
But there is still the mystery of why. Why did God choose to save us, and to save us this way? More profoundly, why did God create the world in the knowledge that it would have to be redeemed? And why does God love us enough to do this for us?
Indeed, we may say there is a third mystery, which is the mystery of love itself. What is the nature of God’s love for us? But to this third mystery, the Bible, insofar as it gives an answer at all, points us to the “way of a man with a maiden” (Prov 13:19), for our Maker is our husband, says the Lord of Hosts. And although the history of the interpretation of the Song of Songs is littered with imaginative allegorizing, we are surely right to see in it some indication of the nature of the relationship we have with God, insofar as it is paralleled by the relationship between human lovers.
The Bible, however, does not separate such love from commitment and identity. On the one hand, those who are married enter a one-flesh union (Gen 2:24, contra 1 Cor 6:16). On the other hand, the required context for sexual expression is finally, and firmly, marital. When God ‘spreads his garment’ over the sexually mature Israel in Ezekiel 16:8, he enters into a covenant (Heb: berith) with her. And this covenanting is an integral part of marriage (cf Prov 2:17; Mal 2:13). Israel’s unfaithfulness towards God is adulterous, not only because of the change in the object of her affections, but because of her departure from the covenant God has made with her.
Human marriage, therefore, must be ‘covenantal’ — and indeed, unbreakably covenantal — if it is to model the divine mystery of love.
Yet the followers of Christ have a long track record of finding this hard to accept. The response of the first disciples to Christ’s own teaching on divorce was almost one of despondency: “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt 19:10). And the Apostle Paul was so conscious of this difficulty that in writing to the Corinthians he was careful to point out that this teaching was directly from the Lord himself (cf 1 Cor 7:10-11).
But today there is another difficulty for us in addition to the requirement of covenant faithfulness, and that is in the imposition of rôles, for in marriage the husband is to his wife as Christ is to the Church, and not vice-versa, and the wife is to her husband as the Church is to Christ, and not vice-versa.
All the arguing (and there is plenty) that Ephesians 5:21a is a call for mutal submission (“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”) does not alter this one whit. There is a sense in which we are called to mutual submission, insofar as we are to “honour one another” above ourselves (Rom 12:10). But the husband ‘honours’ his wife in one way, and the wife ‘honours’ her husband in another.
He honours her by exercising a love which is consciously modelled on Christ’s sacrificial love for the Church, giving himself for her so as to give to her.
She honours him with a love that is equally modelled consciously on the Church’s love for Christ, by her submission to her husband in “all things” (Eph 5:24, or as we might say “in all respects”, cf 2 Cor 6:4; 11:6).
To say, however, that Ephesians calls for ‘mutual submission’ between husbands and wives is to subvert the text, which states specifically that the husband is the ‘head’ (as Christ is to the Church), and the wife is the ‘body’ (as the Church is to Christ). These are not simply ‘opposite versions of the same thing’. Nor are they interchangeable. To be a husband is to be the head. To be a wife is to be the body. These rôles are given, not chosen.
A good husband is thus one who loves his wife as Christ loves the Church. But one who does not do this is still the husband of his wife and the ‘head’ in their symbiotic life as ‘one flesh’. And a wife who does not submit to her husband is, nevertheless, still the ‘body’ in that union.
The principle at stake is moreover, nothing less than, as stated in the Prayer Book, that marriage signifies “the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.” By introducing divorce, we have already vitiated that symbolism. Marriage becomes something we control (what man puts asunder). By denying the Scriptural distinction of rôles — the identification of the husband as the Christ-like ‘head’ who is the object of his wife’s submission, and the wife as the Church-like ‘body’, who is the object of her husband’s self-sacrifice — we assert our control even further, both over marriage and over Scripture itself, and further obscure both the sign and the thing signified.
This issue confronts us today as the Christian view of marriage has always confronted Christians. Like the first disciples (though for different reasons), we are tempted to respond, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
Perhaps, however, our problem is not with marriage, much less with understanding the biblical text, but with trusting God.
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
15 May 2010
15 May 2010