Sunday, 11 March 2012

What marriage is, and why it matters

(For those who can't remember that far back, this is the continuation of a train of thought started here: God, Marriage and Gender: Why We Are Where We Are.)
Why do Christians care about marriage, and what does it mean to them?
The answer is quite simple, though it demands a considerable amount of unpacking: just as, according to Genesis 1:27, human beings ‘image’ God, so marriage ‘images’ the relationship between Christ and the Church, or to put it another way, the relationship between the Creator-Redeemer God and his created-redeemed people.
The image of God
The idea of the image of God (the imago dei) found in Genesis has been frequently discussed and attributed to various aspects of human nature or human society. Some have related it to the rational facilities of the human mind, others to the soul. Others, including the German theologian Karl Barth, looked to the human capacity for relationship with others, sometimes comparing the divine relationships in the Trinity with human society, families or even marriage itself.
But the biblical concept is arguably less complex and more ‘concrete’ than these suggestions allow.
The words used in Genesis 1:26, where God says, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness”, apply elsewhere in scripture to physical representations. ‘Images’, for example, are what the Israelites are to destroy when they come across examples of Canaanite worship. Moses says to them,
... then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. (Num 33:52, ESV)
Similarly, a ‘likeness’ is something visible to the eye. Thus Solomon’s temple included a bronze ‘sea’,
And under it was the likeness of oxen, which did compass it round about, for ten cubits, compassing the sea round about. (2 Chr 4:3, 1901 ASV)
When we ask what is the ‘image and likeness’ of God in human beings, therefore, the answer the Bible gives is not this part or that ability but the whole person, for the ultimate ‘image of God’ is one particular human being:
He [Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. (Col 1:15, NIV)
And it is not some ‘bit’ of Jesus or some particular thing he said or did that is this ‘image’, but the physical person of Jesus himself. Thus the language of 1 John, referring to the Apostle’s experience of Jesus, is clearly echoing Genesis 1 when it says,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. (1 Jn 1:1, NIV)
The lessons of incarnation
The extraordinary truth of the ‘incarnation’ God is that imaged by human beings in material form — in this world, the stuff of weak flesh and blood.
This is not, of course, to say that God is flesh and blood, or that God has hands and feet (though the Bible uses such ‘anthropomorphic’ language about God). But then if we show someone a photographic image of a child and say “That’s my son,” no one makes the mistake of thinking our offspring is made of paper.
The difference when it comes to Christ is that when we say, “He is the image of the invisible God,” we include that person who is Christ in the ‘image’. It is not just an inanimate thing. (So, for example, for the time during which Christ’s body lay in the tomb, it would be difficult to point to it and say, “That is Christ,” for in a very obvious sense it is not — at least, not in the way it was.)
Thus the person of Christ ‘in the flesh’ images the ‘person’ of God himself — an idea that theologians wrestled with for centuries before they finally formulated the Creeds. But the crucial thing for our purposes is that this ‘imaging’ of God is possible and actual. In encountering Christ the disciples had an encounter with God:
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? (John 14:8-10a, NIV)
The relationship of marriage
What is true of the person of Christ, however, is also true of the relationship of marriage when it comes to God’s relating to his people. The words of Ephesians 5 are much disputed today, but they draw on ideas which are found throughout the Scriptures and Apostolic teaching:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, [NIV, ‘submit’] to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. ... Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:21-23, 25, NIV)
It does not matter much that the word ‘submit’ is assumed from v 21, rather than stated (as in the NIV and many other English versions). Nor does it really matter a great deal that v 21 demands a ‘mutual submission’ (as is often observed).
What matters is that husband and wife embody between them the roles of Christ and the one hand and the Church on the other, and the relationship between them of mutual love, submission and sacrifice.
The ‘scandal’ for many is that those relationships are not interchangeable. Most people are happy that ‘love, submission and sacrifice’ be found in the marriage relationship. Many object to these being, as it were, parcelled out amongst the participants.
Marriage as ‘image’
But that brings us back to the challenge of an ‘image’. Martin Luther’s doctrine of the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the eucharist was based on the understanding that since Christ is God, and God is present everywhere in his universe, he can be just as present in bread and wine as anything else.
That being the case, however, God can be present in a banana. Luther’s objection would only be that there were no bananas at the Last Supper. But if he can be present in a banana, could he not be imaged as a banana? At this Luther surely would have objected.
The point is that the image of God is mankind generally and Christ particularly, not bananas, or fish, or lions. That is his doing, and we cannot choose to change this.
So when the Apostle writes that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church”, he is spelling out unchangeable realities, not offering an illustration for our consideration (and perhaps our subsequent moderation or rejection).
But in doing this, he is picking up on, and standing within, a tradition that goes right back through the Old Testament — that God is the ‘husband’ of Israel and Israel is to him as a ‘bride’.
The Old Testament tradition
That tradition is expressed most dramatically, perhaps, in the book of the 8th century BC prophet, Hosea. At the beginning of the book, God tells Hosea,
“Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD.” (Hos 1:2b, NIV)
The relationship between the prophet and his wife, “Gomer daughter of Diblaim”, thus becomes an ‘acted parable’ of God’s relationship with his people. But as Raymond Ortlund demonstrates in a book once unfortunately titled Whoredom, but now re-branded as God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery, what is experienced by Hosea has been true of God and Israel since the days of the Exodus.
From the outset, Israel’s spiritual unfaithfulness has been spoken of in sexual-relational terms:
Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. (Ex 34:15, NIV)
But despite this, and despite the fact that the legal penalty for such unfaithfulness was death, we find God in Hosea acting not as the vengeful ‘cuckold’, but as a suitor, seeking to win back the wife he has lost to another:
... I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. “In that day,” declares the LORD, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ [Heb: ‘my Baal’ — the name of a foreign god)” (Hos 2:15-16, NIV)
As we have said, this tradition continues throughout the Old Testament. In the early chapters of Jeremiah, for example, God calls out to his people in language reminiscent of Hosea:
“Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you — one from a town and two from a clan — and bring you to Zion.” (Jer 3:14, NIV)
And later on in the book, the New Covenant is framed in marital terms:
“The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. (Jer 31:31-32, NIV)
Significantly, this restored relationship also includes a restored purity:
I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful. (Jer 31:4, NIV)
The word used here for ‘virgin’ is betulah, which in this context has the meaning of ‘a mature young woman that has never had sexual intercourse’ (J Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains).
A similar hope is found in the later chapters of Isaiah:
No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah [fn. “My Delight is in Her”], and your land Beulah [fn. “Married”]; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a maiden [betulah] , so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. (Isa 62:4-5, NIV)
The New Testament fulfilment
All this is connected with God’s redemption and salvation of Israel. And so when Christ is recognized as Saviour, it is no great step to identify him also as the husband of those he redeems. Indeed in the book of Revelation, the ushering in of the kingdom of God is presented as the arrival of a Bride:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 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 21:1-2, NIV)
Salvation is therefore a ‘preparation’ for this appearance. In chap ter 7 we read,
Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes — who are they, and where did they come from?
I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev 7:13-14, NIV)
And then in chapter 19 we read,
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.) (Rev 19:6-8, NIV)
Arguments about the relationship between our own deeds and our final salvation need not delay us here. Whatever our view of the ‘righteous acts’ of God’s people (the Greek is dikaiƍmata, which the King James Version translates as ‘righteousness’), the Bride’s dress is given to her and the ‘whiteness’ of the robes of the saints in Revelation is due to the death — the “blood” — of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. And this is reflected in paul’s language in Ephesians:
... 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. (Ephesians 5:25-27, NIV)
Indeed, the consistency between the author of Ephesians and the author of Revelation is remarkable at this point, indicating as it does a shared view of Christ’s nature as ‘husband’ and the Church’s nature as ‘Bride’.
A further indication of this is the similarity between the expectation at the end of Revelation, and the call at the end of 1 Corinthians. At the end of 1 Corinthians 16, we see an invocation which is clearly as old as the origins of the Church itself, for it is written in Aramaic, not Greek like the rest of the letter:
If anyone does not love the Lord — a curse be on him. Marana tha! [NIV: “Come, O Lord!” (1 Cor 16:22)
Similar words, this time in Greek, are found at the end of Revelation. Here, however, they are uttered by “the Spirit and the Bride”:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” (Rev 22:17, NIV)
Putting these things together, along with other material such as the parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14) or John the Baptist’s description of himself as the ‘friend of the bridegroom’ who is Jesus (Jn 3:28-30), it is not unreasonable to conclude that the Church’s expectation of Christ’s return was the expectation of the heavenly Bridegroom’s arrival. This would be the true consummation of the divine marriage, so long foreshadowed in the earlier Scriptures.
Thus the Apostle Paul saw himself as a ‘marriage broker’:
I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. (2 Cor 11:2, NIV)
Of course, the ‘marriage’ to which we are looking forward must not be seen as a replication of our human marriages. Indeed (bearing in mind he was talking to Sadducees, who didn’t believe in angels or the resurrection, and which may therefore mean some theological leg-pulling is involved), Jesus explicitly dismissed the idea that marital relationships established here carry on into the kingdom:
At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. (Matt 22:30, NIV)
Nevertheless, the Scriptural tradition is consistent: the creator God is the redeemer husband, Israel under the Old Covenant and the Church under the New is the bride.
Persons and equality
And it is this which is ‘imaged’, or modelled, by the relationship between husband and wife in marriage. Saying this, however, a number of points need to be made clear.
The first, and perhaps the most important in avoiding misunderstandings, is that no ‘denigration’ of women is entailed.
In Ephesians 5 and 6, Paul refers to three paired relationships where the persons involved are not simply interchangeable — husbands and wives, children and parents and slaves and masters. Clearly these are in some sense applications of his general principle announced in 5:21: “Submit to one another ...”. Equally clearly, we cannot simply swap children and parents around, nor slaves and masters, and say that the same ‘submission’ applies to all.
Thus although the word ‘submit’ is implicit rather than explicit in v 22: “Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord,” as the subsequent verses make clear, this is true of the wife to her husband, but not the other way round, for he is ‘head’ to her, as Christ is to the Church, and she is ‘body’ to him as the Church is to Christ.
However, that does not make her a lesser person, any more than a slave obeying a master, or a child obeying their parents makes slaves or children lessen human beings. We are all slaves when it comes to Christ, as 6:9 makes clear, and Christ himself is the Son of his Father.
Whatever we may be told to the contrary, a relationship which is not reversible need not imply persons who are unequal, as Jesus’ example of foot-washing is surely meant to show:
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (Jn 13:12-15, NIV)
Furthermore, in that particular instance, Jesus rebuked Peter’s attempt to ‘restore’ the proper order of the relationship, by refusing to let Jesus wash his feet (13:6). The whole point of what Jesus was doing was its radical inequality. Peter could not refuse the offer, and he could not return the favour. Rather, he was to follow the example:
“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (Jn 13:14, NIV)
A Christianity which insists that there must be no inequalities, no making ourselves less than others — in short, no submission — is no Christianity at all.
Our problem is when, either for our own sake or, as we imagine, for the sake of others, we insist that this cannot be true of wives for husbands unless it is also true of husbands for wives. But then we have to ask whether this is not intrinsic to what it means to be a husband or a wife.
If a parent were to say to a child, “Today, I will obey you,” we would question whether the parent-child relationship truly existed. Of course, if the child were an army officer who outranked the parent, that might become the case, because the new relationship would cut across the old. This is possible (and has indeed happened) because a person is not just a child, any more than a woman is ‘just’ a wife. But in the relationship of parent and child, or husband and wife, certain things are inherent.
Marriage and ‘headship’
Again, there is no universal ‘headship’ of men with regard to women, just as there is no universal demand for men to lay down their lives in sacrifice for all women, for men and women, taken as individuals, are just that. Both are human beings and we may rightly consider them as equal.
It is only when they opt into marriage and only in relation to one another, that this changes. Wives are told to submit “to your own [Gk: tois idious] husbands.” Another man who insisted on such submission to himself would be an interloper. But the apostolic teaching makes clear that in this relationship of marriage, this is how it works, because the relationship is not a merely human social arrangement, but a pattern of the divine life.
Marriage and culture
And brings us to a further point. In Scripture, there are number of socio-sexual relationships which are recognized and sanctioned at various times. We have polygamy, concubinage, ‘levirate’ marriage (where a brother inseminates his own deceased brother’s widow), and so on. There is no single pattern laid down early on for everyone to follow. Rather, what we see is an emerging understanding.
What we have to ask, however, is whether this is merely a further sociological development, which may then be open to other possibilities, or rather a gradual discovery of the truth, just as the nature of the godhead is discovered through the incarnation of Jesus.
If marriage is a merely sociological phenomenon, able to include some of the features of early Israelite culture, why not broaden it once again to include cultural features of the late West?
Marriage in the Christian tradition
The Christian tradition, however, reads things differently, seeing marriage as something which is finally understood only through the words of Jesus. And his own teaching implies that this involves a rediscovery of an original principle which has been lost and obscured. Thus, asked whether divorce was possible “for any reason”, he answered by returning to Genesis:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Matt 19:4-6, NIV)
Thus divorce, which was allowed to Israel “because your hearts were hard” (19:8, ie because of unbelief), is finally understood to be a contradiction to the true nature of marriage. In fact, divorce must be ranked alongside polygamy and concubinage, as things which once may have been permitted, but which are not ways of life to be followed by those who seek to obey God.
In the same way, we must understand the relationship of husband and wife, in sacrifice and submission, as something which is only revealed and understood as the gospel is revealed and understood. Like Jesus’ teaching on divorce,
“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.” (Matt 19:11b, NIV)
But as with the teaching on divorce, once we have heard it we can only choose to obey it or to disobey. We can no longer plead ignorance.
Marriage and revelation
It is the revelation of Christ which establishes that the marriage relationship is not merely ‘faithful and stable’ but permanent. Thus Paul writes to the Corinthian church,
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. (1 Cor 7:10-11, NIV)
So difficult is this to accept that Paul must appeal explicitly to its origins in Jesus’ own words. And so important is this appeal that Paul must carefully distinguish what he says next as not being Jesus’ own words:
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord) ... (1 Cor 7:12, NIV)
Unless Jesus had said it, we would not believe it, just as the disciples found it hard when they themselves heard what Jesus said (Matt 19:10). Yet however hard they found it, the message clearly stuck, as evidenced by Paul’s knowledge of this teaching as coming from ‘not I, but the Lord’.
The challenge of marriage
Now it is clear that, left to our own devices, we would not design marriage to operate this way. In fact the Church itself has increasingly reneged on Jesus’ teaching. But that does not prove we are right or that Jesus was wrong. (Least of all does it prove he was just a man of his own culture, for many in that culture did indeed allow divorce ‘for any reason’.)
On the contrary, Jesus’ words highlight the fact that marriage is something to which our lives should be conformed, not something that should be conformed to our lives. It is an objective thing, defined by principles beyond ourselves and our desires. In fact, according to the Christian understanding, it is a bringing into the present world of the fundamental realities of creation and salvation.
And in this, sexuality and gender have a particular part to play and lessons to teach. But this is something to which we must return later.
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  1. John,

    Whilst I agree with you that the image/likeness concept is grounded in the whole person (rather than rationality etc) I think that this is actually fleshed out in relationships and specifically the Trinitarian relationships within the Godhead which then become the model for human-human relationships. This I think is reason why at the point when God creates humans He indicates something of His plurality. This by the way is also picked up (somewhat tangentally) in Ephesians 5 which has specific commands for the husband (to love their wives mentioned x 3) whilst the wife is told to respect/honour/submit to her husband but never told to love. In other words, there is an asymmetry in the commands given to husband/wife which also hints at the equality (of persons) but difference of role/activity within the Godhead (even granting IO)


  2. Dear Kip,

    Thanks for your comments. If I've understood him correctly, this is the approach Barth suggests, seeing 'relationality' as fundamental to the image, exemplified in the relationship between husband and wife.

    However, whilst I agree in part, I don't think it quite covers all the bases.

    Certainly the capacity for relationship is fundamentally Trinitarian. In this sense, we can say relational love is an eternal quality, and not a 'created thing', which is important to our whole understanding of God and of reality itself. This, I think, is the problem with radical monism as expressed in both Judaism and Islam - love of another is not a reality within God's person, but must await his creation of something which is necessarily inferior to a degree.

    Where I think there is a gap is at four points:

    1. Such relationships are not necessarily gendered, for example between two friends, or even between a parent and child.
    2. The relationships within the Trinity are not 'gendered' (eg between the Father and the Son). Attempts to make the Holy Spirit female are futile in my view.
    3. The relationship within marriage is both loving, like those we have with other people and gendered, unlike those we have with other people.
    4. Our relationship with God is 'gendered' both by our language and by the biblical-theology of marriage.

    Hence, I think we need to go a bit further than looking only at the Trinitarian pattern of relationships, important though this is.

    I hope to take this up later.