Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Part 1

This idea is pervasive in evangelical Christianity today.  The idea comes from Ephesians 5:21-33, where Paul speaks of Christian marriage. Christianity specifically states that God intended marriage to be an illustration of Christ and the church, and the New Living Translation even says so explicitly:

As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.  Eph 5:31-32, NLT.

The web page goes on to explain that the way this works out is that husbands “illustrate” Christ’s leadership authority, as well as His self-sacrifice, while wives “illustrate” the church’s submission to Christ’s leadership authority.   Is this what the Bible actually teaches?

I am not going to write today about the meaning of words like “head” in the text of Ephesians 5:21-33.  I am not going to write about mutual submission as the controlling verse of this text.  I have written about these things elsewhere, as have many others.

But this idea of marriage as a picture or illustration of Christ and the church is troubling, and needs to be carefully examined.  If Paul is saying that marriages illustrate Christ’s authority over the church and the church’s obedience, this has serious implications.  I have heard preachers say that when non-believers look at the leadership of husbands and the submission of wives, they will see the beauty of Christ’s relationship with the church and be  drawn to Christianity.   I have heard teachings that a marriage will only properly illustrate Christ’s relationship with the church when the husband steps fully into his leadership role and the wife responds to that in complete submission.   Ideas of husbands and wives as best friends, companions and lovers tend to get lost in all this.  Are Christian wives supposed to show the world a picture of human obedience, while their husbands are a picture of their Lord and God?  Non-Christians are hardly drawn to Christianity by this picture– they are often frankly disgusted.  But this is certainly what the marriage-as-illustration teaching implies.

However, the original text of Ephesians 5:32 never uses the word “illustration” or any similar word.  The more word-for-word translations translate that verse like this:

“This is a great mystery; but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”  KJV

“This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church.”  NIV (1984)

“This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” NASB

What is being said here?  Is marriage an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church?  Or is something different, and much more profound, going on in these verses?

First of all, look at the direction in which the comparisons move.  Christ and the church are not said to be “as” husbands and wives.  It’s the other way around.  Husbands and wives are “as” Christ and the church.   If one relationship is being set up here as a picture or illustration to help us see the other relationship more clearly, it is Christ and the church who are the illustration, the picture for husbands and wives to follow– not the other way around.   Husbands and wives are to see more clearly what God meant marriage to be, by looking at a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church.  But– and this is important– the passage doesn’t just say, “You husband and wives, try to generally imitate Christ and the church.”  The illustration being given here is not general, but specific.  Husbands and wives are to imitate this particular picture of Christ and the church.

So what is the picture?  What is being illustrated?

That is the question that Part 2 will discuss.

About krwordgazer

I'm a 40-something Christian from the Pacific Northwest: paralegal, mother of two, wife of 24 years, with a BA in English from the University of Oregon Honors College.
This entry was posted in Authors, Ephesians 5, Kristen Rosser and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Part 1

  1. Liz says:

    Here’s something I wrote some time back on the CBE Scroll

    I am amazed that the small part of Ephesians 5 which is translated “as Christ is head of the church” is extended and explained so that a husband is compared to Christ in so many ways. What is a simple comparison of the type of care which a husband is encouraged to give becomes in some people’s minds the open door to husband as leader, decision maker, initiator, final authority in the home, and the one who must give account of every family member’s spiritual life. The extension of this is the expected response of a wife which presumably is the same as that of the church—submission in everything. If there is not submission “in everything,” then the comparison breaks down at several points.
    The church (bride) doesn’t have a say in the decision making of Christ, whose ways are far above human understanding or reasoning.
    Christ is not sometimes influenced by the church (bride) to consider that a decision or course of action may need to be reconsidered.
    The church (bride) is not responsible for, or influential in, how Christ performs his “headship” role.
    The church (bride) can be disobedient, disrespectful, and ungrateful to Christ without any of these attitudes affecting Christ’s innate nature, which is always loving, just, holy, and perfect in every aspect.
    The church (bride) is not “equal but different” to Christ. There is no comparison between the creator of the heavens and earth and the church (bride) which is made up of created humans.
    These are just a few thoughts on how these comparisons are not consistent with all of Scripture and continue to prop up the incorrect view of what God requires of a husband or wife.

  2. Kristen says:

    Good points, Liz. I believe that “as the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything,” is mistranslated as a “should.” I think Paul is simply stating a fact that existed in 1st century Ephesus: “As the church is subject to Christ, so wives are subject to their husbands in everything.” Wives were not being told to submit “in everything.” Paul was acknowledging that the law of Rome made them subject to their husbands “in everything,” that is, in every area of life. It wasn’t something wives were supposed to do, it was the state of affairs that existed then. Paul then gives them voluntary submission (verse 22) as their best response to the situation, and lays a mandate on the husbands (who alone had any power to change things) to radically change the way they viewed and treated their wives (v. 23 & following).

    This will be detailed more clearly in the next part of this series.

  3. Pingback: Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Part 2 | Christian Egalitarian Marriage

  4. Pingback: Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Part 3 | Christian Egalitarian Marriage

  5. Pingback: The Elephant in the Egalitarian Room “wives submit in everything” Ephesians 5:24 | Christian Egalitarian Marriage

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