Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Part 2

In part 1 I showed that Ephesians 5:21-33 does not say marriage is an illustration of Christ and the church.  It’s the other way around.  This passage shows couples a specific picture of Christ and the church, to take as an illustration for marriage.  What is that specific picture?

Please note that I am reading this passage in light of this principle of interpretation:  We can’t understand what any passage means to us, until we first understand what it is most likely to have meant to the original audience, as the author would have intended it to be understood.   So we need to look more closely into the way people thought and wrote at that time, which Paul and his readers would have shared and taken for granted, but which we may not be privy to.

In order to see more clearly what picture Paul was painting as an illustration, I’d like to look at this passage in light of its literary structure.  Kenneth Bailey, research professor of the New Testament and scholar of Middle Eastern history and culture, uses the term “chiasm” to describe the repetitive kind of structure used in this passage.  A chiastic literary structure can be viewed as a sort of sandwich, with repetitive parallel elements at the beginning and end as the pieces of bread, similar repetitive elements within those representing the condiments, and the meat– the main point of the passage– in the middle.  This is a common Middle-Eastern literary style and is frequently used by New Testament writers, including Paul.*

The parallel ideas and phrases in this text are largely self-evident, when you’re looking for them.  What we tend to miss is what the original Middle-Eastern audience would have understood those parallelisms to be doing.

Since we in the West tend to put the main point of what we are trying to say at the beginning, or at end (or both) when we are writing, we can easily read a passage of Scripture without understanding what the main point was.  We can read a passage like Ephesians 5:21-33 and see the main point as “Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (if we start where most translations divide the text, in verse 22).  But let’s look at the passage the way a first-century Middle Eastern would have read it– with the parallelisms Paul appears to have intended (I’ll use the New American Standard Bible because it’s a close word-for-word translation which brings out the original structure, and I’ll omit the words the NASB indicates aren‘t in the original text).  The colors here indicate a kind of outline, with each set of parallels in the same color, and the central point, in its own unique color, in the middle:

And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ  [introductory phrase that governs the whole passage from 5:22 through 6:9]

A   Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord

B    For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church

C  He Himself the Savior of the body

D   But as the church is subject to Christ, also the wives to their husbands in everything

E   Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her

F   That He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word

G   That He might present to Himself the church in all her glory

F   Having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she would be holy and blameless

E   So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his own wife love himself

D  For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also the church

C   Because we are members of His body.

B1   For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

B2  This mystery is great, but I  am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.

B1  Nevertheless, let each individual among you also love his own wife even as himself

A   And let the wife see that she respect her husband.

It’s important, of course, to keep in mind the world in which Paul and his audience lived.  The structure of that world centered around the pater familias as the ruler and authority over an economic/familial unit– the household, which consisted of the ruling patriarch, his wife, children and slaves.   Paul doesn’t try to fight against the cultural structure, but counsels the Ephesian church on how Christian marriage can work within it.

The first and last lines (“A”) are the outer part of the sandwich– the two pieces of bread, as it were. They are parallels about wives submitting to/respecting their husbands. Just inside each of these, top and bottom, are two parallel sections about husbands’ head-body relationship to their wives, being compared to Christ’s head-body relationship to the church (“B”). I have set the bottom “B” section off a little to show that it is set up as a mini-chiasm within itself, elaborating on the theme of that one-flesh, head-body relationship, which harks back to the central point of the passage (shown in the center at “G”).

The two parallel “C” statements are the next layer in, and they are about Christ and the church’s head-body relationship.  Note that Paul doesn’t speak of Christ as “Lord” here, but as “Savior.”  It is what Christ does as Savior that makes this a head-body relationship.  The head-body relationship is not defined in terms of Lordship and obedience.  Christ is Lord of the church, of course– but Paul is not talking about that here: he’s talking about Christ as Savior.  This is not about what the head commands the body to do, but about what the head does for the body.

The two statements at “D” function as reasons why.  These appear at first glance to be a departure from the clear parallelism of the rest of the pairs– but what Paul seems to be doing here is matching two statements of fact, one relating to wives and one to husbands, which support what he is advising each to do.. At level “A,” wives are told to submit, or voluntarily yield– but this statement at “D” is not a mere repetition, or even an expansion, of that idea. Instead, it is a reason why. The word “Submit” at level “A” was in the middle voice, denoting something someone does themselves, on their own initiative. But here at level “D,” the same word is in the passive voice, denoting a state of being. This is why the NASB renders it as “the wife is subject to” rather than “wives, submit to.“ Paul states that wives are subject to their husbands– in first-century Ephesus, this was simply a fact, here stated as such.  In the parallel “D,” the fact being stated is that no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, and that Christ also treats the church as His own flesh. These paralleled facts set forth the reasons why wives are advised to yield and husbands are advised to love.

At level “E,” then, we see the instructions to husbands, tied into the example of Christ’s actions towards the church.  The husbands were the ones with control in that society.  Wives were not in a position to be able to make any substantive changes to turn marriage as it was understood, into marriage as God would have it in the church.  It was husbands who had that power.  So husbands are instructed to imitate Christ’s love for the church.  But the picture/illustration given them is not one of authority/leadership, but of giving and sacrifice.  Christ “gave Himself” for the church; that is, He was crucified for her, emptying Himself of His power and glory.  Husbands’ imitation of this would not involve holding onto their society-given rights and powers, but emptying themselves of them.

“F” and “G,” then, are the meat of the sandwich, with the juiciest part right in the middle.  The illustration is given of Christ cleansing the church and making her holy and blameless.  Why?  So that “G” could happen– the glorification of the church.  What Christ does for the church, in this illustration that marriages are to emulate, is raise the church up to be glorious!  How could husbands in that culture, understanding the chiastic structure and thus grasping Paul‘s true message, have understood anything other than that they were to raise their wives out of their lowly position into a glorious one?

The mini-chiasm at “B2,” then, must be understood as harking back to what Paul has just shown, and pointing forward into the future.  Paul quotes Genesis 2:24, which comments on God’s bringing together of Adam and Eve, and then says he is actually talking about Christ and the church in a “great mystery.”  What is a “mystery”?  According to Ephesians 3:4-5, “mystery” refers to a divine secret which God reveals, or will reveal, through the Holy Spirit.   The implication is that it is not something we can discover or figure out on our own, apart from God’s revelation.

But here’s the rub.  The “mystery” here is the final, complete glorification of the church so that she becomes “one flesh” with the divine Son.  This is something that has not yet taken place, but is going to take place when He returns, even as 1 John 3:2 says, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be.  We know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him just as He is.”

In this light, the idea that human marriage is meant to show or illustrate Christ and the church, falls apart.  The Wedding Supper of the Lamb is still in the future. Christ and the church are not yet married!  Is it possible to illustrate something that has not yet occurred or been revealed– something that we cannot figure out by ourselves what it’s going to look like?

Human marriage cannot illustrate the divine– but it can follow the divine picture as far as it has been revealed.  What has been revealed in Ephesians 5:21-32 is that Christ has come down from His high position, given Himself for the church, and that He is now preparing her for glory– the glory of being “one flesh” with Himself.  And what following that illustration would look like to Paul’s original audience would be husbands coming down from their high position, to raise their wives up from their lowly position to a place of glorious unity.

You might now be thinking, “Ok, maybe marriage isn’t an ‘illustration’ of Christ and the church, but surely marriage is a type of Christ’s relationship with the church?”

Part 3 will discuss typology as it is used in the New Testament, and how, if it is in fact being used in Ephesians 5:21-33, I believe we should understand it.


*For a detailed explanation of the chiastic literary style, see Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, IVP Academic,  pp. 13-16.

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 Ephesians 5, Kristen Rosser and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Part 2

  1. Trevor says:

    What a great piece of work. This would have to be one of the clearest explanations I have ever seen of this passage. Enjoyed part 1 too. Looking forward to part 3. I would like to tease out what this would actually look like in an egalitarian marriage. Will post on that subject later.

  2. krwordgazer says:

    Thanks so much, Trevor! Yes, I too plan to do a more practical piece regarding what Christian egalitarian marriage actually looks like in real life.

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

  4. Pingback: Does Someone Have to Be in Charge of Your Marriage? | Christian Egalitarian Marriage

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

  6. CBO says:

    This is impressive, but I have seen numerous ways of arranging this material. In so doing, the exegete uses his arrangement to prove his theological stance. Chiasmus is dangerous for doing theology, because we tend to see what we want.

    I am not convinced of your argument for the parallelism. My biggest question about your structure is the D and D’. It looks like you have completely ignored the conjunction which begins v. 24 (D), namely, alla which never introduces reason clauses in Greek.

    Second your argument about the Greek tense at this point ignores the fact that in the second clause of D there is no verb. It has to be supplied from the preceding clause. However, that does not mean it must be indicative. I’m not looking for an argument.

    My point is just that in 20 years of looking at this passage, I’ve seen so many inverted parallelisms put forth and each one is believed to be what Paul intended. In terms of discourse analysis, letters of this sort are built around the imperatives. Your argument seems to go the other way around so that Paul’s point is not the commands, but the supportive material. This violates the purpose of the passage.

    Anyway, these are just my thoughts.

  7. krwordgazer says:

    CBO, whether or not one accepts the chiasm, or any chiasm, my main points about this passage remain. The passage does not say marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. The passage does not say that as Christ is to the church, so husbands are to wives. Instead, a specific set of things that Christ does for the church is held up as an example for husbands to follow. The section about Christ and the church takes up the majority of this passage. Of the imperatives, the ones to husbands are the focus, with the imperatives to wives being secondary.

    As for your idea of “letters of this sort being built around the imperatives,” I disagree. The main idea of the letter as a whole is the church’s position in Christ, and the imperatives are, in context, about how the church and its individual members are to act towards one another given this new, overarching “in Christ” reality. The purpose of this letter was never to be a list of commands. The commands (if they can be called that, for Paul was not trying to write a new set of laws), are subordinate to the theological discourse on what it means for the church to be “in Christ.” What you call the “supportive material” appears throughout the letter as the main thrust, with the imperatives to specific kinds of persons limited to a portion of what are now chapters 5 and 6.

    I don’t want to have an argument either. But I stand by the points I was making, chiasm or no chiasm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s