Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Part 3

Part 1 of this three-part blog post refuted the idea that marriage is an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church.  Part 2 showed that Christ’s glorification of the church to become “one flesh” with Him is the main point of Ephesians 21-33, and this was the illustration Paul had in mind to transform marriage as the world understood it then, into New Covenant marriage in Christ.

This last part attempts to ask the question that might arise:  “Maybe marriage isn’t an ‘illustration’ of Christ and the church, but isn’t marriage a type of Christ’s relationship with the church?”

Typology is a concept mentioned several times in the New Testament.  According to the online Holman Bible Dictionary:

“Typology involves a correspondence, usually in one particular matter between a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament with a person, event, or thing, in the New Testament. All elements except this one may be quite different, but the one element selected for comparison has a genuine similarity in the two different historical contexts. . .  Typology, a comparison stressing one point of similarity, helps us see the New Testament person, event, or institution as the fulfillment of that which was only hinted at in the Old Testament.”  (Emphasis in original)

As Holman states, when the word “type is used in the New Testament, it refers to one element of something in the Old Testament being a pattern for something in the New.  Adam is a “type” of Christ– but only in the sense that Adam was the one man through whom the curse of sin came, and Christ is the one Man through whom the gift of salvation came.  But Adam is not like Christ in other respects– in fact, it is the “not like” comparisons that are emphasized in Romans 5:14-16.

The New Testament does not actually call any of its own introduced concepts (such as Paul’s concept of New Covenant Christian marriage) “types” of anything else.  However, in spite of this, perhaps there is some justification in seeing typology in Christian marriage– for in verse 32 Paul does seem to use it as a pattern that hints at something else which will be the fulfillment.  However, if marriage is a type, the hint will not be like the fulfillment in every respect, but in one, limited respect only.  And the text itself will show us what is.

The marriage relationship is not like Christ’s relationship with the church in every sense.  And the sense given by the text is not authority and subordination, but oneness.  Marriage is like Christ and the church because both relationships become “one flesh” relationships.  In other respects, marriage is not like Christ’s relationship with the church.  Marriage is not like Christ redeeming from sin and the church being redeemed, or like the church worshiping and Christ receiving worship.  I have heard husbands say they believed it was their job to cleanse their wives and present them before God as Christ does the church!   But that is not the point of similarity given in the possible typology here.

Just because Christ is shown doing or being something for the church in the Ephesians 5:21-33 text, does not mean that husbands are to do or be the same thing for their wives.  The text says that Christ is the church’s “Savior,“ but (thankfully) I have never heard a husband claim he could step into that role!  But neither does the text say marriage is like Christ leading and the church following.  Though the text does say wives are to submit (voluntarily yield), it says nothing about husbands (or Christ) leading.  Instead, it talks about husbands (and Christ) loving.  Husbands, like Christ, are understood to be in a position of authority– but exercising that authority is simply not in view in this text.  Just the opposite, in fact.  Husbands are told to give themselves as Christ gave Himself– and Christ gave Himself to crucifixion, laying down His power and authority.  In light of this, it doesn’t make sense to say that the husband-authority exercised in worldly marriages of Paul’s day was somehow intended by God to continue for all time.  Christian marriage in the New Covenant was not intended to be viewed in terms of authority, but in terms of laying down authority and raising up the one under authority.

So if there is any typology in Ephesians 5:21-33, it is the typology of “one flesh.”  To map husbands to Christ in any way not given by the typology, is to go beyond the text and to risk husband-idolatry, placing husbands in the place of Christ in their wives’ lives.   And to give the worldly authority of husbands in Paul’s day, to all husbands for all time, is to wrongly map the human to the divine.

To sum up, then:

Human marriage is not, and cannot be, an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church.  Instead, Christ’s relationship with the church, as shown in the text, is the illustration for New-Covenant human marriage.

Our Western understanding of literary structure leads us to want to see the main point of Ephesians 5:21-33 as wives’ submission to husbands (because it is the first and last thing mentioned), followed by husbands loving wives– and the rest as more or less mere commentary on those two points.  But this is not how Paul intended it to be read.  What he wanted was that the Christians in the church at Ephesus (and in the other churches to whom this letter would be circulated) should see their marriages as needing to imitate Christ’s descent from glory in order to raise up the church to glory.  He wanted them to see that one-flesh unity between a husband who raised up his wife, and the wife who was raised up, was the goal of Christian marriage.

If in this sense marriage is a type, pointing to a fulfillment when Christ comes again, in His one-flesh unity with the church, then this, and nothing else, is the point of similarity of the typology.

There is no justification for stretching the text to make marriage either a type or an illustration of Christ’s authority over the church.

This passage is simply not about the marriage relationship being intended by God as an authority-subordinate relationship.  That is the understanding of marriage that Paul had to work with in his audience’s minds– but that’s not where he left it.  Ephesians 5:21-33’s teaching on marriage is about changing that view of marriage to one of unity and love– the kind of love that could transform the authority-subordinate nature of first-century Ephesian marriages, into what God desires for marriage in His New Covenant kingdom:  oneness, companionship and mutuality.   So when Christians insist on husband-authority in marriage, they are actually going in the opposite direction from where Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was trying to take the church.

This is not about either rejecting or accommodating modern culture.  Christians tend to focus entirely too much on that.  But the question is not, “what is the world doing now, so we can do the opposite, right or wrong?”  The real question is, should we turn back to a first-century worldly understanding, or move forward into the New Creation kingdom of God?

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.

2 Responses to Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church? Part 3

  1. Trevor says:

    Excellent work Kristen. I knew that I was right in saying that I was looking forward to your next instalment. Again it is incredibly clear and I can appreciate you dealing with this as a 3 part series. This has been one of the clearest and simplest (meaning, easy to understand) treatments of this passage that I have read. I trust that others will appreciate your work. Thank you.

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

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