This idea is pervasive in evangelical Christianity today. The idea comes from Ephesians 5:21-33, where Paul speaks of Christian marriage. About.com- 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 About.com-Christianity 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 this 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.