Thursday, October 20, 2011

Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ's Relationship with 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 the principles of Bible interpretation I set forth in my previous blog post. We can’t understand what this passage means to us, until we understand what it is most likely to have meant to the original audience, as Paul intended it to be understood.

In order to see more clearly what the picture was that 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 color-codes here indicate a kind of outline, with each set of parallels the same color, and the central point, in the middle, it's own unique color:

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 loves 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.


Donald Johnson said...

Back in the 1st century, the husband was told he was in charge in a big way. He could tell his wife to abandon a baby (to be killed by wild animals, for example).

So the counsel of Paul is a HUGE contrast to this, a husband is told to serve and love his wife. And the example that is used is Christ serving and loving the church.

This is why it is both sad and strange to see gender hierarchicalists read leadership into these verses. If they would remove their blue lenses, they could see for themselves that nothing like this resides in these verses.

Kristen said...

Exactly, Don. I elaborate on this more in the conclusion, which is now up.

verity3 said...

Amazing to see a complex structure in a passage I used to think was rather rambly.

Marg said...


I must admit, I couldn't quite get my head around the first blog post in this series. (I'm sure the issue was with me and not your writing.) But this blog post is very clear to me.

I am astounded by the clarity of meaning shown in the chiasm!

Marg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kristen said...

Thanks, Verity and Marg!

Marg, I deleted the duplicate comment that Google somehow posted. I wonder if you could let me know what seemed confusing about my opening post on this topic. I'm happy to change it to clarify.

Marg said...

I think I just needed more time to think about what you wrote. I'm still thinking about it.

I've just heard so many times that marriage is a representation (or type) of Christ and the Church, that's it's doing my head in thinking that Christ and the Church is a representation (or type) of marriage.

I'm getting there. :)

Kristen said...

Marg, if you read Part 3 of this series, you'll see that I define "type" and "illustration" differently. I do think there's some justification for seeing in marriage, a type or hint of the future union of Christ and the church in glory. But I don't think marriage is an illustration-- a picture that we look to for clarification or understanding-- of Christ and the church.

Perhaps the cause of this problem, at its root, is that people think "type" and "illustration/representation" are the same thing, when they really aren't. Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of this chiastic method. I've read Don's comments hinting at it, but this is the first time reading through an explanation. Your coloring is helpful. Its screaming for a sandwich illustration! :) I'm going to explore it a bit myself.

Kristen said...

Kbonikowsky, I'm not sure how to add illustrations. I'm still pretty new at this blog thing. I wanted to color code in sandwich colors, but there weren't enough color selections to make it work. I did make the "ends" of the sandwich brown like bread, and the center pink and red like meat, but that was the best I could do!

Joe Dokes said...

Sorry to bump but a question. In this context of marriage, why would Paul tell husbands to love their wives but not tell wives to love their husbands? Been puzzling over this for some time and can't help but think it may be a big clue to understanding. Thanks for any insights.

Kristen said...

Hi Joe, thanks for reading! I actually give an answer that question in the second half of this post:

"Men Need Respect, Women Need Love" - Really?

To put it shortly, it has to do with the dynamics of marriage in the first-century Mediterranean world. Women were usually married very young and with no ability to choose their marriage partner. Men had all the agency in that world; thus, it is the man who is commanded to change things, not the woman. But the linked post above goes into more depth.

Barbara Roberts said...

Thanks Kirsten
I came to this post via Margaret Mowczko's blog, where she acknowledged her indebtedness to this series of yours. I"m glad to have found you.

I co-lead a blog called A Cry For JusticeL: cryingoutforjustice dot com
My co-leader is Ps Jeff Crippen from Tillamook Oregon, which is quite near where you are, I think!
I've given him a heads up about you.

Chiastic structures are so foreign to us westerners. I'm glad you have developed an understanding of them; it's hard to understand and interpret some parts of the Bible unless one has acquired an understanding of chiastic structure and how important it was for the Jews and for many of the early Jewish converts to Christianity.

I have long understood that the notion that 'Marriage is an Illustration of Christ's Relationship with the Church" is a very dangerous notion. As an advocate for Christian victims of domestic abuse, I have coal-face experience of how much damage that notion does to victims of abuse.

In abuse, the abuser is like Satan, rather than like Christ. And when abuse victims hear "Marriage is an illustration of Christ's love for the church. If you ever divorce, you will be giving unbelievers the wrong idea of the gospel! " it sounds more than hollow, it sounds hideous!

Greetings from Melbourne Australia. :)

Barbara Roberts said...

Also, on our blog we interviewed David Instone-Brewer (author of two important books about divorce and remarriage in the Bible). You can find out interview here:

One of our questions to him was:

13. The traditional (1662) Anglican marriage service said that marriage is “an honourable estate, instituted of God, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church” and it gives three purposes for marriage – three reasons why it was ordained by God – “First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name. Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body. Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”

Here is his answer:

These days, some conservative Christians are teaching that marriage has another purpose, one which is even more important than procreation, prevention of sin, and companionship. They have morphed the notion that marriage “signifies unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church” and turned this signifying quality into one of the purposes of marriage. They are going so far as to say that the foremost purpose of marriage is illustrative: to illustrate to the world the covenant love of God. This teaching is causing victims of abuse to stay in dreadful marriages out of a desire to not besmirch the name of God. What would you say to those who assert that a primary purpose of marriage is to illustrate the covenant love of God for the church?

Let’s see how this works for another equally significant image of God’s love for us.

God adopts us as his children. Does this mean that we have to support the institution of adoption in order to maintain the significance of this relationship with God? If no children were adopted, would God continue to adopt us? Was adoption invented in order to signify this relationship?

We have to bear in mind that adoption only happens when bad things happen: parents die, or reject their children, or (in Roman society) children decide to reject their parents in order to be adopted by a richer or more influential parent. Must we make sure that parents continue to die, or that families continue to split up in order to maintain this significant image?

This is all absurd, because adoption is an image of God’s love. It does not produce God’s love, and the absense of adoption doesn’t mean that God won’t love us.

In the same way, God uses marriage as an image of his commitment to us. His commitment won’t diminish even if no-one ever gets married again.

Kristen said...

Thanks for your comments, Barbara! I did a blog post on divorce once here, using a lot of material from Dr. Instone-Brewer. Here's a link:

What About Divorce?

Kristen said...

I'd also (on the topic of singling out marriage alone as as something we cannot change because of its supposed illustrative value) like to post here the words of the late Suzanne McCarthy, who used to blog at Bible Literature Translation and on Suzanne's Bookshelf:

"The slave is powerful metaphor for the suffering of Christ, but we don’t maintain slavery in order to honour the use of that metaphor in scripture. I do not make any claims regarding these metaphors. When you voluntarily become a slave in order to honour the slave metaphor, then you can ask women to subordinate themselves….

And likewise women will submit to Christ. But to be the subordinate to a sinful human being who shares ones house and home, means living like a slave in some cases.

I ask you to live as a slave to an earthly and human master, to be physically punished, to live a lifetime of violence or potential violence, and then come back from that experience, and tell me then to live a subordinate. Just email me in 30 years, after living all that time in slavery, and offer me advice at that time. In the meantime, treat women as equals."