Sunday, June 17, 2012

Marriage: Theology in the Flesh

What does the modern, evolved, forward-looking Church of today do with Paul's seemingly archaic views on marriage, wives, and husbands? For many, the answer is simple: Disregard it entirely. We no longer force women to keep their heads covered, and many men wear their hair long. Women have makeup, do their hair, wear nice clothes, and none of this is deemed unChristian. What makes his absurd comments regarding marriage any different? For me, the answer lies in Paul's view of what marriage is. For Paul, marriage is not, primarily, a human thing. It is not first and foremost a human institution. It is, primarily, a symbol of divine mystery, a piece of theology "in the flesh," as it were. And theology is not bound by culture.

Paul speaks about marriage extensively in Ephesians 5. Wives are to submit to their husbands, husbands are to love their wives. But he does not leave these commands hanging by themselves: He explicitly links them to theological truths. Wives are to submit to their husbands "as to the Lord." He elaborates on what that means: "As the Church submits to Christ, so the wives should submit in everything to their husbands." Again: "As the Church submits to Christ." He distinctly ties this aspect of marriage to the Church's natural and eternal submission to Christ.

Then he moves on to the husbands: He says husbands are to love their wives "as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her." In the same way and to the same degree that Christ loved the Church, the husband is to love his wife. And not just love, but self-sacrificing protection as well. This is just as vital to Paul's view of marriage as what he says about the wife: And yet there is no move by anyone to insist that this, too, is only cultural. And then Paul returns to what he said before, taking pains to clarify the relationship between the husband and wife: "For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church." All of these aspects of marriage--submission of the wife, headship of the husband, the self-sacrificing love of the husband for the wife, the relationship of Christ to His Church--are portrayed as equally true. There is no room to attack the legitimacy or objectivity of one without attacking the legitimacy and objectivity of all the others.

Paul is making it very simple: In the exact same way that Christ is the head of the Church, the husband is to be the head of the wife. "Even as Christ is the head of the Church:" That is, eternally, non-negotiably, on the basis of who Christ is and who the Church is. In the same way, on the same basis, for the same reason.

The best argument that I have heard against all this is  that Paul is merely following the culture of his time, with a slight improvement: He is giving women a slightly better lot in the Christian culture than outside of it, thereby continuing a cycle of betterment that we ourselves are to continue, culminating in that glorious day when women are hailed as the equals of men! It's a nice thought.  But is that what is happening? Does the way Paul phrases his statements leave that path open? Is Paul merely making a helpful parallel, instead of (as it seems) theologically linking the two?

Going a little bit further. Paul is still speaking about marriage, and he quotes probably the most well-known verse in the Bible: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is found in the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis, and Jesus himself quotes it in Mark 10. If the reader knows anything at all about the Jewish/Christian view of marriage, they will recognize what Paul is talking about.

In quoting this passage from Genesis, he's saying, "This is what marriage has been since the beginning. This is what marriage is. Always." This is what marriage means to Paul. There is no "cultural" marriage, no shift in marital attitudes. The fact that marriage was corrupted in the O.T. does not change this. This is what it is.

But Paul goes still further. Speaking of marriage, the mystery of two becoming one, he says, "This mystery is profound." Amen! Alright, Paul, let's wrap it up... wait. You're not done? "And I am saying that it refers to Christ and his Church." The verse that defines marriage--that has defined marriage since the book of Genesis was written--is, for Paul, ultimately about Christ and His Church. Marriage is, ultimately, about Christ and His Church.

And yes, this verse says nothing about submission: But it tells us that marriage, fundamentally, is a mirror, a replica, a reenactment of the relationship of Christ and His Church. It should resemble that relationship in all possible particulars: Joyful submission and selfless love.

Here's what that means: To view marriage as strictly a human, cultural institution is to completely ignore what Paul says about it. To say that Paul is merely teaching a "cultural" definition of marriage is to completely ignore the obvious, explicit parallels he makes to the relationship of Christ and his Church. Paul does not mean to teach a cultural marriage. Paul means to show that marriage is nothing less than a reenactment in the flesh of Christ's relationship with His Church.

I've been married for six months. We talked about it going in, what our marriage was going to be like, how I was going to be the head of it. I suspected, even then, that I was not assuming the position through any sort of natural superiority on my part. Now, six months in, I know that I do not deserve, through merit or intrinsic worth, to lead Anna. I know that I am not better than her. And yet here we are, six months in, and it's going pretty well.

I think I'm going to write more on this later, but for now, I kinda want to take a nap before church. Pancakes make me tired.

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