John Updike said one time that he started reviewing books (in addition to writing them) because it helped him deal with his sense of indignation. I feel like I’ve often been indignant on this blog recently—like I’m always disagreeing with people and being argumentative. I apologize if I’m coming across this way. It’s true I like to argue, but it’s not just that: Talking about the Bible, and trying passionately to communicate its relevance to our world today, is a large part of my calling, my life’s work. I believe what I preach! That people in our day underestimate how truly good and powerful and relevant the Bible is—even though, our secular-minded age notwithstanding, they have been indelibly shaped by it—is an understatement.
So I tend to get a little worked up even by seemingly innocuous little posts such as this one, by a seminary professor in the United Church of Christ named Greg Carey. He contends that for all the fuss that the church makes about marriage, the Bible actually says very little, and what it does say is often wrong or, ironically, unchristian. Here’s his payoff paragraph:
Christians will always turn to the Bible for guidance—and we should. If the Bible does not promote a clear or redemptive teaching about slavery, that doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from Scripture about the topic. The same values that guide all our relationships apply to marriage: unselfish concern for the other; honesty, integrity and fidelity; and sacrificial—but not victimized—love. That’s a high standard, far higher than a morality determined by anachronistic and restrictive rules that largely reflect our cultural biases. Rules make up the lowest common denominator for morality. Love, as Paul said, never finds an end.
I don’t even disagree with this. I mean, I do agree—mostly. Christ-like love isn’t about following rules, and the New Testament’s demand to love in this way transcends cultural biases. But I don’t think he does justice to what the New Testament actually says about marriage. Although we have to do a lot of reading between the lines to get at its message, what it says is richer and more challenging than Carey appreciates.
I especially didn’t like this paragraph:
One other passage frequently surfaces in weddings but rarely in mainline Protestant churches, the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodists and United Church of Christ congregations that invite me to speak. Ephesians 5:22-33 commands wives to obey their husbands and husbands to love their wives. Conservative Christians may try to explain away the offense of this passage, but there’s no escaping its ugly reality. Ephesians calls wives to submit to their husbands just as children must obey their parents and slaves must obey their masters. See the larger context, Ephesians 5:21-6:9.
Yours truly did preach on this Ephesians passage a while back, and, far from feeling embarrassed by how offensive it is, I think Paul is making a radical statement about the equality of partners within a Christian marriage. (And as for Paul’s words about slavery that follow these words on marriage, I believe that he subverts that institution in a similar way.)
All that follows I’ve said this before, but it deserves repeating. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, along with Colossians and 1 Peter, includes a common feature of Greco-Roman letter-writing known as “household codes.” Traditionally, these are instructions given by moral teachers to minority members of households: wives, children, and slaves.
Paul is adapting this convention for Christian households in nothing less than radical ways. That he is addressing most of his words to husbands in the first place is an important clue. Take Ephesians 5:21-22 (from the NRSV), which, according to Carey, is an example of the “ugly reality” of the Bible’s teaching on marriage:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.
This is not exactly what Paul wrote in Greek. If you have an NASB Bible (a more literal translation than the NIV or NRSV), you’ll see that “be subject” in v. 22 is italicized. This means that “be subject” (or “submit”) doesn’t appear in v. 22. What Paul actually writes in these verses is the following:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands as you are to the Lord.
Do you see the difference? Of course the “be subject” is implied in v. 22, but notice that Paul is literally carrying over the verb implicitly from v. 21. In the most literal sense, the submission Paul is asking of wives in v. 22, he is asking of all Christians in v. 21. In other words, v. 22 isn’t saying anything that isn’t said by v. 21. It’s redundant. If all Christians are to submit to one another, well then of course wives are to submit to their husbands, just as—by that same logic—husbands are to submit to their wives.
Maybe we’re not out of the woods yet. Because then there’s v. 23a: “For the husband is the head of the wife…”
“For the husband is the head of the wife.” If we were husbands living in and around Ephesus in the middle of the first century, and we heard these words, our reaction would be, “Of course the husband is the head of the wife! Why are you telling us something that we already know, Paul? Nothing could be more obviously true. Look around… women are powerless, little more than property.”
But then Paul continues with something far more radical: The husband is the head of the wife, “just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.” Again, if we were husbands living back then, we would feel Paul stepping on our toes. “We’re supposed to be the head, just as Christ is the head? I’m not so sure about that!”
How exactly is Christ “the head,” after all? What is the cross, if not the most dramatic act of submission for the sake of love in human history? Husbands are being held to that same standard of submissive, other-directed, Christ-like love! Think about Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet in John 13. Why does Peter object to this foot-washing? Because he knows that Jesus, his Master and Teacher, shouldn’t submit to him in such a humble way. Foot-washing is what slaves are supposed to do. Jesus reversed the roles with his disciples; he reversed the traditional understanding of what it means to be in charge, to have power. Somehow, a husband’s love is supposed to look like that?
In a Bible study on Ephesians, which I created for the Board of Ordained Ministry in 2009, I wrote the following:
Jesus, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords, also reversed roles in the most dramatic way of all: He willingly set aside his own interests, his own safety, his own security, his own reputation, his own position, and his own well-being in order to die a humiliating and shameful criminal’s death on a cross. And he did so out of love for us we can’t fully comprehend. What wouldn’t Jesus do for us out of love? “Husbands,” Paul implies, “are you prepared to love that way?”
Paul challenges husbands here because he knows that that’s not the way husbands typically love their wives, and he wants them to change!
Among other things, Paul is not saying that when a husband and wife disagree about something, the husband gets to assert his authority to say, “I’m the head, so what I say goes.” Doing so would contradict the Christ-like love by which Paul says husbands are to love their wives. Loving with Christ-like love, agape, is a very high standard of love that applies to all of us Christians. And I suspect that for most of us most of the time, loving one another the way Christ loves is still very difficult.
My favorite part of this passage, which our United Methodist wedding liturgy alludes to, is Ephesians 5:31-32.
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.
What exactly is this “great mystery” that Paul is “applying to Christ and the church”? Here is a subtle but powerful turn in Paul’s argument: Paul was leading us to believe that he was using Christ’s love for the church to say something about Christian marriage, but that’s exactly backwards: he’s actually using Christian marriage to say something Christ’s love for the church (tying it into the broader theme of his letter).
In other words, the incarnation of Christ is nothing less than a love story: Because of a man’s love for his wife, “a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Similarly, because of God’s love for the world, God the Son, left his Father in heaven, in order to unite with our flesh, to become one with us, his creation—and
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.