I have childhood memories of watching “The Flintstones” and seeing Wilma and Fred having a disagreement about what they were going to do. The disagreement was supposedly over when Fred pulled out his “ace in the hole” and said, “Now wait a minute Wilma, I am the head of this household and what I say goes!” The rest of the comedy would be devoted to showing how Fred chose poorly and should have listened to his wife. Now, that whole attitude just makes me cringe.
Some have suggested that Paul the Apostle had that model of marriage in mind, but is that his understanding of Christian marriage? After all, he says,
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5 (NIV)
Generations of men have tried to use these verses to justify dominating their wives and getting their own way. But is that what Paul is endorsing? Surely that would contradict everything he has just said in his letter to the Ephesian church about breaking down the barriers that divide, about Christ bringing everyone to unity, and how we must strive for unity based in the new beautiful life of love and kindness while being filled with the Spirit?
No, if Paul just wanted to endorse the old cultural structures of the sinful world of selfish male domination over devalued women he would have stopped his teaching about marriage right there. Instead he goes on to address the oppressive culture of his day.
Paul is seeking change so he plants a seed in the definition of Christian marriage which (if it is allowed to grow) will turn everything upside down.
He tells the men that they are the head of the family (the Ephesian husbands all nod vigorously) and then tells them that they are to be “head” in the same way Christ is “head”. (The Ephesian men suddenly stop nodding as the implications sink in!) As we all know, Christ taught that the one who wanted to lead had to be the servant of all. Paul directs their thoughts to Jesus’ example:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church - for we are members of his body.” Eph 5 (NIV)
Please note that the women got nearly 60 words but Paul worked hardest on the men and their role with 160 words because it was here that Christian marriage was most misunderstood. It was here that wives misunderstood themselves when they misunderstood their husband’s responsibilities. It is only Christian marriage if it bears the marks and qualities of Christ.
“..and gave himself up for her to make her holy...”
Paul looks to Jesus setting aside his own self interest in order to bring out the best in others. The husband is to set aside self interest and seek the best interests of his wife. All for love’s sake. In the Middle Ages Peter Abelard called this love of Jesus for humanity, “the great romance”.
It is also worth noting that Jesus modelled taking the initiative to bring about good things. In marriage this translates to not letting the marriage cruise along as it wills, but taking the initiative in the relationship to build up your partner! Most people are lazy when it comes to marriage because it takes place at home and home is the place where you want to kick off the shoes, relax and not think about stuff.
So Paul revolutionised the understanding of marriage and changed it from a cultural convention to something that found its roots and meaning in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us.
My only beef with Paul is that he needed to push his model one step further and apply the same standard to the wife. Why? Not because our culture dictates that husbands and wives should be identical in power in every way (which never happens in real life anyway).
Rather it is because Jesus told every male and female disciple that true life is about “denying self, taking up the cross and following Jesus.” When wives and husbands both have that Christlike quality then we are really looking at a Christian marriage.
May you find Christ’s power when you let go of your own for love’s sake,