The big beautiful marriage story

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One of my favourite Bible passages is Ephesians 5:21-33. It’s the passage which I looked at for my MTh dissertation and yet in many respects I’m frustrated by how it is treated by Christians. It has become the battle ground for tribal disputes and the result has been a narrowing of focus and a squeezing of joy and warmth from the passage.

So, in this article I want to draw your attention back to the big story that shapes Ephesians 5 and indeed into chapter 6 too.  If we rush to use these passages for debate or even over quickly to eek out a bit of practical application then we might miss something very exciting.

The crucial verse is this one:

32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.[1]

It is this that helps us to unlock the passage more than a survey of lexicons to tell us what kephale means or an attempt to place the household codes into cultural context. Here is where Paul tells us what its all about and he insists that he has something bigger than our human marriages in mind.  It’s not that human marriages don’t matter or that there is no application to them. It’s that to get there we need to see something else that Paul wants to show us first and that is all about Christ’s relationship to the church

Incidentally, I think that we can take this and apply it across to the other household instructions in Ephesians 5 &6. Whilst its nots explicitly stated, if Paul wants us to see first how the church is the bride of Christ then perhaps before we think about application of the 5th commandment to kids today or work out whether instructions on about slavery have relevance to modern employment we need to see something of how those verses point us to our loving heavenly father who calls us sons and daughters and lifts us out of the cruel bondage of slavery to sin.

In chapter 5, Christ is the bridegroom who chooses to love his bride. This imagery is part of the big redemptive story of Yahweh’s love for his chosen people. In Ezekiel 16, Yahweh passes by and sees Israel wallowing in her own blood (v6) he stops and stoops to rescue her from danger, gives her life, and nurtures her to health (v7). Later, he washes her clean, anoints her with oil and clothes her with beautiful garments and gives her expensive jewellery as she becomes his beautiful bride (v 8-12).

Compare that with

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[2]

Marriage is meant to tell in micro the great macro story of the Gospel, to give us a glimpse of God’s redeeming love for us and to encourage us towards a right response to him. It is Christ who we submit to first and foremost. Furthermore, if Christ pours out compassion, mercy and grace so that we receive undeserved love then we submit to him by allowing him to love us.

We can them apply the teaching to our human marriages by asking a simply question. “Does how we view and live out marriage point in any way to that relationship between Christ and his church? If it doesn’t then I suspect we are not doing it/thinking of it right.

Incidentally, this is my understanding of church life too. In 1 Timothy 3, we see the church talked of in family or household language and that’s the basis of biblical church leadership too. If our marriages are meant to model and bear visual witness to Christ and the Gospel, if our relationships to human fathers remind us of God’s fatherly love to us then the church as the spiritual household should look something like our human households as they honour Christ. It means that the model for church decision making is not the business, military or sports team but the family and it means that we shouldn’t do anything in our organisation of church that takes away from that.

  • When you think of your own relation with Christ, is it characterised by loving submission as you allow him to sacrificially love you? Are you aware of what it means to be redeemed, cleansed and clothed in his righteousness?
  • When you think of your own family life, does the way that you relate as a husband and wife and/or as parents  and children point towards the Gospel
  • Is your church structured more on family lines or business and does it reflect healthy household dynamics?

[1] Ephesians 5:32.

[2] Ephesians 5:25-27.

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