Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Deconstructing the Marriage Metaphor of Ephesians 5 - Part 2

Yesterday in Part 1, I presented the traditional interpretation of the marriage metaphor offered by Paul in Ephesians 5. Today I want to deconstruct the traditional understanding of marriage based on this passage by offering a different perspective.

In Ephesians 5:22-27 the relationship between the head and the body, or the husband and the wife, cannot be understood apart from the reigning paradigm in verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This model of mutual submission is then fleshed out in the following three spheres of relationships addressed by Paul: marriage, parenting, and management.

Starting with the last and working my way backward, slaves submit by humble obedience and wholehearted service while masters submit by treating their slaves with kindness and fairness. Children submit by obeying and honoring their parents while fathers submit by not exasperating their children but instead by involved nurturing. Assuming consistency, Paul also applies the paradigm of mutual submission to the husband and wife relationship.

Interestingly when Paul addresses the marital relationship, not much is offered as to how the wife submits to the husband. At least, not until the end of his discourse on marriage (5:33) after Paul explains how the husband earns her respect. This is conjecture on my part but perhaps the readers of Paul’s day know fairly well what submission looks like for wives (they have been submitting for hundreds of years) and that is why Paul’s instruction to wives is not very exciting.

What is new to the church is the part about husbands submitting to wives. This kingdom-defining, cultural-defying relational dynamic could be considered part of the “Lord’s will” in wise and Spirit-filled living (verses 15-20). So Paul offers more thoughts on what a husband’s submission should look like.

And it should look like Christ’s love for the Church. It is a love that sacrifices for the other and puts the other before him. However, the analogy must not be taken too far to say that a husband’s love does for the wife what only Christ can do. A husband does not make a wife holy – only Christ does. A husband cannot cleanse her through the word – only Christ does. A husband does not present his wife to Christ as a pure and blameless bride – only Christ does. Every metaphor breaks down at some point.

During the first few years of my marriage, I had a very clear picture of what I expected from Jon – a knight in shining armor come to rescue me from my slide into a spiritual pit. The slide had begun just before I graduated from Bible college. I was the top student in my class but as I had gained skill in dissecting the Scripture, I slowly lost my passionate love for Christ. By the time I got married, I knew something was terribly wrong and I had hopes that Jon as my “head” would lead me back to Christ.

That didn’t happen. And for good reason. Jon was not my “savior.”

As the awareness of my spiritual state increased so did the panic. I did everything I could to avoid the slide down, digging my heels deep into the side of the hill through counsel, mentoring, reading, and praying. I tried to respond to Jon’s attempts to lead but he had his own journey of shedding his family’s forms of spirituality and gaining his own. It was painfully awkward for both of us. Then I gave birth to three sons in three years and family devotions became child-friendly but not desperate-wife-friendly.

Sometime between births I quit taking communion. That’s when it hit Jon that I was in deep trouble spiritually. He felt helpless. Seven years into our marriage I hit bottom and abandoned my faith in Christ.

But Christ did not abandon me. Christ revealed himself to me and I was transformed. (That’s a long story.)

That transformation not only impacted my journey with Christ but it also impacted my journey with Jon. We began a new dance.

A dance of adults in which we individually took ownership of our own spirituality.

A dance of equals in which we respected each other’s unique form of spirituality and leadership.

A dance of lovers in which we shed our facades and grew in love and knowledge of each other’s true selves.

A dance of full humanity in which we faced our weaknesses and leaned into each other’s strengths.

In those years after my transformation, our dance was really awkward, at times painful as we stepped on each other’s toes. But with each passing year we got better at dancing. And it’s still getting better. Sometimes he leads and sometimes I lead. The leader is the one who is stronger and more gifted. The follower is the one who humbly accepts limitations and trusts the other. 

Over time the dance has become smoother. It’s become more graceful. Thirty-three years later it’s definitely more fun!

Tomorrow I’ll examine more closely Ephesians 5:28-33 to show the importance of and connection to Genesis 2:24: A man leaves his father and his mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.


  1. Wonderful and encouraging...the Holy Spirit has been alive in you, helping you apply God's Word in your heart(s) and marriage to present you fully mature in Christ...a beautiful and very personally unique process!

  2. Beautiful, Harriet! Thank you so much for sharing this. The analogy of dancing really shows what mutual submission looks like.

  3. So glad I finally made some time to read these posts on Ephesians 5, Harriet, This particular post brought me to tears, it is that beautiful. I agree wholeheartedly with both Rachel and Bekah above!