In Part 1 I describe the traditional interpretation of the marriage metaphor offered by Paul in Ephesians 5 and introduced the problem of “mystery.” In Part 2, I suggest an alternative reading of Ephesians 5:21-27. Today in Part 3 of this series, I want to focus on a passage that I believe unlocks the meaning of the marriage metaphor.
In the next unit, 5:28-33, Paul takes the correspondence of husband-wife and Christ-Church to a deeper and more profound connection – the mysterious one flesh union. The head/body metaphor is not a model for setting the husband above the wife in authority or responsibility. It is a metaphor for unity, one that is founded on their union as equal partners of grace in a relationship of mutual submission. For Paul, the mystery of this union is best pictured by a human body that is viewed holistically. How the body moves as one yet with distinct parts is a representation of the mysterious union of husband and wife and of Christ and the Church.
Using a Jewish literary device called a chiasm, Paul connects the concrete metaphor of a head with its body to a theological mystery. Here is how these verses set up as chiasm:
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.
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.
This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
I believe many make a mistake in applying linear forms of thought progression to this passage of Paul’s writing. The main point is not at the end – husbands love your wives and wives respect your husbands. The main point is in the center, identified by the chiastic structure: A husband is to leave his family of origin and be united with his wife in a one-flesh union.
If Paul had wanted to provide a hierarchical model of marriage, it would have made more sense to appeal to the order of creation or the deception of Eve which he uses in 1 Timothy 2 (perhaps a passage for a future post). Instead he appeals to a verse that defines the core of a marriage – the mysterious union of husband and wife where two individuals become “one flesh.” The one flesh metaphor corresponds to the head/body metaphor.
The relationship of the head to the body is not a function of authority but a necessity to unity and life. You can cut off an arm or leg and you still have a body that lives. But cut off the head and you kill the body. Paul is exhorting husbands to embrace what has been true since the day the vows were exchanged and the marriage was consummated. A husband is connected to his wife in a mysterious union of one flesh, of one body. Therefore he must live out that union by submitting to his wife and loving his own “body” by giving himself up to her.
I do not believe Paul is exhorting the husband to step into a role of spiritual leader but to step with his wife in a partnership of unity by connecting to his wife like a head needs to connect with its body. Disconnection from his wife hurts her, even “kills” her as it would if a person was beheaded.
This is what it felt like for me during a very rough time in our marriage. Our dance had stopped. Jon was overwhelmed in his job as a chemistry teacher and manager of the drivers education program for the entire school district. He was hardly home. And I kept myself busy as well, first with homeschooling and later with seminary and church ministry. We quit spending time together just for fun and for romance. Jon was focused on juggling his work and his students. And he was happy to have me take care of everything else. We were managers living as housemates in a disconnected dance.
Finally one evening I told Jon I had lost my feelings of love for him. I told him the long-term disconnection left me numb and unable to respond to him with any feeling. I also assured him that I had no intention of leaving him. I was committed to our marriage. But I could no longer maintain my façade of happiness and needed to be completely honest. There were no demands, I said, just a deep desire for him to really know me, for him to know how empty and broken my heart was.
It was terribly difficult for me to say these words to him. I knew it would hurt him deeply. Jon didn’t say much but with his eyes and his embrace, he received my words with grace and humility. And then in the following months he acted. Within one year our marriage was completely transformed and our hearts were reconnected. Our one flesh union was not just a theological statement but a deeply felt reality.
Paul’s metaphor for marriage is not a model or a mandate. It is a PROFOUND MYSTERY in its image of unity that cannot be fully explained but is intended by God to be experienced. This is true of both marriage and Christ and the Church.
This understanding of the head and body metaphor for marriage makes more sense to me than a hierarchical interpretation within the immediate context of Ephesians 5:21—6:9 as well as within the whole book where unity is a main theme. I offer this alternative understanding of Ephesians 5 to couples who want an alternative story for their marriage. I offer it to couples who actually live this kind of unity and co-leadership despite the story they have been told in the church. And I respect the decision of those who choose to remain loyal to the traditional story but I suggest that a husband’s role of leadership be assigned by gifting and agreed to by mutual consent rather than a mandate based on a possible misreading of Ephesians 5.
To conclude I read this quote recently: “Therapy is the art of changing a person’s controlling metaphor.”
So is preaching and teaching. With this blog series I offer a different controlling marriage metaphor.
I think Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captures the intent of Paul’s metaphor in his poem, Song of Hiawatha, and offers a 19th century version of the metaphor:
As unto the bow the cord is,
So unto the man is woman;
Though she bends him, she obeys him,
Though she draws him, yet she follows;
Useless each without the other!
Can you think of a 21st century metaphor of marriage that would speak to couples today?