If we are to understand the true mystery of marriage in Christ we must understand that marriage takes on a sacred nature when it is between two Christians. It is a covenant, not a contract. And in Christ it becomes a great mystery that becomes a beautiful and mysterious icon of the love of Christ for his bride.
Married couples are to live in Christ in a way that is enthusiastic about their love for each other as husband and wife. (Enthusiasm has its root meaning in two words en theos, which means to be "in God.") In the day-to-day love that a married couple shares they must learn to love one another as well as their children and the larger community. By so loving they become a living sign (this is where the idea of a sacrament comes from in Catholic theology) of how much Jesus loves us and wishes to embrace us as his brothers and sisters. As the couple works through marital and family crises and struggles they powerfully bear witness to the ministry of the Holy Spirit at work in all our lives.
There are many cultural models of marriage. All have strengths and weaknesses in them because they are all built on human ideas, psychological insights and social developments. Models of marriage that are rooted in cultures like our own look more like a partnership. Economics has a lot to do with how this model actually works. In economically challenged contexts marriage will look very different, say in the Third World. The lower and middle classes will relate to one another very differently than the rich. This is a simple, observable fact. Conservative Christians are prone to take an ideal model of marriage from the West and argue that this is normative for all Christians at all times in all cultures.
In the West we have almost as many options regarding how to live within a marriage as there are couples. Feminism has played a powerful role in our culture and way of life. Feminism has brought great blessings, such as equal political rights, economic benefits and social opportunity for growth and development. Feminism also demonstrates the law of unintended consequences. With it has come confusion and distrust. Marriage has become such a highly complex arrangement that millions are now opting to not marry. The common law marriage has become the norm for many young people. They pursue intimate sexual relationships in different ways all the time saying marriage is not for them, at least not yet. This has created a massive breakdown in the social and emotional well-being of multitudes. The solution to this is not to deny the great gains of feminism but to engage people in “new” ways with the message of Christ’s love. This is what Paul is doing in Ephesians 5, at least as I understand it. To read this text in a way that supports or attacks feminism is to read it incorrectly. This was not even in view in Paul’s social milieu. We must put cultural concepts aside and listen to the amazing truth that is really given in this passage.
The Christian ideal is clear. We are to “make oneself a slave” (Mark 9:35) for the kingdom. One partner is not superior to another. One is not in the position of power over the other. One is not whole unless the other fulfills a role. We are already whole in Christ. We are all free. We are all equal. In a marriage we work this out in the power and grace of the fullness of the Holy Spirit by sharing life with the other person in the love of Christ. In short I believe that no marriage is exactly like another. Each couple must discover its own balance and pattern, by listening and loving, and then each person can take the initiative needed according to giftedness and capacity they discover in one another. In this sense a husband can lead and a wife can follow but this looks nothing like the social structures that we generally create in a particular culture. (This does not mean that we always choose to be counter-cultural, or contrarian.) We may learn to live in many ways that look and feel like the culture we swim in every day precisely because this is where we are most comfortable and find that we can best function in mutuality. The illustrations of my point are so numerous that there is no need to list them.
The husband is the head (5:23) of his wife. The wife does “submit” to her husband (5:22). But being the head is not being the boss, or the executor of the family business. (Note: Both parents share authority over the children. Some totally ludicrous male leaders treat women as if they do not have authority in the home. If their husband dies, or leaves, they do not have the ability to lead their children as a parent! Such elders then tell women they will take on this role. This is patriarchy with a twist that is not biblical.) Headship is linked with Christ in this passage. Think of Christ’s headship over the church. He has saved her, called her, loved her and baptized her. He has given her everything that she needs to be whole. He has all authority in heaven and on earth (a husband does not) yet the Scripture says he uses his supreme authority to love and serve his bride. This is the truth that is truly radical about this text!