Understanding the Mystery of Christian Marriage, Part One

John ArmstrongMarriage & Family

Marriage-2 Perhaps no passage in all of Holy Scripture is misused, and abused, more than St. Paul’s instruction in the Epistle to the Ephesians found at the end of chapter five. In 5:21–33 Paul gives the church ethical instruction about marriage. He addresses both husbands and wives. The text has prompted raging debates and divided more than a few Christians. The troubling verse is really 5:22, which says: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” The ways in which this text has been understood and applied are almost as various as are the commentators and teachers of the Bible. I do not have a definitive interpretation but I do believe that I understand it in terms of great Christian consensus, at least as regarding the essential points Paul wants us to grasp.

One of my favorite Bible translations is not known among evangelicals, at least from what I have been able to tell. It is called the Christian Community Bible (CCB). This version is an English translation of a version prepared in 1988 by Brazilian translators. A Catholic friend introduced me to it. It includes a solid translation of the Scripture as well as some very helpful annotations. The CCB translates Ephesians 5:21–22 this way:

Let all kinds of submission to one another become obedience to Christ. So wives to their husbands; as to the Lord.

Note that Ephesians 5:21–6:9 clearly parallels Paul’s words in Colossians 3:18–4:1. Both texts follow a Christocentric pattern that sets forth Jesus as Lord over all. Both clearly set forth the truth that Jesus is the Lord of all humanity, the second Adam, the new man. In his resurrection Jesus is declared Lord over all, having defeated death and having been raised for our justification. As the head of all humanity Jesus has suffered everywhere, worked in every field of human activity and given life to all. (There is a definitive universality here but this emphasis is missed by many evangelicals. This seems to be true because evangelicals rightly insist that the ultimate universal salvation of all humanity is not plainly taught in the Scripture!) To put this very simply, Paul is saying in both Ephesians and Colossians that Christ gathers into himself every form of human love and lives the diversity of all human existence; cf. Ephesians 5:1–2.

So the central point here is that Christ is the head of redeemed humanity. In this ethical instruction Paul applies this very principle to marriage and family. This development comes in a way that is totally unexpected. When we read this text as a simple endorsement of “male headship” we thus read it ideologically, not biblically. We should be surprised by such a text and if it does not lead us in a direction that stands against Western or Eastern culture we should doubt our conclusions. This text is unique precisely because the basis for the instruction is so uniquely rooted in Christ our head.

Question: When biblical texts no longer intrigue and surprise us what happened?