In this, my final look at Paul’s instruction about marriage in Ephesians 5:21–33, I want to look more closely at what I believe is the central quality of Christian love. Without love no marriage can succeed for long. And Christian love is the real basis for Christian marriage. Without this love no marriage can be truly Christian.
Surely you have noticed that non-Christians can and do have great marriages. And you have also surely noticed that many Christians do not have great marriages. While it is true that Christians have the hope and grace to have a great marriage it is not true that they always do. In fact, some statistics suggest that divorce is as high, if not higher, among Christians as among non-Christians. One reason could be that non-Christians are not marrying as often in modern culture. Either way Christian divorce is much, much too high. Please note that I did not say Christians should never divorce, or that they can never remarry. This is something for another day but divorce is permitted in the teaching of the New Testament. The Protestant Reformers got this right and thus restored the teaching of the Scripture at this point. Annulment creates a great burden that involves the church in practice that is not helpful. I would not say this means sin should be ignored or that church discipline is never necessary in some cases. (Whatever the practice, care and compassion must be linked to the pursuit of the truth.)
Paul says that Christ gave himself up for the church (5:25). He found us in our sins and took charge. He exercised authority over us. Thank God he did. But please note that this exercise of authority led him to the ultimate display of love: he gave up his life to purify us (5:26–27). He made us holy “by baptism in the Word” (5:26). In the ritual of our baptism we are publicly brought into the church. This is itself a mystery. But do not get stuck on this point. If the ritual is important (and we Christians disagree about what this means and how important it is) then how much more important is it that we welcome the Word of God which gives us real life in the Spirit?
If Christ washes us because he wants us to be “holy and blameless” (5:27) then this further underscores the central quality of his love. He is faithful. He will do what he promises to do and he will pay any price to accomplish what he is determined to accomplish. Such love is faithful to the end, even to death. Husbands are particularly called to show this faithful love to their wives. But wives are to submit on the basis of this same love. They must be faithful as the bride of Christ. This means that each person offers themselves in a permanent and binding way. Each will then do their best to serve the other, to maximize the relational bond that they enjoy by helping the other to grow in health and communion with God and each other.
I am sometimes asked, “What is a perfect couple?” Or, put in a much better way, “What is a truly great marriage?” I answer that there is no perfect couple but there can be a really great marriage. Such a marriage has problems but the couple (together as one) refuses to accept mediocrity. It sees the problems but always searches for a way to work through them and find a better relationship no matter what the problems. Such love is rooted in hope. Without hope love will fail. Two people who refuse mediocrity will give their best and thereby compel one another to love faithfully.
The central problem in our culture is not equality. It is not headship either. The central problem is that we think love is our business and we can do love in our own strength. We do not understand that Christ’s love compels us to lose our life for the other (Mark 8:35). Christ’s love for us is personal but it is also a love for the whole church. It is a love for the other, the person who is not us. If he loves me and he loves the other then I can love the other because of his great love for us both.
His love for the bride frees me to love my bride with this faithful love. It invites me and my wife to take our place in the great transformation of the world through the radiant mystery of Christ’s love. By our love we can truly love and serve others. This is as basic as the gospel itself. Marriage is not primarily about contracts and laws, though this has its place in civil society. Marriage for a Christian is really about living the gospel in the most intimate human relationship of all. It is a God-ordained way to actually die and then truly live, which is at the heart of genuine Christian experience.