All around the world, weddings are among the most festive and lavish of all our celebrations. The union of a man and woman in a life-long commitment, the creation of a new family, is one of the most important events in the life of any community. And the way in which marriages are held varies drastically from place to place. Some weddings are reverent, serious-minded ceremonies in which commitment is stressed; some take place in Elvis suits between a few rounds of drinks. I attended one wedding officiated by a New Age priestess in which everyone wore orange and pink, and lit candles together. But do you know why Christian weddings traditionally take place in a church-like meeting, and always include the seemingly unnecessary sermon that I am doing now? Have you ever thought about why we do weddings this way, and not another?
This is because Christian marriage is fundamentally different from any other kind of marriage. Christian marriage is more than just a special commitment of one person to another. It is also a parable of sorts that teaches us about God’s love and commitment to His people. Weddings are churchy because they are little pieces of enacted theology. God has instituted marriage, the closest and deepest of all human relationships, to illustrate the kind of relationship to which He calls us.
Christian Wives: The Man to God Relationship
So, let’s begin where Paul does, with the wives, who represent the man-to-God relationship. It says in v22-24:
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Now, I know God has just said that wives are to ‘submit’, and this is likely to be a thorny issue for us, but before we prejudge the idea, let’s first look at how the marriage parable plays out, and at least tune in to find out what kind of deal the man gets.
So what is going on here, and why does God insist upon submission?
Well, it says that a wife submitting to her husband is symbolic of the church submitting to Christ. In other words, the woman’s role in marriage is a small picture of what every Christian must be like in relation to Jesus. This is what I mean:
When you’re single, you’re free to do whatever suits you. You live for yourself, and no-one minds, because you’re alone. There’s no one to upset. If you don’t do the dishes and don’t make the bed, there’s no-one who has to suffer your mess. You are independent.
However, when you’re married, all the rules change. You can’t live for yourself anymore, because yourself keeps clashing with the other self in the room. Now there’s someone who you care about more than yourself, and you want to ensure that he/she’s happy. You are co-dependent.
Now when it comes to our relationship with God, we are not independent. We are not even co-dependent. If we have a creator, then we are totally and utterly dependent on Him for everything. However, our big problem, and God’s big problem with us, is that we like to think that we are independent. We live as though we don’t have a creator, and as if no-one sees or cares what we do. You know what we call someone who got married but continued to live independently? Divorced. Yet that’s how we live naturally towards God.
So, faith is not just believing as strongly as possible that God exists. Faith is recognising that we are dependent on God, and willingly giving up our attempted independence that is actually so hurtful to Him. Faith is submitting ourselves to the deepest and most significant relationship in the universe: mankind with his Creator.
So when a Christian woman submits to her husband, especially in days such as these when it’s totally counter-cultural to be seen doing so, she is drawing a striking illustration of the Christian’s willing submission to Christ, which is something that has always been counter-cultural.
To end off this section, allow me to dispense some practical advice about submission. This passage does not dictate the terms of submission in marriage. It doesn’t say that the man must earn more money or the woman must cook and clean. It doesn’t say that the husband must receive respect but never give it to his wife. It doesn’t even say that the man must make the final decisions and the wife must tamely agree to whatever he decides. A woman can do all these things without really ever respecting her husband at heart. On the other hand, a woman can do all sorts of things that she considers to be respectful, and yet her husband may not experience it like that. What is important is that there is a genuine relationship of respect and love (v33). It is important to appear respectful, but even more so to actually have respect for your husband. The ways in which you agree to express this are negotiable, so negotiate them.
Christian Husbands: the God to Man Relationship
Now let’s turn our attention to the man’s role in the relationship. Some of the married men might still be daydreaming about what benefits they’ll be extracting from their newly submissive wives, and so I’m very eager that all the gentlemen attend very carefully to what God says in this passage to us.
The woman’s role in marriage is to picture the man-to-God relationship, to picture faith. The man’s role is to illustrate the God-to-man relationship. In other words, when people look at a Christian husband, they should be able to understand what God has done for us just a little bit better. Listen to how Paul describes the God-to-man relationship that men must imitate:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (v25-27)
God says that Christian husbands are to be to their wives what Christ is to the church, and He reminds us what exactly Christ has done. Let’s walk through it:
Firstly, there is self-sacrificial love. Jesus gave up his life for mankind. Even though mankind has hated God, attempted to live independently of Him, and people like us killed Jesus when he came for us, Jesus was still willing to die for a bride like that.
Husbands, when it comes to imitating self-sacrificial love, let’s not discuss whether you’d bravely give up your lives for your wives, because it’s easy to theorise about something that is so huge and so unlikely to be tested in reality. Don’t talk about giving up your life for your wife one day; you have given up your life for your wife already when you married her! So forget the Ultimate Sacrifice; how well are you doing at the smaller, daily incarnations of sacrificial love? How well are you setting aside your selfishness in order to put your wife first? And wives, would it really be so bad to submit to a man who did so?
Secondly, Jesus’ self-sacrifice had a purpose. Well, two purposes actually. It purifies and it glorifies. When Jesus came to restart a relationship with mankind, he decided to marry an extremely ugly bride. We are not a prize catch by any stretch of the imagination! BUT, Jesus knows how to reverse the ravages of time. It says that he comes to purify and cleanse his church, so that when she’s presented to him on the wedding day, she’s radiant and glorious. So, the church might be full of fools and recovering hypocrites and ex-addicts. That’s the point. It’s just the kind of hopeless raw material that Jesus came to restore.
And so husbands, what are you doing, as the head of your household, to see to it that your wife is becoming a better, more radiant, more fulfilled person under your care? Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets says to Helen Hunt, ‘You make me want to be a better man’, and in the context of the film, that’s serious progress for him. It might even be a tolerable first step for normal men, but so much more is needed in a marriage. Bettering yourself is one thing, but if we aren’t committed to seeing our wives flourish under our headship, then we have fallen short of Christian marriage.
Marriage Unity: One Flesh
The final thing in this wonderful passage is a further illustration to help men understand how they are to see their wives. It’s strange. I think everyone will agree that it is a good picture of true love, and even in Paul’s day, this illustration was as old as the hills (he’s lifted it from the second chapter of the Bible). Yet despite being nearly the oldest illustration in one of the world’s oldest books, it proved to be too progressive for his day, and even now marriage hasn’t quite caught up with it. Here’s what he says:
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 his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, 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. (v28-33)
That illustration is ‘The two shall become one flesh’.
Now, that might not be immediately earth-shattering, but look at what it means. Husbands must love their wives as their own bodies. We’ve already said that we know how to live independently. We know by nature how to live selfishly. When we head over to the glorious wedding dinner in a little while, we will all demonstrate exactly how well we like to feed and care for our bodies with the things that it desires. So, if we’re supposed to treat our wives as our own bodies, that means redirecting all of the forces of our selfish natures so that they’re not serving our needs anymore, but the needs of our wives instead, and looking after her desires.
As I said, considering your spouse to be one flesh with you is a pattern for marriage that has existed for well over 3000 years. We don’t need reminding how poorly wives have been thought of and treated throughout history. This idea of marriage has been radically counter-cultural since the day it was penned. But surely in our more enlightened times we will stack up better?
Well, how many men actively sacrifice their own interests in order to give their wives the same concern that they used to give themselves?
Men these days think we’ve done enough if we acknowledge that women have the rights to their own bodies, but how many husbands live as though their bodies belong to their wives? I think our relationship statistics suggest that we exhibit far more selfishness than one-fleshedness. Our world has never been more committed to equality between men and women, yet we still do not live up to a 3000-year-old standard of intimacy.
So, in Christian marriage, men and women are not only equal, we are in fact one. We are two bodies joined.
But once again there is a parallel to what Jesus has done for his people. Just as the wife shows submission to illustrate what human faith means, and just as the man loves sacrificially to illustrate what Jesus has done for all of us, Paul’s big message here is that this amazing one-fleshedness is what God has done for us too:
“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.
Just as a human marriage means that two people are drawn together into a new, unified family, so also Jesus’ gospel means that we all can be drawn up into God’s family by faith. When we turn away from our own selfish independence, and turn to love for God, then we will be given the glory of belonging to a unified family relationship with the God of the universe.
This is the picture that Richard and Terri-Ann’s marriage aims to draw for you, their friends and family. They asked me to tell you about Christian marriage, because we’re not just celebrating the promises made between a man and a woman. At the heart of what we’re celebrating today is a reminder of the magnificent, life-changing relationship that they have with God, and which he holds out to all of us through Jesus Christ.