Shape of marriage

Sex and Marriage – Article Series
1. The Bride and the Bridegroom
2. Sexual sin and purity
3. Purpose of marriage
4. Shape of marriage
5. Futility of marriage
6. Marriage or undivided devotion?
7. Dating for marriage

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21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
~ Ephesians 5:21-33

We saw in the last post that the purpose of marriage is to glorify God by serving Him. We also saw that the ways that a marriage can achieve this purpose is through sexual intimacy, the creation of a family, and the service of others. But let us now turn to another question: what is the shape of marriage? In other words, what is a marriage supposed to look like and how is it designed to function?

Marriage begins through the mutual expression of a willingness to commit to one another until “death do us part” or Jesus returns, and is sealed through the consummation of sex. It is a voluntary promise that is made (usually with vows) of exclusive faithfulness and absolute service. We see this assumed in passages like Ezekiel 16:8 and Hosea 2:5 where the charge against Israel is that the people are like a wife that has been unfaithful and broken their vows. From start to finish, the heart of the marriage relationship is to be loving faithfulness.

Faithfulness shows itself in the way that husbands and wives are to be concerned about one another and how to please each other (1 Corinthians 7:32-34). It is seen through exclusive devotion and intimacy of sex to the exclusion of all others (Hebrews 13:4). Faithfulness is also seen in the ways in which a husband and wife can work together to care for the family and raise children (Proverbs 23:22-25). We see in Proverbs 31:10-31 a picture of a godly wife and some hints about her relationship with her husband. We see mutual trust and confidence in each other, without any sense that one is demeaning the other, or relegating certain tasks to a particular gender. The picture of marriage that is seen is one of continuing devotion to one another, for the sake of one another, and overflowing in service towards others.

Faithfulness is most clearly seen in the way in which God remains faithful to His people even when they are not faithful to Him (2 Timothy 2:11-13). Faithfulness acts as a source of security within the marriage relationship because it is a lifelong commitment. What God has joined together, we are not to separate (Mark 10:6-9). A marriage is a relationship under grace wherein the wife and husband recognise that through thick and thin, highs and lows, good and bad, they are committed to one another and will stick it out with each other. Consider how liberating that is when we compare it to the uncertainties of a relationship such as that of an employee-employer. If the employee messes up to a great enough extent, or if the employer can no longer afford to pay the employee, the relationship is over. That is a relationship under ‘law’.

But in marriage, two people give themselves to each other and promise to do so exclusively. That changes the way in which they relate or deal with conflict. That changes the way they raise children, and the way in which the children see their family. That changes the way that others see and relate to a marriage in terms of stability, constancy, and consistency. A relationship that lacks security can be exhausting and also inhibit the ability for others to relate in any meaningful manner with the members of that relationship because they will have no way of knowing what state they will be in one day or the next. Faithfulness ensures that we have a foundation to build on; a rock to stand on.

When two people become as close as a marriage is meant to be, they become emotionally and spiritually interdependent on one another. Sex is meant to be a physical outworking of this interdependence as wife and husband lovingly give themselves to one another. In fact, the Bible teaches that in a marriage relationship both the husband and the wife possess each other’s bodies (1 Corinthians 7:3-4). This is why sex is never meant to be ‘just sex’; sex is designed to form, and be formed by, an emotional and spiritual attachment to another wherein they are acting in a most vulnerable and transparent way. There is an expression of trust and consent, of love and service, and of acceptance and comfort. Faithfulness is both a foundation and a fence that is meant to provide a reason for passionate self-giving and security to guard the exclusivity and delicacy of such a union.

Furthermore, God’s pattern for humanity in terms of character and conduct is to be shown within the marriage relationship as well. After all, married couples are still humans who are individually accountable to God. As such, qualities like love, joy, patience, kindness, self-control, holiness, and thankfulness are to be seen as husbands and wives grow in their discipleship to Jesus Christ and seek to live with one another (Galatians 5:13-26, Ephesians 4:17-5:20, Colossians 3:1-14). Since all of us aren’t perfect, joining so closely to another and living with them will expose our failures and sins in a way that has never happened before. Marriage is the theatre where the darkness of our hearts are thrust into the spotlight and we behold just how selfish and ungodly we can be, and how selfish and ungodly someone else can be. We’ll touch more on this in the next post.

But this is why the pattern of relating between a husband and a wife, as with all Christians, is to be filled with gracious forgiveness and reconciliation. Open acknowledgement of shortfalls, disappointments, and wrongs inflicted on another should be met with loving kindness, mercy, and a commitment to remain faithful to one another despite the hurt. This is only possible because we have seen the Lord Jesus Christ who died for His people to swallow up the pain and the rebellion that had been inflicted upon Him, even though it would have been well within His rights to walk away from them. This is the model we have for forgiveness. A faithful commitment to one another entails a commitment to pursue forgiveness and reconciliation as a way of life, as difficult as it may be, in gracious and truthful conversation and agreement.1

The Bible also gives us a specific set of commands to husbands and wives that are meant to help marriage act as a reflection of the ultimate marriage between Christ and His church. In Ephesians 5:21-33 we see that wives are called to submit to their husbands and husbands are called to love their wives as a reflection of how the church submits to Christ and Christ loves the church. This submission is to be voluntary and respectful towards the husband, and this love is to be sacrificial and focused on the wife in such a way that is completely committed to her even if she committed adultery against him (Christ’s love for His people is understood within the terms used in the Old Testament where God’s people are called adulteresses). But what is submission? And what does it mean for the husband to be the ‘head’ of the wife as Christ is the ‘head’ of the church? These are big questions and I don’t think that the answers are simplistic. Let me attempt, in God’s kindness, to shed some clarity based on where my understanding is at as of writing this post.

In general terms, submission can be understood to be the choice of respecting and following an authority. It is a choice, and it is not to be coerced or abused. As Ephesians 5:21 says, all Christians are called to submit to one another, and Paul proceeds to give three examples of relationships where submission is called upon – wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters (Ephesians 5:22-6:9). Additionally, all Christians are to submit to the authority of the rulers and authorities in society (Romans 13:1-7) as well as the leaders of the church (1 Peter 5:5). Respectful, willing submission is the great equaliser that characterises the Christian community and is a display of how in Christ we are all equal (Galatians 3:26-29), and yet we can entrust ourselves to the authority of another. Wives are called to submit to their husbands willingly, respectfully, and out of reverence for Christ. And just as Christians are not lesser when they submit to rulers, authorities, and church leaders, wives are not lesser in the continuing act of respecting the authority of their husband in the marriage relationship.

Meanwhile, husbands being the ‘head’ of the wife is likened to Christ as being the ‘head’ of the church. Husband headship is not the same thing as male headship; that is to say, this is not a prescription for gender roles across society where every man is placed in some sphere of authority over another woman. There is much discussion about the word that is translated ‘head’, but I believe that ‘authority’ cannot be divorced from the concept of ‘headship’.

Consider how the Oxford Dictionary defines authority:2

‘The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.’

But while we know that this definition accurately describes the way in which Christ is an authority over the church as of this moment, we must be careful to note the nuance that is presented in the Bible. This is not the kind of ‘authority’ that we see exemplified in the picture of Christ that is described in Ephesians 5:25-30 that husbands are to model off. That is to say, while wives are called to submit to their husbands as the church does to Christ, husbands aren’t called to be the head of their wives as Christ is currently the head of the church. Instead, the passage points us to something quite specific.

In this passage, the picture of Christ that is described, and that husbands are to take their model of authority from, is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Headship is seen in self-giving, sacrificial, relentlessly loving service which is the basis and conduct of authority. Husband headship is seen in a care and provision for his wife, putting her interests above his own, giving his very life without question or concern for himself. This follows the exact pattern of the inversion of power that we see in Jesus, where greatness is not seen in power and dominance but in sacrificial service (Mark 10:42-45). We cannot import the world’s definitions and assumptions about words like ‘authority’ (or ‘leadership’ as some try and do) because they are not what is in view here. As a Christian theologian has put it elsewhere:

“Headship might be distorted elsewhere into a domineering, abusive insistence upon authority, but when patterned on Christ it is precisely the opposite. It is bearing the responsibility to take the initiative in service and to bear the cost of an unrelenting commitment to the welfare of the other.”3

So, husbands, like Christ on the cross, serve their wives with that they have and all that they are and do not assert a right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. In fact, a husband that seeks to embody this headship would desire to make decisions with his wife if he truly loves her and cares about her well-being.4 Meanwhile, wives, like the church to Christ, submit to the authority of their husbands by respecting and following their service. This dynamic is seen as the picture that Christians are to manifest in their marriages (e.g. Colossians 3:18-19, 1 Peter 3:1-7) out of obedience and submission to Jesus Christ who is the only one who really does have the power and right to give orders, make decisions, and (will one day) enforce obedience. 

I think that there is a great degree of freedom in how such a way of relating is to play itself out, just as the Christian life is meant to be lived out under the guidance of Christ but with the freedom that we now share in Jesus. As such, I want to avoid giving explicit examples of what this may mean in a marriage relationship. On top of that, I myself have many questions about the concepts of headship and submission that I don’t have clear answers to yet; what I have presented, though, is what I believe to be true from the biblical revelation and can explain with a degree of confidence. But as we have seen, there is such a mutuality that is presented that both are needed. This is a partnership between two people that is of eternal significance. When people see a marriage they are to see the relationship between Christ and the church. Wow.

Taken together with everything we’ve seen, the shape of marriage is a big call: what if the husband is hard to respect because of immaturity? What if the wife is hard to love sometimes? What if I am struggling to stay faithful to my spouse? What if we cannot deal with conflict well?

The immediate thing to say is that the ideal that we see in God’s word is what we are to aim for through Spirit-fueled, grace-soaked, prayerfully-dependent effort. God graciously gives Christians His Spirit in order that they may put sin to death and walk in righteousness (Romans 8:1-13). And we can pray that God would help us to grow with the fruit of righteousness so that we can grow in our obedience (Philippians 1:9-11). While we live in this mortal body we will continue to fall short, even though we are perfectly justified and accepted in Christ, but we know that we will continue to grow more Christ-like as we mature in Him. In that sense, marriage is an adventure as we change ourselves and change one another, seeking to follow the pattern of relating that is given to us as we achieve the purpose that God has given marriage for.

However, what happens when marriage loses a sense of purpose, or becomes distorted (perhaps, even monstrous)? What happens when a husband and a wife forget that their union is meant to point beyond themselves towards the God who has given them this bond? No marriage is perfect. Many are abusive and completely broken. What does the Bible say about these real, prevalent, and present issues? That’s what we’ll look at in the next post.

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.

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  1. For more on forgiveness and reconciliation, you can read a two part series starting here: http://www.thelas.info/2015/11/forgiveness-part-1/
  2.  https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/authority
  3. Excerpt From: Peter G Bolt and Tony Payne. “Women, Sermons and the Bible.” Matthias Media, 2014.
  4. I have avoided wording this as ‘include his wife in decision-making’ because that assumes that the decision making is something that is already occurring to the exclusion of his wife. The normative situation should not be one where the husbands make decisions autonomously from their wives, with rare exceptions where particular tasks might be delegated under mutual agreement.