The Divine Order in Marriage


Review

In Gen. 2 we have considered the establishment of marriage
and its fundamental character, as well as the creation of man
and woman to complement one another in marriage. Last week we
considered the practice of married love as first and foremost a
matter of loving, celebratory, appreciative speech. That is,
expressions of love, of the depth of love, of compliment
(appearance, accomplishment, goodness, etc.), of the happiness
of being married to her, etc. [The Mona Lisa illustration]

The Divine Order in Marriage

Read: Ephesians 5:22-33

[Text comment: Does 5:21 render the entire idea of
submission “mutual?” This is the claim of the so-called
“evangelical feminists.” Of course women are supposed to submit
to their husbands, just as husbands are to submit to their
wives. “Submission” in this context thus means simply “respect,
consideration, and thoughtfulness.” However, the term used in
v. 22 “hypotasso” always implies a relationship of submission
to an authority (Jesus to his parents, Luke 2:51; citizens to
civil government, Rom. 13:1,5; the universe to Christ, 1 Cor.
15:27, Eph. 1:22; Christ subject to God, 1 Cor. 15:28; church
members to church leaders, 1 Cor. 16:15-16, 1 Pet. 5:5; the
church to Christ, Eph. 5:24; servants to their masters, Tit.
2:9, 1 Pet. 2:18; Christians to God, Heb. 12:9, Jas. 4:7). None
of those relationships are ever reversed. Certainly no one
thinks, I hope, that 5:21 means that parents are to be subject
to their children. And no one thinks that, in the still more
immediate context, Christ is also to submit to the church.

The submission that is introduced in v. 21 and then
elaborated in the following verses is a submission that is
specified in the following verses. The submission that Paul is
speaking of is that of wives to husbands, children to parents,
servants to masters, even while there are responsibilities for
the superiors in those relationships. The submission is
commanded and the authority is regulated. What v. 21 means,
then, is that we all should be subject to those whom God has
put in authority over us, such as husbands, parents, and
employers. (This also explains why husbands are never told to
be subject to their wives in the Bible, though wives are
commanded several times to be subject to their husbands [Eph.
5:22-24; Col. 3:18; Tit.. 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1-6]).

[It is true that the term translated “to one another” in
5:21 could mean “everyone to everyone” [John 13:34; Gal. 5:13].
But it often has a more restricted sense, a restriction
clarified by the context. (E.g. 1 Cor. 11:33 “when you come
together to eat, wait for one another” obviously means
“those who are ready to each should wait for the rest.” So,
Rev. 6:4; Matt. 24:10; Luke 2:15; 12:1; 24:32.)]

We have already commented on the fact that the account of
the creation of man and woman sets the sexes in a certain
order. The man was made first, the woman was made from
the man, and the woman was made to be his helper. In 1 Cor.
11:3-10, Paul argues that all of that demonstrates that the man
is the “head” of the woman (terminology that appears also in
Eph. 5:23). What is more, the man names the woman, in fact,
does so on two different occasions: 2:23 (“woman”) and 3:20
(“Eve”) which is a powerful demonstration in this context of
his authority over her.

This male priority or the headship of man over woman becomes
hereafter both the teaching of the Bible and what is everywhere
illustrated in the Bible. What is more, that headship becomes
the basis for ethical teaching. Women are to submit to their
husbands, Paul argues in Eph. 5, because the husband is the
head of his wife. Women are not to teach or exercise authority
over men for the same reason, Paul writes in 1 Tim. 2. There he
adds the additional consideration that this order of the sexes
is fundamental to the blessing of human society. When it is
reversed, when the woman assumes an improper initiative or
authority, all manner of bad things happen. Indeed, Paul says,
in language that one would think is impossible to mistake, the
fall itself happened, in part, because the man did not exercise
his headship and the woman acted with an initiative improper
for her. This same thing is said in other ways in the Bible
(Isa. 3:10: “Youths oppress my people; women rule over them” is
a mark of a society in trouble. Roles are confused and there
will be hell to pay!).

However controversial this doctrine has become in the
evangelical world today, I will assume that we are committed to
it here. It is the plain, straightforward teaching of the Bible
(only evangelicals in transition are persuaded by the exegesis
used to get male headship out of the Bible!), it is the witness
of 2,000 years of the Christian interpretation of the Bible,
and it is, as so much else in the Bible’s teaching about
men and women and love and marriage, confirmed by the
observation of life (I noticed in the paper the other day that
Courtney Cox, married recently, and is taking her
husband’s name, even for professional purposes!). What is
more, there is almost nothing in the feminist movement –
in its secular or Christian forms – that reflects a true
embrace of the larger biblical doctrines of humanity, gender,
calling, etc.

But it is one thing to defend this doctrine as the teaching
of the Bible, it is quite another to explain its meaning, and
still more, to apply it to the practical questions of married
life. I often ask couples, when we get to this question in
pre-marital counseling, to tell me what they think it means
that the man is the head of his wife and that a woman is to
submit to her husband. After all, no one reading the Bible
thinks that male headship makes a husband his wife’s
boss, as if, each morning he should leave her a list of
assignments for the day and check her work later when he gets
home. There may have been husbands who treated their wives that
way, but that isn’t the way Christ deals with his people
as the Head of his bride. Nor does anyone think that a
Christian woman is supposed never to open her mouth, or
disagree with her husband. Not if, as Peter says, they are to
live together as heirs of the grace of life. But, if it
doesn’t mean those things, what does it mean?

And, with few exceptions, they purse their brows and hem and
haw and then say something like this: “Well, I suppose it means
that if you disagree about something and cannot come to a
meeting of the minds, then, at the last, the man must make the
decision and be responsible for it and the wife must submit her
will to her husband.” And, I reply to them, “Well, perhaps. No
doubt that is true. But, when I read Eph. 5 I cannot believe
that Paul is talking about something that may only very rarely
happen in life. I can’t think of any particular instance
in which that has ever happened in my marriage. Paul is
unmistakably referring to the very character and nature of a
marriage when he speaks of the husband as the head of his wife
and the wife submitting to and respecting her husband.

Our writers, our theologians and exegetes, have been very
good at defending the biblical doctrine against modern attacks
from the feminist side. They have won every battle, even if
they are losing the war (an indication that the question is not
“what does the Bible say?” but “what am I willing to
believe?”). But they have not done as good a job and explaining
the meaning of this order and, even more, the goodness and
blessing of it, why we should rejoice in this difference and
this order for marriage, with husbands above wives.

One of the best things I have read on this subject comes
from an Episcopalian theologian that I would never recommend to
you, otherwise. In many ways he is not a reliable expositor of
the Bible. But he often is insightful and has a way of stating
things that is fresh and memorable. His name is Robert Farrar
Capon. Years ago he wrote a book on marriage entitled Bed
and Board
that became a national bestseller, all the more
remarkable because the book defended a number of very
conservative opinions.

The book has a chapter entitled “Roles” and in it Capon
deals with the biblical order of marriage, the headship of the
man and the submission of the woman. And the gist of his
argument, I think, gets exactly Paul’s sense in the
passage we have read. I haven’t the time to read the
whole to you, but let me summarize with a few extracts.

“In order to be a father, a husband, a wife, a mother
– you still have to begin by being a man or a woman.”
[Robert Farrar Capon, Bed and Board, 46] “…the
planet houses two different sorts of rationality, two different
kinds of freedom, two different brands of love: men’s and
women’s” [48]

“Suppose I wrote a book called The Sexual Life of a
Nun
. You know what people would think. They would be
curious – or shocked. They would expect to find it either
a big joke or a compilation of slightly prurient propaganda.
How many would be able to see that, on the real meaning of the
word sexual, it is a perfectly proper title? For a
nun’s life is utterly sexual. She thinks as a woman,
prays as a woman, reacts as a woman and commits herself as a
woman. No monk…ever embraced his life for her kind of
reasons. He couldn’t if he wanted to. Of course she
omits, as an offering to God, one particular expression of her
sexuality; but it is only one out of a hundred.” [49]

“…on the subject of wives and husbands [St. Paul]
deserves more of a hearing than he currently gets. The husband,
he says, is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of
the Church. The marriage rite takes him at his word. It is the
groom who speaks first, gives first and loves first. The bride
is to obey, to receive, and to respond. (Let me anticipate an
objection. The word obey. I know it isn’t in the
American version of the rite [Episcopal]. It was hacked out in
1892 by one of those periodic committees of revising do-gooders
who would cut out our hearts if they thought it would make us
up-to-date. They wreck a lot of fine old scenery and every now
and then they throw out an old truth along with an archaic verb
form, but they don’t do too much real harm. The word obey
isn’t in the marriage vow any more, but the whole of St.
Paul’s glorious passage on marriage and the Mystical Body
is in the epistle for the nuptial Mass – complete with
the duty of wives to submit to their husbands. So St. Paul got
even with them after all. They can’t win, but they never
stop trying.)

           
“The reason the headship of the husband is so violently
objected to is that it is misunderstood. First of all, St.
Paul’s anti-feminist prejudices notwithstanding, the
Bible does not say that men and women are
unequal. Neither does the Church. There are no second-class
citizens in the New Jerusalem. It is husbands and
wives that are unequal. It is precisely in marriage (a
state, you will recall, not to be continued as such in heaven)
that they enter into a relationship of superior to inferior
– of head to body. And the difference is not one of
worth, ability or intelligence, but of role. It is
functional, not organic. It is based on the exigencies of the
Dance, not on a judgment as to talent. In the ballet, in any
intricate dance, one dancer leads, the other follows. Not
because one is better (he may or may not be), but because that
is his part. Our mistake, here as elsewhere, is to think that
equality and diversity are irreconcilable. The common notion of
equality is based on the image of the march. In a parade,
really unequal beings are dressed alike, given guns of
identical length, trained to hold them at the same angle, and
ordered to keep in step with a fixed beat. But it is not the
parade that is true to life; it is the dance. There you have
real equals assigned unequal roles in order that each may
achieve his individual perfection in the whole. Nothing is less
personal than a parade; nothing more so than dance. It is the
choice image of fulfillment through function, and it comes very
close to the heart of the Trinity. Marriage is a hierarchical
game played by co-equal persons. Keep that paradox and you move
in the freedom of the Dance; alter it, and you grow weary with
marching.” [53-54]

Capon’s illustration can be drawn out still further.
It is a remarkable thing, I think, if you think about it, that
you cannot really tell who is the better dancer when comparing
an accomplished ballerina and a great male lead. Who was the
better dancer: Dame Margot Fonteyn or Rudolph Nureyev? No one
can say. For they danced completely different roles and the
roles required of them completely different things. All you
know for sure is that, beautiful as Swan Lake was when
they danced it together, it would have been grotesque had they
attempted to switch roles, and Fonteyn attempted to lift
Nureyev over her head. They might have done that for a joke,
but never seriously. Each role is suited to a particular
gender. Well, as in the ballet, so in life! The Bible teaches
this in many places, assumes it everywhere else, and builds its
ethics on that assumption, as here in Eph. 5.

In other words, Capon is saying, what Paul is saying here in
Eph. 5:22ff. is that men are men and women are women, but that
Christian men must be Christ-like in their manhood as Christian
women must be Christ-like in their femininity. The man
is the Head of his wife. He is not commanded to be the
Head, he is not urged to be the Head, he is not scolded for
failing to be the Head of his wife. He is her Head. God
has made him so and nature – the nature of men and women
– reproduces God’s intention. This is Paul’s
point in 1 Cor. 11. The man is the Head of the woman.
But a man can exercise his headship sinfully or righteously.
Here Paul is simply saying, that, being her Head, the man must
exercise that Headship in a genuinely Christian, Christ-like
way. He must exercise his Headship sacrificially, lovingly,
selflessly. Sin corrupts his Headship and makes it something
that she resents, that harms her, that frustrates her. “He will
rule over you…” so we read of the man and the woman in
Gen. 3:16. That should be the blessing of the woman, but in a
sinful world it is not. But, it should be again in the world of
grace.

Similarly, the submission of the woman is a fact of life.
She is the weaker vessel, as Peter puts it. But her
gender, her nature, is not something she should resent, or
chafe under, but something she should practice in a genuinely
humble, self-effacing, submissive way.

In other words, all Paul is asking for here, is that each
sex be true to its own nature in marriage, and, by the grace of
God, to sanctify that nature to the benefit and blessing of one
another in the marriage. The Bible is less interested in
asserting headship that in telling men in their headship to be
Christ-like in their way to their wives.

This is why, by the way, Eph. 5 was, until very recently,
thought to be the most beautiful passage in the Bible on
marriage, and the favorite text to read at a wedding. If one
accepts the reality of gender as God-created orders of being,
as it is accepted here, and as Christians have always accepted
it through the ages, what is left is not controversial, but
inspiring and elevating: a summons for both men and women to be
unreservedly Christian in the conduct of their marriage: men as
men and women as women. Until recently, and really still today,
no Christian really wants anything else: a woman wants a
man, but a Christian man; and a man wants not
another man, but a woman, but a Christian woman!
Then what we find in marriage is the best of each gender, what
each gender was made for, and how each serves the other,
because each gender is sanctified by obedience to Christ and by
the Spirit of Christ.

Men will be the dominant partners in marriage (as they
always have been and will be, and, really, as women want them
to be – Maggie Gallagher’s observation), but that
will be the joy of a woman if the man is Christ-like in his
headship. Women will be the second sex, as men want them to be
and as they want to be, and it will be the blessing of men (to
have a Beloved to love, protect, and care for – else what
is masculinity for?) and of women (because faithful to their
nature and inspiring to their men). Marriage in this way is the
furthest thing from a contest, a power struggle. It is the
furthest thing from a boss—employee relationship, which
is what feminists hear here. It is a man and a woman together
as God made men and women for one another, each getting the joy
of a partner made to complement and fulfill the other.

I came across this epitaph of married couple, buried
together after a long life of serving Christ together

They were so one, that none could say

Which of them rul’d, or whether did obey.

He rul’d, because she would obey; and she,

In so obeying, rul’d as well as he.