Paul on Marriage and the Merciful Way of Life

Nurturing Justice has already commented on Paul’s advice to wives, husbands, fathers, servants and masters in this post. After re-reading what I have now presented below I wonder whether my efforts to provide a reading of Ephesians 5:15-33 will bring forth a firestorm of protest into my ethereal in-tray. To probe deeply into the way Biblical religion construes marriage as part of our redeemed way of life we are going to have to, at the same point, put a big question-mark against much that is taken these days as self-evident common sense.

And so, watch out on all sides how you walk; not as [those who are] fools but as wise, making the most of the moment because the days are [filled with] evil.
And further do not be lacking in good sense, but get perspective on what the Lord is wanting done. And be not drunk with wine which is a complete waste [of time and energy] but be filled to overflowing with the Spirit in conversation among yourselves in psalms, in hymns and in spiritual songs, singing and psalming [making melodious praise] with all your heart to the Lord always lifting up your hands in praise to our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father, being in willing subjection to each other in the holy fear of Christ Himself.

     Paul seems to know that his readers can up take his immediately preceding statement:

Wake up, O sleeping one and stand on your feet and Christ shall give you light!

as a license to do what they like, but lest they run with it foolishly he immediately cautions them to beware, to take heed, to develop a well-rounded comprehensive view of the path they are on – live wisely and fully he counsels them. Get clarity on the will of the Lord for your lives. Here he sounds the same wise note that had been inscribed in the Book of Proverbs:

The entrance to wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get understanding (Proverbs 4:7).

     Live creatively; if you are to be overflowing, do so with artful praise, thanksgiving to God for what He continues to do for you. Take up works chock-a-block with heartfelt appreciation for what He has done and continues to do for you …. As we have suggested, Paul has already composed an anthem for their worship (1:3-14).

     The consequence is as logical as Romans 12:1-2: place yourself in willing subjection to your brothers and sisters in the Lord.

     And so, we come to the primary example of this willing subjection, as part of a life chock-a- block with heartfelt appreciation to the Lord for what He has done in redemptively restoring creation and His full purpose in the resurrection and ascension of Christ Jesus, Paul gives his admonition and addresses … wives.

Wives [being subject] to their own husbands as to the Lord because a man of a woman as head is so in the same way that Christ is head of the church, Himself the Saviour of the body. But as the church is [completely] subject to Christ, so also wives are to be subject to their husbands in all ways.
And husbands are to love their own wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up on its behalf surrendering Himself in order that He might make it holy, cleansing her by the washing of water and the word in order that He might present her [the church] to Himself in glorious array before Him that she not have any blemish or imperfection of any kind – so that it be perfect and unspoiled.
So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. Actually, he that cherishes his wife is loving himself. For no man ever hates his flesh of his own [kind] but nourishes it and takes care of it, even as the Lord nourishes and takes care of the church. For members we are of His body. And it is in this context that a man leaves his father and his mother to cleave to his wife and the two shall be of one kind.
A great mystery this is and I have related it to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, it is also the case that each one of you [husbands] should love his wife as he loves himself and that wives should ascribe due reverence to their husbands.

     Paul emphasizes that his readers don’t only need an opportunity to bring their faith together in an exclamation of Christ’s greatness! He now brings his discussion of this work of God to its culminating anthem rich in Old Testament allusions, reminding us of the hymn of Zechariah the Priest – John the Baptist’s father – and thus of Zechariah’s son, that voice crying in the wilderness, whose impact was also felt in that part of the Mediterranean world.

Through the tender mercy of our God: whereby we have been visited from on high by the dawning of a new day; to give light to all that sit in darkness, in the shadow of death: and to [instead] guide our feet into the way of peace.

     And so Paul has written:

Wake up, O sleeping one and stand on your feet and Christ shall give you light!

     But lest his readers simply take this merely for a chorus to be recited, he immediately expounds its meaning for their lives. They are not to run foolishly, they are to be aware of what is going on around them, they are to take heed of all that is taking place in God’s world. Paul encourages them to develop a comprehensive view of the path on which they, like Abraham before them, have been placed.

Get going … I am God Almighty. Keep going; walk before me and become complete! [Genesis 12:1; 17:1]

     This life has an aim to be fully clear about what the Lord is wanting from them in their lives. They are to live creatively. If their lives are to be full and overflowing they are also to do so in artful praise – “getting full” of wine is to miss out on the fulness of the Lord in their lives. They are to strictly avoid any pseudo-fulness that is a waste of time and energy.

     So they are called to live creative lives overflowing with the creational goodness of the Lord. They could well begin with simply taking a leaf out of David’s book, composing poetry, works of literary art to put to music that are full of praise to the Lord for what He continues to do for them in their daily life – a life chock-a-block with ongoing favour for us, His family, is reason enough for doing so. And, in participating in such works of creativity, we find ourselves in willing subjection to our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

     Paul’s letter moves on but not to a wholly new chapter. What follows might be read as a list of “pastoral applications” but actually the letter is not so much “practical consequences” but a further and deepened exposition of the way of life that Christ Jesus has made possible. Here is an understanding of the responsibilities of our everyday experience. Any “applications” are evidence of a creativity that is as wide as creation as Paul has penned in his anthem.

     Another way of saying this is that he now moves on to how these restored creative members of God’s family are to structure their daily-life “anthems of praise”. And the song that he chooses to confirm human creativity in Christ is none other than the marriage duet.

     Paul is quite upfront about marriage as the primary example of “the willing subjection to each other in the holy fear of Christ Himself”. Without this example of willing “subjection” to each other in the holy fear of Christ Himself, his entire letter and the way of life that he commends falls apart into so many “verses” or “aphorisms”, fit for little else than abstract pious contemplation. Instead we have a rousing anthem of thankfulness that lifts the rafters, if not sending shock waves into outer-space, to the sun and moon and stars.

     Paul’s exposition of marriage as the primary example of this willing subjection in the Lord derives from his teaching of the chock-a-block redemptive light that Christ Jesus, by His Spirit, has brought into our lives. He is calling upon his readers to live lives that show heartfelt appreciation for this. “Wives” and “husbands” are part of a God-given structure of intense human mutuality that finds its indispensable contribution as a generation-to-generation institution of of human creativity.

     As such it is so very important for how the Good News of Jesus continues to shine in our lives. The Lord God has acted in His Son to  restore creation and our creativity within it! Paul’s discussion of marriage and its creativity, focuses upon office- bearers and their responsibilities in that structure of mutual submission; our lives in their totality presuppose the marriage duet in which wives (alto-soprano) occupy pride of place alongside their husbands (bass-tenor) to expound the submission of the church to Christ and Christ Jesus’ redemptive work in submission to His Father’s will.

     But despite all my creative efforts, I still find it hard to hear this duet above the heavy-metal accusation, perhaps coming from those analysing this and other “Christian anthems”, or could it come as an echo within my own head, the residual voice of my own liberal-humanistic individualistic education and schooling, that suggests that any insight I may have is due to my own genius. But this is an accusatory voice, a chorus (boring though it may be) that would not only drown out Paul’s “psalm”, but the “marriage duet” itself.

See, see, there he goes again/
Paul seeking to put women in their place./
There he goes again imposing upon women/
That they be mere wives,/
And he is bent, /
Bent on explaining why they should be willingly subservient,/
Barefoot and pregnant,/
Forgetting, after all, all the unmarried women, /
Just so he can pretend/
Confirm them as “potential wives”,/
Asserting his “apostolic” credentials
Ignoring those who choose a single life for themselves/
Enslaving women,/
Denying autonomy.

     Such a “voice” might have all the legitimacy of a present day neo-liberal woman seeking her own autonomy in a political context dominated by her self-evident world-view, but clearly this sentiment is a “voice” choosing not to attend to what has preceded this statement. (We do not, however, ignore the “voice” of a Christian-feminist hermeneutic that would dearly seek to turn-back the populist, cumulative and repeated attempts to harness the child-bearing capacity of women in order to enshrine a social order paying obeisance to some presumed power, however that be manifested, with whatever gender calling the shots.)

     The reigning powers might have proclaimed themselves as God’s agents on earth, claiming to bring to expression this dimension of God’s Kingdom and their own special place within that. But that is not what Paul sets forth here. And the radical individualising of marriage as proposed simply misses the beat of Paul’s redemptive psalm.

Wake up, O sleeping one and stand on your feet and Christ shall give you light!

     This letter is about the full restoration of human creativity in God’s family, and that also means the restoration of the human institution of marriage as integral to God’s purposes.

     Paul, in a forthright and unambiguous manner, commends marriage as a public and publicised human responsibility that cannot but be public and publicised. Marriage is integral to the way of life of God’s image-bearers. It has been an indispensable structured requirement from creation, and then from the promise to Abram that in his seed all peoples would be blessed. How else can a generation to generation stewardship unfold? How else can the offspring bringing redemption, promised by the Merciful Lord, come forth? Here we are confronted with a creaturely institution that is called forth to creatively demonstrate our generation-to-generation response to the love of God for His world that He has made our world.

     It is our generation-to-generation creatureliness that retains its purpose and meaning but only through the indispensable work of Christ Jesus on our behalf. This institution is still called to be an outstanding corollary of God sending of His Son, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him (John 3:17). The submission to one another that Paul writes about as a holy duty for all who believe in Christ, has a primary and definitive “exposition” in the marriage bond itself. The kind of “headship” to which a wife subscribes, in submission to her husband, is the headship ascribed to Christ’s rule of the Church, His body, His Bride, which has been affirmed by the raising of Jesus from the grave and His ascension to His Father’s right hand. Clearly, this is no enslavement.

     Nor is this an attempt to set forth a social perspective that excludes the unmarried, rendering them as “2nd class Christ-followers”. Indeed marriage is the God- given structure to be formed by His image-bearers in trothful union, in order that the most precious of all gifts, a new born child, be given, not merely to the marriage partners, and not to them as if a child is their possession to own, but to add another person, another one of God’s image-bearers to the entire human community and all solely for the glory of God!

     Here then, in the affirmation of the way the Creator-Redeemer’s purpose comes to expression in a wife’s relationship to her husband. It is Paul’s explanation about the God-given redemption of human creativity and all that that means. Paul has elsewhere commented on this part of the “mystery” of Christ’s redeeming work for us (1 Timothy 2:15). And we should also note the phrase “that she be whole without imperfection” as part of the majestic hymn with which the letter began:

since He has chosen us in Him even before the cosmos was founded, so that we would be whole and without imperfection before Him (1:4).

     We live in the expectation that Christ’s betrothal to His bride already includes the redemption of marriage as a creative community within God’s purposes for His creation. And part of that wholeness and perfection is surely that we are invited to participate as parents, fathers and mothers, grand-fathers and grand-mothers, sons and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters!


1 April 2016


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