Second Reading: Ephesians 5:21-32

Marriage as a Sign of Christ

Popular Translation

21 Serve each other because you honor the Lord. 22 Wives, serve your husbands as you would serve the Lord. 23 As the husband leads his wife, Christ leads the Church. After all, he saved his Body. 24 Since the Church follows the Lord, wives should follow their husbands in all matters.

25 Husbands, love your wives in same way Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for it. 26 He died so he could cleanse the Church with the waters of baptism and his own words. In this way, he made the Church holy. 27 When he comes in glory, he will have the Church stand at his side. Then, the Church will be without the stain or wrinkle of sin. It will be holy and blameless.

28 So, husbands should love their wives just like they love their own bodies. Whoever truly loves his wife loves himself. 29 No one really hates his body, but feeds it and cares for it so it will be its best. Christ does the same thing for the Church. For we are members of his Body. 31 "So, a man will leave his father and mother, and will marry his wife. And they will become like a single person." 32 This is a great insight about Christ and the Church.

Literal Translation

21 Become servants of each other out of reverence for Christ, 22 wives to (your) own husbands as to the LORD, 23 because man is the head of the woman just as CHRIST is the head of the assembly, (HE) HIMSELF(is) the savior of (HIS) Body. 24 But, as the assembly is subject to CHRIST, so wives to (their) husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives just as CHRIST loved the assembly and gave HIMSELF over on her behalf, 26 so that HE might sanctify her, having cleaned (her) in the washing of the water, in the word, 27 so that, in glory, HE might place beside HIMSELF, for HIMSELF, the assembly, not having stain or wrinkle or any such (imperfection), but so that she might be holy and blameless. 28 So, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. The (one) loving his own wife loves himself. 29 For thus, no one hates his own flesh, but nourishes it (over time to maturity) and cherishes (with warmth), just so CHRIST the assembly, 30 because we are members of HIS body. 31 "For this reason, a man will leave (his) father and (his) mother and will be bound (like glue) to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This mystery is great, but I say (it) for Christ and the assembly.

5:23-32 "assembly" The word referred to the local community, but can mean the Church universal. In this sense, assembly and Church are interchangeable.

5:21, 24 "Become servants...the assembly is subject to..." These are the same verb in Greek, which means "place oneself under the reign of." While the verb implied service, it basically meant allegiance and loyalty to a leader.

5:22-31 The terms "husbands" and "wives" is literally "men" and "women." The English terms "my man" (as a husband) and "my woman" (as a wife) convey the sense of the Greek.

5:25-27 This is a single sentence with a short main clause ("Husbands, love your wives) and a comparison clause ("just as Christ loved the assembly and gave himself over on her behalf"). The comparison clause (in the past tense) has two dependent clauses that speak of results, both introduced by "so that..." The first "so that" clause spoke of the immediate past: events that formed the Church ("washed in water, in the word"). The second "so that" clause spoke of the Church's glory in the Second Coming. In other words, the love and self-giving of Christ on the cross resulted in the formation of the Church and the promise of glory with Christ at the end of time.

This passage is a land-mine for modern, Western readers. There are two reasons for concern, questions on the definition of marriage and the status of women. But, these are our cultural concerns. The author of Ephesians assumed a definition of marriage and the secondary status of women. Yet, his analogy of marriage and relationship between Christ and the Church implicitly raised the status of women in his cultural setting and changed the Christian meaning of marriage.

The Definition of Marriage in Ephesians: These days, the definition of marriage has come into question. Obviously, marriage as a legal term could change. In the past two hundred years, "marriage" has shifted in meaning from a religious covenant to a legal contract. The religious institution has given way to the state in the regulation of marriage.

But, at its core, marriage brings two people together to live in the same house and the same bed. From them comes a family. The author of Ephesians used this simple description as an analogy for Christ in the Church.

The Status of Women in the Ephesian Community: Even in the "progressive" Greek culture that Rome ruled, women had few rights. They could own and inherit property and could initiate divorce. However, only the rich and educated could exercise these prerogatives. The majority poor were governed less by the state than by tradition and the patriarchal structure of the family. Women were second class citizens in a male-dominated, gender-segregated society. Service and childbearing were the main functions of women.

Raising the Status of Women in the Community: The author of Ephesians raised the status of women within the cultural context by raising the status of the husband. The husband was the image of Christ in the marriage. As such, wives were to defer to their husbands and serve them, but this deference and service was not based in cultural norms. No, it was based in faith. Wives were to serve their husbands in the same way they served the Lord.

But notice the greater responsibility and real shift in behavior was placed on the husband. He was to love his wife as himself. This meant he was to treat her as an equal, not as a servant or as property. Just as important, he was to see himself as Christ to his family. How did Christ found the Church? (Baptism and the pronouncement of the word in 5:26.) What was the destiny of the Church? (As the spotless companion of the Christ at the end of time in 5:27.) Implicit in these questions was the beginning and meaning of marriage for the husband. How he treated his wife in the beginning of his married life would impact their life together in the future. If he respected his spouse at the start, she would remain respectable throughout their lives. If he really loved her when the vows were exchanged, his love would only grow for her over time.

Changing the Christian Meaning of Marriage: While the author used the image of Christ to raise marriage to a higher level, he used marriage as a symbol of the end times. Up to this point, celibacy and the single life stood as counter-cultural signs of the final days. Jesus was single. So was Paul. This freedom gave them the opportunity to preach and heal in the name of the Kingdom. In a society dominated by marriage, the single life was not unusual. But it was different. In Christian circles, it pointed to the immanence of the Second Coming. (See 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 and Matthew 19:10-12.)

But, notice in this passage, marriage became the symbol for the Second Coming. Certainly, marriage had always been an analogy for God's unity with his people (see Hosea, for example). But, the author of Ephesians made marriage a model for ministry, just as much as the single life had been. So, both the single and married life had parity in the eyes of the community. Both were paradigms for Christian living and Christian expectation.

In the end, the author could state that a good Christian community was like a good marriage, built on love, trust, and mutual respect. But he said more. To be Christian is to always act like Christ, both in public and in private. What he did is our model for life, whether we are single or married. And if we are married, we are to give as he gave, love as he loved, and in the end, share glory as he shares it with us.

What are your views of a Christian marriage? Does the author use the image of Christ and the Church as an ideal for marriage people? Or, can a married couple fully realize Christ in their bond? Explain and reflect.