Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Wedding' photo (c) 2006, Andrew Morrell - license:

Today I'm thrilled to introduce you to one of my favorite bloggers - Kristen Rosser. Kristen is one of those people who strikes me as being both smart and wise...a combination that shouldn't be taken for granted.  I always learn something new from her posts, which are consistently well-researched, thoughtful, and challenging.

Born and raised high in the Colorado Rockies, Kristen Rosser now lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is raising two children, now teenagers, with her husband and best friend of nearly 25 years.  After becoming a Christian at the age of 15 , she experienced some of the excesses of the word-of-faith, shepherding and dominionist movements, which led her to reassess her beliefs and seek a simpler and more Christ-centered faith.   Describing herself, Kristen says, “I’m an idealistic and poetic sort, but with a strong streak of practicality.  Officially, I’m a paralegal;  unofficially, I’m an avid reader, a lover of walks in the woods, a student of theology and scripture, and the willing servant of two cats.”  

Kristen blogs at Wordgazer's Words, which you should subscribe to right this minute. 

Today Kristen shares her take on Ephesians 5...


Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church?

by Kristen Rosser

I once believed that God intended my marriage to be a picture or illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church—a shining beacon of godly headship and submission for all the world to see.  I somehow never felt that my own marriage was adequately living up to this ideal, though.  Perhaps it was because what we actually had in practice was a marriage of two best friends and companions—but the ideal still lived in my mind as something to strive for, and something we were inexplicably falling short of. 

The concept that marriage is meant to illustrate Christ’s relationship with the church is pervasive in evangelical Christianity today. It is based on Ephesians 5:21-33, where Paul speaks of Christian marriage. Christianity specifically states that God intended marriage for this, and the New Living Translation even says so explicitly:

As the Scriptures say, "A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one." This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. Eph 5:31-32, NLT.

The web page goes on to explain that the way this works out is that husbands “illustrate” Christ’s leadership authority, as well as His self-sacrifice, while wives “illustrate” the church’s submission to Christ’s leadership authority.  But is this what the Bible actually teaches?

My story...


Later in my marriage, when I began re-examining many doctrines I had been taught, the idea became more and more troubling. If Paul is really saying that marriages illustrate Christ’s authority over the church and the church’s obedience to Him, this has serious implications. I have heard preachers say that when non-believers look at the leadership of husbands and the submission of wives, they will see the beauty of Christ’s relationship with the church and be drawn to Christianity. I have heard teachings that a marriage will only properly illustrate Christ’s relationship with the church when the husband steps fully into his leadership role and the wife responds by joyfully placing herself under his authority. But the idea of husbands and wives as best friends and companions is essentially in conflict with this notion. A kind of friendship may be had between an authority figure and a subordinate, but not the mutual closeness and intimate, reciprocal trust that people call “best friendship.” And which one does God want marriage to be?   As a young married Christian, I knew how happy I was with my husband as best friend.  That seemed to be what “the two shall become one flesh” had to be about.  But I never really examined the inherent contradiction.

Are Christian wives really supposed to show the world a picture of human obedience, while their husbands are a picture of their Lord and God? Is marriage a place where a man and a woman illustrate divinity (the man) relating to humanity (the woman)?  Non-Christians are hardly drawn to Christianity by this picture-- they are often frankly disgusted. But this is certainly what this marriage-as-illustration teaching implies.

The Illustration...

However, in actuality the original text of Ephesians 5:32 never uses the word “illustration” or any similar word. The more word-for-word translations translate that verse like this:

“This is a great mystery; but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” KJV

“This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church.” NIV (1984)

“This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” NASB

What is being said here? Is marriage an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church? Or is something different, and much more profound, going on in these verses?

First of all, look at the direction in which the comparisons move. Christ and the church are not said to be “as” husbands and wives. It’s the other way around. Husbands and wives are “as” Christ and the church. If one relationship is being set up here as a picture or illustration to help us see the other relationship more clearly, it is Christ and the church who are the illustration, the picture for husbands and wives to follow— not the other way around. Husbands and wives are to see more clearly what God meant marriage to be, by looking at a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church. But— and this is important— the passage doesn’t just say, “You husbands and wives, try to generally imitate Christ and the church.” The illustration being given here is not general, but specific. Husbands and wives are to imitate this particular picture of Christ and the church.

So what is the picture? What is being illustrated?

We can’t understand what this passage means to us, until we understand what it is most likely to have meant to the original audience, as Paul intended it to be understood. 

In order to see more clearly what picture Paul was painting as an illustration, I’d like to look at this passage in light of its literary structure. Kenneth Bailey, research professor of the New Testament and scholar of Middle Eastern history and culture, uses the term “chiasm” to describe the repetitive kind of structure used in this passage. A chiastic literary structure can be viewed as a sort of sandwich, with repetitive parallel elements at the beginning and end as the pieces of bread, similar repetitive elements within those, representing the condiments, and the meat— the main point of the passage—in the middle. This is a common Middle-Eastern literary style and is frequently used by New Testament writers, including Paul.*

The parallel ideas and phrases in this text are largely self-evident, when you're looking for them. Parallel statements to wives are at the beginning and end, with parallel statements to husbands at second and second-to-last, and so on. What we tend to miss is what the original Middle-Eastern audience would have understood those parallelisms to be doing.

Since we in the West tend to put the main point of what we are trying to say at the beginning, or at end (or both) when we are writing, we can easily read a passage of Scripture without understanding what the main point was. We can read a passage like Ephesians 5:21-33 and see the main point as “Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (if we start where most translations divide the text, in verse 22). But a first-century Middle Eastern would not have read the opening and closing phrases of the passage as the main point.  A first-century Middle Eastern would have seen verse 21, “and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ,” as a transitional phrase that ends the earlier section about Spirit-led living and also begins the section referred to as Paul’s household codes.  The “wives be submissive” phrases at the beginning and end are the outer pieces of the chiastic sandwich, and thus the least important. 

So what is the point right in the middle?  It is this phrase right here:

That He might present to Himself the church in all her glory…

This point is surrounded on either side by parallel phrases about Christ making the church holy.  But the picture of Christ presenting the church to Himself in glory, is what the original readers would have understood to be the central point.

Pater Familias...

It’s important, of course, to keep in mind the world in which Paul and his audience lived. The structure of that world centered around the pater familias [father of the family] as the ruler and authority over an economic/familial unit— the household, which consisted of the ruling patriarch, his wife, children and slaves. Paul doesn’t try to fight against the cultural structure, but counsels the Ephesian church on how Christian marriage can work within it.

The husbands were the ones with control in that society. Wives were not in a position to be able to make any substantive changes to turn marriage as it was understood, into marriage as the Lord wanted it in the church. It was husbands who had that power. So husbands are instructed to imitate Christ’s love for the church. But the specific picture/illustration given them to imitate is not one of authority and leadership, but of giving and sacrifice. Husbands were told to love their wives the way Christ loved the church when He gave Himself up for her—gave up His power and position to come down to the level of a servant— so that He could raise the church up to His holiness.  

Husbands’ imitation of this picture of Christ would not involve holding onto their society-given rights and powers, but emptying themselves of them.

And the purpose of the emptying was glorification. What Christ does for the church, in this illustration that marriages are to emulate, is raise the church up to be glorious! How could husbands in that culture, understanding the chiastic sandwich structure and thus grasping Paul‘s true message, have understood anything other than that they were to raise their wives out of their lowly position into a glorious one?

The Mystery...

So what is Paul talking about when he states he is actually talking about Christ and the church as a “great mystery”?

According to Ephesians 3:4-5, “mystery” refers to a divine secret which God reveals, or will reveal, through the Holy Spirit. The implication is that it is not something we can discover or figure out on our own, apart from God’s revelation.

But here’s the rub. The “mystery” here is the final, complete glorification of the church so that she becomes “one flesh” with the divine Son. This is something that has not yet taken place, but is going to take place when He returns, even as 1 John 3:2 says, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him just as He is.”

In this light, the idea that human marriage is meant to show or illustrate Christ and the church, falls apart. The Wedding Supper of the Lamb is still in the future. Christ and the church are not yet married! Is it possible to illustrate something that has not yet occurred or been revealed— something that we cannot figure out by ourselves what it’s going to look like?

Human marriage cannot illustrate the divine— but it can follow the divine picture as far as it has been revealed. What has been revealed in Ephesians 5:21-32 is that Christ has come down from His high position, given Himself for the church, and that He is now preparing her for glory— the glory of being “one flesh” with Himself. And what following that illustration would look like to Paul’s original audience would be husbands coming down from their high position, to raise their wives up from their lowly position to a place of glorious unity.  A place where it would actually become possible for husbands and wives to be best friends.


Some might now be thinking, “But what about biblical typology?  Maybe marriage isn’t an ‘illustration’ of Christ and the church, but surely marriage is a type of Christ’s relationship with the church?”

Typology is a concept mentioned several times in the New Testament. According to the online Holman Bible Dictionary:

“Typology involves a correspondence, usually in one particular matter between a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament with a person, event, or thing, in the New Testament. All elements except this one may be quite different, but the one element selected for comparison has a genuine similarity in the two different historical contexts. . . Typology, a comparison stressing one point of similarity, helps us see the New Testament person, event, or institution as the fulfillment of that which was only hinted at in the Old Testament.”

As Holman states, when the word “type is used in the New Testament, it refers to one element of something in the Old Testament being a pattern for something in the New. Adam is a “type” of Christ— but only in the sense that Adam was the one man through whom the curse of sin came, and Christ is the one Man through whom the gift of salvation came. But Adam is not like Christ in other respects— in fact, it is the “not like” comparisons that are emphasized in Romans 5:14-16.

The New Testament does not actually call any of its own introduced concepts (such as Paul’s concept of New Covenant Christian marriage) “types” of anything else. However, in spite of this, perhaps there is some justification in seeing typology in Christian marriage— for in verse 32 Paul does seem to use it as a pattern that hints at something else which will be the fulfillment. However, if marriage is a type, the hint will not be like the fulfillment in every respect, but in one, limited respect only. And the text itself will show us what is.

The marriage relationship is not like Christ’s relationship with the church in every sense. And the sense that is given by the text is not authority and subordination, but oneness. Marriage typifies Christ and the church because both relationships become “one flesh” relationships. In other respects, marriage is not like Christ’s relationship with the church. Marriage is not like Christ redeeming from sin and the church being redeemed, or like the church worshiping and Christ receiving worship. I have heard husbands say they believed it was their job to cleanse their wives and present them before God as Christ does the church! But that is not the point of similarity given in the possible typology here.

Just because Christ is shown doing or being certain things for the church in the Ephesians 5:21-33 text, does not mean that husbands are to do or be each of those same things for their wives. The text says that Christ is the church’s “Savior,” but (thankfully) I have never heard a husband claim he could step into that role for his wife! But neither does the text say marriage is like Christ leading and the church following. Though the text does say wives are to submit (voluntarily yield), it says nothing about husbands (or Christ) leading. Instead, it talks about husbands (and Christ) loving.

Husbands, like Christ, were understood by Paul and the original audience to be in a position of authority— but exercising that authority is simply not in view in this text. Just the opposite, in fact. Husbands are told to give themselves as Christ gave Himself— and Christ gave Himself to crucifixion, laying down His power and authority.

In light of this, it doesn't make sense to say that the husband-authority exercised in worldly marriages of Paul's day was somehow intended by God to continue for all time. Christian marriage in the New Covenant was not intended to be viewed in terms of authority, but in terms of laying down authority and raising up the one under authority.

So if there is any typology in Ephesians 5:21-33, it is the typology of “one flesh.” To map husbands to Christ in any way not given by the typology, is to go beyond the text and to risk husband-idolatry, placing husbands in the place of Christ in their wives’ lives. And to give the worldly authority of husbands in Paul’s day, to all husbands for all time, is to wrongly map the human to the divine.

This passage is simply not about the marriage relationship being intended by God as an authority-subordinate relationship. That is the understanding of marriage that Paul had to work with in his audience’s minds— but that’s not where he left it. Ephesians 5:21-33’s teaching on marriage is about changing that view of marriage to one of unity and love— the kind of love that could transform the authority-subordinate nature of first-century Ephesian marriages, into what God desires for marriage in the New Covenant: oneness, companionship and mutuality. In other words, best friendship. 

So when Christians insist on husband-authority in marriage, they are actually going in the opposite direction from where Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was trying to take the church.

Capitulation to Culture? 

I’d like to finish with a note to those who see my position as giving in to modern culture.  Christians who insist that an egalitarian view of husband-wife relations is “capitulating to modern culture” often don’t realize that by not taking into account what Paul’s original audience would have understood him to be saying, they themselves are reading the text through their own modern culture.  And because they themselves don’t come from a cultural assumption of male authority, they see it as a correction to our modern culture: an eternal, divine mandate to which we need to return.   

But the question is not, “what is the world doing now, so we can do the opposite, right or wrong?” The real question is, should we, in the name of being “biblical,” hold tight to a first-century worldly understanding of male authority?  Or should we move forward into the New Covenant of God, where male authority in marriage is replaced by glorious unity?

I know what my husband and I have chosen.  We gave up on illustrating Christ and the church.

But we’re more best friends than ever.


*For a detailed explanation of the chiastic literary style, see Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, IVP Academic (2008), pp. 13-16.

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