Last year, my church hosted a workshop on marriage. Being a thoroughly single person, I attended this workshop with some degree of irony. That’s not to say I didn’t think there were things I could learn from it or felt I was unwelcome there. It’s more to say that I was aware that my attendance was a bit odd. I sat at the table with the few other single people there, which kind of felt like sitting at the kids’ table. Years before, I had taken a spiritual gifts inventory that suggested the area of serving the church I would be best suited for was counseling married couples. Ha. I told this to my pastor, and he reminded me that Paul was single and practically wrote the handbook on Christian marriage. Fair enough. Still, to me, it felt like we singles could only be mere spectators to what was going on in the workshop.
At some point, the speakers, a married couple, pulled out a white board and made a t-chart with columns labeled “Husbands” and “Wives”. They then asked for each of these groups to list the things they desired from their spouse or things their spouse did that annoyed them. They were encouraged to be as candid as possible. The room was quiet at first, then various people began to speak up, all a bit hesitantly but earnestly. One thing that stuck out to me was when a husband said he wanted his wife to greet him when he got home. This was something I had heard expressed before, probably on any number of TV shows. The other men in the room seemed to agree.
After a while the speakers drew another t-chart on the board and labeled the columns “Christ” and “The Church”. They asked us to look at Ephesians 5:22-33 and then list things that Christ does in relation to the Church and vice versa. We could also list things from other passages. When we had assembled the list, the speakers made their point by erasing the labels “Christ” and “The Church” and replaced them with “Husbands” and “Wives”. They reasoned that this switch in labels was appropriate because Ephesians makes it clear that the marriage relationship is a metaphorical representation of Christ and the Church. Then they asked us to re-examine the items on both charts and note the overarching themes of what each spouse desired and what they were supposed to do for the other. They sorted the desires of the wife and the duties of the husband into categories like “Provision”, “Protection”, and “Authority”. They put all of the desires of the husband and the duties of the wife under one umbrella: “Respect”.
I began to feel a mix of emotions surge within me, hovering somewhere around anger, disappointment, or distress. It would be easy to label this as a woman resenting that her role in marriage is submission. And sure, that might be part of it – I do have a sin nature and also a bit of a rebellious personality. But over the next few weeks, I began to see what had really bothered me.
When the speakers asked what the Church was supposed to do in relation to Christ, the answers started as expected. “Submit to him.” “Glorify him.” “Follow him.” Anticipating the change in labels, I was already starting to groan a bit inside. But then a friend of mine, a single man, said, “Be his hands and feet.” God bless him. He hit upon something so lacking in our conversations about husbands and wives, a truth about Christ and the Church that we don’t know what to do with in the context of marriage. Christ is the head of the church, and he has given the Church participation in his authority, his freedom, and his responsibility. Hearing my friend say this, my attention snapped back to the list, and I added, “Delight in him.”
And this is the real reason why it bothered me that they listed the whole of the husband’s desires and the whole of the wife’s duties under the label of “Respect”: it’s such a poor, limited representation of what Jesus desires from the Church, and therefore it’s an insufficient cover-all for the marriage relationship. Don’t get me wrong. It is very clear in Scripture that God desires the respect that is due his name. It is good and right and fitting for us to give him that respect. And it is good and right and fitting that a wife should respect her husband.
But does God only want our respect? Is this the core of his relationship with us? Is it right to make that the central directive for wives in relation to their husbands? I’m not here to tear apart why Paul wrote what he did in Ephesians 5. Whether it was written for a specific cultural moment or if it’s a timeless prescription for Christian character is not my concern. What I want to do is talk about what happened to my view of Jesus when I began to push back on this marriage narrative.
First I began to synthesize other themes I saw in the husband-wife/Christ-Church roles. A few came to mind, such as “Delight” or “Acknowledgement”, and “Respect” certainly plays a part, but the one I really want to focus on is “Receipt”.
I arrived at this idea of receipt when I went back and thought about the husband who wanted his wife to greet him when he got home. If his wife fails to greet him, does he really feel disrespected, or is that just the vocabulary he’s been taught? What if the pain he feels is actually rejection, and not disrespect? If his wife came up to him when he got home, if she took his coat, asked him how his day was, and served him dinner but never expressed joy at his return, would he be satisfied? That’s the behavior of a servant, not a wife.
I spent about a year thinking about this primarily in the context of marriage. Then, a couple months ago, as I sat down to write this blog about marriage roles, I returned to that Ephesians 5 passage. And I ended up somewhere I didn’t expect.
Ephesians 5 invokes the imagery of Genesis 2: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Paul says that this is a profound mystery and that it refers to Christ and the Church. Earlier in Genesis 2, we read that God saw it was not good for man to be alone, so he sought to make a helper fit for him. Having authority over the earth and all its creatures was not sufficient for Adam’s needs. Just like the Godhead, Adam was, by nature, relational. So God sought to make a helper fit for Adam. When God brings Eve to Adam, he breaks into song and exclaims, “This is at last bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…” He rejoices because he now has a fitting companion, someone who can function with him on his level. So Adam held fast to his wife, and they were naked and unashamed. They, for a moment, had perfect communion and acceptance between themselves.
How wrong would this story be if God sought to make a partner for Adam, formed her with dexterity to suit his need, presented her to Adam for his great delight, and Eve was just like, “Nahhh, I’m good.”
As funny and wrong as that scene may appear, I realized that this was a story we’ve actually heard before.
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:9-13)
Sound familiar? Like Adam, Jesus is presented with his own likeness. He extended to his likeness the invitation to participate fully in his love, his work, his kingdom, and every thing that belonged to him, but where Adam experienced the joy of receipt, Jesus experienced the pain of rejection. Only those who choose to receive Jesus can be children of God; only those who receive Jesus are part of the Bride.
Here’s the thing: God could have made humans perfectly submitted to him from the beginning. But respect and submission were not at the heart of what God desired from humanity. Angels serve him in eternal reverence and awe – he has respect. The Triune God is in eternal perfect communion with himself – he has no anthropomorphic ego that needs the validation of others. So what did God want? To create a people for himself, whom he could, in his graciousness, love freely and receive their love in return. And thus he created a people who could freely choose him. He created a people who could reject him.
And, as Good Friday reminds us, we all did reject him. But in the face of our rejection, Jesus continually beckons us to receive him.
There is an incredible and profound vulnerability in the Almighty God asking to be received by his creation, because the truth is that he could have made us choose him by force. But forcing us in this way would be ill-fitting for his gracious character. We glorify him. We respect him. We worship him with reverence and awe. We do this because we’ve received the joy of knowing his goodness and his love for us.
Since marriage is the human representation of this love, it should be concluded that the “stronger vessel” does not desire his own affirmation at the expense of the “weaker vessel’s” autonomy. What he truly desires is for the helper-fit-for-him to choose him and to desire him in return with the full force of her faculties, her will, and her affection. This is the core of what Jesus desires from us. If we think the husband merely desires respect, if we think Jesus merely desires respect, we will miss so much of his heart for us.
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
Let us know. Let us press on to know the LORD. Let us have believing hearts to receive him in full assurance of faith with the freedom and security that come from the knowledge of his love toward us. Let us delight in him, acknowledge him, and reverence him well.