Throughout history, marriage has been viewed as a hierarchal relationship where the man should be the clearly defined leader of the relationship. Very few cultures have approximated truly egalitarian marriage with husband and wife as full partners.
In the debate over the role of men and women today, proponents generally choose one of these poles. However, the biblical understanding of marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33 challenges both of these poles by offering a third way to view the marriage relationship.
After Paul calls his readers to submit to another (Eph 5:21), he calls on women to submit to their husbands. For the record, there is nothing new here that one could not have picked up on the streets of Ephesus. Any Latin or Greek moralist would have called for the same behavior from women.
However, Paul roots this (expected) behavior in something very different from the need for good order. For him, the wife’s behavior echoes the relationship that the church has with Jesus. The church should submit to Christ, and likewise a wife submits to her husband. Sounds hierarchal, doesn’t it?
However, in a sweeping tour de force, Paul realigns the husband’s role with that of Christ’s toward the church. Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her—so should the husband for his wife. The husband should always move to present his wife in the best light, just as Christ would the church. In fact, the husband should love his wife as himself. He should treat his wife as he himself wants to be treated. Sounds egalitarian, doesn’t it?
Finally, to think of marriage as either hierarchal or egalitarian misses the mark. Christian marriage imitates the relationship between Christ and the church. Christ is the head of the body—not in the sense that a corporation has a CEO, but in the sense that a human body has a head. A head without a body is no more functional, or desirable, than a body without a head. Sounds (oh, what word would work here? how about) interdependent, doesn’t it?
If this sounds strange to your ears, notice what Paul says in another place:
For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man… In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. (1 Corinthians 11:8–12 NIV)
or in yet another place:
But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:2–4 NIV)
Interdependence (reciprocation or mutuality) might be the better word to describe Christian marriage. While a wife respects her husband, he should love her. As a husband loves his wife, she should respect him. In this way, the needs of both are met and they are better people because of the relationship.
This is how a Christian husband and wife participates in the mystery of Christ and the church.