(This is an excursus from my previously begun series on gender and ministry, it is related to the whole and I will draw upon what follows in those future posts)
The relationship between Christ and the Church is a Biblical trope that is often referenced, but rarely appreciated in all its depth. It has been stripped of its richness in part by being primarily used, in Evangelical circles anyway, in debates about gender relationships, or more broadly in conversations about sexual identity and politics.
Proof-texting for social and political debates has robbed the Biblical text’s more substantive meaning, and has also in turn made more foreign for us the real guidance it provides to ethical questions of our time.
Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on the Song of Songs has helped me recapture the glory of the Biblical imagery: “For no names can be found as sweet as those in which the Word and the soul exchange affections, as Bridegroom and Bride, for to such everything is uncommon, nothing is the property of one and not the other, nothing is held separately. They share one inheritance, one table, one house, one bed, one flesh.”
For Bernard, the human soul that comes to Christ is introduced to the possibility of union with God. They are to be wedded together. This is the meaning of the metaphor of the Bride and Bridegroom, of the Church and Christ. Bernard, as with the unbroken tradition of ancient and medieval Christians, sees the Song of Solomon as an extended exposition on this theme, of the soul’s union with God.
Let us situate this notion in redemptive history. Humans were created to lovingly and collaboratively care for the cosmos, and to build a beautiful human community, as king and queen of the creation. They were created to live in God’s presence, a beautiful environment of union between God and human, between humans, and between humans and creation. Humanity failed in this original plan, and Jesus Christ came to fulfill that which humanity left undone and soiled. Through His death He re-opened the path for union with God. This union is consummated in the marriage of Christ and the Church.
This marriage is a re-creation of the universe. Christ is the Second Adam, the new King of creation. As N.T. Wright has put it, “Now, in the person of Jesus Christ. . . there is at last an obedient human being at the helm of the universe,” as was originally intended. All of creation is promised to Him as His inheritance, and every knee shall bow.
In the same way that He did not think of His divinity as something to be grasped and humbled Himself, so also has He invited the rest of the human race to join in His inheritance and become with Him all that humanity was intended to be.
In the marriage between Christ and the Church, we are something like the Second Eve. We are made “co-heirs” with Christ. I am floored to think of the glorious reality that God has chosen to be wedded to humanity for all of eternity. As Christ’s bride we are not merely servants, or passive recipients, we are co-heirs with Christ. Christ is the head of the Church, but He makes us His partner. He calls us friends. He makes us one flesh with Him. We are the meek who inherit the earth with Him. As Bernard said above, “They share one inheritance, one table, one house, one bed, one flesh.”
Christ lays down power and authority out of submissive love for us. We are called to lay down our power and authority out of submissive love for Him.
This is the richness of the doctrine of Christ and the Church.
In something like a “circle of deflation,” the lack of attention to the fullness of the doctrine of Christ and Church marriage has in turn reinforced flat understandings of human marriage and human ethics generally.
I think first of the question of gender and submission in Paul’s epistles.
Although the Apostle Paul does make moral comments about human marriage based in the image of the relationship between Christ the Bridegroom and his Church the Bride, it is only ever done so secondarily; the broader theological significance is supreme and all ethical considerations should always draw us back to the overarching metaphor. Our attempt to reduce Paul to a simple moralist (modernity at its worst!) has overshadowed the supreme theological vision that commands his ethics: The primary idea of the marriage of Christ and Church.
I am not convinced that Paul means to say (in passages such as Ephesians 5) that always, forever, in the ideal Christian marriage, that women-to-men submission is (or should be) the only dynamic of submission in marriage. I think the better reading is that Paul is making a specific moral application, for a specific situation (in a context in which there is social subjugation of wives, and similarly of slaves), from this metaphor. It would be very un-Pauline to hone in on this one application and miss the surplus of meaning in the whole of the metaphor. Think of the many varied applications of the image of “law,” in Paul’s theology.
What is the larger picture for Paul’s theological ethics? Paul seems to love this beautiful dance of a God who lays down power to glorify the other, within the Trinity. The Son submits to the Father, the Father glorifies the Son. He loves this notion of a Christ who lays down life but is glorified and empowered and made the inheritor of all the universe. Similarly, he loves this image of a Church that is made co-heir with Christ, but which lives sacrificially, even to the death of martyrdom, for its Beloved. Is the wholeness of the Christ-Church relationship that Christ is the authority and the Church the submissive servant? Paul is quite clear that Christ is also submissive (Philippians 2). Paul is also quite clear that the Church is glorified and empowered.
This is what I love about the Eastern Orthodox marriage liturgy, in which the bride and groom are given crowns. In the marriage of Christ and Church, we are crowned again as the kings and queens of the Cosmos, Adam and Eve once again enthroned over their garden, as co-regents under God’s rule.
It is possible that Paul truly does see a universal, fixed, 1:1 relationship between Christ and Church, man and woman (though I’m not convinced that the roles couldn’t be reversed in his theology). But if that is the case, to conclude that there is only one direction of submission is very unfair to Paul’s understanding of the relationship between Christ and Church. Christ submits for the Church, to death. The Church submits to Christ, to death. Christ is glorified and crowned. The Church is glorified and made one flesh, a co-heir, with the victorious Christ. We are adopted as children. This is why Bernard can play fast and loose with the image of marriage and of adoption: “Know yourself to be the Father’s daughter in the Spirit of the Son. Know yourself to be the Bride, or sister of the Son, for you will find both these names given to her who loves the Son” (Sermon 8).
This allows a more full picture of marriage: A unity of God and human in the flesh of Christ, a unity of submission and love and glorification. Indeed, this is a full picture of the overriding ethic of all Christian relationships: mutual submission. Philippians 5:22, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” All other relationships bow to this one rule that is the rule of the ultimate destiny of the cosmos in God.
Indeed, this helps us make better sense of the Trinitarian dimension as well. Some try to make a lot of the submission of the Son to the Father (again working with Ephesians 5) as a model for marriage (see esp. Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?). It is true that the question of the relationship between Father and Son has always been a thorny one, though classical orthodoxy has tended to emphasize the unity of power and authority. Again, Bernard: “For the Father loves the Son and embraces him with a special love. He who is supreme embraces his equal; he who is eternal embraces him who is eternal.” (Sermon 8)
Regardless, even if there is a certain authority in the Father as eternal originator, this is not at the expense of the Son. Such a notion would flirt dangerously with Arianism (the heresy that the Son is subordinate to the Father). Nor should we ignore that the Son’s submission to the Father is reciprocated with glorification and empowerment. The Son who came down and died is made King of the Creation and glorified above every name and is the only name by which the cosmos reaches its conclusion (the Lamb worthy to open the scroll!). Paul wants to apply this relationship to that of Christ and Church, and from that to human marriage, and does so in a very specific way. But the fullness of these dynamics cannot be ignored even if Paul only draws one specific conclusion from one dimension of these relationships. If human marriage is like Christ and the Church which is like the Father and the Son, we must fill in the gaps beyond the specific point Paul makes. Yet, we should also be careful about not taking the metaphor further than is intended. The fact that humans are destined to an existence beyond human marriage, full adoption as sons and daughters and brought without division between male and female, Jew and Gentile, into marriage with Christ—means (in my mind) that we cannot make too much of gender differences. There are differences in our current dispensation, and ones that truly are meant to complement one another, though I don’t think these are universal differences of power and authority and I do not think Paul’s metaphors are meant to make us think so.
These are mind-boggling mysteries, and ones that lie beyond anything human experience can fathom.
I believe the classical Christian notion of marriage as a sacrament is something Protestants should not fully abandon. Our theology does not require that we do so. Even common Presbyterian marriage liturgy still calls marriage a “mystery.” It is a signification of a spiritual reality: Christ and the Church. It is a powerful proclamation, and is itself a participation in, this mysterious consummation of Christ and the Church.
Another point to make here is the unfortunate dismissal of celibacy on the part of Protestants. The call to celibacy is equally a mystery, representing a life committed to a serious nurturing and proclamation of the primary union between human and God, Christ and Church, which is the destiny of the cosmos. In Christian history, the call to celibacy has been a place of re-envisioned senses of gender. Ascetic spirituality is an equalizer, as a symbol of the coming end of human marriage and the end of conflict between male and female, as all become one people married to Christ.
Maximus the Confessor has also, in addition to Bernard, helped me tremendously. Maximus is rightfully recognized as one of the most important synthesizers and representatives of the best of early Eastern Orthodox theology. Although Maximus the Confessor does not, to my knowledge, have any extended writing on Song of Solomon or to the theme of Christ-Church marriage, he has a very rich understanding of human union with God. In fact, his is a notion of the full union of all things in God. For Maximus, the world is marked by divisions that have come as a result of humans turning away from God: Division between male and female, between human and creation, between God and human, between humans generally, the human soul within itself. These divisions are promised reconciliation in God’s ultimate filling of the cosmos with His presence.
In this sense (I am extrapolating beyond Maximus), marriage is a symbol of the coming reconciliation of all things. It is a picture of the promise of a Kingdom in which God shall be all in all, in which every tribe and every nation (now divided, to be unified) together, in which the norm is something of an evaporation of sexual difference and the strife between male and female is healed, in which humanity is in right relationship with the cosmos. It is a symbol of, and manifestation, of God’s coming reconciliation of all things.
We, especially in Evangelical circles, have a bad habit of idolizing marriage as the ideal of Christian human life. But it is a vocation. A calling made by God that must be received. Yes, marriage is for enjoyment, for the benefit of society, for procreation, and for many other reasons. But it is not the be-all and end-all of our existence. As a calling, I think it has two primary purposes: proclamation and preparation. It proclaims the ultimate mystery of the universe, that of its union with Christ. It also prepares us for that union. It certainly is a special vocation, especially in that the relationship between Christ and the Church is grounded in marriage as its primary metaphor. But it is not the only vocation. The celibate life is also marked by similar rhythms of sacrifice and submission and the reception of love. It is devoted to more explicit practice of the union with God, and is one of freedom to image and embody the coming marriage of God and creation in other ways: In caressing the Beloved’s body as it is present in the bodies of the poor, for example.
In making so much of marriage we have made too little of it. We have made it a fixed power dynamic, when it is a God-reflecting dance of love and submission and glorification. We have made it the be-all of our existence, an end in itself, when it is a symbol of a holy mystery, of our ultimate existence. Human marriage is something of a spiritual parenthood. When it is matured, and has raised up the New Human in Christ, it dies with the Old Human and presents its child to the Bridegroom, Christ.
Marriage in its proper perspective is something beautiful and creative. It is an image of the Gospel, it is a preparation for heaven, it is practice in the art of love and intimacy and submission and empowerment and glorification. Its partner is the single celibate, who is practicing the exact same things but in commitment to many bodies, and many forms of love.
The powerful image of the Church as the Bride of Christ is a beautiful and crucial concept that has much to offer us in our chaotic and unprecedented times of questions revolving issues of marriage, politics, sexual ethics, social justice, etc. The overriding obsession of that which is directly in front of us has blocked our vision of the wondrous whole. A lack of vision of the wondrous whole has made us unable to know how it is we must see that which is right in front of us. If the foreground completely overwhelms the background, we can see neither. Every 5-year old playing with a camera on an iPhone can attest to this, you will see nothing if you hold the lens up against your object. You need to step back and get a little perspective. We need background and foreground, ethics and theology, the immediate now and the foundational then. We need these dualities in one unity. We need their marriage, as it were.