Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:21–32
In God’s order, marriage and family originate in the church. The church is God’s primary expression of his love and justice in the world. In the church, marriage can be fulfilled and given its true value. Without the church, it is doomed to be overcome by the dominating and destructive forces of society.
Marriage is more than a bond between husband and wife.
Only very few people in our day understand that marriage contains a mystery far deeper than the bond of husband and wife – that is, the eternal unity of Christ with his people. In a true marriage, the unity of husband and wife will reflect this deeper unity. It is not only a bond between one man and one woman, because it is sealed by the greater bond of unity with God and his people. This bond must always come first. In my church, we affirm this unity at baptism and reaffirm it at every celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and we remind ourselves of it at every wedding. Without it, even the happiest marriage will bear no lasting fruit.
How little the marriage covenant amounts to when it is only a promise or contract between two people! How different the state of the modern family would be if Christians everywhere were willing to place loyalty to Christ and his church above their marriages.
For those who have faith, Christ – the one who truly unites – always stands between the lover and the beloved. It is his Spirit that gives them unhindered access to one another. Therefore, when sin enters a marriage and clouds the truth of love, a faithful disciple will follow Jesus in the church, not his or her wayward spouse.
Emotional love will protest this because it is prone to disregard the truth. It may even try to hinder the clear light that comes from God. It is unable and unwilling to let go of a relationship, even when it becomes false and ungenuine. But true love never follows evil: it rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6). Both marriage partners must recognize that unity of faith is more important than the emotional bond of their marriage. Each of us who claims to be a disciple must ask ourselves: “If my first allegiance is not to Jesus and the church, who is it to?” (Luke 9:57–60)
When the smaller unity of a married couple is placed under the greater unity of the church, their marriage becomes steadfast and secure on a new, deeper level because it is placed within the unity of all believers. It is hardly surprising that this idea is foreign to most people, yet it contains a truth I have witnessed time and again. Take the story of Harry and Betty, an elderly couple I got to know well during their last years together. In Betty’s words:
Harry and I were married in June 1937, in England. Though at first we felt our marriage to be founded under God, it was not long before our struggles began. Harry, who struggled with homosexual inclinations all his life, became unfaithful to me, and then left me. Several times he tried to set things straight, but he never seemed to be able to break with the sin that bound him. During our long years of separation, close friends stood by him and me, and this was a great support.
When distressing letters came from Harry, I got discouraged, and sometimes I gave up praying for him. But I always came back to it, as it was the only thing I could do to help him. I knew that with God everything is possible, and hoped that someday Harry might be restored to Christ and the church…
Now I can never cease to marvel at what a miracle it was that he returned to me in his old age. We had not been together for over forty years. But I loved being with him during the last years we shared; he was so different. He was humble and straightforward and childlike. He came to love my friends, and our neighbors, and they loved him. Harry and I read the Bible and his favorite hymns together. He was very close to Jesus in his final months.
I think of him every day and will always treasure the time I had with him. I think he was closer to the kingdom than I am. I fail in love again and again and see too late things I could have done. But God is faithful and keeps his promises. My faith rests in this, and I have peace.
Betty was too modest to ever say it, but had it not been for her constant prayer and her faithfulness to Jesus, Harry might never have found his way back to God and to faith, let alone back to her. Their last two years together are a testament to faith and to the healing power of uncompromising love. What a contrast to today’s culture, where so many seem to think that the more independently a marriage is built, the firmer it is. Some even think that the more a couple can be relieved of the “constraints” of obligation to each other, the happier they will be. This is a completely false presumption. Only when a marriage is founded in God’s order and on the basis of his love can it last. A marriage is built on sand unless it is built on the rock of faith.
Man and woman have different tasks, and they must complement each other.
The conviction that love to Christ and his church must take priority over all else is also important for understanding the difference between man and woman. Clearly God has given each of them different natures and tasks, and when these are rightly fulfilled in a marriage in the church, harmony and love will abound. My father, J. Heinrich Arnold, writes:
Obviously, there are differences in the biological makeup of the male and the female. But it is completely materialistic to think that the difference between man and woman is merely biological. A woman longs to absorb her beloved one into herself. She is designed by nature to receive and to endure; to conceive, to bear, to nurse, and to protect. A man, on the other hand, desires to enter his beloved one and become one with her; he is made to initiate and penetrate rather than to receive.1
It has been said that the body is shaped by the soul, and this is a deep thought. The soul, the breath of God, the innermost essence of each human being, forms a different body for each. It is never a question of who is higher. Both man and woman were made in the image of God, and what can be greater than that? Yet there is a difference: Paul likens man to Christ and woman to the church (Eph. 5:22–24). Man, as head, portrays the service of Christ. Woman, as body, portrays the dedication of the church. There is a difference in calling, but there is no difference in worth.
Mary is a symbol of the church. In her we recognize the true nature of womanhood and motherhood. Woman is like the church because she receives and carries the Word within her (Luke 1:38) and brings life into the world in keeping with God’s will. This is the highest thing that can be said of a human being.
A woman’s love is different from a man’s. It tends to be more steady, more in keeping with her loyal nature. It is dedicated to protecting and guiding all those in its care. Man’s love, on the other hand, seeks others out and challenges them. It is the pioneering zeal of the apostle, of Christ’s representative: Go out and gather! Teach all people. Submerge them in the atmosphere of God, in the life of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:18–20). But man’s task, like woman’s, is always bound together with the task of the church.
Both Paul and Peter point out that the husband is the head of his wife, not in himself but in Christ (1 Cor. 11:3). This does not mean that the man is “higher”; the fact that woman is taken from man and man is born of woman shows that they are dependent on each other in every respect (1 Cor. 11:11–12). Again, the gifts and responsibilities of one are worth no more than those of the other; they are simply different. In God’s order of marriage, both husband and wife will find their rightful place, but neither will rule the other. Love and humility will rule.
It belongs to the evil of our day that both men and women avoid the responsibilities given them by God. Women rebel against the inconvenience of pregnancy and the pain of birth, and men rebel against the burden of commitment to the children they father and to the woman who bears them. Such rebellion is a curse on our time. It will lead future generations astray. Woman was designed by God to have children, and a real man will respect and love his wife all the more because of this. Peter admonishes us:
You husbands must conduct your married life with understanding: pay honor to the woman’s body, not only because it is weaker, but also because you share together in the grace of God which gives you life. Then your prayers will not be hindered (1 Pet. 3:7 NEB).
It is clear that the difference between man and woman is not absolute. In a true woman there is courageous manliness, and in a true man there is the submission and humility of Mary. Yet because the husband is the head, he will give the lead, even if he is a very weak person. This must not be taken as if man were an overlord and woman his servant. If a husband does not lead in love and humility – if he does not lead in the spirit of Jesus – his headship will become tyranny. The head has its place in the body, but it does not dominate.
When I marry a couple, I always ask the bridegroom if he is willing to lead his wife “in everything that is good,” which simply means to lead her more deeply to Jesus. In the same way, I ask the bride if she is willing to follow her husband. It is simply a matter of both of them following Jesus together.
True leadership means loving service.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul points to the self-sacrificing love that lies in true leadership: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). This task, the task of loving, is actually the task of every man and woman, whether married or not.
When we take Paul’s words to heart, we will experience the true inner unity of a relationship ruled by love – an inner speaking of the heart to God from both spouses together. Only then will God’s blessing rest on our marriages. We will constantly seek our beloved one anew and continually look for ways to serve each other in love. Most wonderful of all, we will find everlasting joy. As the church father Tertullian writes:
Who can describe the happiness of a marriage contracted in the presence of the church and sealed with its blessing? What a sweet yoke it is which here joins two believing people in one hope, one way of life, one vow of loyalty, and one service to God! They are brother and sister, both busy in the same service, with no separation of soul and body, but as two in one flesh. And where there is one flesh, there is one spirit also. Together they pray, together they kneel down: the one teaches the other, and bears with the other. They are joined together in the church of God, joined at the Lord’s table, joined in anxiety, persecution, and recovery. They vie with each other in the service of their Lord. Christ sees and hears, and joyfully does he send them his peace, for where two are gathered together in his name, there is he in the midst of them.2
1. Discipleship, 160–161.
2. Ernst Rolffs, ed., Tertullian, der Vater des abendländischen Christentums: Ein Kämpfer für und gegen die römische Kirche (Berlin: Hochweg, 1930), 31–32.