NOTE: I wrote this post about two years ago, but decided to sit on it. The primary reason was that it was in large part a response to a sermon my former pastor gave on sexuality, and I decided not to stir the pot more at that time. Now that I was forced to leave not just that church, but Evangelicalism as a whole for reasons of conscience, I decided to re-read, revise, and post this one. This is some necessary foundation for future posts I hope to write.
I remember a certain day sitting in court (the division that handled divorce and custody matters), and this woman spoke on her own behalf. (Hint: get a lawyer.) After she proceeded to dig her hole as deep as possible given the time, the judge made his ruling. He started with words to this effect:
“I had been leaning toward granting your request, until you opened your mouth and convinced me to rule against you.”
Several times in the last week, I have either read or heard someone - a pastor and/or Evangelical blogger - making a case for their particular view of sexuality, sexual morality, or marriage, based on Saint Paul’s metaphor of Christ and the Church as bride and groom. If it had been just one time, I probably would have left it alone, but it is clearly becoming the trendy “method de jour” for arguing against gay marriage. For some reason, many seem to believe that this is the ultimate “trump card,” so to speak, when I believe it is anything but. In fact, the use of this metaphor is more likely to confirm in many people’s minds that conservative Christianity is still clinging with bleeding fingers to a misogynist view of women and marriage.
Let me explain.
First, a couple of disclosures:
1. I am not a trained theologian. I am, however, at least a self-taught student of history, psychology, and sociology. I am also an attorney who practices family and probate law, so I probably have about as much or more experience with failed marriages and dysfunctional families as the average pastor or theologian my age.
2. Because of my experience hearing the poisonous teachings of the Christian Patriarchy movement during my teen years, I am WELL familiar with the use and misuse of the “Christ and the Church” metaphor as it relates to marriage. If anything, I probably have spiritual PTSD when it comes to this metaphor. So, I am a bit passionate about this.
3. I am not intending to make an argument for or against gay marriage. I am just pointing out that, as a wise lawyer once told me,
“Often the argument you cherish and hold in your bosom is the one that loses you your case.”
The gist of the argument is this: since marriage is like Christ and the Church, it is necessary that there be a male and a female in marriage. And, since sex must only occur in marriage, only male/female sex within marriage is permissible.
There are quite a number of troubling implications of this, particularly to anyone (like me) who believes that males and females are in essence equal in the most important ways. In fact, if you follow the metaphor, you find very quickly that you are making an argument for an extreme inequality between men and women - an inequality in some way equivalent to the gulf between man and God. And I need not tell you which gender becomes “God” in that scenario.
The problem isn’t with Saint Paul’s metaphor, which was truly revolutionary at the time, and is beautiful when confined to the original point. The problem is that when the metaphor is expanded beyond its original point, it loses both its truth and its beauty, becoming a weapon for abusers and an argument for a return to the misogyny of the past.
Let me start with this, because I believe it is an important point.
My marriage absolutely does NOT demonstrate the relationship between Christ and the Church. And, unless you are an extreme patriarchist, NEITHER DOES YOURS.
It’s actually pretty simple. My marriage does not demonstrate the relationship between Christ and the Church because my wife and I are equals. God and man are not equals, particularly in Evangelical theology. (Actually, I can’t really think of too many cases in which the gods and mortals were equivalent - that’s why they are gods, right? - although at least in the Greco-Roman pantheon, they were equally flawed.)
And, whatever most modern westerners claim to believe about submission within marriage, most of us are functionally egalitarian when it comes to the day-to-day function of our marriages. We make decisions together, we talk and love as equals, and we act as though each partner has equal dignity and wisdom. Now, I have come to a fully egalitarian philosophy during my marriage, but even before, I expected that my marriage would functionally be between equals.
Most of you are the same, whether you do lip service to “submission” or not. In fact, except for a few extreme outliers, nobody believes that a man who disregards his wife’s point of view as irrelevant is a good husband.
But that is certainly not how we view Christ and the Church.
Unless one is speaking about Christian Patriarchy. Because they take the metaphor deadly seriously.
I am not making this up, but there are those who actually try to put into practice “That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.” As in, men have to somehow cleanse their wives from sin by water and scripture reading. As I said, I wish I were making this up.
Let’s look at a few other implications, though, because I believe they are important.
The heart of the metaphor as a prescription for or description of marriage is that one party takes the place of God, while the other takes the place of humanity. In other words, one is divine, while the other is mortal.
No points for guessing which gender is the divine one.
2. As high as Christ is above mankind, so men are high above women.
This is the problem, obviously. If it is vital to marriage that one party represent God, while the other represents man, one will by necessity be far superior in every imaginable way to the other.
3. If marriage must reflect Christ and the Church by having a male and a female, why is this so? I mean, I am a male AND part of the Bride of Christ. Does that mean I have to be a female in some sense? And since obviously not in biological sex or reproductive capacity, in what way am I supposed to be female? What is the essential difference between male and female? How is the difference between male and female like that between God and man if not in a hierarchical way?
In other words, if it is necessary that marriage (and sex) demonstrate the relationship of God and man, then the requirement of male and female (to the exclusion of same sex relationships) is so that someone can be the inferior party. Someone has to be the female. By the way, that is exactly the point made regarding male homosexuality during the time the Bible was written. It was shameful for a man to be penetrated, because he was lowering himself to the function of a woman within the sexual act. A man lowered himself to the status of the congenitally inferior woman.
I could talk at length about this, but let me just run through some basics of our relationship with Christ.
As a Christian, who believes that Christ is a co-equal member of the Trinity - God in all senses, I believe that Christ is always right in every situation. (Don’t confuse this with a belief that religious leaders are right in all situations. Quite the opposite.) Thus, I believe that God is indeed Truth, and that He will be right when I am wrong. As in always.
This would be a fully ludicrous approach to marriage, however. If I flatter myself, when my wife and I disagree, we are equally likely to be wrong or right. As a male, I am at minimum, no more likely to be right than my wife. (In practice, she is right more often than I am - I married a wise woman…)
Thus, when it comes to that issue, we are clearly not modeling Christ and the Church. My “divinity” leaves a lot to be desired. And the mere fact that I was born with a penis does NOT make me any more likely to right than my wife, who was not.
Now, Patriarchists disagree with this. They believe and teach that women are (by nature) more likely to be deceived than men, and thus, their opinions and wisdom can and should be disregarded or at least devalued. And this does in fact look more like Christ and the Church, doesn’t it? God probably does not sit around soliciting my opinion about major decisions. And why should He? The Christ/Church relationship is one of fundamental inequality. As high as the heavens are above the earth, as Isaiah put it.
So, if my marriage were to actually demonstrate Christ and the Church, my wife should NOT question anything I say. Or at least, she should trust in my opinions and decisions as being far above anything she could think or decide. (Although the bible is full of examples of humans questioning and arguing with God, Evangelicals consider this to be mortal sin.)
Or how about this? A fundamental of Protestant (and thus Evangelical doctrine) is that there is only one mediator between God and man: namely Christ. He is the one who speaks to God (really Himself) on our behalf. As I have heard it taught, He is the prophet, priest, and king. He brings God’s words to us, brings our petitions to God, and rules the Church as its head. (Not all that controversial, I would hope.)
Would it be a shock to hear that the Patriarchists, in their zeal to demonstrate the Christ/Church relationship within marriage, have declared that MEN are to be the “prophet, priest, and king” of their own families?
It shouldn’t be.
But that is the natural result of taking the metaphor beyond its intention.
So of course, if marriage demonstrates Christ and the Church, then the MAN is the go-between for God and his wife and children. Of course he brings the very words of God to them. Of course his decisions should be treated as if they were from God Himself. Why?
Because he is the representation of freaking GOD in the marriage relationship.
Of course he shouldn’t be questioned. Of course he is always right. Of course disobeying his whims is the same as disobeying God Himself.
Hence, the “washing with the water of the word” thing. Because men are (essentially) GOD in the relationship, they are responsible for cleansing the sin in the women.
And then, what about this? Most of us (per Hebrews and other passages) expect that Christ lovingly disciplines us. How shall we demonstrate that in our marriages?
Do I need to be disciplining my wife? Shouldn’t I do that to demonstrate Christ and the Church? (I am being a bit facetious here, but there really are those who believe men need to discipline their wives.) Thus lies justification for abuse.
Bottom line: If I related to Christ the way my wife relates to me in our marriage, it would be fairly blasphemous. If I insisted on treating my wife the way that would be justified if I were God to her humanity, it would be at best seriously sexist, and at worst, abusive.
And any time one uses the Christ/Church metaphor to demonstrate WHY marriage has to be a certain way, one runs into this problem. Somehow, someway, one ends up arguing for one party to the marriage to be the inferior, human, party; to the other superior, divine party.
And when you argue that one party must fulfil the male (dominant, superior, divine) role and one must fulfil the (subservient, inferior, human) role, you have to end up somewhere seriously sexist, and probably misogynist.
So, whatever arguments you might otherwise be making - or think you are making - this is what many of those outside of the faith - and many of us within the faith too - end up hearing:
Gay marriage is wrong because a central doctrine of the faith is...wait for it… wait for it…
Woo hoo. Isn’t that convincing? The currently trendy method of argument somehow assumes that this is actually a compelling argument, when it is is actually more of a confirmation of the idea that Christianity is inseparable from misogyny. If we base our entire concept of sexuality and gender on the idea of a hierarchy between men and women, we have lost the argument at the outset.
Better to just say that God is opposed to gay sex for an arbitrary and unexplainable reason than to tie the argument to the superiority of men over women.
This is so terribly misguided, in my opinion.
There is nothing wrong with what Saint Paul is saying, but the fault lies in the appropriation of his metaphor to prove ideas beyond the point he was making.
Saint Paul, Aristotle, and the legend of Cupid and Psyche
Probably the main reason why I hate to discuss marriage with Evangelicals is that they (generally) are appalling ignorant of history and literature. Indeed, I would argue that the luminaries of homeschool and Christian education are willfully ignorant of these things - or perhaps actively hostile to a real study of history, because such as study would reveal just how much American Evangelicalism owes to Aristotle and ancient pagan philosophies in general.
In this specific case, it is impossible to discuss Saint Paul and his teachings on marriage without a background knowledge of Aristotle’s Politics. This work was hugely influential in New Testament times; described the laws governing relationships between men, women, children, and slaves; and influenced popular thought, both in the relationships of the State, but also in the foundational relationships between individuals.
Aristotle notes three basic relationships that are the “foundation” of the State: Master/slave, parent/child, and husband/wife. In each case, the free, adult, male person rules over the subordinate person. The child, slave...or wife. If one ever wondered why Saint Paul - and Saint Peter - always mention these three relationships together, this is the answer. The three are mentioned together because they are linked by Aristotle as the foundation of the “polis.”
The foundation of society in 1st Century Rome is the superiority and rule of the free over slave, old over young, and male over female.
Furthermore, this hierarchy wasn’t accidental. Aristotle believed that humans were male by default, but became female in the womb because something went wrong with the developmental process. In other words, women are merely retarded men, subhuman in their physical and mental abilities. (Likewise, slaves were defective as well, which justified their slavery - you can see this exact same argument used in the United States both in defense of slavery and pretty much any time race relations or poverty come up.) Children, at least the males, were only temporarily subhuman. And a slave might win his or her freedom. But women were forever and always subhuman.
Thus, any analysis of the teachings in, say, Ephesians, I Corinthians, or I Peter, is ludicrously incomplete unless it includes the historical background, including the legal status of women, children, and slaves as the lawful property of freemen. If you are trying to convince anyone outside of the Evangelical bubble of your position, you will look like a fool if you ignore these historical and legal realities.
Saint Paul was making a specific point
If you actually look at the context (historical and grammatical) of what Saint Paul was saying, his point becomes both clear and limited.
Women and men were already legally and culturally related to each other in a way that the Christ/Church metaphor made sense. Women at that time did indeed legally owe their husbands the same unquestioning obedience as mortals owed God himself. They were, after all, the mere chattel of their husbands. And universally believed to be mentally defective too.
Saint Paul turned this on its head.
He made the bold, startling, and revolutionary statement that husbands owed their wives the highest possible duty. They too were bound to act with the same love and sacrifice as Christ himself!
Rather than treat women as chattel, godly men were to place their own lives on the line. They were to love their women as they did their own bodies.
This was a shockingly egalitarian statement at the time.
It is so very easy to forget that, and simply literally apply the “women submit” thing to modern marriages without actually looking at what Saint Paul changed.
In every passage where Saint Paul uses the metaphor, he is talking about how husbands are supposed to sacrifice themselves for their wives and love her with the highest love.
There is nothing shameful in this, even to the modern egalitarian. If one might borrow from another passage, we are ALL to esteem the other as better than ourselves.
The metaphor isn’t one of “this is how marriages are to look,” but “this is how a genuinely Christian man is to act toward a woman.” She isn’t chattel, or an inferior to be disregarded, but is to be treated as a man’s own body: a freaking equal!
That is the main point of Saint Paul’s metaphor, not that marriage must look this way or that way.
Let’s Not Forget Cupid and Psyche
C. S. Lewis wrote a brilliant and moving paraphrase of the legend of Cupid and Psyche. You can read my review of Till We Have Faces here, and I recommend that you also read the comments, because of the discussion between me and another blogger about the implications.
In the original legend, Psyche, the mortal, must complete several quests in order to become the bride of Cupid, a god. She is a mere mortal, and must attain divinity in order to make an equal marriage with an immortal. Cupid therefore “purifies” Psyche through these quests.
Surely Saint Paul was familiar with this myth, which predates the New Testament, and he seems to have borrowed it in his description of Christ and the Church. (As Lewis pointed out elsewhere, a Myth may very well be true in some sense - poetical and metaphorical.) It seems impossible that he would have been unaware of it (given his education) and unlikely that he would have purloined the concept and the language without some intent to utilize the myth for his own purposes.
And really, this is the other great bit about the metaphor. Divinity stooped to become human, in order that humanity, somehow, in a great “mystery” that we don’t understand, will become the “bride” of the divine.
Psyche (the butterfly, the “soul”) becomes divine in order to wed Cupid, the divine representation of love. In some way then, mortal humanity (the “Church”) will become immortal - “divine” even - to wed the ultimate being of love. This is a mystery indeed. And Saint Paul’s metaphor is thrilling in this sense. Someday, we will become the partner of God Himself, one with our creator. And somehow, we will transcend our human limitations to be a worthy partner. How this occurs is, indeed, a “mystery” to be revealed in eternity.
But then, this transcendent mystery gets pilfered to “prove” some point about gender hierarchy.
A revolutionary idea that men cannot treat women as property, but must act with the love of God toward them; and a mystery of oneness with our creator becomes twisted to “prove” that marriage must be a particular way.
A particular way that by definition includes a superior and an inferior party. One that paints men as god, and women as lesser. By freaking definition.
My marriage cannot bear that burden.
And chances are, neither can yours.
Because men and women coming together to become partners on the journey of life, following Christ as we we are called, and as we are gifted, do not really demonstrate “Christ and the Church” that way. I do indeed try to love Amanda as Christ loves the Church. But so does she! Her love for me isn’t really different from my love for her, as we both try to imitate Christ. Love and “godliness” aren’t really gendered. The Fruit of the Spirit apply equally to each of us.
We are all mortals partnering to keep each other company on the road to eternity, not godlike men cleansing our sinful women.
Metaphors are good as far as they go, but are dangerous when stretched or misused.
This is why one gets into dangerous territory when one tries to take a metaphor beyond the original intent to “prove” one’s view of gender and sexuality.
I am reminded of a few other issues. Many of the metaphors in Isaiah involve wine, which would have been useful and immediate to a culture based on grapes and wine, but would be less, um, “useful” or understandable to the average teetotaling Southern Baptist today. Likewise, many of Christ’s metaphors about sheep are either lost upon modern city dwellers, or are grossly misrepresented by preachers with little to no actual knowledge of sheep but great knowledge of stock sermon illustrations that would seem stupid to any person with actual knowledge of sheep. The metaphor is useful to a point, and to those to whom it was directed. Were Christ or Saint Paul here among us today, they probably would have used different metaphors to illustrate spiritual truths. Metaphors that fit our own culture and lives.
Even more to the point, Moses, Abraham, and Elijah were all looked to as “prefigurations,” or perhaps “metaphors” of Christ himself. They pointed the way.
However, the similarities become apparent only in retrospect. They were not quite as obvious at the time. In fact, most took the wrong lesson from Moses, Abraham, and Elijah. The popular Jewish conception of the “Messiah” was so screwed up that they didn’t recognize Christ when he came. Well, that and this important fact: Christ was a total surprise. His life and ministry didn’t fit the older beliefs, the older metaphors. He changed everything.
When you make the metaphor into the central truth, instead of a way to understand that truth, you end up with nonsense like this that ends up perpetuating the injustices of the past - exactly the opposite of Saint Paul’s intention.
Two equals, taking on the world together.
By the way, I blogged about this tendency to interpret scripture as if it was intended to enforce old cultural beliefs, prejudices, social structures, and injustices.
Just a few examples of what I described as the bizarre and misogynistic views of Patriarchist/Complementarian theologians:
That’s John Piper’s website, BTW, so this is pretty mainstream…
That link is from an interesting blogger. Some of us (myself included) suspect he(she?) may be a ninja-level troll, repackaging Patriarchist beliefs without all the nice doublespeak. Either way, each and every argument here is familiar to me from my past.
A few links which are interesting:
Frank Schaeffer, who, like me, grew up in Fundamentalism, and has rejected it, wrote an interesting little intellectual exercise on this metaphor. After all, since I as a male am part of the “bride of Christ,” does this make me part of a gay or bisexual marriage? Be careful how far you stretch your metaphors...
I really need to credit the loathsome Doug Wilson for helping me to see the poisonous root of Patriarchy. You want to see the misogyny that results from misusing this metaphor? Here you go.
J. R. Daniel Kirk is a New Testament theologian who has really helped me with the historical background. Here are three posts which clarify the sexist basis on which the Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman views of sexuality rested.