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Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ’s Relationship with the Church? a reblog from Wordgazer’s Words, by Kristen Rosser

Many thanks to Kristen over at Wordgazer’s Words for giving us permission to reblog this post which was the last in a 3-part series* at her blog. Over to Kristen.


This post attempts to ask the question: “Maybe marriage isn’t an ‘illustration’ of Christ and the church, but isn’t marriage a type of Christ’s relationship with the church?”

Typology is a concept mentioned several times in the New Testament. According to the online Holman Bible Dictionary:

Typology involves a correspondence, usually in one particular matter between a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament with a person, event, or thing, in the New Testament. All elements except this one may be quite different, but the one element selected for comparison has a genuine similarity in the two different historical contexts. . . Typology, a comparison stressing one point of similarity, helps us see the New Testament person, event, or institution as the fulfillment of that which was only hinted at in the Old Testament. [Emphasis in original]

As Holman states, when the word “type is used in the New Testament, it refers to one element of something in the Old Testament being a pattern for something in the New. Adam is a “type” of Christ — but only in the sense that Adam was the one man through whom the curse of sin came, and Christ is the one Man through whom the gift of salvation came. But Adam is not like Christ in other respects — in fact, it is the “not like” comparisons that are emphasized in Romans 5:14-16.

The New Testament does not actually call any of its own introduced concepts (such as Paul’s concept of New Covenant Christian marriage) “types” of anything else. However, if, in spite of this, perhaps there is some justification in seeing typology in Christian marriage — for in verse 32 Paul does seem to use it as a pattern that hints at something else which will be the fulfillment. However, if marriage is a type, the hint will not be like the fulfillment in every respect, but in one, limited respect only. And the text itself will show us what is.

The marriage relationship is not like Christ’s relationship with the church in every sense. And the sense given by the text is not authority and subordination, but oneness. Marriage is like Christ and the church because both relationships become “one flesh” relationships. In other respects, marriage is not like Christ’s relationship with the church. Marriage is not like Christ redeeming from sin and the church being redeemed, or like the church worshiping and Christ receiving worship. I have heard husbands say they believed it was their job to cleanse their wives and present them before God as Christ does the church! But that is not the point of similarity given in the possible typology here.

Just because Christ is shown doing or being something for the church in the Ephesians 5:21-33 text, does not mean that husbands are to do or be the same thing for their wives. The text says that Christ is the church’s “Savior,“ but (thankfully) I have never heard a husband claim he could step into that role! But neither does the text say marriage is like Christ leading and the church following. Though the text does say wives are to submit (voluntarily yield), it says nothing about husbands (or Christ) leading. Instead, it talks about husbands (and Christ) loving. Husbands, like Christ, are understood to be in a position of authority — but exercising that authority is simply not in view in this text. Just the opposite, in fact. Husbands are told to give themselves as Christ gave Himself — and Christ gave Himself to crucifixion, laying down His power and authority. In light of this, it doesn’t make sense to say that the husband-authority exercised in worldly marriages of Paul’s day was somehow intended by God to continue for all time. Christian marriage in the New Covenant was not intended to be viewed in terms of authority, but in terms of laying down authority and raising up the one under authority.

So if there is any typology in Ephesians 5:21-33, it is the typology of “one flesh.” To map husbands to Christ in any way not given by the typology, is to go beyond the text and to risk husband-idolatry, placing husbands in the place of Christ in their wives’ lives. And to give the worldly authority of husbands in Paul’s day, to all husbands for all time, is to wrongly map the human to the divine.

To sum up, then:

Human marriage is not, and cannot be, an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church. Instead, Christ’s relationship with the church, as shown in the text, is the illustration for New-Covenant human marriage.

Our Western understanding of literary structure leads us to want to see the main point of Ephesians 5:21-33 as wives’ submission to husbands (because it is the first and last thing mentioned), followed by husbands loving wives — and the rest as more or less mere commentary on those two points. But this is not how Paul intended it to be read. What he wanted was that the Christians in the church at Ephesus (and in the other churches to whom this letter would be circulated) should see their marriages as needing to imitate Christ’s descent from glory in order to raise up the church to glory. He wanted them to see that one-flesh unity between a husband who raised up his wife, and the wife who was raised up, was the goal of Christian marriage.

If in this sense marriage is a type, pointing to a fulfillment when Christ comes again, in His one-flesh unity with the church, then this, and nothing else, is the point of similarity of the typology.

There is no justification for stretching the text to make marriage either a type or an illustration of Christ’s authority over the church.

This passage is simply not about the marriage relationship being intended by God as an authority-subordinate relationship. That is the understanding of marriage that Paul had to work with in his audience’s minds — but that’s not where he left it. Ephesians 5:21-33’s teaching on marriage is about changing that view of marriage to one of unity and love — the kind of love that could transform the authority-subordinate nature of first-century Ephesian marriages, into what God desires for marriage in His New Covenant kingdom: oneness, companionship and mutuality. So when Christians insist on husband-authority in marriage, they are actually going in the opposite direction from where Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was trying to take the church.

This is not about either rejecting or accommodating modern culture. Christians tend to focus entirely too much on that. But the question is not, “what is the world doing now, so we can do the opposite, right or wrong?” The real question is, should we turn back to a first-century worldly understanding, or move forward into the New Creation kingdom of God?

* Part 1 of the three-part series post refuted the idea that marriage is an illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church. Part 2 showed that Christ’s glorification of the church to become “one flesh” with Him is the main point of Ephesians 21-33, and this was the illustration Paul had in mind to transform marriage as the world understood it then, into New Covenant marriage in Christ.

Please note: Just because we recommend this post by Kristen Rosser doesn’t mean we endorse all of her writings.


  1. MarkQ

    Great article! I find it distressing that the modern evangelical church focuses so much on the submission of the person under authority, when so much more damage has been done by the un-Christ-likeness of the person with the authority.

  2. IamMyBeloved's

    This is how I have wrongly seen these verses interpreted:

    Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. (Eph 5:25-27) NASB

    The “He” in these verses has been horribly misaligned to be the husband’s duty to wash his wife in the word. But it clearly is referring to Christ being the One Who washes, cleanses and santifies the woman, just as He does the man. Bibles that capitalize the pronouns referring to the Trinity help in this area.

    This post helps to unveil where men are positioned over women rather than under them as support and love, with gentleness, humility and kindness. Just because he is the head does not mean he is better, smarter or to be worshipped by his family. The head lays down his life. There is no more male or female. It never says man is a king or above his wife in any fashion, so lording it over whether in homes or in churches is simply horrid error.

  3. kind of anonymous

    Not entirely sure of my thoughts on this, still working it out; here’s what I think at this point. Perhaps it is a not a question of whether leadership and submission are part of marriage; there are too many verses that would seem to suggest that it is. Perhaps it is a question of how and in what way. When we come to Christ it is His kindness that leads us to repentance, not His authority. And even when we are in the wrong as a believer, we don’t change course because Christ comes to us and says ‘ Now you look, scoundrel, I am the Lord and have all power and authority, and you better submit to me and if you don’t I am going to roast you”. The Holy Spirit draws, woos, appeals, shapes, softens. He says ” Come let us reason”. He affirms where we are doing well . He points out specifics of what needs to change. He may discipline and correct if we won’t repent.

    In a marriage, if something is compromising our spouse like an addiction or bad friends, something that will rob them or risk their soul or corrupt their character, because we value that person’s soul and have their back, we would take a sin threat seriously,we would immediately attempt to intervene by speaking the truth and drawing them back. Not only for their sake but for ours because what pollutes them can harm us too. Scripture refers to such things when it speaks of saving some, snatching them out of the fire, and when it speaks of winning your brother by your appeal for him to turn from sin. So I do see a place in marriage to follow Christ’s example of gaurding the purity of the bride and using the word to sanctify and cleanse.

    If I am commiting fornication and you come to me with the word and speak the truth to me in love, showing me what God’s word says, you are in effect, sanctifying me with the word; its up to me to accept or reject it. The issue of motive and means is everything though. Is it done like Christ would do it or is it done with wrong motives in a lording it over manner? Does it respect the right to choose or does it force itself, control, dominate? Is it done in love and mercy, coming alongside of me as a fellow struggler against sin or is it done in a self righteous, holier than thou judgemental manner? These are not like Christ at all. No woman in her right mind would reject a man behaving like Christ, demonstrating that while he has her best interests at heart, will not force or control her and will stay true to the truth himself, looking to himself lest he too be tempted. Jesus demonstrated what this looks like practically when He took on the garb of a slave and washed the feet of his disciples. He told them that the gentiles lorded it over their people but that it was NOT to be so among His followers. So an authoritarian command man who is lording it over his wife is totally missing God’s heart .

    I wonder sometimes if the issue is that we don’t take things far enough, rather than take things too far? If Christ’s relationshp with the church is an example of what marriage should be like, do those who use these verses wrongly, not notice that Jesus through Paul, told us to remove someone who continues in sin because of the defiling and leavening effect it has on the body of Christ? What and who is the body of Christ? The same group of people referred to as the bride of Christ. If the corporate bride cannot tolerate ongoing sin in its midst without being spotted and defiled by such leaven, why on earth would a pastor or fellow christian think that an individual bride can endlessly tolerate willful sin right in the very heart of where she lives, without it causing damage and eventually risking her health and even life? Why are we told to withdraw from those who have the apperance of godliness that denies its power? Why are we told to separate ourelves from an immoral brother?

    Could this comparison be likened to the verse that says not to muzzle the ox when he is threshing, the verse later referenced when speaking of that verse, it was said that God was not just concerned about oxen, but that his was a princple demonstrated for our benefit? Could the verses about putting out an ongoing offender from the body/bride not also serve in the same manner? I shudder to think that someone would use what I am saying to justify just dumping their spouse when it isn’t truly necessary and warranted. I’ve heard of situations where God spoke clearly to a spouse whose husband was engaging in gross sexual sin (homosexuality) and said that if they would stay put and fervently intercede, He would deliver them out of their bondage to sin, and He did. in the account I read that man is now serving God as a merciful and compassionate pastor. So I think it is important to be led by the Spirit. He knows the difference between someone caught in sin, and someone who is quite fine with their sin and has no real intention of dealing with it.

    Its pretty hard to live in the call to peace when one’s spouse is continuing in active ongoing sin esp when they will not hear and heed that their behaviour is damaging. Sin is violence against God and man. it isn’t neutral. It is not the oopsie that the modern church seems to make it. Probably why the modern church fails to call things like abuse what it is, serious ongoing sin. However, those who relate out of a religious obedience that is full of correct theology but devoid of real organic heart and life level relationship, who do outward rote obedience but miss the heart of the gospel, fail to make such obvious connections. Probably why legalism is so dangerous. The letter kills but the Spirit brings life.

  4. Seeing the Light

    Oh, how I wish I had time right now to comment on this. I went to the blog that you quoted and read the series and other articles. Such wisdom! Thank you so much for sharing this and for all the wisdom and encouragement I find here at ACFJ every day!

  5. StandsWithAFist

    “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” Deut 29:29
    Note that it says to follow God’s word and not the traditions of men.

    I love this post. I love the challenge. I love the depth of it and the heart seeking truth and the discontent of traditionalism (I.e.: Gary Chapman’s new-but-tired book).

    As I read, several “notable quotes” kept popping into my head. (I wish I had some from women so I am hoping the readers can send some?)

    “A half truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.”–J.I. Packer

    “To say the words do mean a thing merely because they can be tortured into meaning it is a most dishonorable and dangerous way of handling Scripture.” –J.C. Ryle

    “We must not select a few favorite passages to the exclusion of others. Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian.” A.W. Tozer

    In other words, Gods word should be taken as a whole, and never as a covering for sin.


  6. MarkQ

    Kind of Anonymous, I struggled through those same sorts of things, both with my relationship with my wife and with my kids. First, I realized that I needed to separate those things which were true of all people. That is, if I see one person mistreating another, I have the right, if not the responsibility to intervene. That is true whether one of those people is my wife, my child, my father, my elder. It’s simply part of being human.

    So, then the question is, what is uniquely different about the marriage relationship and the family, and what authority do I have in these relationships that is different from the normal commands regarding brethren. I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that somehow “iron sharpens iron” is uniquely different in marriage or parenthood than in normal human relationships.

    The next thought process is… what responsibility does God give me with respect to my wife and children that he did not give me towards all humans or even all brethren. I think it’s easier to answer that question with regard to children than wives, and I honestly can’t think of any area where I’m uniquely responsible for my wife’s behavior before God. Perhaps that’s because we have a house, we have food, we share responsibilities, we respect each other, etc., and the call for leadership and submission is when things are broken in some areas, but I don’t see this as being uniquely masculine or feminine. I’ve see cases where the wives must protect the finances from the husband’s sin, protect the children, provide, or more, perhaps more in this era than in others.

  7. krwordgazer

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments! I agree with Mark that the points Kind of Anonymous makes are just as true of wives as they are of husbands. Husbands are not divine and sinless like Christ — they are ordinary, flawed human beings. They don’t have some special prerogative to speak into sin in their wives’ lives that wives do not have — because all Christians, married or not, are brothers and sisters in Christ, and the verses that say things like “If your brother sins against you, go to him,” apply just as much to wives as they do to anyone else.

    As for the statement, “leadership and submission are part of marriage, because too many verses seem to suggest that it is” — one of the points I was trying to make was that these verses were originally written about first century marriages. It would have been impossible to write about marriage in Bible times without taking into account that women were the property of men– first of their fathers, and then of their husbands. But the verses in Ephesians about husbands imitating Christ when He laid down His authority and His life in order to raise the church up show that Christian marriage was intended to be something better than marriage as it was understood at the time. It was not Christ’s leadership that husbands were told to imitate, but Christ’s self-emptying.

    To read the Bible as if it were not written in a certain time, place and culture, and to then apply its teachings without taking that into account, is to misunderstand what kind of book God gave us.

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