Last week, my students and I were looking at ways to interpret difficult texts in Paul in class when a storm broke out online around the theology of the marriage metaphor.
In Twitter threads and Substack posts, Christian voices offered their discerning views around pastor Joshua Ryan Butler’s metaphorical reading of Ephesians 5 published on The Gospel Coalition website. Butler’s piece, an excerpt from an upcoming book on sex, generated enough critical feedback that the article was removed.
The recent discussion, though, underscores a perpetual question for us as Christians: How can we discern the Bible and Christian tradition faithfully? What should be our key?
As Christians, we point to the triune God as the fount of all love, and one way that Scripture invites us to consider God and love is through the metaphorical language of marriage. In Ephesians 5, Paul describes marriage, a union both social and physical, as a great mystery (v. 32), and he draws out practical lessons of self-sacrifice for wives (vv. 21–24, 33) and husbands (vv. 21, 25, 28–29, 33). Woven throughout these teachings on marriage are beautiful statements about Christ and the church.
Our interpretation of these statements must be anchored in the biblical text itself. Before describing him as a husband, Paul uses imagery in Ephesians 5 to reveal the Lord’s sovereignty. Although he has just given his incarnate name, Jesus, Paul refers to the Son of God as Christ and Lord. Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the one who reigns over God’s kingdom, and the Lord, the sovereign over the universe. He is also the Savior of the body (v. 23).
Christ exercises his sovereign lordship through acts of self-giving service and love, as in John 13 and Philippians 2. Christ the Sovereign loved the church and gave himself for her, in order that he might sanctify the church. Christ dealt with the problem of sin by washing, which was the job of a servant (Eph. 5:26–27). All the members of the body, individually and collectively as the church (v. 30), needed the salvation only Christ the Lord could bring.
Paul compares husbands to Christ in this passage, but this does not mean that husbands are like Christ in every respect. It is freeing for men to know the ways they should not (because they cannot) “be Lord” to their wives. They can neither save nor sanctify their wives, for they too are in need of a Savior and contaminated by sin.
Not like other males
Paul does provide the relationship of wives to their husbands as an example of all Christians submitting to one another and all the members of the church submitting to Christ, but he never tells husbands to lead their wives, only to love—a directive he repeats in Ephesians 5:25, twice in verse 28, and again in verse 33.
We see husbands are not Jesus, and Jesus is not in all ways like a husband. While Paul teaches husbands to love self-sacrificially by following the example of Jesus’ self-sacrificial death for the church, he goes beyond the bounds of the marriage metaphor when he speaks of Christ’s love for the church. Paul makes it clear that Christ’s self-sacrificial love is not only a one-time atoning event. Christ engages in long-term, ongoing care for the church.
In Ephesians 5:29, he nourishes the church, a term used for father’s care of children (Eph. 6:4) and related to the term for mother’s nursing (Luke 23:29). Christ also cares for the church, a term used for keeping warm (Deut. 22:6) or nursing (1 Thess. 2:7). Paul is not limiting the metaphor to husband and wife but is introducing into the marriage metaphor parental imagery for Christ—even parental imagery associated with female bodies.
The church is feminized in Paul’s metaphor, but the church is made up of male and female members who are all called to love Christ as a bride. Christ is primarily cast as the husband in this metaphor—and he is certainly embodied as male—but Christ is not like other males, not only because he is God, but also because his male body came from the flesh of a female body (Mary) and not also a male body (Joseph).
This reality is simply the statement of the doctrine of the virginal conception of Jesus. In short, Paul’s depiction of Christ’s singular sovereignty and saving work, in addition to the mixed parental and marriage metaphors, preserves the boundary upheld by all Christian teaching: the boundary between Creator and creation.
And this means that this text also preserves the boundary between Christ and males, freeing husbands from a standard they could never achieve. The only way they are called to be like Jesus is to love their wives self-sacrificially, the precise call Paul issues to all believers (Eph. 5:1–2). It is the biblical text itself that closes the door to privilege of proximity between men and Jesus/God, a concept that has been used to justify abuse of women by men, dressed up in spiritual garb.
A deeply inclusive mystery
As is apparent from Ephesians 5, marriage is not the only metaphor for God’s relation to the church in Scripture. Another prominent arena of biblical language is that of the family. God is sometimes the husband, but more often, God is named as the Father. Even Ephesians 5, known for the marriage metaphor, starts this way: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (ESV, emphasis added).
One of the dangers of overemphasizing the marriage metaphor is that it can contribute to an idolization of marriage and privilege the experience of those who can righteously engage in sexual intercourse. On the other hand, the family metaphor is more universal. Whether or not the experience is a good one, everyone knows what it is to be a son or daughter, but not everyone knows what it is to be married. The pervasiveness of familial language for God takes the marriage metaphor off any inappropriate pedestal.
Moreover, familial terminology does not lend itself to unsuitable comparisons between sex and relationship with God as the marriage metaphor has. Granted, a man does not become a biological father save through sex, but the same doesn’t apply to God the Father. God is Creator. God is Spirit. God is eternally three persons in dynamic loving relationship as unbegotten, begotten, and proceeding.
When the triune God was revealed preeminently in the incarnation of the divine Son, that revelation took place through a nonsexual act. God’s Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary but did not have intercourse with her (Luke 1:35).
When rightly understood, both metaphors in Scripture—God as our husband and God as our Father—work against a fundamental problem that must be avoided: a crude male sexualization of God and its corollary, a divinization of male sexuality. This is the mistake that Butler made in his interpretation, which parallels how “Christ penetrates his church with the generative seed of his Word” with the sexual intimacy of a bride waiting in the honeymoon suite.
In the Incarnation, the eternal God chose to reveal God’s own self as the Father who is not an embodied male and an eternal Son who became one. And in God’s eternal wisdom, this revelation took place through and with the active agency and body of a woman. There is a profound and deeply inclusive mystery in the body of our Lord, a male virginally conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit when Mary said yes. His body evokes the image of God (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4) as proclaimed in Genesis 1:26–27, the image of God in male and female.
It is this revelation of God in Jesus Christ that should control our interpretation of the marriage metaphor in Ephesians 5. Jesus is the key to our discernment. If the Father of Jesus Christ is revealed preeminently in the Incarnation, which does not happen through sex; and the Son who is male from the body of a female also never engaged in sex; and if that God is metaphorically the husband of the church, then the creaturely category of male sexual activity cannot be projected onto our God.
When understood through the Incarnation, our metaphorical relationship with the triune God as husband offers something beautiful and good for all people, married and single, men and women, without privilege for some but lack for others.
If anything, this controversy shows that different schools of interpretation need to be in communication with one another and not ensconced in self-contained silos. It is unity, even and especially, unity across difference, that Jesus said would communicate God’s love to a world so desperately in need of it (John 13:35).
We are not all married to one another, but we are all a part of the same family.
Amy Peeler is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and associate rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Geneva, Illinois. She is the author of a book on Mary titled Women and the Gender of God.