Included in the Small Catechism’s Table of Duties are Bible passages that apply to the callings of husband and wife. In the estate of the family husband and wife have the opportunity to preach the Gospel in action every day, for St. Paul reminds us that there is a mystery in marriage that confesses the realities of Christ and the Church. “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church, His body, and is Himself its Savior” (Ephesians 5:23).
As fallen, sinful, human beings we never seem to get past the first phrase of that verse “the husband is the head of the wife.” We want to interpret it to mean that the husband is ahead of his wife, that his needs come first, that his wishes get fulfilled ahead of his wife’s wishes. Not only do overbearing men want to interpret it this way, but also feminist women who would like to have some ground of accusation against Almighty God and those who follow Him. How far away this is from what the text actually says.
God’s Word explains itself, not in this misogynist fashion, but in terms of love. “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, His body.” Again our sinful nature would force a misleading emphasis to say that as Christ’s Word rules the Church, so the husband’s word rules his wife. He is the head of the body. He makes all the decisions. He is the more important and vital part, the one whose thoughts, wisdom, and will the rest of the body must obey. Dear bride of Christ, while the holy Christian Church does indeed submit to Christ by obeying His Word and heeding His will and following His wisdom, it is not under oppression that she does this.
So look again and see what the heavenly Bridegroom’s Word actually says: “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, His body, and is Himself its Savior.” Christ does not rule over the church in order to make sure that His needs are fulfilled before that of the Church. He rules over the Church solely in order to fulfill her needs, in order to be her Saviour. This is love and marriage, a picture of Christ saving the Church and the Church entrusting herself to be saved by Christ. It is a divine mystery which we struggle to portray in our daily lives.
Indeed, the verses of the Responsory for Lent, which the Church sings to her Lord in the Office of Vespers, could easily be transformed into a marriage vow. “In You, O Lord, do I put my trust, leave me not, O Lord, my God.” The churchly Bride entrusts herself to the heavenly Bridegroom and in voicing her faith in Him also holds Him to His promise never to leave or forsake her. In modern times marriage vows have been carefully crafted so that no hint of dependence or subjection can be detected. This removes the honour that God has given to husband and wife to daily proclaim His holy Gospel, His saving love, to their family, their neighbours, and to the world.
The language of the Church to her Lord, written and proclaimed throughout history, is the language of love, of needful submission and faithful plea for salvation, preservation, forgiveness, and companionship. This language of willing and grateful subjection is borne of faith in what the Bride has heard Christ vow to her, promises of salvation, preservation, forgiveness and companionship. And not promises in word only, but in word enacted.
Christ has loved the Church in giving Himself up for her into death upon the cross. Christ has sanctified His Bride, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, which is Holy Baptism. Christ has presented the Church to Himself in splendor, forgiven in His sacrifice, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy without blemish (Ephesians 5:26-27).
It is because marriage between husband and wife is a mysterious but serious proclamation of God’s love for the world and His desire to save all, that the Almighty Creator of all things has throughout history visited His wrath upon societies that have given themselves over to abominable practises that distort, adulterate, and destroy this most vivid and lively picture of His love. We are familiar with the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gommorrah (Genesis 19:24-25) by God raining down sulfur and fire from heaven. St. Peter warns us of the same destruction coming upon those who give themselves over to false teachers who preach sensuality rather than fidelity.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if He did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes He condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if He rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.
… But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reviling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray…
These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error… (2 Peter 2).
I don’t think that it is out of order to ask if the current pestilence that afflicts us is a portion of God’s wrath against an ungodly society that has steadily adulterated His glorious and holy design for marriage. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:7-9).
I have not been granted the prophetic insight to know how closely the moral decay and destruction of marriage in our global society is tied to the current pandemic that has spread so rapidly and threatens to afflict us so severely. But I do have the spiritual insight to know that it is time for us to cling to our marriage vows, to be faithful in looking only to our heavenly Bridegroom to deliver and save us, not only from the external threat, but also to be cleansed from the stains of our own sins of unfaithfulness. For adultery has given way to abomination not only in the earthly estate of marriage but also in our faithfulness to one who has pledged Himself to be our eternal husband.
Jesus carried the cross in order to pay for our sins (John 19:17). He placed Himself between two criminals in order that we might be numbered among the righteous (19:18). He was stripped and His garments divided and gambled away so that He might clothe us in His holiness and righteousness (19:23-24), giving us white garments washed in His own sacrificial blood (Revelation 7:14). He thirsted in the throes of death (John 19:28) so that we might be filled with living water and be with Him forever where they hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, the sun does not strike them down nor any scorching heat (Revelation 7:16-17). He died and His side was pierced so that the blood and water that flowed forth might wash and cleanse us from every ugly sin so that we might be beautiful in His sight (John 19:34).
This is holy marriage, not a union of equal persons, but a union of Christ with His Bride. One the Saviour and the other in need of saving. One the sacrifice and the other the one who is cleansed. One who is faithful never to leave but to rescue from every enemy to body and soul, and the other to faithfully seek His deliverance.
So in earthly marriage, while recognizing that we are all together the Bride of Christ and totally dependent on Him for our salvation (corporately as the church, and individually with our particular sins and temptations and frailties), it is not equality that we seek in the roles of husband and wife, but a chance to proclaim the Gospel. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:22, 25). In doing so, you proclaim the unfathomable, divine, and holy love that God has for the world, that Christ has for the Church, that your heavenly Bridegroom has for you.