A Metaphor of Christ and the Church

John Piper, “A Metaphor of Christ and the Church,” The Standard 74:2 (February 1984): 27, 29. Alvera and Berekely Micklesen responded with, “Marriage as Submission? Response from the Mickelsens,” The Standard 74:2 (February 1984): 30.


Ephesians 5:31 is a quotation of Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.” Then Paul adds in verse 32: “This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church.”

The union of man and woman in marriage is a mystery because it conceals, as in a parable, a truth about Christ and the church. The divine reality hidden in the metaphor of marriage is that God ordained a permanent union between His Son and the church. Human marriage is the earthly image of this divine plan. As God willed for Christ and the church to become one body (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 12:13), so He willed for marriage to reflect this pattern—that the husband and wife become one flesh (Gen. 2:24).

It is no accident that human marriage provides language to explain Christ’s relation to the church (2 Cor. 11:2). For human marriage is the copy, not the original. Geoffrey Bromiley is right when he says,

“As God made man in His own image, so He made earthly marriage in the image of His own eternal marriage with His people” (God and Marriage, p. 43).

Distinctive Roles Based On Christ and the Church

The inference Paul draws from this mystery is that the roles of husband and wife in marriage are not arbitrarily assigned but are rooted in the distinctive roles of Christ and His church. Therefore husbands and wives should consciously copy the relationship God intended for Christ and the church.

Accordingly, wives are to take their unique cur from the purpose of the church in its relation to Christ: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, His body, and is Himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands” (Eph. 5:22-24).

To understand the wife’s submission we need to understand the husband’s headship, because her submission is based on his headship (cf. “for,” v. 23). The Greek word for “head” (kephale) is used in the Old Testament sometimes to refer to a chief or leader (Judges 10:18; 11:8–9; 2 Sam. 22:44; Ps. 18:43; Isa. 7:8).

It is not at first obvious why “head” should be used to refer to a leader, since for many ancients the leading faculty of thought was in the heart (Prov. 23:7), not the head. Perhaps its position at the top of the body gave the head its association with high rank and power. However, according to Charles Singer in the Oxford Classical Dictionary (p. 59), Aristotle’s opinion that intelligence is in the heart “was contrary to the views of some of his medical contemporaries, contrary to the doctrine of [Plato’s] Timaeus.”

The most pertinent Greek witness for the meaning of “head” in Paul’s time would be his contemporary, Philo, who said, “Just as nature conferred the sovereignty (begemonian) of the body on the head when she granted it also possession of the citadel as the most suitable for its kingly rank, conducted it thither to take command and established it on high with the whole framework from neck to foot set below it, like the pedestal under the statue, so too she has given the lordship (to kratos) of the senses to the eyes” (Special Laws, III, 184).

This was the popular view in Paul’s day according to Heinrich Schlier (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 674), as is evident from Stoic sources besides Philo. Therefore, the Mickelsens were wrong when they said in Christianity Today (October 5, 1979, p. 25) that “for Greek-speaking people in New Testament times who had little opportunity to read the Greek translation of the Old Testament, there were many possible meanings for ‘head’ but ‘supreme over’ or ‘being responsible to’ were not among them.”

“Supremacy” is precisely the quality given to the head of Philo and others. But most important is that Paul’s own use of the word “head” in Ephesians 1:22 “unquestionably carries with it the idea of authority” (Stephen Bedale, “The Meaning of Kephale in the Pauline Epistles,” Journal of the Theological Society, 1954, p. 215). God “raised Him from the dead and made Him sit at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named… and He has put all things under His feet and has made Him the head over all things for the church” (Eph. 1:20–22).

Even if the headship of Christ includes the idea of “source” (as in Ephesians 4:15–16), that is a foreign idea here where Christ is installed as supreme over all authorities. Nor is it likely that this idea was in Paul’s mind in Ephesians 5:23 where the wife’s “subordination” suggests most naturally that her husband is “head” in the sense of leader or authority. So the primary meaning of headship in Ephesians 5:23 is leadership or authority.

Inclined to Yield, Disposed to Follow

Therefore, when Paul says, “Wives, be subject to your husbands. . . . For the husband is the head of the wife,” he means that a wife should be disposed to yield to her husband’s authority and should be inclined to follow his leadership.

I refer to an inclination to yield and a disposition to follow, because no subjection to another human is absolute. The husband does not replace Christ as the woman’s supreme authority. Therefore, she may never follow her husband into sin.

But even when a Christian wife may have to stand with Christ against the sinful will of her husband, she can still have a spirit of submission. She can show by her attitude and action that she does not like resisting his will and that she longs for him to forsake his sin and lead in righteousness, so that her disposition to honor him as her head can again produce harmony.

I stress the wife’s disposition of the submission and the heartfelt honoring of her husband’s headship because the specific behaviors growing out of this spirit are so varied and can even appear contradictory from culture to culture.

A Humble Servant

If wives take their unique cue in marriage from the church’s subjection to Christ, husbands are to take theirs from Christ’s love for the church. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). This means that headship lays upon man the responsibility to lead with the kind of love that is willing to die in order that the wife may live. As Jesus says in Luke 22:26, “Let . . . the leader [become] as one who serves.”

The husband who plops himself in front of the TV and orders his wife around like a slave has abandoned Christ for Archie Bunker. Christ bound Himself with a towel and washed the disciples’ feet. If a man wants to be a Christian husband he must copy Jesus, not Jabba the Hut.

Is it true that verse 21 puts this whole section under the sign of mutual submission: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” But it is utterly unwarranted to infer from this verse that the way Christ submits Himself to the church and the way the church submits herself to Christ are the same. The church submits to Christ by a disposition to follow His leadership. Christ submits to the church by a disposition to exercise His leadership in humble service to the church.

When Christ said, “Let the leader become as one who serves,” He did not mean, let the leader cease to be leader. Even while He was on His knees washing the disciples’ feet, no one doubted who the leader was. Nor should any Christian husband shirk his responsibility under God to provide moral vision and spiritual leadership as the humble servant of his wife and family.

Redemption Brings Recovery

This understanding of marriage is a remarkable confirmation of my interpretation of Genesis 1–3 (December, pp. 33, 35). I argued that the fall ruined the harmony of marriage because it twisted man’s loving headship into hostile domination in some men and lazy indifference in others. And it twisted woman’s intelligent, willing submission into manipulative obsequiousness in some women and brazen insubordination in others.

If this is true, then the redemption we anticipate with the coming of Christ is not the dismantling of the created order, of loving headship and willing submission but a recovery of it. This is precisely what we find in Ephesians 5:21–33. Wives, redeem your fallen submission by modeling it after God’s intention for the church! Husbands, redeem your fallen headship by modeling it after God’s intention for Christ!

God created marriage to be a metaphor of Christ’s relationship to the church. Sin has so confused the metaphor as to make it unintelligible. The New Testament once again makes the metaphor transparent. But if contemporary feminist hermeneutics succeed, the meaning of the metaphor will be obscured for many years to come.

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