“He made them male and female.”
Here is clear gender intentionality to fill family and the creation. Both gender qualities flow from the same God, but in creation he separated them out, to model a creation built upon serving, complementary relationships. This reflects God’s image: his life-giving service towards creation in Christ. By hating the Catholics, we have thrown half of this out: Mary and mother church. “Mother” church and “father” God are gender metaphors, but they reflect creational care at its fulness.
Is this why Protestant society has suffered identity crises? Even new creation is depicted in feminine terms in Romans 8, as creation birthing incorruptibility. So, we are restoring gender celebration. Gender is a creational issue. We are called to join with God in celebrating and building rich pro-life creation. To find identity in one’s self, apart from God’s good purposes, is the lie that leads to eventual emptiness.
It’s good to seek a theology of marriage that is restorative in our approach to our community, rather than just a legal view of the topic which marginalises those we disagree with. Proof texting (selecting a few verses from scripture) on issues such as marriage can serve in an argumentative kind of response against others, but a wider more holistic biblical theology can serve better to reconstruct our lives in serving and self-giving ways. This is the kind of reconstruction we all need, giving our individualistic cultures, that we all come from to differing extents, in which we have become lost while looking for meaning firstly in ourselves.
The Structure of Genesis
“Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars.” (Prov 9:1)
“By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.” (Prov 24:3-4)
We know the creation theme in Proverbs and how wisdom is connected to it. The creation is seen as a home and in Hebrew thinking this means relationships. This includes the temple, which is about our relationships with each other and with God. It means the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2 is a temple narrative, showing creation is made whole through right relationships.
The creation narrative is a poetic narrative, showing the relationship between all participants. The seven pillars, spoken of as seven days, reflect the wisdom of God, upon which creation stands. This has special significance also for the new creation, which Isaiah shows. The seven spirits of God rest upon the Messiah, in his self-giving cross, filling the creation with neighbourly love. (Isaiah 11)
Proverbs shows the way Genesis 1 is set out. The structure of the universe is built first, then the structure is filled. This is how we build a home. This means the way Genesis 1 was written doesn’t necessarily reflect a scientific history of creation. It is teaching us about our identity as people. But neither does this put limitations on the text, as a way of yielding to so called modern science. It’s just placing emphasis on importance: creation is sustained by relationships.
Coupling in Genesis
A strong poetic theme of Genesis 1 is coupling. Heaven and earth, day and night. the structure of the home and its contents, sea and land, animals and plants, male and female, humanity and God. Hebrew text used parallelism as a way of depicting relationships. This was especially important when Israel was born as a nation, in their Exodus from Egypt. Egypt reneged on all these relationships, producing an oppressive and destructive creation. Israel were called to change this.
A larger parallelism of Genesis 1-2 is its movement from a state of chaos to a state of order, or cosmos, to things being “very good,” to sabbath rest, wholeness. Hebrew scripture develops from this yet another parallelism, with God moving fallen creation to its renewal. Chaos is produced by selfishness, broken relationships. This referred to paganism and its destructive ways. The Messiah’s purpose was to rid the world of paganism, to put his hand upon the chaotic sea (Psalm 89:25), not by defeating Israel’s enemies but by changing their inner heart, and ours.
Male & Female
“In the image of God created he him
Male and female created he them.” (Gen 1:27)
This also is a poetic parallelism, with the second part of the verse explaining the first part. That is, the male and female coupling is reflecting the image of God into the world.
Discussion about mankind bearing the image of God began in the previous verse. It’s a vocational or functional topic, describing mankind’s role in governing the creation. Again, the governorship is to be made successful through the right relationships. So how does the creation of humanity, as male and female, reflect the image of God into the creation for its flourishing?
First, of all, male and female reflect different attributes of God, notably how he cares for us, both with the qualities of a father and also the qualities of a mother. Mother and father relationships are to reflect this joint care into their families and into the world. This is the basis of community, which starts in the family where the image of God brings flourishing.
Second, the relationship between the male and female reflects God’s desire to have relationship with humanity. The coupling of male and female in marriage reflected God’s call of Israel to his people, and today the call of the church to be the bride of Christ. It is through these relationships that life is brought to the cosmos. Adam and Eve bring biological life and care to their families. Christ and the church bring new creation love to the world.
Adam – Humankind
Let’s look at the complete verse,
“And God created humankind in his image
In the image of God created he him
Male and female created he them.” (Gen 1:27)
The term humankind refers to humanity, not to the gender. The word means “earth creature,” and “Adam” is often used in this sense, not in the masculine gender sense. Even in the second line, “him” does not refer to male. It is Hebrew grammatical gender, not referring to biological gender. In English, which does not use grammatical gender, it would read, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God created he it.” (Non gendered grammar, neuter.)
“He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “humankind” (Adam) when they were created.” (Gen 5:2) He named them both Adam. Adam means the man and the woman. So, when we speak of “Adam” in the New Testament, or of the Adamic commission to rule the creation under God, we are speaking of both the man and the woman.
Genesis 2 shows the one human being becoming both female and male.
Made from One
“The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”” (Gen 2:18)
We have typically interpreted this in our patriarchal cultural context. We have claimed that the “man” here is a male, but that isn’t what the Hebrew text reads. It means mankind, as in the earth creature. It isn’t yet referring to the male of the species.
We have also read the “helper” to mean a subordinate, but the word is also used for God, or an angel or any helper. It speaks of the mutual help the male and female would render to each other in relationship. The word “suitable” means someone opposite, different, but also in union with.
Then God puts the human into a sleep and takes “its” (to use grammatical neuter language) side and makes a woman. The word has been translated “rib,” but it can also mean the side of the human. From the human, God makes a female and this also identifies the other half, for the first time in the text, as a male.
“Then Adam said, this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called female, because she was taken out of male.” (Gen 2:23) This isn’t Adam naming Eve. That happens in chapter three, after the fall. Here is the first mention in the Genesis 2 story of a female (issah) and also of a male (is). Adam is no longer referred to in the neuter, but now as female and male.
“Their creation (as male and female) is simultaneous, not sequential.” (See below, Sue Paterson.)
There was no male Adam before this, because without the female Adam there is nothing to identify the male as male. In this creation story, the gender-neutral human was separated into two, now one part female and the other part male. Now the male Adam can say of the female Adam “she was taken from the male” (NLT), meaning they were parted into two. They came from the same person.
“… The man, in order to fulfil his identity as male, which depends on the complement of femaleness, abandons familial identity for the one flesh of sexuality. In the words of (Gen 2) v24: ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his woman’ (2.24 RSV). The word ‘therefore’ is an indication of both entailment (consequence) and telos (purpose). It is because of the need to fulfil his newly defined male identity that the man now becomes united to the woman. It is clear that here the narrator is giving an account of the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’ of marriage. Theologian Stanley Grenz interprets v23 as expressing a yearning for completeness now satisfied. (Phyllis) Trible sums up the creation of sexuality in this second creation account thus:
‘From one comes two
From wholeness comes differentiation
Then differentiation returns to wholeness
From two come the one flesh of communion between female and male.’”
(Sue Patterson, Creation and the Theology of Sexuality, Exploring Theology of Marriage, Theology House Conference, Christchurch New Zealand.)
That is, the earth creature, who was one in isolation, alone, now becomes two in one, in wholeness, but now with communion. And what identifies the male as male, is the female. And what identifies the female as female is the male. Their identity is found in each other, not in themselves.
Seeing the female shows the male who he is, and vice versa. We see ourselves, or know ourselves, in the other, as a kind of reflection. The needs, aspirations, and the opportunity to care for the other, show us our own complimentary role, our identity.
Our identity isn’t found in our self, but in our relationships, and the making of male and female from the same person demonstrates our shared identity. This points to the reason we have such identify confusion in many nations today. We try to find identity in ourselves, and in doing this is where our sickness is.
In Western science we are used to looking for the identity of a thing in the thing itself, by its own peculiar properties. But the Genesis creation account calls us to look for our identity in coupling, in the other in our complimentary roles. This is what enhances the workability and sustainability of flourishing creation. A thing is known by its relation to the other.
A Western proverb says, “I think, therefore I am.” Here, identity is found in one’s self. This is the sickness. An African proverb says, “I am because of you.”
The parallelism of the poetic structure of Genesis, this time between male and female, shows that our identity is found in our relationship with the other. Remember, in Hebrew parallelism, each part explains the other. My identity is found in loving and serving the other. This is why creation was said to be “very good.”
We don’t come together as two individuals, seeking our own meaning, but as two halves of the one, completing and loving the other. God didn’t make male and female separately and bring them together in a kind of contractual relationship as two individuals. He took them both out of one and brought them together as one. This denies our sense of individualism. We are one.
This is one of the most beautiful things about the creation story. He didn’t take the male from one act of creation and the female from a separate creation act, and bring the two individuals together and say, “Now you two try to sort out your individuality together in relationship. Good luck. Maybe you could try the 50/ 50 principle in compromise.”
“This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” I am who I see in my wife. Creation is united, comes from one Creator. Having this respect for our place within the creation gives us meaning. This is the opposite from seeing everything through ourselves.
In Genesis, it is the coupling that gives us meaning in God’s creation. It is each half knowing its identity in relation to and in respect for the other. Whether it’s land and sea, plants and animals, male and female, coupling points us to relationships, not individualism, as the factor that brings meaning, harmony and fulfilment to us all.
This interrelationship, that the male and female points to, two different persons being one, is what broke down in the fall in chapter 3, giving way to a universe we define by ourselves, and this is what is still broken in our lives today. It is the church’s mission to point back to God’s world of loving, completing wholeness.
God our Nurturer
“In the image of God created he him
Male and female created he them.” (Gen 1:27)
As we saw above, male and female reflects the image of God. Let’s develop this a little more. First, God has both male and female characteristics. He isn’t male or female, but the good characteristics that we find in our mothers and fathers come from the same God.
These nurturing characteristics that bring care to our children, complement each other and both the female and male attributes help our children flourish. Again, it is in our children, that we, as parents, find our identity. What we have to share with others comes to light in us and shows us who we are. We see ourselves as in a reflection.
The patriarchal idea of the maleness of God is defeated by Genesis 1:27. He is both male and female, at least as far he demonstrates both male and female characteristics in his care for us. It takes male and female to show who God is in his care for his creation.
If marriage breaks down, it is the weak in our society that suffer most. The children, the poor, the sick and the elderly become casualties in large numbers. A society where marriage breaks down finds that those who pay are the most vulnerable. The image of God, of care, incubated in our family relationships, becomes lost.
Therefore, we need to pray for and support marriages, including especially those who have been hurt in marriages. Helping each other in this helps restore our lives and also restores the marriage institution that blesses our nations.
This is not a teaching that singleness is deficient. A single person can equally be “married” to God and find their identity of service and completeness in his image. It depends on the gift of God in our lives. The general experience of marriage in a society touches and teaches us all.
Neither does childlessness disqualify a marriage. Those who do not bear children can still carry out their male/ female image bearing care within the world in many different ways. Their marriage still gives witness to the image of God, to his female/ male attributes that are the bedrock of a nourishing community.
Nor does this mean that a male may not sometime have some “feminine characteristics,” or a female some “male characteristics,” like each one should be strictly pigeonholed according to social rules. God carries both characteristics himself, so they aren’t exclusively male or female. However, these don’t identify us as male or female biologically, or sexually, nor does this tamper with the institution of marriage, in which the sexuality of male and female relationships is the cornerstone of new life.
From Marriage to Community
The image of God we see in the male and female relationships, that nurture family, is to spread to our wider communities. It is from this female/ male union and their love they show to their children, that selflessness and nurture, the strong caring for the weak, is to spread to our communities as a whole. This is reflecting the image of God in their married union, to nourish and build society around them.
The marriage union also reflects the image of God, in that just as we find our identity in our coupled spouse, we are to find our identity in our opposite relationship to God. There is a coupling of male/ female, that informs us of who we are. There is also a coupling of humanity/ to God, that informs us, in a reflection, of who we are. It is in these couplings that we find our identity, rather than in ourselves.
Knowing Ourselves in God
The knowledge of true God shows us who we are and opens to us our role in the world. Again, we don’t seek this identity in ourselves, but in knowing the other, this time, God. The true God doesn’t mean the right religion, or the right doctrinal creed, but the living truth as revealed in the incarnation and cross of Christ. Here we see God unclothed, opening his true nature to be revealed to all, as the one who is in solidarity with the weak and suffering, who gives his life for the outcast and sinner to redeem.
Only this can nurture and build the creation. This restorative, rather than punishing nature of God, is what informs us of how creation works, and of our role as nurturers and followers of God within creation.
The union of husband and wife informs us of God’ s intended union with his people, so that as Adam and Eve know themselves in each other, we would come to know ourselves in God. This coupling we see in Genesis leads us to this idea, that earth needs to be united with heaven to see its true identity and thereby function in its intended flourishing.
God’s Marriage to Israel
I think Israel would have noticed this when they came out of Egypt. This is when Moses gave them Genesis and the creation narrative informed Israel of their role in the new creation God was bringing about through their lives. They were bringing order the pagan chaos, especially as they experienced the chaos in Egypt. They would have seen the marriage relationship as informing their new relationship with God as his people in the land.
The Old Testament repeatedly speaks of this martial relationship between God and Israel. It is an important theme in the Prophets. One of the reasons for this is that Israel were called to see themselves in their relationship with God. This is how they were to come to understand who they were.
As Israel saw God care for them as slaves, they were to understand his care for the widow and orphan, for the foreigner and homeless. Instead of seeing their identity in themselves, in their own desires, in their individual ego, they see their identity in the things God does in his care for them.
Our identity is always seen in the other. Without us knowing it, we copy. That is how we are made. We can copy a good mentor or a bad mentor. It can bring us clarity or confusion, healing to our societies, or sickness. We aren’t individualists, as we often think, finding our own identity. We are followers of others, we get our desires from what he see and hear from others.
Christ’s Marriage to the Church
The marriage concept within scripture is, obviously, a creational one. It speaks of both creation and redemption. In Genesis we see it as God’s purpose of filling Eden and the creation temple with life, both biological life and life through nurturing, complimentary relationships. Marriage is an institution of life.
This is how Israel would have seen their relationship with God. It was a union that would bring life to the world. This is one reason it is depicted as a marriage.
God wants us to see our relationship with him in this way. Not as a sexual theme, but as a union that brings life to the world by discovering our true identity in his caring nature, that puts the interests of others ahead of ourselves, bringing wholeness to the creation.
Christ’s relationship with the church takes its idea from the marriage relationship between Adam and Eve. The church is called the bride of Christ, because it is through the spiritual union, in our hearts, between Christ and the church, that life comes to the world. This is a redemptive life. As we are joined to Christ and take his identity, as cross bearers for the reconciliation of our communities, restoration comes to our relationships and healing to our world.
Just as the marriage union brings life to the first creation, so the union between Christ and the church brings redemptive life to a new, restored creation. This is part of the poetic parallelism: the bride of groom of creation in Genesis; the bride and groom of new creation in the book of Revelation. The marriage between male and female reflects the life-giving image/ nature of God to his creation through the church. The intention is that both earthly marriage and the church are sacred institutions, through which God brings life and goodness to his cosmos.
Complementing, not Competing
The coupling, complementarian theme in Genesis is also to be the church’s witness in a segregated world. The idea of seeing our identity in the other, in the neighbour, means we cannot be made complete without each other. We cannot be made complete without the weaker person, without the person of different racial background, even without our enemies.
This builds into us a complementary ethic, instead of a competitive ethic. It brings us out of worshipping our strengths and causes us to seek completion by honouring the weaker members. It shows us that in restoring others we are restoring ourselves. This is God’s purpose for the creation, and his redemptive plan through the church in the world.
It also shows us that we in the modern age are coupled with our ancestors of old. We aren’t sufficient in ourselves. We complete each other, whether neighbours today, or those who went before us. We learn from us all.
If we worship the strength of our technology and feel we don’t need the wisdom of Genesis, or of our elders, especially its coupling of earth with heaven, then we lose the true knowledge of our self as reflected to us from heaven. We lose our cross-bearing image. In this scenario our technology becomes the servant of self, the instrument of our destruction, instead of the instrument of service and restoration.
In the narrative of Genesis, we see God’s design for a community that finds its meaning in the other members or parts of the creation, rather than in a self-centred posture. This is the image of God who finds his meaning in serving others. Members of Christ’s body find their identity in God, in their neighbour, in the foreigner, and in caring for their wider natural environment. This transforms from us from our fallen, self-seeking and false identities, which impose themselves on the world through a distorted vison, which ultimately gives way to self-serving power structures, rather than the nourishment of the whole wider community. The creation narrative informs the new-creation mission of the church.
Opposites are connected and interlocked to form a whole. This is what the church is called to build and also to reflect into a renewing creation. In this we learn not only to care for each other, but also for the whole creation over which we have been made stewards in love. If we don’t form our identity from our surroundings – our spouse, our neighbour, our international neighbour, our natural environment – then we will destroy them for ourselves, or for our own group, nationalism, empire.
If we form a pride in ourselves and don’t see what other people have to offer us, to complete us, then we are on an anti-creation project. If we worship the strength of our armed forces, and not the strength of our interrelationships, then we are on an ungodly path. The church is to point to the ways of Isaiah, the people who break their swords and bring wolves and lambs together in family.
“And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. (Eph 1:10)
“And through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.” (Col 1:20)
This is what our coupling in marriage points to, and this is why female and male point to the image of God in his plan for the world.
Appendix – Marriage Roles
In Paul’s writings he was striking a balance between gospel freedoms and the faith scruples in society. He did this in regard to eating food. He said we are free to eat whatever we are given, but not if what we eat would offend the conscience of others. The issue he was getting at was that we are to follow Christ, who didn’t please himself, but served the interests of others.
This is how the apostles viewed issues related to our roles in marriage. Paul spoke of this in Ephesians, showing how the wife was to submit to the husband and the husband love the wife. But his overall truth in the gospel, is that we submit to each other in love, just as Christ submitted to us in his humiliation and sufferings. In the gospel, there isn’t a hierarchy, but loving service. This is the real nature and image of God that the cross shows us.
To be clear, passages like Ephesians 5, that speak of submission in marriage, don’t speak of a hierarchical demand from God, but of our Christlikeness before the authorities in the world and our witness before the cultural norms of our community.
Peter tells us the same. The wife is to submit to the husband, so that she might win her husband to the truth, which is mutual love. Peter wasn’t teaching a hierarchal relationship in marriage, but love. He used Christ as an example, who submitted to Pontius Pilate, even though Jesus is Lord. He did this because this is how we transform wrong “social authorities,” not by self-assertion. Peter applied this to slavery also. The slave was to obey his master, not because slavery is right, but as the Christian way of overthrowing and renewing wrong cultural practices.
So, these passages in Paul and Peter aren’t to be taken as condoning the social norms of marriage, but as renewing them in Christ-like ways. Not many of us follow the apostles in this teaching. Some of us assert our false authority over others, especially those weaker than ourselves. Others of us, on the other hand, try to overthrow these oppressive practices in our societies, using anger, aggressive attitudes, or just by living out a self-centred cultural revolution. These are both wrong.
In Corinth, Paul was walking the same tightrope, between patriarchal oppression and feminist rebellion. His letter to the Corinthians was dealing with different self-centred issues all the way through, matters that were reported to him or that were sent to him in a letter from the church.
In answering these, Paul sometimes quoted the reports or letter he received, like in chapter 7, when he said, “It’s good for a husband not to lie with his wife.” Paul didn’t say this, but he was quoting an issue from the Corinthian church that he was about to correct. Paul’s letters were filled with various rhetorical devises, that may not be detected or may not translate well into English.
In chapter 10, Paul spoke about food they were permitted to eat, their freedom, but also their restraint from giving the wrong appearance or indulging in the pagan culture. Then in chapter 11, Paul turned to the church’s views on women, speaking about the equality of the sexes in Christ, but also of us not giving the wrong signals in the culture of the day.
It is likely that Paul quoted the patriarchs in the church here, who wanted the subjugation of the women. It was Jewish custom of the day to say that women were made in the image and glory of man and should be subjected in a hierarchy under men. However, Genesis said the opposite, that both male and female were made in the image of God.
Instead of what the patriarchs at Corinth said, who insisted that the woman came from man, Paul said men also came from women. All of us have been born by a woman. Christ was born from a woman, without even a seed from Joseph. This ties our redemption plan to women, as well as to the male-figure Christ. Paul was speaking here about our interdependence, or cooperative love, not one superior over the other.
This is what Genesis shows. Neither male nor female are superior, but we both came from the same simultaneous creation in one Adam and we are both called “Adam.” Both male and female were made in the image and glory of God. “Glory” means the commission to bear God’s rule. This was given to both male and female.
Paul’s conclusion was that we don’t have any customs that the church requires of men or women, that would show any superiority or inferiority between us, no hierarchical relationship, but only that we should not behave in a socially offensive or self-seeking way. The issue is that we show service to each other, and not pride, not boasting, not self-interest. This is what Christ showed us in the gospel.
It’s likely the same issue that we see Paul dealing with in his letter to Timothy. He was dealing with problems in the church, that came about by the same kind of self-assertive behaviour. Paul corrected this in both the men and the women, though it is usually just the correction of the women that hear about today. The men were quarrelsome, just as the women were, and Paul rebuked both.
The same patriarchal Jewish myth was raised, “It was the woman who was deceived.” Jews in those days prayed, “Thank you Lord you didn’t make me a gentile or a woman.” The new creation was to turn patriarchal oppression around. That is why Christ was seen and preached first by a woman in his resurrection. In Paul’s ministry team, there were many women apostles (Romans 16).
So, Paul said to Timothy, in the church at Ephesus, if the women are deceived, as the men say, then “let them learn.” This was a huge cultural shift in those days. Women often weren’t allowed to learn, especially the more important issues of faith. But Christ changed this, when he allowed Mary to “sit at his feet,” a phrase that meant Mary was a disciple of a rabbi. This shocked the people. Paul was following the example of Jesus, who set women free from patriarchal selfishness. Paul was a revolutionary in his day, in freeing women. He was not seeking to subject women to a cultural slavery that is so common in our cultures.
In all our cultures we have this joint problem: the need of freeing us from the slavery of others, while not indulging us in our own slavery to our selfish liberties. Paul was just navigating these two human tendencies, common to us all. If we read his texts in this way, they all fall into place.
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Gal 3:11)
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)
Paul was speaking to our oppressive use of power, where we form groups in our societies that lock other people out, that exclude people from our liberties and wealth, so that we might have an economic advantage over others.
The area we see Paul working the hardest in breaking down these walls of separation was to do with Jew and gentile relationships. If he could bring these two together in Christ, to serve each other, the oppression and destruction in our lives and communities would reduce. This love for each other would be our witness that Christ is Lord.
We also see Paul working towards the restoration of slaves to common bonds of fellowship, equal with others, especially in his letter to Philemon.
You see Paul working to liberate women from the excluding behaviours of the men, where men took powers in society to themselves, and relegated women to the fringes, or to “other roles” that the men accepted for the women. It isn’t the place of men to determine the roles of women. Christ has set women free, not to be dictated to by men. Women belong to Christ, not to men. Christ bought them with his blood, men didn’t. A dowry is not the price of a woman, the blood of Christ is, and Christ bought us all to set us free from slavery.
This dictum of Paul in Galatians breaks the power of oppressive social arrangements, where people are placed into different social orders according to their ethnic, gender or economic standing. Paul brings us together in Christ, from all our gender, economic and racial backgrounds, so we can serve and liberate each other from the oppressive use of powers in fallen humanity. Paul calls the socially strong to serve and free the weak from selfish oppression.
It is sometimes the custom today for people to add to Paul’s dictum, to include in it sexual orientation. But Paul did not do this. And this wasn’t a mistake of Paul, or due to his cultural view in his time. It stems from his Hebrew view of creation.
The idea of equality and service between people of different gender, racial and economic backgrounds wasn’t new to Christ. This had been God’s purpose all through the Old Testament, achieved finally in the New Testament church. The equality, for example, between men and women was established as early as creation itself.
Paul’s Hebrew faith was creational. Bringing us together in Christ into mutual service would heal our relationships and heal our creation from its conflicts and destruction. This is new creation as Isaiah saw it, with all people serving others in love.
And Paul’s biblical parameters of marriage were also creational. Genesis tells us how creation is sustained and how it is to flourish. For Paul, this was a matter of cosmos, or chaos. If our societies change the parameters of marriage in one way, then they will be changed in every way, until the vulnerable are destroyed and the creation gives over to the pagan flood.
Yet in saying this, Paul wasn’t calling the church to punish those who held a different view. Otherwise we would have to punish us all. Any sex, even in mind, as well as in body, outside of a marriage between one woman and one man, married for life, is missing the mark of Genesis creation. So, we are called to restore one another, not to punish one another. We are called to love, not exclude, to use power to serve, not to shut others out, to heal, not to judge.
What about cases where Paul brought discipline to the church? There was one situation where a man slept with his mother in law, something not even the pagan approved of. And this man was proud, boasting of his exploits, calling others in the community to follow. Obviously, love is the protection of the community from the destruction that would follow. This man was eventually restored. Any discipline that isn’t from love, for all parties involved, even for the offender, is oppression.
Man is always thinking in terms of who submits to who, hierarchy, social order. The bible speaks this language because that is what we understand. But God is love, that is why he came down to the cross. We come from different “planets.” He wants us to have a culture of cooperation, not of superior/ inferior. He wants power to be transformed until it looks like Jesus.
It has been said that Paul was writing chapter 5 as a kind of wrap up to his letter, on general moral teachings. It’s better to see the end section of Ephesians as continuing the same theme of the whole letter, in how Christ brings the creation together for its renewal. In chapter 5 it is by our self-giving love, emulating what God has done in Christ.
The section on marriage begins “submitting to each other in reverence to Christ.” This mutual submission, Christ’s humility in the gospel, is the theme we are following, rather than the hierarchy present in the Roman culture.
So, Paul continues, the wife is to honour the culture, where the husband is the head. This teaching of the man’s headship doesn’t come from the Genesis account of creation. Patriarchalism didn’t come into our cultures through the gospel, but patriarchalism already in our cultures has misread the scriptures.
The wife is to honour her husband “in the Lord,” as the Lord honoured the authorities in our cultures and submitted to them. Jesus submitted to our cultural authorities to transform us, not to sustain their abuse of others.
Then Paul turns to our cultures’ stance that the husband is head of the wife. This Paul is willing to agree with, but only in transforming what this means by bringing this cultural norm into Christ. Christ exercised his headship by submitting to human flesh to bring God’s true word to us. He exercised his headship is submitting service.
So the husband’s love, in being fashioned after Christ, means submitting to serve in the best interests of his wife. He is his wife’s helper. The helping of each other is mutual. The husband lowers himself in the eyes of his culture, to care for and nurture the woman.
The submission of Christ becomes the basis of our marriage relationships, for both the wife and the husband, in our “submitting to each other in reverence (in honour to the example) of Christ.”
To see God in this way, in the Roman world of that time, as lowering himself to serve humanity in his own death, to deny himself, to submit himself to serve the other, was so unthinkable, and yet it become the leaven of a whole new world. We haven’t even skimmed the surface of this in our modern era. If he puts on our flesh, then we must put on the flesh of each other, “walk in the shoes” of the weak and of our enemy.
Ephesus was where the cult of Diana was. This manifested in a strong feminism, another competitive power play, this time between the genders in society. So, Paul said believers should practice loving submission, and he used the model of Christ and the church to transform our culture.
He said the wife should submit to the husband, as the church submits to Christ. The metaphor does not mean the husband is superior to the wife. But just as the church is nourished by Christ, so the wife, living in mutual trust with her husband, rather than in gender competition, will find, along with her husband, fulfilment in their lives.
We see the transformation of the culture of the day. Hierarchy is overthrown without rebellious and destructive behaviours. The marriage becomes one of care and love, for the wellbeing of each other. The husband gives his life for his wife, as Christ did for the church.
Taking Christ as our example, we see mutual condescension between husband and wife. They are both called to submit, help and give their life for each other. This is to be the way in all our relationships, in the church and in the society. The marriage becomes an example of how existing social arrangements can be self-giving instead of self-serving. I submit, as Christ submitted. I lay down my life, as Christ laid down his. We all do this to one another.
The revolution this would bring to the Roman culture was huge. It meant one woman/ one man marriage for life, for the mutual love of each other and for the children. This is how the faithfulness of Christ on the cross transfers into our fidelity to each other. It’s beautiful. And this self-giving love for the other, above self-identity, would renew pagan destruction.
It’s difficult, in our social conditioning, to read this text in Paul without seeing it promoting a kind of hierarchy, even if a kind one, tempered by Christian love. It’s difficult to see Paul’s intent, of using Christ to overthrow the selfishness and hostilities common in our marriages and in our cultures in general. This, not male/ female hierarchy, is what Paul was speaking about.
The husband and wife become one flesh, just as we become one with Christ. Christ shares himself with us through love, not by the hierarchy of law. This is how he sends us into our families, churches and cultures: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” All our cultural institutions are to reflect Christ’s self-giving love.
The church then becomes the renewing instrument within the new creation. As Paul stated in Eph 3:10, the church is revealing the wisdom of God to our cultural authorities. Here, in Eph 5, we see this happening. The mutual love of husband and wife is breaking down the self-centredness of cultural hierarchy. In this new scenario, the strong serves and frees the weak. This becomes our divine image-bearing to the whole world, including and reconciling all things to Christ’s self-giving rule.
This message is offensive, just as is the message of enemy love, or mutual submission and equality in the church, care for the poor in our economies, or accepting others equally across ethnic boundaries. This all breaks down the usual power relationships that we build around us for our own advantage. The gospel takes these power bases from us, to call us to the cross instead. The truth is, we are complete in each other, rather than given to rule over each other.
This self-giving for the other heals our creation, as Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is intending to say. It brings us back to the Genesis message: our identity, our completeness, is in our love and service of the other, not in our self. This is new creation.