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«Desiring God DESIRING GOD JOHN PIPER DESIRING GOD published by Multnomah Publishers, Inc. © 1986, 1996, 2003 by Desiring God Foundation ...»

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“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” In other words, in the beginning God took woman out of man as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, and then God presented her back to the man to discover in living fellowship what it means to be one flesh. Verse 24 draws out the lesson that marriage is just that: a man leaving father and mother because God has given him another; a man holding fast to this woman alone and no other; and a man discovering the experience of being one flesh with this woman.


OF Paul looks as this and calls it a “profound mystery.” Why?

He had learned from Jesus that the church is Christ’s body (Ephesians 1:23). By faith a person is joined to Jesus Christ. Thus, a person becomes one with all believers so that we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Believers in Christ are the body of Christ. We are the organism through which He manifests His life and in which His Spirit dwells.

Knowing this about the relationship between Christ and the church, Paul sees a parallel with marriage. He sees that husband and wife become one flesh and that Christ and the church become one body. So in 2 Corinthians 11:2, for example, he says to the church, “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to one husband to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” He pictures Christ as the husband, the church as the bride, and conversion as an act of betrothal that Paul had helped bring about. The bride’s presentation to her husband probably will happen at the Lord’s second coming, referred to in Ephesians 5:27 (“that he might present the church to himself in splendor”).

It looks as though Paul uses the relationship of human marriage, learned from Genesis 2, to describe and explain the relationship between Christ and the church.

But if that were the case, marriage would not be a mystery, as Paul calls it in Ephesians 5:32; it would be the clear and obvious thing that explains the mystery of Christ and the church. So there is more to marriage than meets the eye. What is it?

M A R R I AG E The mystery is this: God did not create the union of Christ and the church after the pattern of human marriage—just the reverse! He created human marriage on the pattern of Christ’s relation to the church.

The mystery of Genesis 2:24 is that the marriage it describes is a parable or symbol of Christ’s relation to His people. There was more going on in the creation of woman than meets the eye. God doesn’t do things willy-nilly.

Everything has a purpose and meaning. When God engaged to create man and woman and to ordain the union of marriage, He didn’t roll the dice or draw straws or flip a coin as to how they might be related to each other. He patterned marriage very purposefully after the relationship between His Son and the church, which He had planned from all eternity.7 Therefore, marriage is a mystery—it contains and conceals a meaning far greater than what we see on the outside. God created man male and female and ordained marriage so that the eternal covenant relationship between Christ and His church would be imaged forth in the marriage union. As Geoffrey Bromiley has written, “As God made man in his own image, so he made marriage in the image of his own eternal marriage with his people.”8 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. Those of us who are married need to ponder again and again how mysterious and wonderful it is that God grants us in marriage the privilege to image forth stupendous divine realities infinitely bigger and greater than ourselves.

This is the foundation of the pattern of love that Paul describes for marriage. It is not enough to say that each spouse should pursue his or her own joy in the joy of the other. It is also important to say that husbands and wives should consciously copy the relationship God intended for Christ and the church.

7. The covenant that binds Christ to the church is called in Hebrews 13:20 an “eternal covenant”: “May the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant....” Therefore the relationship between Christ and the church has eternally been in God’s mind, and in the order of His thought, it precedes and governs the creation of marriage.

8. Geoffrey Bromiley, God and Marriage (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980), 43.




Accordingly, wives are to take their cues from the purpose of the church in its relation to Christ: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians 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. (“Wives be subject…for the husband is the head.”) What is the meaning of head in Ephesians 5:23?

The Greek word for head (kephal e) is used in the Old Testament sometimes to refer to a chief or leader (Judges 10:18; 11:8–9; 2 Samuel 22:44; Psalm 18:43; Isaiah 7:8). But it is not at first obvious why head should be used to refer to a leader. Perhaps its position at the top of the body gave the head its association with high rank and power.

For some ancients, the leading faculty of thought was in the heart, not in the head, though according to Charles Singer in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Aristotle’s opinion that intelligence is in the heart “was contrary to the views of some of his medical contemporaries, contrary to the popular view, and contrary to the doctrine of [Plato’s] Timaeus.”9 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 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 of the senses to the eyes.10

9. N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard, eds., The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), 59.

10. Philo, The Special Laws, III, 184, in Loeb Classical Library, 8:591.

–  –  –

This was the popular view in Paul’s day, according to Heinrich Schlier, as is evident from Stoic sources besides Philo.11 Therefore, contemporary critics are wrong when they claim 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 ‘supremacy over’ or ‘being responsible to’ were not among them.”12 “Supremacy” is precisely the quality given to the head by 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.”13

In Ephesians 1:20–22, Paul says:

[God] worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him 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 put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.

Even if the word head could mean “source” as some claim,14 this would be a foreign idea here where Christ is installed as supreme over all authorities. Nor is it at all 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.

But, let’s suppose that “source” were the sense of head in this passage. What would that mean in this context? The husband is pictured as the head of the

11. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittle (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1965), 3:674.

12. Alvera and Berkeley Mickelsen, “Does Male Dominance Tarnish Our Translations?” Christianity Today 22, no. 23 (5 October 1979): 25.

Stephen Bedale, “The Meaning of kephal e in the Pauline Epistles,” Journal of Theological Studies 5 (1954): 215.

14. Among others, Gilbert Bilezekian, Beyond Sex Roles, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1985), 157–62; Catherine Clark Kroeger, “Head,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F.

Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993), 376–7. But Wayne Grudem has shown that this is an extremely unlikely meaning for the singular use of head in Paul’s day. See “The Meaning of Kephale (“Head”): A Response to Recent Studies” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 425–68, 534–41, as well as his more recent, “The Meaning of kephal e (“Head”): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real or Alleged,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 1 (March 2001): 25–65.


wife, as Christ is pictured as the head of the church, His body (Ephesians 5:29–30). You cannot say that head is the head of a river or something like that.

Paul is very specific what kind of “head” he has in mind. It is the head connected to a neck on top of a “body.” Now if the head means “source,” what is the husband the source of? What does the body get from the head? It gets nourishment (that’s mentioned in verse 29: “No one ever hated his own flesh but nourishes it and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church”). And we can understand this, because the mouth is in the head, and nourishment comes through the mouth to the body. But that’s not all the body gets from the head. It gets guidance because the eyes are in the head. And it gets alertness and protection because the ears are in the head.

In other words, if the husband as head is one flesh with his wife, his body, and if he is therefore her source of guidance and food and alertness, then the natural conclusion is that the head, the husband, has a primary responsibility for leadership and provision and protection.

So even if you give head the meaning “source,” the most natural interpretation of these verses is that husbands are called by God to take primary responsibility for Christlike servant leadership and protection and provision in the home. And wives are called to honor and affirm their husbands’ leadership and help carry it through according to their gifts.

Therefore, when Paul says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands…for the husband is the head of the wife,” he means a wife should recognize and honor her husband’s greater responsibility to lead the home. She should be disposed to yield to her husband’s authority and should be inclined to follow his leadership.

The reason I say a disposition to yield and an inclination to follow is that no submission of one human being to another is absolute. The husband does not replace Christ as the woman’s supreme authority. She must never follow her husband’s leadership 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 behavior that she does not like resisting his will and that she longs for him to forsake sin and lead in righteousness so that her disposition to honor him as head can again produce harmony.

M A R R I AG E Another reason for stressing the disposition and inclination of submission, rather than any particular acts, is that the specific behaviors growing out of this spirit of submission are so varied from marriage to marriage. They can even appear contradictory from culture to culture.


FROM So in this mysterious parable of marriage, the wife is to take her special cue from God’s purpose for the church in its relation to Christ. And to the husbands Paul says, “Take your special cues from Christ”: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). If the husband is the head of the wife, as verse 23 says, let it be very plain to every husband that this means primarily leading out in the kind of love that is willing to die to give her life.

As Jesus says in Luke 22:26, “Let…the leader [become] as one who serves.” The husband who plops himself down in front of the TV and orders his wife around like a slave has abandoned the way of Christ. Jesus bound Himself with a towel and washed the apostles’ feet. Woe to the husband who thinks his maleness requires of him a domineering, demanding attitude toward his wife. If you want to be a Christian husband, you become a servant, not a boss.

It is true that verse 21 puts this whole section under the sign of mutual submission: “submitting 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 a leader. Even while He was on His knees washing their 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.

I address the men directly for a moment: Do not let the rhetoric of unbiblical feminism cow you into thinking that Christlike leadership from husbands is


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