The Mysterious Union: Christ-Church and/or Husband-Wife

Ephesians 5 is a favorite at weddings, but there's a mystery at the heart of it.
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (TNIV)

In the midst of injunctions to husbands and wives, Paul takes occasion, as he does often in his letter to the Ephesians, to expound on the relation of Christ and the Church. After invoking Genesis 2:24, the leave-and-cleave text, he alerts us “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” What precisely, we must ask, is the mystery to which he is referring here? Several answers have been suggested. Many wedding preachers take the mystery here referenced to be the mystery of marriage. Lincoln, giving another option, suggests that the mystery here is in reference to the Christ-Church relationship. Others understand the mystery to be the mysterious morphing of two into one. I will advocate for the last of these, proceeding to explore what aspect of this one-making is meant by the use of musth/rion in 5:32. To address these questions we will search the context for clues as well as survey the use of musth/rion in Ephesians. The reading of musth/rion that takes it to refer to marriage is not unnatural, given that it is in the context of commands for husbands and wives and follows immediately after the citation of Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” It would seem, in this view, that the mystery is the union of a husband and wife. If these two verses were to be taken in isolation I might agree, but they are in fact positioned within a letter in which Paul uses musth/rion repeatedly. In any event, Paul tells us that what is really on his mind is something about Christ and the Church. Lincoln’s suggestion that the mystery is the Christ-Church relationship itself strikes a cord, but it is awkward in application. If this is the case then the NRSV language makes it out to say that somehow the Christ-Church relationship is the mystery which is being applied to Christ and the Church. How something can be applied to itself is inconceivable to me. The NIV is clearer: “—but I am talking about Christ and the Church.” Even with this translation, Lincoln’s reading is stifled. Is Paul really saying “The Christ-Church relationship is mysterious—but I am talking about Christ and the Church?” I think not. Perhaps what Lincoln was getting at was something closer to the third position. Perhaps by the Christ-Church relationship he meant the mysterious union of Christ and the Church. It is the union, the one-madeness, of Christ and the Church that in the third position is taken to be the mystery. The mystery is that two have been made one. What amazes Paul is Christ’s knack at taking things that are two and making them one, taking things that are alienated and reconciling them. This union is the thread common to Paul’s use of musth/rion in Ephesians. This is most often, and most strongly, related to the inclusion of the Gentiles, but has other variations as well. Let us proceed through the letter from the beginning noticing uses of musth/rion. In Ephesians 1:9 the mystery has to do with God’s will and plan in Christ to “gather up all things in him.” This “gathering” can be taken as the unifying of all things under Christ, a summing up that brings unity out of diverse things. The most intense clumping of mystery language is in 3:3-6. In 3:3 Paul indicates that he has already written to his readers briefly regarding this mystery. Though it is oft debated whether this refers to a previous letter or some previous portion of this one, I accept the popular interpretation that he is here referring to 2:11-22. This is further suggested by 3:5, which tells us that the mystery is newly revealed, and 3:6 which unites it directly with Gentile inclusion. The TDNT confirms: “In Eph. 3:4 ff. the mystery is the share of the Gentiles in the inheritance, in the body of the Church, in the promise in Christ.” Here again, the mystery is the unifying or one-making work of Christ, in this case related to the Gentile-Jew union. Before proceeding, let us notice that the language in 2:11-22, Paul’s brief explanation of the mystery, is strikingly similar to that in 5:23. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one,” sounds strikingly similar to “…and the two will become one flesh” in 5:31. We clearly here understand that the mystery is related to Gentile-Jew unity, but we make take a step farther and note that in this elucidation of the mystery Paul also highlights that both Jew and Gentile have been reconciled with God in the union of Christ’s body: “…create in himself one new humanity in place of the two …and might reconcile both groups to God in one body.” This is not the dramatic one-making language, but does have the impact of taking things that are separated and bringing them together. So the content of the mystery in 2:11-22 is both the Jew-Gentile unification and the reconciliation of both groups to God; each in their own way a manifestation of Christ’s one-making. Moving on, in Ephesians 3:9 we have another reference to the mystery of Gentile-inclusion which parallels 3:5. Skipping over 5:32, the passage in question, to 6:19 we are reminded that the mystery of the gospel is the reason Paul is in chains. This language connects 6:19 with 3:1 in which Paul suggests that the Gentile inclusion gospel (2:11-22) is why he is a prisoner. In each case the mystery concerns Christ’s one-making, his way of taking multiple and separate things and bringing them together into his unity. This is illustrated most often in Ephesians by the unifying of Jews and Gentiles into Christ’s one body, but it is important to note also that the gathering up of all things in Christ, and the reconciliation of humanity with God are also expressions of the mystery. In this second sense the mystery is the bringing-together of things in Christ. When we take the two pictures, the one-making element and the bringing-together element of the mystery, together we get the idea that because of Christ all things are experiencing radical gravity, being drawn to Christ and unified in the process with one another; ultimately being make one in Christ’s Body. Therefore we can conclude that the use of the musth/rion in Ephesians is broadly the unification made possible in Christ. Whereas previously Paul had been most interested in the mysterious union of Jews and Gentiles in Christ, he turns in 5:32 to the mysterious union of Christ and the Church. The mystery here is not that the Jews and Gentiles are made one, but that Christ and the Church, itself a unity of Jew and Gentile, are made one. It was the mystery of the union of husband and wife, described in 5:31 as being made one flesh, which gives him occasion to celebrate the union of Christ and the Church. In the process of urging husbands to love their wives, he calls them to see their wives as their own bodies, employing the imagery he had of the Church as Christ’s body in 1:23. “It was because the Church was Christ’s body which was one with him…that wives could be seen in terms of their husband’s body.” By viewing the Church as the Body of Christ, and the wife as the body of the husband, Paul is illustrating the radical union of each pair. So while using the one-ness of Christ and the Church (which is his body) to urge husbands to love their wives (as their own bodies), Paul is struck with wonder again at a great mysterious unity, specifically as it appears in the relation of Christ and the Church. The unity of Christ and the Church is the unity of a person with their own body; they are one and the same. It is mysterious that a husband and wife are united as one flesh, but the great mystery to Paul is that Christ and the Church should be united as one flesh. While Bruce claims that a unified understanding of musth/rion throughout Ephesians is “not easy,” I advocate that a general movement from multiple and separate to one and reconciled is consistently the content of the mystery, made possible in Christ, though expressed in various ways. The mystery is union. Christ’s ingathering of all things, his unification of Jew and Gentile and his union with the Church are all “Different aspects of this mystery” of union. The mystery in Ephesians always has to do with radical unification and reconciliation in and through Christ. In Ephesians 5:32 the radical unity that Paul calls “a great mystery” is not the unity of husband and wife, but of Christ and the Church, his body. With these insights in mind, Ephesians 5:32 can be liberally paraphrased: The radical oneness of a person with their own body, as I was saying about husband and wife, is a great mystery—but this is exactly the amazing unity of Christ and the Church. Bibliography Bruce, F.F. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians. (NICNT.) Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984. Lincoln, Andrew. Ephesians. (WBC 42.) Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1990. Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964-c1976. Vols. 5-9 edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin. (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) . Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI

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