The missing bride

There has been a certain struggle to find scriptural warrant for the privileging of marriage over all other forms of human relationship, and its apparent status as a sacrament of such importance that different understandings are worth splitting the church; and this has been a struggle largely because scripture has very little to say about marriage, and much of what it says is not especially positive. The Hebrew scriptures present no theology of marriage; it is simply a phenomenon of social life, which sometimes work out and sometimes doesn’t. In those letters which are unquestionably authored by Paul, the closest he gets to an endorsement of marriage is the grudging admission that if some people feel like they really have to do it, they might as well go ahead, and try to treat each other decently within that framework. Jesus manages on the one hand to prohibit divorce, and on the other to tell people to leave their wives and children for the sake of the gospel, two sayings not particularly easy to reconcile, as well as speaking positively of those who choose to be “eunuchs,” whether by this he means voluntary celibacy, gender nonconformity, or something else which we do not, at this historical remove, quite understand.

(A note: throughout this post, I will not take up in detail the question of what the various writers mean when they use the word “marriage.” The word has never referred to one, single, clearly-understood thing, it did not then and it does not now, and the insistence upon talking about “marriage” as if we all know what we mean by the word is the source of some of our problems. But this is a matter for another time.)

The scriptural basis for the contemporary theology of marriage comes down to basically three things – Ephesians 5:22-33; the use of marital imagery in the writings of some of the Hebrew prophets; and Jesus’s occasional use of bridegroom imagery. The latter two, though obviously not prescriptive, or even really descriptive in any simple sense, are seen to endorse the apparently sacramental vision of marriage expressed by the author of Ephesians, although it is not clear that they really do so. To a very large extent, the theologizing of marriage is built on the single prop of Ephesians 5:32, one verse in a letter of disputed authorship, another verse of which (6:5) was historically used to justify slavery. It is possibly a weak foundation.

It cannot be denied that Ephesians 5:31-32 — “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” — has been tremendously influential. The author’s use of the word mysterion is almost the sole rationale for considering marriage as a sacrament. It is incorporated into the wording of the marriage liturgy in every recension of the Book of Common Prayer, and in nearly all contemporary-language Anglican marriage liturgies, as well as those of many other denominations. It presents, however, one great and possibly insoluble problem – it takes for granted, and sacralizes, a gendered hierarchy of power between husband and wife.

The relationship between Christ and his church is not, and cannot be, an equal relationship; and the author of Ephesians simply assumes that marriage is comparably unequal, and therefore a good comparison. This is not surprising; in his time, a radical hierarchy of gender was, like slave-owning, an ordinary fact. Contemporary theologians who do not endorse such a hierarchy of power between men and women have fought hard to reclaim Ephesians 5:31-32, but we must be honest in admitting that this is a rescue operation which requires us to read against the obvious intention of the author.

I do not – I hope this is clear – mean by this to endorse gendered power hierarchies myself, any more than I want to endorse the institution of chattel slavery. But we must admit that, if we take these positions, we are required to bring a revisionist reading to much of the letter to the Ephesians, which presents a vision of church unity built on very strict and specific inequalities, many of which we no longer accept.

One question which this raises is whether the imagery of marriage as reflecting the relationship of Christ with the church can, in fact, be reasonably retained, or whether it will always contain within it so many ghosts of gender inequity as to render it unusable. It’s interesting to see how This Holy Estate, the 2016 report of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Commission on the Marriage Canon, wrestles, albeit mostly subtextually, with some of this. On the one hand, it hopefully suggests, despite the clearly hierarchical nature of the thinking of the author of Ephesians, that we should see the relationship between Christ and the church reflected in the mutually self-giving love of the married couple, who presumably take turns being Christ and the church. On the other hand, the report also asks, “are there grounds to argue that same-sex unions cannot reflect the love of Christ for the church in the same way, and therefore their inclusion in Christian marriage would somehow modify the analogy?”

Ultimately, there is only one reason even to ask this question – if, on some level, marriage is still perceived as necessarily grounded in gendered power hierarchy. And this may be true. Most Canadians now know that it is inappropriate to ask a same-sex couple, “So, which one of you is the man?” But the persistent sense that there is something destabilizing about same-sex/same-gender relationships is to a large extent based in a lurking feeling that the specific relationship we call marriage requires structural inequality for its very identity. There are, of course, inevitable ineqalities of power between any two people, based on class, race, age, ability, and a variety of individual characteristics, but heterosexual marriage is historically grounded in a dramatic social power imbalance, encoded in its very definition, and it is questionable how far our theological imagination has truly been able to release this, particularly when women, as a class of person, continue, in all existing human societies, to have less social and economic power than men. (And there are, of course, many people within and outside the Anglican church who do explicitly hold non-egalitarian theories about men and women, but that is yet another problem for another day).

The very real and important question, in fact, may be whether we can allow same-sex/same-gender marriage to rescue heterosexual marriage. Either we can somehow significantly redefine the imagery of the necessarily and ontologically unequal relationship between Christ and the church to accommodate partnerships which are structurally equal, including same-sex/same-gender partnerships but also more equal heterosexual relationships; or we can let this metaphor go as a historical relic; or, if we are willing to do neither, we must admit that our understanding of marriage does, in fact, require gendered hierarchies of unequal power, in which case we might be better off scrapping the whole business entirely.

Of course, how much weight we ought to put on a single sentence in Ephesians – how far it could potentially be rejected or redefined — depends very much on the extent to which it has support elsewhere in scripture, particularly in the gospels. It is entirely true that one of the metaphors which is used, in the prophetic tradition, to speak of God’s relationship with Israel is that God as betrayed husband, so the image of Israel as wife is real (usually wife, not bride; this is not insignificant) – though the emphasis on the covenant relationship is used almost entirely to speak of its rupture, making it far from the most positive of images employed, which also include, of course, parent and child images, shepherd and sheep images, hen and chick images, and potter and clay pot images (and of parenthetical interest, in at least one passage in Isaiah God appears to be both bridegroom and bride at the same time). Although some of those who submitted briefs to the Commission on the Marriage Canon evidently do believe that marriage is literally the only thing in the created order which can represent the relationship between Christ and the church, the prophetic image pattern is in fact quite rich. But all of these, of course, are relationships of significant inequality, and there is no question that the prophetic writers also understood marriage to be a deeply unequal relationship.

Jesus’s use of bridegroom imagery is generally assumed to be in continuity with the prophetic use of the imagery – that is, Christ as bridegroom, church as bride. This would, if true, be significant support for the Ephesians interpretation of marriage. However, on closer examination it seems that this is not, in fact, what Jesus is doing with marriage imagery. It is arguable that his imagery is not really correctly described as “marriage” imagery at all. When a bridegroom appears in a parable or saying, his basic function does not seem to include marrying a bride – in none of Jesus’s bridegroom sayings does a bride even put in an appearance. A bridegroom’s function is to host (or have hosted for him), and to appear at, a party. The disciples and others around Jesus, who are the closest thing to the “church” in the narrative, are figured as wedding guests, or possibly bridesmaids of varying degrees of readiness; they are always members of the wedding party. They are not the bride. No one, apparently, is the bride. There does not seem to be a bride. At the wedding at Cana, of course, neither bridegroom nor bride appears; again, the whole emphasis is on the community celebration, and its success or failure.

One has the strong impression that, when he employs bridegroom imagery, Jesus is not actually especially interested in talking about marriage, either in real life or as a metaphor – he is interested in talking about parties. Among the small people of Galilee, among whom he spent most of his life, weddings would have been, in fact, the primary, if not the exclusive, occasion on which people experienced large community parties (and they seem to have been substantial parties, which could last for some days). And it is this which Jesus wants to deploy as a metaphor – the community in celebration. His concerns revolve around who is invited, who will accept the invitation, who is ready to take part on short notice, and, evidently, whether there is enough wine for everyone. This lines up well with Jesus’s consistent emphasis on hospitality, communal meals, group celebrations. The relationship between the elusive bridegroom and the invisible bride appears to be a matter of indifference. Husband and wife imagery is entirely absent – husbands and wives are spoken of when real world matters of marriage are addressed, but the marital relationship is not used metaphorically by Jesus at any point.

The bride does get a quick look-in early in John’s gospel, in a saying put in the mouth of John the Baptist, but it provides relatively little support for a broader understanding of bridegroom imagery. He identifies Jesus as the bridegroom (which is clearly how Jesus himself does use the image, at least sometimes), and defines the bridegroom as the one who “has the bride”, but, on its own, this does not strongly support an identification of the bride with the church; the bride is not even so much an image as a functional term defining the bridegroom. Nor are the words of John the Baptist to be taken as defining; he has a habit of using many of the same imaget as Jesus, but often to take them in a slightly different, and, for Christians, less foundational, direction.

The bride does also appear, of course, in the very complex imagery of the final chapters of Revelation, which employs the prophetic image vocabulary extensively; here the bride is used to represent the New Jerusalem, the redeemed city, which is indeed something like, although not exactly like, an eschatological vision of the church. The bride in this case is marrying a lamb, which is perfectly coherent and sensible in terms of the image patterns of John of Patmos, but suggests that drawing analogies between this marriage and human marriage is a slightly strained exercise. And, of course, it is taken for granted that marriage is unequal, and therefore compares appropriately to the relationship between God and humanity.

I do not deny, then, that there is a scriptural pattern of thought in which, first of all, human marriage is understood to be a deeply hierarchical institution, and, consequently, human marriage can be used to represent our relationship with God, with men being, to put it bluntly, more like God than women are. It is this pattern which, on some deep level, does stand in the way of recognizing same-sex/same-gender marriage as legitimate, precisely because it lacks that structural inequality.

This pattern, however, though it may be scriptural, is not a gospel pattern; and this is important. The one person in Christian scripture whom we, as Christians, may assume was able to transcend unnecessary social barriers apparently (and for several possible reasons) did not see the relationship between husband and wife as an appropriate metaphor for God and humanity. Instead, he turned to the marriage party, with God as host and humanity as God’s friends and guests – all of humanity, not allowing one sex or gender some kind prior claim on the image of God, or an ontological status above others.

My argument, as it has been throughout this blog, is that the debate about equal marriage is not a debate which only really “matters” to people who actively wish to marry other people of the same sex and gender – though obviously it does matter for some people very immediately, and all Christians should care about this simply because we are all one body, and if one is injured, we are all injured. But it is also a debate about much deeper matters – how we understand the very nature of gender, how we understand human relationships and partnerships, and the resources available to us, within our own scripture and tradition, for a much more complex, challenging, and nuanced approach, which has in it the potential to allow everyone to live better, richer, and more deeply Christ-formed lives. Can we reimagine marriage and human partnership? Can we reimagine, and begin to deconstruct, human hierarchies of power? Can we reimagine how we understand ourselves as gendered beings? And can we come to see that it is in our tradition that we are given the tools to do these things?

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