By Paul Koch –
I have been to more than my fair share of weddings in my life. Now, the majority of weddings I’ve attended I wasn’t invited to see the spectacle, but I went because I was the officiant. I was there because I was asked to lead the ceremony, to take the bride and groom through their vows, to bring a word of God into that moment. Now a lot of pastors, if you catch them in a moment of honesty, will tell you that they don’t really enjoy doing weddings. But I am not one of them. I love weddings; I’ve learned to endure all sorts of strange requests and last minute changes. I’ve officiated weddings in the church with all the bells and whistles of a traditional wedding and I’ve officiated them backyards and on golf courses and even one in the woods on a giant rock. But, if you’ve learned anything about me, you know that I love to preach. And a wedding is the ultimate captive audience. They can do whatever weird stuff they want before and after, but in the middle is my time and no one can do anything about it. So, you tell me we’re going to head out into the woods and preach to some of your family and friends; I say, alright! Let’s get going.
A wedding ceremony can be full of very individual preferences. Music, flowers, and bridal parties can take on an almost infinite variation. But there are things in the vast majority of ceremonies that always seem to be present. The bride almost always wears white. And when she comes in everyone stands up. Many people in the church have tried to resist this. After all, standing is a sign of reverence and we should give reverence to Christ alone – especially in a church. So for years there has been encouragement to not stand for the bride; for a wedding ceremony is still a worship service. It has all the marks of worship, including a sermon and readings from scripture.
In all those weddings I’ve done the reading from Ephesians 5:22-33, which is one of the traditional readings for a wedding, has not been used very often. Everyone always wants to hear 1 Corinthians 13, “Love is patient, love is kind” etc., etc. Or Ecclesiastes 4, “A cord of three strands is not easily broken.” But this text about headship and subordination isn’t very popular. But who can be surprised? A country where traditional marriage is viewed with great skepticism, as the Supreme Court of the land redefines what it means to be married and divorce rates are on the rise, this text from Ephesians seems to be simply outdated and even inappropriate.
However, as I was examining this text again I read one commentator who said, “These words… may not seem palatable to modern ears, but no pastor should stoop to surrender these words for the sake of pleasing the whims of our modern generation.” Now that seems reasonable doesn’t it? The funny thing is, those words were written over 100 years ago. It was translated into English in 1954. That’s before “Leave it to Beaver,” and “Father Knows Best.” I’m beginning to wonder if this text was ever palatable.
Now without reading too deeply, we can see why this text causes so many problems. In fact, it is perhaps because we don’t read very deeply that we have the difficulty that we do with the text. “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.” The language is that of being submitted under a head and we immediately begin to grate against it. For it is easy to see how these words can be abused; they become fodder for every attempt to demean women both in the home and in society. St. Paul gets labeled a chauvinist for saying, “As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
Now, of course, Paul is not one-sided; all you have to do is keep reading and he speaks very clearly about what is expected of the husband. He says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The wife is called to live in submission to her husband, and the husband is to live sacrificially for his wife going so far as to give his own life to preserve hers. So the problem isn’t just that it speak unfavorably to women. In fact, the bulk of this section is about how men are to treat their wives. So why then does this text strike us as so strange? Why is it the one text that seems to be missing from so many wedding ceremonies?
The clue to the difficulty comes at the end when Paul says, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” The reason why these words seem so difficult is that they are speaking not only about holy matrimony but about our faith itself. And at the core of that gift of faith is an attack on our individuality. One of mankind’s greatest treasures is our individuality, our desire to be autonomous at all times. This is why language of submission freaks us out. But, our desire to be autonomous is also our greatest challenge to receiving and trusting in the blessing of Christ. His gifts do not leave room for our work; His blessings do not need our individual effort. He has completed all things in our place. On the cross as He dies for your sins, He cries out, “It is finished.” There is nothing left over for you to do; your autonomy falls under His lordship.
In Christ, you lose your autonomy along with your sin and brokenness. In exchange you are given forgiveness, hope, and life itself. You are given in Him a place in His household. You become a part of the body of Christ. Each of you, then, are members of that body, each having a role to play and each looking to the head for the gift of life itself. What you are given is nothing short of the assurance of life everlasting.
In our broken world we find echoes of this gift. An ordering of our creation is not defined by our individual ideals, but by the grace and mercy of Christ himself. This text then finds us not as individuals struggling under the law, but as brothers and sisters living in the forgiveness of Christ. It sets into our lives the rhythm and order of God’s blessings. This text is a gift, a reminder to look to our head and to expect from there grace and mercy. And then we turn to those subordinated to us and give freely of that love and forgiveness. There is a blessing and rhythm to daily life. That is a reflection of the blessings from on high.
Sure, we will fail in living out our vocation. Husbands won’t always live sacrificially for their wives and wives won’t always be submitted to their husbands. In this sin torn world we will each rise up and claim our autonomy and fail to serve one another. But the good news is that failure in living out of this divine image doesn’t change the sacrificial love it represents. For the blood of the great Bridegroom will not fail His bride, the church. As He continues to declare to you that you are forgiven, you are free by His blood and righteousness, so you are given a new life to live and love one another.
So do me a favor the next time you’re at a wedding. Next time, turn in your seat as the wedding party begins to walk down the aisle. When you see that woman in the white dress, when you see the bride, stand up. Stand up, for this is the image of the grace and mercy of Christ. Stand up, for this is the beauty that God bestows upon you as He calls you His own, His beloved, His church, His bride!