John Richardson examines biblical teaching on marriage, and in particular the treatment of this subject in Ephesians 5, which has additional significance as the basis for a fundamental objection to women’s ordination

As the Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx observes in Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery, the Church’s relationship with marriage has been of one of adaptation to an existing social practice. The Christian view is that marriage is a matter of ‘common grace’. You do not have to be a Christian to be married and the blessings of marriage are available to all, regardless of how the marriage took place.

This much is presumed in Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 7.12-14: Tf any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her’ (and vice versa). The same principles apply to those from a pagan background as to Christians [cf w.10-11], with the exception (I take it) that if the unbelieving partner deserts, then the Christian is free to remarry.

However, alongside this recognition of marriage as a ‘social’ institution, there is also a claim that the origins of marriage are theological, not sociological, and that the nature of marriage transcends cultural conventions. Moreover, although this claim is inherent within the Old Testament, the developed New Testament understanding seems to be as uniquely Christian as is the concept of the Trinity.

A unique understanding?

The fullest expression of a doctrine of marriage is found in Ephesians 5.21-33. We need scarcely delay on the question of Pauline authorship (which I accept), since Ephesians is Scripture for all that. (One of Archbishop Carey’s great mistakes regarding the ordination of women, I believe, was to downgrade the significance of 1 Timothy 2 on the grounds that its Pauline authorship may be doubted.) What we have here is a tour de force of theological insight as major as that in Galatians 3, which similarly draws together Christology and the origins of salvation history.

The starting point for this analysis, although it is introduced late in the passage, is the conclusion to the account of Eve’s creation in Genesis 2: ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ [Gen. 2.24, quoting Septuagint].

The initial action envisaged is ‘clinging’ to someone – ‘cleaving’, as the Authorized Version puts it. But the final phrase takes this a stage further: ‘the two will become one flesh.’ This has to be read in the light of what has preceded, for earlier Eve is to Adam as ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ [2.23]. The ‘union’ of v.24 is thus posited on a reunion, and it is the interplay of themes in these adjacent verses -of taking from and returning to – which indicates that sexual intercourse is the means to this (re)uniting.

This seems to be a unique understanding of marriage and sexuality, not found in other religions or philosophies. However profoundly other traditions may understand the longing for a ‘soul mate’ (and Marvin Pope’s commentary on the Song of Songs contains many example of this in Ancient Near Eastern poetry), the biblical understanding of a ‘one flesh union depends specifically on the details of the Genesis narrative.

Union with Christ

However, as J.V. Fesko has observed in his Last Things First, the key to understanding Genesis 1-3 is Christology. Thus throughout the Old Testament, there is a theme of God as the husband of Israel [Isa. 62.4-5; Ezek 16.1-14; Jer. 31.32; Hosea, etc.], and in the gospels this theme continues with the understanding of Jesus as the bridegroom [John 3.29; Mark 2.19-20]. It is in the epistles, however, that this marital relationship is most clearly represented as being beyond mere analogy, and the key to this is the concept of union with Christ. Hence in 1 Corinthians 6, where Paul berates the Corinthians for resorting to prostitutes, he reminds them of the principles underlying their salvation with a reference, again, to Genesis 2.24:

‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit’ [1 Cor. 6.15-17].

It is union with Christ, enacted through baptism, which conveys to us all the benefits of his life, death and resurrection [Rom. 6.1-7], and even of his own conformity with the Law [Col. 2.11-12]: ‘In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism…’ Baptism is into union with Christ, but that union is the oneness of the marriage bond and bed.


It is thus appropriate that the Bible ends not with the judgement of Revelation 20 but with the marriage of Revelation 21: T saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband’ [Rev. 21.2]. Almost the last words in Scripture are those of the Spirit and the Bride calling to the bridegroom [22.17] – an invocation that surely echoes the primitive marana tha of 1 Corinthians 16.22.

According to this Christological understanding, then, human marriage takes its reality from the relationship between the Redeemer God and his redeemed people, but the implications of this are spelt out in Ephesians 5, where Paul argues from salvation to marriage, not the other way round: ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word, and to present her to himself as a radiant Church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless’ [Eph. 5.25-7].

Nature of headship

If the analogy were that Christ loves the Church as a husband loves his wife (which is the form of Isa. 62.5), it might be touching, but it would place no additional obligations on us. As it is, however, specific obligations are there: for the husband to sacrifice himself for his wife and for the wife to submit to her husband [Eph. 5.22-3].

There have, of course, been long debates over what submission might mean in practice. What cannot be denied, however, is that ‘headship’ is not merely taught in the Bible but is integral to marriage. To be a husband is to be a head to one’s wife, whether one likes it or not. Hence, as C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Four Loves, if understood in its Christlike sense, this is a crown of thorns, not gold: ‘The chrism of this terrible coronation is to be seen not in the joys of any man’s marriage but in its sorrows, in the sickness and sufferings of a good wife or the faults of a bad one…’

As Lewis observes elsewhere, however, headship is more than simply faithfulness ‘for better, for worse’: ‘If marriage is permanent, one or other party must, in the last resort, have the power of deciding the family policy’ [Christian Behaviour].

Headship does include giving direction, taking responsibility and exercising leadership. We may suggest, then, that the submission required of the wife in marriage is that obedience to her husband which accepts his leading when it is necessary for him to take responsibility.

This understanding, however, has implications for ministry in the Church. For those with an evangelical view of the ordained ministry as a functional rather than ontological distinction, there is not quite the same concern about the priest’s maleness as there is for Anglo-Catholics. Yet there is often a shared view that the Anglican priesthood is not an office for women, and the fundamental reason lies in this passage from Ephesians.

Further implications

Women can, of course, lead in the activities of mission and ministry, just as they can in the world of work. But the Church is not a business; it is a community. More than that, it is a ‘community of communities’, incorporating families as well as individuals. As is clear from the New Testament, families are constituents of the Church in a way that they are not of businesses, schools, hospitals and so on. Furthermore, marriage reflects within the Church the relationship which constitutes the Church itself. By contrast, this relationship is not modelled by the assembly line or the classroom. Hence it is of no theological consequence if the foreman or teacher is a woman. Nor does it matter if the chief executive is a woman or whether the school has a headmaster or headmistress.

The problem with the woman ‘vicar’, however, is that marriage is fundamental to the community of the Church. Thus, whilst headship of the congregation belongs to Christ, spiritual leadership must take account of the headship which belongs to husbands. It is this, I think, which underlies the prohibition of women teaching men in 1 Timothy 2.11— 15; a passage which is itself replete with references to Genesis, and is therefore suggestive of the marital relationship.

Church leaders will, typically, also be family leaders, as envisaged by 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. This does not exclude women from the leadership ‘team’, any more than it excludes wives from ruling the household [1 Tim. 5.14]. As the National Evangelical Anglican Congress said in 1977, ‘Leadership in the church should be plural and mixed.’ However, it added, ‘ultimate responsibility [should] normally be singular and male.’ That was the understanding of Scripture and tradition then. Personally, I have seen nothing to change my views since.