Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mystery and Marriage Revisionism

I honestly don't have a great interest in issues of Christian feminism and egalitarianism, as my previous entry and this one might suggest. But this seems to be the front from which the left is staging its assault on traditional Christian teaching, and I am a great fan of Christ, His Church, and the traditions they have established and handed down. That being the case, this stuff becomes difficult to avoid.

Being Orthodox, I suppose you can avoid it by simply resting in the assurance that there is no such thing as a completely novel understanding of any Christian doctrine that is also correct, therefore being assured that egalitarianism is false and anathema, for example. The problem is that there is a nation of Christians being confronted with these challenges to traditionalist Christianity who have no such bulwark. They might really be open to persuasion, which would spiritually harm not only them, but also the broader culture and the Christian witness to the world.

All that to preface my response to this guest column by Kristen Rosser on Rachel Held Evans' blog, in which Rosser marshals historical-critical exegesis to call into question whether Paul really meant what he said about marriage being "a great mystery" which "concerns Christ and the Church." Or, she would say, whether he means what most claim that he means.

Let's start at the end where she attempts to allay fears that the motivation for such convoluted interpretations of Scripture is unbiblical conformance to modern culture. No, she assures us, because she and her husband are "best friends" just like they want to be. Are you waiting for the scriptural citation that says that marriage is a kind of sanctified best-friendship-with-benefits? Me too. Not to mention everything the Bible teaches about marriage that belies that denuded, small understanding utterly -- such as the very passage she is interrogating.

Her chief claim -- that in Ephesians 5:21-32, Paul either isn't using Christ and the Church as an illustration for marriage, or if he is it's not about authority and submission but about giving and sacrifice -- is partly correct, part straw-man, and partly incorrect. Correct is that the relationship of husband to wife and Christ to the Church is not solely -- or even necessarily centrally -- about authority and submission. This is also the straw-man because no complementarians or traditionalists claim that these relationships are solely about that. This being the case, her supposed corrective -- explaining that Christ sacrificially, lovingly, and in all humility gives his life for the Church, thereby coming down to her station and raising her up to glory -- is no corrective at all. No complementarians or marriage traditionalists deny this aspect of Christ's relationship to the Church, or that it is a template for marriage. Her implicit, unstated premise is that this understanding is mutually exclusive with headship, authority, and submission, which of course doesn't follow. Christ both humbly dies for and serves the Church, raising her up to glory and  is her head to whom she lovingly submits.

She expends some energy explaining literary "chiastic sandwiches", which -- even if one accepts as the proper literary framework for the passage -- doesn't really get her any purchase in the argument because, again, the central point -- "That He might present to Himself the church in all her glory" -- is not one that any traditionalist misses, downplays, or denies anyway.

Part of the problem is Kristen's myopic focus on this single passage. Even setting aside the game of hermeneutical Twister she plays, a simple cross-reference could have saved her from making such errors. Take 1st Corinthians 11:3, for instance, which says that "the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." If Ephesians 5:21-32 wasn't clear enough, this fortifies its obvious, unmistakable meaning (as does the rest of Scripture and Holy Tradition).

She starts to make a somewhat interesting point, pointing out that Paul uses the word "mystery" to describe the way marriage is a reflection of Christ and the Church. But she immediately goes astray, reducing this great mystery to a one-way illustration that shows marriage being kinda, sorta like Christ and the Church in one specific, narrowly circumscribed way. Whereas the traditional understanding of the great mystery is much more holistic and mutually reinforcing i.e. that Christian marriage images forth Christ and the Church, just as Christ and the Church shows us what marriage is all about. Bizarrely, she points out that "illustration" isn't used in the passage, only to reduce this great mystery to precisely a simple illustration.

If you compare her understanding of this great mystery to the other great mysteries of the Church, such as Holy Baptism and the Eucharist, it becomes clear that her understanding is much too small, reductionist, and narrow to possibly be correct. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says in his book The Orthodox Way:
In the proper religious sense of the term, “mystery” signifies not only hiddenness but disclosure. The Greek noun mysterion [from which we get the word 'sacrament'] is linked with the verb myein, meaning “to close the eyes or mouth.” The candidate for initiation into certain of the pagan mystery religions was first blindfolded and led through a maze of passages; then suddenly his eyes were uncovered and he saw, displayed all round him, the secret emblems of the cult. So, in the Christian context, we do not mean by a “mystery” merely that which is baffling and mysterious, an enigma or insoluble problem. A mystery is, on the contrary, something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively be­cause it leads into the depth or the darkness of God. The eyes are closed—but they are also opened.
This proper understanding of the sacraments of the Church (marriage being one) can't be reconciled with her systematization of the mystery wherein she claims that the mystery is all hiddenness now, and only disclosure in the eschaton.

Marriage revisionists are right to view passages like this one from Ephesians -- if understood simply, straightforwardly, and in accordance with the rest of the Bible and the traditions of the Church -- as incompatible with their desire to re-imagine marriage. It's amusing to watch them tap-dance around the obvious, but it's also too dangerous to let go by without serious challenge.


  1. It's very nice that you thought what I had to say was important enough to try to refute, but I do wonder how carefully you actually read what I wrote. I never said Paul wasn't using Christ and the Church as an illustration for marriage. I said that the idea of marriage as an illustration of Christ and the Church was backwards. So you have turned what I wrote backwards in order to object to what I didn't say. And you say I'm the one making straw men. Rather odd, that.

    I also never said the reason this was not an "unbiblical conformance to modern culture" was because my husband and I are best friends. I said that anyone who reads a passage without taking into account first-century culture, is unconsciously dragging his own culture into the reading. Which is just what you're doing when you read "the man is the 'head' of the woman" in terms of a modern English understanding of "head" rather than a first-century Greek one.

    Not to mention that you have completely left out the scriptural backing I did give to why marriage should be a best friendship.

    I don't mind if you think I'm completely wrong. I don't mind if you want to write a blog post refuting what I have to say-- in fact, I'm honored that you'd take the time. But I do think you ought to try to refute what I actually said and not a misquoted and misunderstood version of it.

    1. Kristen, because I understand the mystery/illustration to go in *both* directions (as the last few paragraphs makes clear), it's immaterial which direction you're denying. But, if you wish, you can reverse the terms of 1st sentence of the 5th paragraph i.e. switch "marriage" with "Christ and the Church", and my argument remains materially identical.

      As for first-century culture, yes, it can be helpful to clarifying technical questions about a text. But your operating hermeneutical assumptions -- presumably, sola scriptura and the supremacy of historical-critical exegesis in determining meaning -- I reject, per the teaching of Scripture (2 Thess. 2:15, for instance). In other words, whatever info we can glean from taking into account the culture the words were written in, that info can never supersede or nullify a clear doctrine of the Church, such as its understanding of marriage. That said, once we do take into account culture and literary genre -- at least the aspects of it that you cite -- none of it changes anything about the traditional interpretation anyway.

    2. Nathan, I think it only fair to point out that the issue I was addressing was a specifically Protestant evangelical interpretation of that particular text. I can understand why you would have issues both with that teaching and my response to it, but I really was not addressing an Orthodox understanding of the text. Your response from an Orthodox point of view is therefore, in a certain sense, talking past me.