By CLIFFORD M. YEARY, Little Rock Scripture Study | Published April 9, 2009
When modern readers engage with Paul’s teachings regarding marriage, three concerns often arise. First, how highly does Paul actually regard marriage? He seems to respect it, but doesn’t he also treat it as an option meant for those in danger of succumbing to their baser passions?
Then, there is the matter of the relationship of the spouses to each other. Is it fair to say that Paul regards the stature of wives as something less than that of their husbands? Finally, what of the religious or sacramental nature of marriage? Is there a distinctly Christian aspect to marriage?
When considering Paul’s teaching on marriage, the best place to start is in First Corinthians chapter 7. Not only does he address the Corinthians’ own questions about marriage there, it is also an early letter of Paul.
We will want to look at Colossians and Ephesians as well, because, even if they were actually written by Paul’s disciples rather than by Paul himself, as many scholars suggest, they still represent extremely valuable summations of Paul’s theology.
Chapter 7 of First Corinthians opens with Paul quoting a statement the Corinthians use as blanket advice not only to those contemplating marriage, but even to those already married (verse 1): “It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman.” Paul’s response clearly shows his respect for the dignity of marital love.
Husbands and wives should not deprive each other of physical love, Paul replies in verse 3, except on those occasions where they mutually agree to spend time in prayer instead. According to Paul, sexual love between a man and a woman in the context of marriage is something they should give each other!
Paul, however, is also focused on his own commitment to being absolutely free to proclaim the Gospel wherever in the world God calls him to go. Such freedom is not always enjoyed by those who must also care for the needs of a spouse, and so Paul encourages those who can make the commitment to celibacy for the sake of the Gospel to do so.
He is also confident that the Lord’s return will come quickly. The day-to-day concerns of family life strike Paul as a distraction from his total dedication to Christ. Today, as ever, the Church affirms celibacy as a valuable sign of the ultimate importance of God’s kingdom.
Whether penned by Paul himself or by those who wished to publish his teachings, Colossians and Ephesians give us rich insights into Paul’s appreciation for marriage as a participation in the life of Christ.
Colossians 3:18-21 plainly tells wives to be subordinate to their husbands. Titus 2:4-5 is another Pauline instruction that seems to put this same responsibility entirely upon wives. The message in Colossians seems to be repeated in Ephesians 5:21-23.
Lectors everywhere dread the possibility that they might be asked to proclaim Ephesians’ message of a wife’s subordination on the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time (cycle B).
But the lectionary does give us the liberty of skipping the line that makes many of us uncomfortable in verse 22, to begin instead with verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her.”
Of particular interest, however, is the opening phrase in verse 21: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Colossians fails to stress this need for mutual subordination in marriage, but because it does appear in Ephesians, it ought to be taken seriously.
Husbands are also called to be subordinate to their wives! Paul and his disciples may have had difficulty at times in seeing past many cultural attitudes regarding gender relations in marriage, but they were ultimately attentive to Jesus’ call to each of us to be servants to one another (see Matthew 23:11, Luke 22:26).
Ephesians 5:25-33 goes on to reveal something greater concerning marriage, however. It tells us that when husbands truly love their wives and cherish them as their own flesh, marriage becomes a way to describe Christ’s own love for us.
The image of the Church and Christ as bride and groom is rooted in God’s love for the Hebrew people (Jeremiah 2:2) and in Jesus’ own description of himself as the bridegroom (Mark 2:19).
As a metaphor it ought to inspire rejoicing in the hearts of God’s people. This is only possible, however, if our marriages are lived in such mutual respect for each other that they present some glimmer of the joy we are ultimately called to in the kingdom of God.
This is the seventh in a series of 13 columns on St. Paul and his teachings, written by the directors of the Little Rock Scripture Study (Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.) for the Jubilee Year of St. Paul. This article was originally published in the Arkansas Catholic, Dec. 20, 2008. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved.