Add Christ, Church to provide recipe for a happy marriage


Bishop Fred Henry

February 17, 2014

As a bishop, I subscribe to and read several different publications in a futile attempt to keep up. I never seem to get ahead of the game.

Half-jokingly, I tell people that I have a large filing cabinet at home on which are two piles of periodicals and unread books. One pile is comprised of those that I want to read; the other, a much larger pile, that other people think that I ought to read. I usually opt for a selection from the smaller pile.

About two weeks ago, I finally got around to scanning the Jan. 13 issue of Maclean's Magazine, where the health column was entitled – "The new science of marriage." The subheading beneath the interlinked marriage rings was a real teaser: "Exercise? Diet? Actually new research shows getting married – and staying married – may be the best thing you can do for a longer, healthier life."

The main thesis of the three-page article is revealed in the following text:

"In a vast array of scientific studies, over and over again, a happy union has been shown to benefit virtually every system of the body. It reduces risk of heart attack and stroke. It triples a patient's survival after bypass surgery. It lowers production of stress hormones and boosts immune response. Married people are also less likely to drink and smoke. . . .

"Quite simply, if we could package it in a pill, marriage would qualify as a wonder drug. Finding a way to mimic the benefits of marriage could well be the most critical health challenge of our time. . . . We are designed, not just emotionally and socially, but physiologically, to live in close connection with people who will come when we call."

In order to complete the circle, we should insert "spiritually" into that close connection as the baptized have received a sacrament and are "married in the Lord." We can unpack something of this notion of being "married in the Lord" by reflecting on Ephesians 5.21-6.9.


Early Christianity seems to have taken over household codes from Hellenistic Judaism, which in turn adapted them from the Stoics. The codes set forth the duties of wives, husbands, parents, children, masters and slaves.

In the New Testament, these codes are tweaked or taken over and transformed by the reality that Christ's power and presence is to bear on all human institutions.

Devoted service and excellence within these should then be regarded as a personal service to Christ.

The heading for the household code in Ephesians is: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (v.21), which announces a principle that is successively applied to the relations between husband and wife, children and parents, slaves and masters. Christ's self-sacrificing love for others is now the model for home life. The motivation is "as to the Lord" (v.22).


Verse 22 is often anger-inducing, dreaded, ignored or deleted: "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the Church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands."

Many people have a hard time getting beyond: "Wives be subject to your husbands in everything." But that line doesn't stand alone and should not be taken out of context.

Whenever I read or hear this text, I immediately recall my mom sitting between my dad and one of my brothers in church and mom getting an elbow in the ribs from both sides accompanied by a double smirk equivalent to "Did you hear that?"

Fortunately, the process of Christianizing goes much further than this simplistic rendering of the text. Ephesians provides a unique elaboration of marriage as a parable of the relation between Christ and his Church.

In this theological expansion of the code, St. Paul brought together a remarkable variety of traditions. He takes the statement about the unity of husband and wife in marriage from Genesis 2.24. "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh."


He also portrays the Church in the language of Levitical purity. The command to love one's neighbour (Leviticus 19) provides the basis for presentation of the bride in verse 27: "So as to present the Church to himself in splendour without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind – yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish."

An early Christian formula for proclaiming the Gospel is reproduced in verse 25, "Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her," and a baptismal-liturgical formula in verse 26, "in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word."

In verses 23 and 29 the Pauline figure of the Church as the body of Christ reappears, and "the one flesh" is elevated: "for no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the Church."

With these materials, the author has skillfully interwoven two parallel themes – the duties of husband and wife, and the ecclesiological theme of the relation between Christ and the Church.


As a result, the marriage relationship is transformed from one in which the wife is simply subjected to the husband without qualification into one in which the husband is to devote himself unreservedly to the love of his wife.

Thus, the household code is turned upside down.

On the literal level, this text speaks of the union of husband and wife. It has another, higher level of meaning, portraying the unity between Christ and the Church.

The author's doctrine of the Church is not built up from below, from a natural understanding of marriage; rather, his understanding of marriage is built from above; from a theological understanding of the mystical union between Christ and his Church.