Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies…A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is his body — and we are its living parts.
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I know Ephesians 5 often makes us squirm. This business about husbands and wives draws too near to Timothy’s prohibitions on women speaking and teaching that vex us, or some of us. (As a teacher of theology in a co-educational setting, I find the text puzzling, but not inhibiting.)
But that isn’t what interests me about the passage. What interests me about the passage is how it shows up later, in the writings of St Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius wrote of the relationship between the bishop and his people in language reminiscent of this intimate connection of Christ and the church, or of husband and wife. The bishop ought to love the people as Christ loved the church, and the people ought to respect the bishop. There is a mutuality of love and care that seems far from the experience of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. St Ignatius even goes so far as to say that he had ‘seen’ the people, because the bishop and some of the church elders had visited him. The bishop–the clergy–and the people likewise are one flesh.
The unity of the church is no less mysterious or elusive as the unity of spouses in marriage. How are we ‘one flesh’? I wonder this especially when we seem not to be of one mind, or when I trip over my spouse’s shoes. How does this fumbling co-habitation, joint rearing of children, and attempt to dream a future together reflect the kind of unity Ephesians describes? And even more, how does this language used in the letter to the Ephesians and St Ignatius’ letter to Smyrna describe the fractured community whose fumbling attempts at discipleship, evangelism and care for the poor fall short and sometimes fail completely? We are not spotless, not individually and not together.
We might say that the spotless bride of Christ, without ‘speck or wrinkle’ refers to the church in the eschaton. Of course that isn’t how we are in a world in bondage to sin. I wonder, though, whether we take our corporate holiness as seriously as our own discipleship. I know that I do not (most emphatically) take every thought captive to Christ. I know that I often fail even to try to do that. But I know that I should, and I endeavour, however fitfully, to do so. About the church, I am less vigilant. I think of the church–the big, institutionalized church–as the responsibility of someone else: priests, bishops, cardinals. But that’s not how Ephesians sees it, nor how St Ignatius imagined it. Taking my part means living my holiness not just for myself, but for the church, as a part of that holy body.
Well, now there’s a shock: it’s not about me, after all.