This message was taught on the occasion of the marriage between my tastefully named eldest son, Charles, and his lovely wife, Denise.
Our marriage text for today is Ephesians 5:32 (see also Col. 3:18-25, I Pet. 3:1-7). which reads, “This is a great mystery.” “And I take it to mean Christ and the Church.” These words are embedded in a passage (verses 21-33) which forms the basis of the vows you will witness later, but in full context reads uncomfortably for us today because it reflects the very much out-of-date views of household economy taught by the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, of the 4th century B.C. (I think it is only fair to point out to Denise that her wedding is almost certainly the only one this summer to refer to Aristotle).
According to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (8:10 and Politics 1.12) household management has three parts: First, (slavery not yet abolished) the management of the slave by the master, which takes the political form of tyranny; second, the father’s rule over children, which takes the political form of monarchy (Father asking) and third, the husband’s relation to wife, which takes the political form of aristocracy. The final basis for Aristotle’s embarrassing conclusion is his conviction that, “The male is by nature fitter for command than the female.” However, he admits there are notable exceptions to this so-called order of nature. I imagine Aristotle would be astonished to find gathered in this one room so many commanding females.
In any case, these three classical definitions of household management were accepted for centuries and are not yet entirely exhausted of influence. However, the result to be observed in this passage is not the obvious Aristotelian basis of the background, but the real introduction of powerful, new themes that will shape the future. First: mutuality — “Be subject to one another.” Second: the mandate of male commitment, employing the famous verb agape. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Third, these mandates are to be followed not because of the supposed rational superiority of the male, but “out of reverence for Christ.” In short, the classical concept of the “reasonable man” (still applied in our law courts) is being replaced by the Christian concept of “loving person.”
In a sense reason is something we control; love is something that controls us. “This is a great mystery” to which the dichotomy of “universal” and “special” may be applied.
It is a universal grace that the Creator made the human creature in two kinds – “male and female created he them.” We do well to remember how wonderfully complementary and how wonderfully contrary created he them. This universal grace is universally expressed in Proverbs 30.18:
Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
The way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock.
the way of a ship on the high seas.
and the way of a man with a maiden.
I should remind Charlie the proverb just preceding that one says, “The eye that mocks a father … will be pricked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.”
The second dichotomy is a special grace associated not with the creator but the Redeemer. In the natural world there can be loveless marriages but not in the Christian community. We are commanded to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” “For this reason a man shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.”
The universal Western intellectual tradition from Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Dante testifies that love makes the world go around. The special tributary to which we belong insists that faith is the mother of love, but we can all agree, “This is a great mystery,” “And we understand it to refer to its basis in Christ and the Church.”