There are other biblical metaphors that have never attained the status or power that this one carries. It conveys the power it does, not only because it taps into the primal human energy of sexuality, but also because it serves certain interests that are closely related to the confusing ambiguity we experience between the desire for connection and the desire to control.--Carolyn Osiek
It does no good to affirm the full dignity and equality of women with men if our language, our imagery, and our metaphors continue to perpetuate inequality.--Carolyn Osiek
[N]early all the Hellenistic discussions of household management, beginning with Aristotle, address only one person, the male authority figure (paterfamilias) who must relate differently but always in a superior manner to wife, children, and slaves.... Since Aristotle, the basic types of ... analogies have been simile and metaphor.... Metaphor is a more implicit comparison made by direct statement that one thing is another. As Aristotle puts it, when A is to B as C is to D, it is a metaphor to say A is C, or vice versa (POETICS 21.11-12).
The spousal metaphor has been a primary one throughout the development of ecclesiology. I need not and cannot document this development. Like any metaphor, it is sometimes carried too far.... One theologian argues on the basis of a social meaning of the Hebrew word basar (flesh, body) that the reference is not only to one's personal body, but also ancestors, descendants, and particularly, one's spouse. Thus the husband is considered to have two bodies, his own and that of his wife. Likewise, the wife has two heads, her own and that of her husband. This is supposed to reveal the distinction and the union of Christ and his church.... Since Mary is portrayed as mother of Jesus in the Second Testament and in subsequent theology and devotion, she is also portrayed as mother of the church, or perhaps more accurately, she should have been seen as its mother-in-law. But Mary has also been frequently seen as symbol or representative, a sort of first citizen, of the church. This blurs the distinctions. Thus there has been considerable symbolic slippage between her role as mother and her representation of the church in a spousal relationship to Christ.
As you read this little blog post, would you do something? Would you be brave enough to notice your reading strategies and slippages? One of my mentors has thought about hers. And so I'd like us let her help us again with ours. I'm just interested in how our affirmations, on the one hand, may not always keep up with "our language, our imagery, and our metaphors." Just a couple of more items to go. This is profound stuff, the relationships between what we think, what we say, and what we do. If you're a man, a Christian man, a Bible-reading Christian man, then you'll probably have to think harder than everybody else. We're reading now (as with the four epigraphs above) from "The Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-33): a problematic wedding," in Biblical Theology Bulletin 32.1 (Spring 2002), researched and written by Dr. Osiek. What do you think?:
Male interests predominate in our reading strategies. The implied reader is usually male or represents male interests. This is clear in the case of the history of interpretation of our text from Ephesians. I do not know of any instances in which male readers have deduced from it that as members of the church, which is submissive to Christ, her bridegroom, they should be submissive to their marriage partners. Nor do men generally, on the basis of this metaphor, image themselves as feminine in relation to God, which is the logical conclusion of the marital metaphor. Some older spirituality in English spoke of the soul as "she," more under the influence of feminine words for soul in Latin and French than anything else, but also perhaps influenced by the marriage metaphor. Likewise, Caroline Bynum calls our attention in her essays on Jesus as Mother to the influence of the submission theme in medieval monasticism: becoming symbolically female meant both the humbling of the self and the assumption of a compassionate attitude toward others (Bynum: 110-69). Here the stereotype of the stern father and the compassionate mother strikes again, to the detriment of fatherhood as well as motherhood, and the stereotype of the dominant male taking on female characteristics by becoming humble belittles the dignity of women.
Both men and women do, however, make the connection that the ecclesial marriage metaphor means that women as members of the church should be submissive, however troublesome that realization may be, and whether they accept or reject it. Men certainly do identify not with the church in this metaphor, as members of it, but with Christ, because such identifications suit male interests. Herein lies the great danger posed by this ecclesiological metaphor: it encourages men to identify with Christ, women with the church. As everyone knows who teaches or ministers, for most people the line between Christ and God is very thin. As long as the marriage metaphor is in play, gender symbolism is fixed. Men will, even unconsciously, identify with Christ and women with the church, and feminine imagery for God or Christ then has no place. Then God is the ultimate male.