I was shocked to see the ugly scratches on the door to my church as I arrived early Sunday morning. It was an older church, in kind of a rough neighborhood, and the fact of the vandalism didn't startle me so much. It was the glaring word "Sexist" carved in our door that stunned me. That's not what the boys in our neighborhood would have written — far from it.
Who would do such a thing? My thoughts turned to the events of the day before. I'd thought everything had gone so well and all of our guests had seemed happy. But some of them evidently weren't pleased with the marriage ceremony they'd witnessed. We must have seemed out-of-date, politically incorrect, even oppressive.
It made me stop and think. As far as I knew everyone present had been a Christian. No one had objected or had anything unpleasant to say, but obviously we had gone beyond someone's boundaries of how they thought marriage should be — so much so that they took a knife to scratch their harsh words on our door. It felt like an act of violence against us as a church. I felt a certain sense of violation, of hurt, that made me want to sand out the ugly words before anyone else showed up.
I had a lot to think about as I got ready for my Sunday School class. Were we "sexist"? I certainly didn't think so. We were merely traditional in our approach to marriage. We thought we were resisting the wrong way society was going, and this little bit of vandalism seemed to confirm that. I don't think I would have thought any further about the incident if I hadn't begun to visit a group of believers living together in community. Their ideas of marriage were far more "conservative" than ours.
I was drawn to them, a matter that I could admit more to myself than to anyone else. It wasn't an easy thing to say to your Bible study or Board of Deacons that you wanted more in your life — much more — than what they had to offer. How do you nicely say that your church seems a far cry from what we read about in the New Testament every week? Whether I would ever join the community of believers I'd visited was something else altogether, but these scratches had the odd effect of thrusting what I really thought of marriage and the church to the fore. When someone shouts in your face, "NO, YOU'RE WRONG!" it makes you think about what you do believe in.
It must have been the word "obey" that the bride had said to the groom that had set our guests off. All the rest of their vows were mirror images of each other. Were wives no longer to obey their husbands? What about the church and her Savior? Was she no longer to obey Him? More than twenty years later I still remember the thought that came to me. The way a wife submits to her husband is a picture, a reflection, of how the church of which she is a part of submits to Messiah. [Box about Ruth Graham's lipstick in England]
The next thought I had still rings true as well. The way the men submit to one another is equally a picture of how their church submits to Messiah. They are to submit to one another out of reverence for Him just the same as their wives are to submit to them. This submission among the men would bring the wives security, it seemed to me, and to be the order under which everyone should live.1 Without this submission throughout the church, there was not much defense these days against the charge of male chauvinism — of men using religion to lord it over women.
Considering my own church, and the lack of relationships the men had with one another, let alone submission, I had to ruefully conclude that the headway of the woman's liberation movement in Christianity was no surprise. Then there was the larger picture of the church's submission to Messiah. Whatever did that mean? Did it mean that the church would obey Him? That's what our "traditional" marriages would tell us about husbands and wives, isn't it? If so, things weren't looking good to me. I mean, it didn't much look as though I were a part of the Bride of Messiah.
My thoughts weren't confined to the little, inner-city congregation I was part of, but I considered the larger American church, and in fact, all of Christianity. I'd been doing a lot of reading about the faithfulness of the early church, the meaning of discipleship, and the relationship of the Kingdom of God to the kingdoms of this world. On every point the church came up short — far short — of the glory and purity and zeal she'd once had long ago.
As my disillusionment grew, I was beginning to wonder whether, really, the New Testament was just a collection of myths someone had made up. Not that I wanted to label the Word of God as myth — I'd been a Christian all my life — but what else do you call stories that people often speak of, and even admire, but have neither the power nor seemingly the desire to imitate? So, naturally enough, the ultimate destiny of the church seemed like a fantasy to me. I suspect it does to you as well. But it's there in the Scriptures plainly enough — the bride, the Lamb's wife:
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues came to me and talked with me, saying, "Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb's wife." (Revelation 21:9)
This is the church Paul spoke of in Ephesians 5:22-33. It's the church loved by Christ, who gave Himself for her, in order to bring her to this place. Then she is finally and completely sanctified, cleansed — washed clean by the Word — without spot or wrinkle, a glorious bride. When was this prophecy ever to be fulfilled? Cleansed, unblemished, holy — how was this to come about? How was she to ever get free of the things of the world when she so plainly loved and embraced them and even fought and died (and killed) for them?
Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:24)
Soberly considering this verse shook me to the core of my being. If the church is not subject to Christ — if she does not obey Him — could she in any way be considered His bride? Did He give Himself for an unfaithful bride who loves the world and its pleasures? It didn't seem to me that Paul's epistles were written to a church with a once-a-week devotion to Christ. In fact, he was able to picture the relationship of the church to Messiah as a bride to her husband. How could Paul do so today when the "Bride" visits her "Savior" for an hour or two once a week and then does what she wants the rest of the time, paying mere lip service to His words? Is that what a wife is? This is the Bride of Messiah? No way!