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Published Date: June 5, 2011

Published Date: June 5, 2011

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One Flesh, One Purpose, One Rank

It is the season of weddings! Many of us will have the pleasure of celebrating with family and friends as they join their lives as husband and wife. Though we have all enjoyed countless weddings over the years, there always seems to be that one moment in a wedding ceremony where we are hit by the immensity of the occasion—when two become one flesh. As bride and groom commit before God and their community to love and serve one another, despite what life may bring, their boundless joy splashes over us, their family and friends. We feel a knot in our throats and tears on our cheeks, and we reach for the hands next to us. Something within us remembers we have encountered the ecstasy of oneness before—in the early chapters of Genesis.

Standing amid the countless wonders of Eden, Adam’s aloneness is the only “not good” in a perfect world. The parade of lively creatures marks his loneliness, his void. Among the many animals, Adam cannot find a suitable partner. What is missing? Adam needs a creature like himself, made of his substance—a woman. Notice he recognizes her immediately: “At last! This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). Adam declares their shared origins with these words, “I will call you woman because you came from my body.” He celebrates their oneness. They are of the same stuff! Scripture emphasizes not the differences between Adam and Eve but their unity of substance—their oneness of being. They share in a metaphysical substance because they are both created in God’s image. They also share a physical being, because Eve comes from Adam’s body. Because of their shared origins, they also have a common destiny—a divine mandate to share authority in caring for the earth, and being fruitful in it (Gen. 1:27-31). Theologians suggest that their shared ontology (their being) reveals a shared teleology (their purpose). Rank, authority, and hierarchy are unnecessary and inconsistent for those who share the same substance and purpose. 

The apostle Paul makes the same point when describing ministry within the body of Christ. Those who share in a spiritual rebirth are also inaugurated as equal members of Christ’s body—the church. Rank, authority, and hierarchy are unnecessary among those born of the same substance—the Spirit. Paul was certain that God was building a New Covenant people, with Jesus as head, and you and me as joint members of Christ’s body. That is why Paul does not hesitate to celebrate the woman Junia as an apostle. Nor is he reluctant to require respect for Phoebe as a deacon and prostates, or “leader,” in the church of Cenchrea. Nor does Paul or the other apostles shy from citing the accomplishments of teachers like Priscilla, or house church leaders like Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, and Apphia. Slaves, Gentiles, and women serve equally with free people, Jews, and men in the purposes for which God has called and gifted them, because they too are born of the same Spirit.

Likewise, in his teaching on marriage, Paul reminds husbands to love their wives as they love their own bodies. They share the same substance! Ten times Paul reminds husbands to love their wives, encouraging the tender empathy required in a one-flesh relationship. Again, authority, rank, and hierarchy are unnecessary to those who share the same body, the same substance. To emphasize the one-flesh union between husband and wife, Paul quotes Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” Just as all Christians submit to one another (Eph. 5:21) because they are born of the same Spirit and are joined together in the same body—the church, so too are husbands and wives “one flesh.” Therefore, husbands and wives submit to one another (Eph. 5:21) as one flesh, as husbands nurture and love their wives as they do their own flesh, because her body is his, and his body is hers (a point Paul also stresses in 1 Cor. 7:3-7). 

The only authority Christians have over one another is to love and serve each other, just as the emphasis of Ephesians 5 is not on the authority of husbands, but on their obligation to love their wives as they love themselves. Oneness of substance leads naturally to mutuality, love, and a shared purpose, underscored in the early chapters of Genesis and in Paul’s teachings on redeemed relationships among Christians. While some wish to ascribe authority and rule to male headship in marriage, to do so misses Paul’s point, beginning with Ephesians 5:21. Headship, for Paul, is an opportunity to imitate Christ, who, though Lord of heaven and earth, came not to rule but to serve and lay down his life to serve and love others. 

What might husbands expect in Christ’s New Covenant community? They can anticipate a cross—a place to lay down their cultural authority and to concern themselves with sacrificing their lives for the needs of their wives; loving them as their own bodies, just as Christ loved the church. In Christ, husbands now exalt with Adam, “At last! This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! I love her as I love myself. We are one flesh. We share the same substance and a common purpose.” Authority, rank, and hierarchy are not only unnecessary among those who are born of the Spirit, they are also inconsistent with the very nature of a one-flesh union. This is part of the good news of the gospel!