Benjamin M. Palmer was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans from 1856 until his death in 1902. The following article is excerpted from Chapter IV. of Palmer's book The Family in its Civil and Churchly Aspects. This book was first printed in 1876. It was brought back into print for readers today together in one volume with J. W. Alexander's 1847 book Thoughts on Family-Worship in 1991 by Sprinkle Publications of Harrisonburg, Virginia.
In the preceding chapter were brought to view several distinctive features of the scheme of grace, as illustrated in the Family Constitution. The parallel is far from being concluded; and the topic now to be considered is so impressive that we single it out for presentation in a chapter by itself.
We refer to the law of marriage, as symbolizing the mystical union of Christ and the Church. The analogy between the two must be exceedingly close to justify the frequent allusion, in the Scriptures, to the one as the most expressive symbol of the other. The reader's memory will instantly reproduce the passages in which the comparison is elaborated. If not it will be refreshed by turning in the Old Testament to the forty-fifth Psalm, to the fifty-fourth chapter of the Prophecy of Isaiah, to the sixteenth of the Prophecy of Ezekiel, to the second of that of Hosea, and to the beautiful allegory in the Song of Solomon. It will be seen that we omit all reference to the incidental allusions which are scattered profusely through these ancient writings, and signalize only those expanded utterances which are pushed quite into the dimensions of the parable. In the New Testament the reader may consult Matthew ix. 15, with its parallels in the other evangelists; 2 Corinthians xi. 2; Revelation xix. 7,8, together with xxi. 9. But the locus classicus on this point is the extended passage in Ephesians v. 23-32 which we will quote entire, because of its emphasis: "For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the Head of the Church; and He is the Saviour of the body. Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife, loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord the Church; for we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery; but I speak concerning Christ and the Church."
Manifestly, the Apostle finds in marriage something beyond mere analogy. It is in his view a symbol, the significance of which becomes more clear in the light cast back upon it from the thing symbolized. He is enforcing the duties of the domestic state, and begins with those arising from the conjugal relation. His method is to illustrate these by the relations of Christ to His Church. He explains the former by the latter, as being more perfectly understood. It is the archetype, having its fulfillment in Christian experience, which is brought to bear upon the elucidation of the type. The relative duties of marriage are more fully comprehended when the essential oneness of the relation is compared with the oneness of the believer with Christ. The husband, for example, is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the Head of the Church. The wife is to be subject to her own husband, just as the Church is subject to Christ. The husband is to love the wife, just as Christ loved the Church. He is to nourish her as his own body, just as Christ nourishes the Church which is His body. The parallel is drawn out in all these details; and then the very terms are cited in which the law of marriage was first given, in order to show that the two are one flesh, precisely as believers are members "of Christ, of His flesh and of His bones." And finally, the whole application of the one to the other is pronounced to be "a mystery," in itself incomprehensible, yet clearly revealed of God. The whole form of exposition assumes that there was a mystical feature in marriage, designed to prefigure the mystical union of Christ and the Church; which, like every other type, would not be fully measured until its fulfillment in the antitype.
We press this fact, that St. Paul is not here explaining union with Christ by marriage, for which a simple analogy would suffice; but he is illustrating marriage by union with Christ, which seems to constitute the former a symbol of the latter. A "mystery" was put into the most fundamental of our natural relations, and was kept secret through all the ages, until the corresponding "mystery" was revealed in our spiritual relations, which cleared up its meaning -- the hieroglyph over the very portals of marriage, not to be deciphered until the key was furnished in the work of redemption. What sanctity is lent to the conjugal bond, when from the beginning the husband was designed as the type of Christ, and the wife a type of the Church, and human marriage a symbol of the sacred espousals between the Lord and His people! If there be a holy shrine upon the earth, it is the Family; which wraps within its hidden folds the "great mystery" of grace, the believer's living union with his living head.
The love commanded to Christian husbands in Paul's letter to the Ephesians involves the washing of water through the word. A husband may "love" his wife deeply and sincerely and express that love in many ways acknowledged and sometimes admired by our culture. However, without the love which is modelled on the spiritual union of Christ and the church, it cannot be said that a man loves his wife as a Christian husband.
This washing through the word can only refer to the husband's use of the word of God in his relationship to his wife. This "word" is not some baptismal formula, as some think, because Christ did not baptize, nor does a husband have any such relationship to his wife's baptism. That this word refers to Scripture also is evident in the fact that it is a means for the sanctification of the wife. Surely in so employing the word, the husband's sanctification also progresses.
At the Covenant Family Fellowship this need for the expression of Christian love by husbands for their wives is taken seriously. Although we are a small congregation, every male family head acts as a spiritual leader in his family. All of these husbands and their wives have attested to the benefits to family life and other spiritual fruit flowing from the gift of obedience to God's word given by the Lord to these men.
However, given the pressures of life today, family worship alone may not be sufficient as a means for carrying out a Christian husband's love for his wife. Even in small families, the wife may feel somewhat deprived of her husband's attention in family worship. We should note that in Ephesians Paul treats the husband-wife relationship first, before the parent-child relationship, and gives it more words. In the same way a Christian wife must be primary in her husband's mind. A separate time of Bible study with her would be an appropriate reflection of her priority.
For further reading on this issue, I recommend Richard Baxter on Christian Marriage (1673) and Thomas Becon on the Husband's Duty (1512-1567).
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