The incendiary remarks made on November 13 by a Seventh-day Adventist pastor preaching to his congregation in the borough of the Bronx, in New York City—and the subsequent social media furor—have brought us to the vital intersections of faith, marriage relationships, and the public square.
To be sure, “Seventh-day Adventists affirm the dignity and worth of each human being and decry all forms of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and family violence.”
Ephesians chapter 5—the very Bible passage used by the Bronx pastor to ground his assertions—is exhibit A for what should take place in the relationship between a husband and his wife. It’s crucial to grasp the apostle Paul’s reasoning behind his conclusions. Paul is painting a word picture of what should happen in the marriage relationships of those who profess to be followers of Christ. Paul declares in Ephesians 5 (NRSV): “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (vv. 1, 2). “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” (vv. 21, 22). “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (vv. 24, 25).
While many skip the overall message of Ephesians 5 by lifting verse 22 from the segment — “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” — they often miss the heart of the message found in verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” The essential message of Paul about the rules of engagement in the relationship of a husband and a wife — including the submission mentioned in the text — hinges on the husband loving his wife as Christ loved the church.
In case there is any misunderstanding about what Paul means when he indicates that love must be the overarching motivation of the interaction in every marriage relationship, he augments his point with a clear affirmation in 1 Corinthians 13:4, 5: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (ESV).
Since the biblical requirement is for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, some may ask, “What does that love look like?” A vibrant response about the way Christ loves comes from the Gospels in the well-known message of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
And, specifically, to the delicate matter of sexual relationships in marriage, and who owns whose body — as described by the unfortunate statements made in the Bronx — Paul offers his quintessential inspired thinking about mutuality in marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Paul’s message to husbands and wives reminds them that they are playing on the same team: what affects one must concern the other; what benefits one also profits the other. The central point is clear: husbands and wives ought not to make unilateral decisions when it comes to their marriage relationship. Rather, they should reason together, making choices that will be mutually beneficial to the marriage, allowing each partner to be a representative of Jesus Christ.
Finally, Christ’s approach to relationships with people — the church (His bride) — is characterized by courtesy and respect. He doesn’t barge into our hearts without our consent. As much as He wants a relationship with us, He waits outside and knocks at our heart’s door. He is essentially requesting our permission to come in. The Bible describes this kind of relationship in Revelation 3:20: “ ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me’ ” (ESV).
The evidence of Scripture makes clear that when husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church, there will be no violence, coercion, or force. This, to be sure, is what the Seventh-day Adventist Church believes about relationships between a husband and his wife, or a wife and her husband. Let’s not get this twisted. Our eternal destiny and that of others within our sphere of influence depend on it.
Willie Oliver, an ordained minister, pastoral counselor, family sociologist, and certified family life educator, is director for the Department of Family Ministries at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Elaine Oliver, a licensed clinical professional counselor, educational psychologist, and certified family life educator, is associate director for the Department of Family Ministries at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.