Summer 1988, Vol.40 No. 2, pp. 135-144.

Michael G. Lawler:
      Christian Marriage and Christian Ministry

As a prophetic symbol of Christ's union with the Church, Christian Marriage involves a mutual ministry of giving way and giving up in loving loyalty, service, and obedience

Dr. Michael Lawler is professor of theology and Dean of the Graduate School at Creighton University, Omaha, where he lives with his wife, Susan, and their three children. He is the author of many books and articles, including Raid on the Inarticulate, Secular Marriage - Christian Sacrament, Sacrament of Service, and From Tee to Green: Book of Uncommon Prayers for Golfers.

SEVERAL years ago I found myself in a debate with my friend and mentor, Fr. Chris Kiesling, O.P., over the Vatican II statement that the family is the domestic church. As always, Chris' unrelenting acuity forced me to reflect in depth on the two realities conjoined in the statement, family and church, and to reflect specifically not so much on what each is, but rather on what each does. That led me to the insight that, since what church does is ministry, then what family does is also ministry and what Christian spouses do in their mutual life called Christian marriage is Christian ministry. It is to expand and to clarify that insight, for myself and for you, that I offer this short essay. To that end, I shall outline briefly a theology of Christian marriage, derive from that a conjugal spirituality, and then show how that same spirituality is required also in Christian ministry. Given its origin, it seems appropriate to me to dedicate this essay to the memory of Chris Kiesling.


There is in the Bible an action which is called a prophetic symbol. Jeremiah, for instance, buys an earthen pot, dashes it to the ground and proclaims in prophetic words what it is he is doing. "Thus says the Lord of hosts: so will I break this people and this city as one breaks a potter's vessel, so that it can never be mended" (19:11). Ezekiel takes a brick, draws a city on it, draws siege works around the city and then lays siege to the city. This city, he proclaims, is "even Jerusalem" (4:1), and his action is "a sign for the house of Israel" (4:3). On another occasion he takes a sharp sword, shaves his hair with it, burns some of it, scatters more to the wind and carries the rest around Jerusalem. He interprets his actions with the words: "This is Jerusalem" (5:5).

Each prophet explains the meaning of his action. As Jeremiah dashes his pot to the ground, as Ezekiel cuts and burns and scatters his hair, so God will dash and shatter and burn and scatter Jerusalem. The prophets act out prophetic symbols, actions which proclaim and realize and celebrate in representation the presence and the action of God. What is done by Jeremiah and Ezekiel is not just the shattering of a cheap pot or the scattering of shorn hair. It is also in prophetic representation God's shattering and scattering of Jerusalem. In both Old and New Testaments marriage is presented as such a prophetic symbol.

Central to the Israelite notion of their special relationship to their God, Yahweh, was the idea of the covenant. Yahweh is the God of Israel; Israel is the people of Yahweh; together they form a community of salvation. It was probably only a matter of time until Israelites began representing their covenant with Yahweh in the prophetic symbol of marriage, and it was the prophet Hosea who first did so. He preached about the covenant relationship of Yahweh and Israel within the context of his own marriage to his harlot wife, Gomer.

It is quite irrelevant whether the Book of Hosea is a historical account or what Hosea actually did, namely, that he took a harlot-wife, or whether it is a parable about marriage as steadfast covenant. It is only relevant that Hosea found in human marriage a prophetic symbol in which to represent the steadfastness of Yahweh's covenantal love for his people. On the human level, the marriage of Hosea and Gomer is like many another marriage. But on a more profound level, it becomes prophetic symbol, proclaiming, making real, and celebrating in representation the steadfast covenant union between Yahweh and Israel. That view of marriage as prophetic symbol becomes the New Testament view of Christian marriage.


The New Testament passage which most clearly presents marriage as a prophetic symbol is in the Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33). The writer takes over a traditional list of household duties, but criticizes it in 5:21. His critique challenges the absolute authority of any one Christian group over another, of husbands, for instance, over wives, of parents over children, of masters over slaves. He replaces the idea of absolute authority with the notion of giving way, which he presents not only to wives, children and slaves, but also to husbands, fathers and masters. Mutual giving way, he says, is to be an attitude of all Christians, because their basic attitude is that they "fear Christ." It is probably because this phrase will sound strange in English that the Revised Standard Version's translation softens the rough edges of the Greek phobos and renders it as reverence. But phobos does not mean reverence. It means fear, as in the Old Testament aphorism, "The fear (or awe) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 1:5; 9:10; 15:33).

Since all Christians are admonished to give way to one another, it is no surprise that a Christian wife is instructed to give way to her husband (5:22). What is a surprise, at least to the ingrained male attitude that sees the husband as Lord and Master of his wife, is that a husband is to give way to his wife. That follows from the general instruction that Christians are to give way to one another. It follows also from the specific instruction given to husbands. That instruction is not that "the husband is the head of the wife," which is the preferred male reading, but that "the husband is the head of the wife in the same way that the Messiah is the head of the Church" (5:23). How is Christ head of the church then arises as an obvious question, to which there is an immediate answer. He "gave himself up for her" (5:25). In image of such headship, so must a Christian husband give himself up for his wife.

The way Christ exercises headship is also set forth unequivocally in Mark. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (10:45). Diakonia, service, is Christ's way of exercising authority, exemplified in his giving himself up for the church. A Christian husband, therefore, is instructed to be head over his wife by giving way to her, by serving her, by giving himself up for her. Authority modeled on the authority of Christ does not mean total control, giving orders, reducing another human and Christian person to the status of a servant or slave to one's every whim. It means service. It means becoming, as Markus Barth puts it so beautifully, "the first servant of his wife." It is such a servanthead, and only such a one, that a wife is to fear, that is, "stand in awe of," as all Christians stand in awe of Christ.

A husband is instructed also to love his wife, for "he who loves his wife loves himself" (5:28b). This instruction is but a paraphrase of the great commandment of Leviticus 19:18, cited by Jesus in Mark 12:31: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." In that most beautiful and most sexual of Jewish love songs, the Song of Solomon, it is common for a wife to be addressed as neighbor (1:9,15; 2:2,10,13; 4:1,7; 5:2; 6:4). The same usage in other Jewish sources confirms that the author of Ephesians had Leviticus 19:18 in mind when instructing a husband to love his wife as himself. The Old Testament and Gospel injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself" applies also in marriage. As all Christians are to give way to one another, so also they are to love one another, including a husband and a wife in marriage. What the writer concludes about the Genesis one-body image, namely "This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church" (5:32), will conclude our analysis of this passage.

"This is a great mystery," namely, as most scholars now agree, the text of Genesis 2:24 just cited. The mystery is that "this (passage) has an eminent secret meaning," which is that it refers to Christ and the Church. Christ who loves the Church and the Church who responds in love constitute one body, just as Genesis said they would. The writer acknowledges that the normal meaning of the text is that a husband and a wife become one body in marriage, but he also goes beyond this meaning and insinuates another. Not only does the text refer to the union of a husband and a wife in marriage, but it refers also to that union of Christ and Church that he has insinuated throughout Ephesians. Thus, on one level, Genesis 2:24 refers to the covenant union between a man and a woman in marriage; on another level, it refers to the covenant union between Christ and his Church. It is but a small step to conclude that marriage is a prophetic symbol of that covenant. In its turn, the union between Christ and his Church provides an ideal model for human marriage and for the conduct of the spouses within it.


The qualities of Christian marriage appear from our biblical analysis. The root quality, the one that irradiates all the others, is the fulfillment of the great gospel injunction: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself' (Mark 12:31; Matt.19:19; cp. Lev.19:18). Love, of course, is a reality that has a variety of different meanings, even in our day. But we must be very careful to avoid anachronism here. In contemporary Western usage love always means a strong interpersonal affection for another person, frequently a passionate affection of a man for a woman and vice versa. It is easy for us to assume that, when we read the word in our Bible, it means the same thing. But it does not. Covenant love is not interpersonal affection. It is, rather, loyalty, service, and obedience. When we read, therefore, of Yahweh's steadfast love for Israel and of Hosea's steadfast love for Gomer, we ought to understand not interpersonal affection, but loyalty, service, and obedience. The Letter to the Ephesians specifies that it is that kind of love that is required in a Christian marriage.

It is, first, love as mutual giving way, love as mutual obedience. The love of the spouses in a Christian marriage is a love that "does not insist on its own way" (1 Cor.13:4), a love that does not seek to dominate and control the other spouse. Rather is it a love that seeks to give way to the other whenever possible, so that the two can become one. There are individuals whose goal in life seems to be to get their own way always. The New Testament message proclaims that there is no place for such individuals in a marriage, least of all in a Christian marriage. That is not to say that there is no room in a marriage for individual differences. It is only to say that spouses who value getting their own way always, who value domination of their spouse, who never dream of giving way, will never become one person with anyone, perhaps not even with themselves. In a Christian marriage love does not insist on its own way, but seeks an empathy with and compassion for the needs, feelings, and desires of the other spouse. It seeks also a mutual giving way to those needs, feelings, and desires when the occasion demands for the sake of, and in response to, love.

Love in a Christian marriage is, secondly, love as mutual service. All Christians are called to, and in baptism are anointed for, the imitation of the Christ who came "not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10:45). It cannot be otherwise in a Christian marriage. In such a marriage there is no master, no mistress, no lady, no lord, but only mutual servants seeking to be of service one to the other, so that each may become one in herself/ himself and one also with the other. This behavior is required not just because it is good counsel for marriage, but specifically because Christian spouses are called in their marriage both to be imitators of Christ their Lord and to provide a prophetic symbol of his mutual servant-covenant with his Church.

The love that constitutes Christian marriage is, finally, steadfast and faithful. The writer to the Ephesians instructs a husband to love his wife "as Christ loved the Church." We can be sure that he intended the same instruction for a wife. Christ loves the Church as Hosea loved Gomer, steadfastly and faithfully. This mutually faithful love makes Christian marriage exclusive and permanent, and therefore an indissoluble community of love. Christian marriage is indissoluble because Christian love is steadfast and faithful. Indissolubility is a quality of Christian marriage because it is, first, a quality of Christian love.

Marital love that is mutual giving way, mutual service, mutual fidelity, mutual mainspring of indissoluble community, is not a given in a Christian marriage. It is, rather, a task to be undertaken. And it is essentially an eschatological task, that is, one in which human beings are forced always to admit "already but not yet." Already mutual love, but not yet steadfast; already mutual service, but not yet free from the desire to control; already one body, but not yet one person; already indissoluble in hope and expectation, but not yet in full human reality; already prophetic representation of the covenant union between Christ and his Church, but not yet totally adequate representation. For authentic Christian spouses, Christian marriage is always a challenge to which they are called to respond as followers of the Christ who is for them the prophetic symbol of God.


The Second Vatican Council calls the family the domestic church. The family, first a wife and a husband, then a wife and a husband and any children they may have, is the smallest unit of the Church. If the Universal Church is essentially ministerial, and I believe it is, then the domestic church is also essentially ministerial. The family that results from marriage is a laboratory for ministry. The qualities, therefore, of Christian marriage are essential qualities also of Christian ministry.

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself," is as true in Christian ministry as it is in Christian marriage. I have already underscored the necessity of love in marriage and family; the very same love is required in Christian ministry. Professional training and professional behavior are valuable in ministry, but professionalism is one of those many things that gains nothing if I have not love (1 Cor.13:3). The warmth of personal caring and self-giving, not simply cold professionalism, is what yields success in ministry. That is not to say that professionalism is not required in ministry; it is only to say that professionalism alone is not enough. The same is true in marriage and family. Those very qualities, personal caring and self-giving, are what also produce success in family life. Learned and practiced in the close confines of the domestic church, they can be transferred to the arena of the larger church.

The love I am talking about here is the kind of love I described earlier as covenantal love, love that is loyalty, service, and obedience. The Letter to the Ephesians specifies that the love that is required in a Christian marriage is, first, love that gives way, love that is mutually obedient. The same kind of mutual love is required also in Christian ministry. This love "does not insist on its own way" (1 Cor.13:4), does not seek to dominate or control. The desire to dominate is a constant temptation in human relationships. Such desire, or at least the yielding to such desire, has no place either in Christian marriage or in Christian ministry. A love that seeks its own way, a love that is condescending to one who is judged to be in need, is productive in neither. What is needed is a love that is empathy with and compassion for the needs, feelings, and desires of another person, and that gives way when the occasion demands it for the building up of the Body of Christ. The minister or the spouse who cannot achieve this mutuality will be neither a successful Christian spouse nor a successful Christian minister.

I think a story in Matthew's gospel illustrates well what I intend here (19:16-22). A young man asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus replies in the end that he should sell what he possesses and give to the poor, and the young man goes away sad, "for he had great possessions." What speaks of Christian ministry here is the reaction of Jesus. He does not call the young man back; he does not offer a deal to win him over. He lets him go. Knowing who he is and that what he offers is salvation for every man and woman, he still lets the young man walk away. He invites the man into his life and into his love, but he also leaves him free to accept or reject the invitation. It is an outstanding example of love that gives way out of compassion. It is that kind of love that is always required in a Christian minister.

Love in a Christian marriage is also love that is service. That same kind of love is required in Christian ministry. Every Christian is called to, and in baptism is anointed for, the imitation of the Christ who proclaimed that he came "not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10:45), and who instructed his disciples that the way to become first in the kingdom of God is to be the servant of all (Mark 9:35). There can be no doubt how Jesus sees his ministry; it is diakonia or service. It cannot be otherwise in the Church which claims to be his Body. There is ministry in the Church, but it is ministry that is servant ministry. There are ministers in the Church, but they are servant ministers. If there is power in the Church, it is the power to serve, not the power to dominate and control.

For the Church to minister effectively in the world, each and every one of its members needs to live up to her and his call to service in imitation of Christ. Each and every one is called to minister as the Church is called to minister; each is called, therefore, to diakonia. Everyone who responds to that call is, by that fact, a deacon of and in the Church. That is not to say, of course, that every Christian is an ordained deacon. It is to say something much more important and much more radical than that. It is to say that every member of the Church who answers the Church's call to loving service is by that very fact a minister of the Church, a servant in the Church, a deacon. It matters not whether that service is carried out, as indeed it must be, within marriage or without it. In either case love-as-service is Christian ministry.

The love that constitutes Christian marriage is, finally, steadfast and faithful. The Letter to the Ephesians instructs a husband to love his wife "as Christ loved the Church" (5:25), and we can be sure the same instruction was intended also for a wife. Christ loved the Church steadfastly and faithfully, even to the point of giving himself up for her. So must a Christian husband and wife love one another and so must Christian ministers love those to whom and with whom they minister. Christian ministry requires steadfast love, love that remains faithful in spite of everything to which it is subjected. Hosea's parable of his marriage to the harlot Gomer is not only about Christian marriage, but also about Christian ministry. Both are subject to the same pressures, deceptions, disappointments, rejections, jealousies, competitions. Both are always open to burn-out, be it sooner or later. Both are under the covenantal criterion of the love of God, "the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love" (Deut. 7:9). Just as the love of God for his people and of Christ for his Church is steadfast, so too must be the love of Christian spouses for one another and of Christian ministers for those to whom they minister. Not only Christian marriage but also Christian ministry falls under Malachi's proclamation: "Take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless" (2:16).