A recent Sunday School discussion has stuck in my head. It was the last lesson on the New Testament and we read Revelation 19:7-9, which describes the symbolic marriage feast at the coming of the Savior:
Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.
And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.
And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God.
The teacher asked, as the lesson manual does, “What does the symbol of the marriage supper, with Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as the bride, suggest about the relationship between the Lord and his Church?”
Though it is listed as part of a series of rather innocuous questions, I think this question has profound implications for how we think about and operate as a Church.
First, this is one of the few times in scripture when men – especially men in leadership – are called upon to imagine themselves represented in a symbol that is gendered female. Thanks to the preponderance of male subjects in our scriptures, male priesthood holders in our leadership, and even the gender of the Savior, women have to do this all the time. But it’s a rare practice for men.
If a male-hierarchical church is Christ’s bride, what does that suggest about our usual rhetoric about gender roles. Must the Church take on the qualities we associate with righteous women? If so, would more leadership opportunities for women help us develop those qualities? Or, should we re-evaluate our assumptions and change our rhetoric about the distinctions between female and male? In other words, should we respond to the symbol of the bride by essentializing gender or contextualizing it?
Second, the Church-as-bride symbol raises questions about which model of marriage is intended. Much New Testament language suggests a hierarchical relationship, one in which the bridegroom/husband is dominant and the bride/wife is submissive. We’ve grown adept at reading a greater equality into these verses, though that usually only goes so far. The Family Proclamation reflects this ambiguous ideal, in which men both “preside” and are to be “equal partners” with their spouses.
So, is the Church a submissive bride in its partnership with the presiding Christ? Or is it an equal partner with Christ in bringing “to pass the immortality and eternal life” of all people, the goal set forth by Our Mutual Parents? The verse declares that the Church must take active steps to prepare for this (re)union. It must “make [itself] ready” by clothing itself in the “fine linen” of the “righteousness of the saints.”
Other passages of scripture suggest that our symbolic clothing for this marriage feast must be white, cleansed through the Atonement of Christ (cf. Jacob 1-2; Alma 5). Is all we do in the Church designed to bring that to pass, for all members and ultimately for all of God’s children? Or do pride, sloth, insularity, and score-keeping distract us from our work? While no one knows the day or hour of the coming feast, is it possible that we have delayed the event by our failure to “make [the Church] ready”?
While the Doctrine & Covenants has a fair amount to say about Church procedures, scriptural injunctions about the spiritual condition or goals of the Church – what the Church must be rather than what it does – are few and far between. To me, that makes the questions raised by Revelation that much more urgent. What would happen if we took these verses as our standards in the years ahead?
I really enjoyed this post. You bring up some great questions. This is related but slightly tangential. I was looking at the new institute curriculum released by the church and was pretty disappointed about the lessons on gender roles. The lesson on male gender roles reinforces men presiding (of course righteously). But the scripture used to back it up is the one in the New Testament comparing wives to the church and men to Christ. I guess men have to preside because they are the heads of their wives like Christ is the head of the church? Of course the manual leaves out the part about wives submitting to their husbands, which is hopeful but also maddening. It’s maddening to me that we use a scripture that compares women to mortals and men to God to pattern our marriage relationship after to justify our doctrine of men presiding. We think we can accept only one half of this metaphor as righteous while ignoring the submit part? If my husband is like Christ and is my head, doesn’t that automatically make me obligated to submit to him then? You cannot have it both ways. You cannot be peers, equals, and have your husband be your head. I think it’s fascinating that we can completely dismiss Paul’s admonition for women to be silent at church as a false tradition and cultural artifact. Yet when he makes men equivalent to deity and women equivalent to mortals, we say “yep that’s sound doctrine right there.” You know because it’s not like women have a divine nature or the potential to be a god. What was it Jesus said? Only men are joint heirs with Him and will receive all that the Father has? Ok done with sarcasm now. Thanks for the post.
This was written at a time when the church wanted its members to submit to them. It’s political
Thanks for your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and like your questions too. Until we’ve settled this – and, I hope, accepted a broad gender and marriage equality – we’re going to struggle writing manuals to teach about gender. I have thoughts on why men are struggling so much to concede the need for full equality – why they cling to some ultimate hierarchy – but I’m still working on articulating it for a new post.
And … then there’s the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood, which I think also means more than we usually teach it to mean. Ah, so much gender untangling to be done.
I look forward to that post. It seems like many LDS men (especially in younger generations) don’t really know what they should be doing to “preside” in their families, other than calling on people to pray and making sure family home evening happens. I think many already practice gender equality in their marriages, but people just go along with the preside notion because the church continues to teach it. The Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood is an interesting topic. One thing I find strange about our teaching of presiding in the home is that every man presides over his family regardless of his priesthood status. And women preside in the absence of their husbands, and we know women don’t have a priesthood office or keys. So it really seems to come down to gender. We really only have, in my opinion, uninspired anti-women/Eve scriptures to back up the notion of men being over their wives in a family structure. I would love to get some more revelation on Heavenly Mother. That could solve so many problems and answer so many questions.