We heard that passage in the Mass readings today. Few passages in the New Testament raise as many eyebrows as that line from St. Paul, which is found in both Colossians 3:18 and Ephesians 5:22. Few passages are so misunderstood. Few passages have been so abused by men seeking to rationalize mistreatment of women.
Blessed Pope John Paul II provides an awesome understanding of this passage in his Theology of the Body whereby women, far from being oppressed, actually have the best part.
First, we need to look at the passage in context. Here’s Ephesians 5:21-33:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 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, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
So wives ought to be subject to their husbands. Another translation sometimes used for the word “subject” is “submit” , which comes from “submission“. Submission is composed of two parts: sub, which means under, and mission. So when St Paul says that wives are to submit to their husbands, he is saying that they ought to place themselves under the mission of their husband.
So what is the husband’s mission? St. Paul tells us in the same passage: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” A husband’s love for his wife must imitate the love and mission of Christ towards the Church. Read the Gospels. Did Christ ever lord it over his followers like a bossy tyrant? No. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:28) We see it on every page of the Gospels. Jesus is constantly making himself available to heal, console, instruct, affirm and feed. He never turns down anybody because he’s too busy or too tired. He even gave his life after hours of cruel torture. That’s the mission of a husband towards his wife.
A modern day husband isn’t called to preach to large crowds, but he certainly needs to affirm his wife, instruct his children and help them with homework. He’s not called to multiply loaves and fishies, but must certainly prepare dinner, feed his family and do dishes. He’s not called to cure lepers, but must certainly care for his sick wife or children, spending the night at their bedside if necessary. He’s not called to cleanse the Temple, but he should sure clean some dishes and take out the trash. And yes, if it comes to that, he must be willing to sacrifice his life for his wife and children.
Back to the title of this post. When St. Paul tells wives to place themselves under the mission of their husbands, that means they are to let their husbands serve them in the above manner. As John Paul II wrote :“the husband is above all, he who loves and the wife, on the other hand, is she who is loved.” (Source)
That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
Note two additional principles at work here.
- First, in the loving relationship between Christ and the Church, the Church is called to reciprocate Christ’s love. It goes without saying that the same is true for wives towards their husbands, which is why the entire passage above starts with St. Paul saying “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Reciprocity.
- However, Christ is the initiator. Remember that it wasn’t humanity that initiated the plan of salvation, it was God. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) It’s Christ that makes the first move of drawing close to us. Similarly, part of the husband’s mission is to love first, to serve first. If a conflict arises, as it inevitably does in every marriage, it’s the husband’s job to initiate reconciliation, even if he’s not in the wrong. That what it means for the husband to be “the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church.” Leadership in the household isn’t about calling the shots, but about leading through an example of service.
Granted, this is not how many Christian marriages work. Men have often used Ephesians 5 to justify themselves lording it over women. This is not the mind of the Church. When properly understood, Ephesians 5 provides the basis for a very protective environment where women can flourish.