We’ve all heard it. That reading at Mass. The one that makes people squirm in their pews, roll their eyes, snicker softly and elbow their spouses. The reading about wives being submissive to their husbands.
It seems lay people aren’t the only ones squirming. Priests may feel pressure to neutralize this unpopular teaching or avoid altogether the confrontational words of St. Paul in Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything."
Occasionally, a courageous priest may attempt to address this particular passage head-on. Often, he will focus on the part of the verse in which husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. He may site the command in verse 21 to be subordinate to one another out of reverence to Christ. This approach seems to imply that both women and men are given equally challenging instruction from the Lord and we should leave it at that. But does this philosophy overlook a deeper truth and a valuable lesson for married couples today?
The “Secularized" Christian Viewpoint
From a secular point of view, St. Paul would be considered politically incorrect at best. Some might go as far as to label him a misogynist. He seemed to have a poor view of marriage, preferring instead the holy state of singleness. In any case, one might conclude, the passage was written in a time when women were considered second-class citizens — it simply has no application for today.
The ironic part is this is not just a secular viewpoint, but the sentiment of many Christians today. A case in point: when the Southern Baptist Convention in recent years released a statement supporting the biblical teaching of the roles of husbands and wives, not only did the media have a heyday, but many Christian publications protested as well.
The troubling statement read, “The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation."
Our current society, long conditioned by the feminist movement, cannot fathom such thinking. Surely we are far more enlightened and broad-minded than our biblical counterpart. Wasn’t it our recent generations who recognized that women have long been exploited and oppressed? Weren’t we the ones who liberated the female race with equal pay, equal rights, equal privileges and equal authority?
Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. But, since no man – or woman – is an island, we need to look at how this jockeying of the female role has impacted marriage, the family and society.
A Look At Marriage Today
The National Marriage Project is a non-partisan, nonsectarian, interdisciplinary initiative located at Rutgers University of New Jersey, funded by the university in cooperation with several private institutions. The objective of this project is to provide research and analysis on the state of marriage in America and to educate the public on the social, economic and cultural conditions affecting marital success and wellbeing.
Surprisingly, this project which studies marriage trends from 1960 to the present is the first of its kind and scope. No one else – including the federal government – has committed the time, energy or funding to track what is happening within marriage in America, despite the fact that marriage remains a fundamental social institution, central to the nurture and raising of children.
According to the information, Americans today still view marriage as an important life goal, and a lifelong, loving partnership as a cherished ideal. However, results of the National Marriage Project’s survey show that what we as a nation would like to have and what we actually do have are not one and the same. Key social indicators suggest:
There is a substantial weakening of the institution of marriage;
Americans today have become less likely to marry;
Marriages today are less happy today than in past decades;
Roughly half of all marriages are likely to end in divorce or permanent separation;
Marriage has declined as the first living together experience for couples and as a status of parenthood;
Unmarried cohabitation and unwed births have increased substantially;
The percentage of children who grow up in fragile families has increased significantly;
Marriage is losing much of its social importance, ritual significance and legal meaning and authority.
It’s not a very bright picture, the state of our unions. As enlightened, broad-minded and advanced a society as we are it is evident that we are not doing a very good job at keeping marriage and family life intact. We are falling short not only of our own ideals, but of God’s plan for us. Since these trends are not showing signs of turning around through our own doing, maybe it is time to revisit God’s teaching with a bit more humility.
To Love, Honor and Yes, Obey
St. Paul reminded the Corinthians that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man." (1 Corinthians 11:7-10)
St. Peter commanded wives, “be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior."
Ss. Peter and Paul were not creating radical new teaching in these passages. They were simply reiterating what was always understood as God’s plan for marriage and family. Page through the books of the Old Testament, and you will find plenty of examples of what happens when men and women upset the natural order and disobey God’s command. It leads to nothing short of disaster.
Consider Adam and Eve, probably the best known story of disobedience in scripture. God commanded Adam to guard the garden and his wife. Adam was to follow God, and Eve to follow Adam. Instead, Eve disobeyed her husband and followed her own wants. Adam did not stand up to his wife, but followed her instead, reversing the order of submission. God chastises Adam, assigning him a life of sweat and hardship “because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree." (Genesis 3:17) To Eve, he awards painful childbirth, “yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." (Genesis 3:16)
What about Abraham and Sarah? Sarah was promised a son by God. She got impatient, and had Abraham take Hagar, her maid. That union produced Ishmael, eventually leading to estrangement, heartache, and centuries of conflict between Arab and Jew.
Rebecca ignored God’s promise that her elder twin son would serve the younger. She instead conspired against her aging, blind husband, Isaac, by disguising Jacob, her favorite son. Jacob unworthily received his father’s blessing, cheating Esau out of his Hebrew birthright and changing the course of Jewish history.
King Solomon’s wives turned his heart away from God, convincing Solomon to build a temple for their idols and, as a result, divided the kingdom.
Samson’s wife betrayed him by revealing the secret source of his strength to his enemies. It cost him his life.
The list goes on and on.
But not all biblical women made these kinds of choices. St. Peter refers to holy women of the Old Testament when instructing his contemporaries on the state of marriage: “Rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight. It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands." (1 Peter 3:4-6).
Without question, the most notable example of a marriage that followed God’s ordered hierarchy was the Holy Family. Despite the fact that the child was God and the mother was without sin, it was Joseph, humble and fully human, to whom authority was given. Mary and Jesus loved, honored and obeyed Joseph, the head of their household. This is a great teaching to all of us.
Applying The Concept To Marriage Today
But how, you might ask? How can such a radical idea work in my marriage? If I, as a wife, submit to my husband, he’s going to walk all over me. I’ll be a doormat. What kind of example is that to set for my family? I want my daughters to grow up with a respect for themselves and a knowledge that they are of equal value and importance to men.
In the book, How To Change Your Husband from Saint James Publishing, the author explains that submission does not lead to degradation, but rather liberation. Here’s the key: when the wife’s obedience is founded in love and the husband’s decisions are in union with the will of God the Father, a sense of peace, contentment and harmony will be attained. By this loving and reverent example, children in turn will learn to respect father, mother, authority and themselves.
“The words, ‘wives be subject to your husbands’, if lived, will bring about divine order and will be the beginning answer for all of society’s ills. The fact that this order hardly exists today, or is weakened to such a degree that a husband’s guidance is watered down to almost nothing, is reflective of a society gone mad. God, as a Father, does not leave man, who is the first reflection of God the Father on earth, without the divine prompting necessary to lead and guide his family."
It is important to understand that the equality issue presented here refers to the question of authority only. There is no dispute that women are equal in dignity, grace and worth and certainly equally loved by God. In fact, God’s plan for women has always been to elevate them to a position of honor and esteem in the home and, for a long time, the role of wife and mother was highly regarded by all. However, the increasing power struggle between wives and husbands in this past century has bred broken relationships, rebellious children, lack of love and divorce. Women have lost their value, becoming subject to man and degraded by society – exactly the opposite of what “women’s lib" set out to achieve.
Pope Pius XI predicted this course of events in his encyclical, Casti Connubbi, in the year 1930:
“False liberty and unnatural equality [in authority] with the husband is to the detriment of the woman herself, for if the woman descends from her truly regal throne to which she has been raised within the walls of the home by means of the gospel, she will soon be reduced to the old state of slavery (if not in appearance, certainly in reality) and become as among the pagans the mere instrument of man."
Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical, Christian Marriage, emphasizes that subjection does not detract from the honor and dignity rightly due the woman:
“The man is the ruler of the family, and the head of the woman; but because she is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, let her be subject and obedient to the man, not as a servant but as a companion, so that nothing be lacking of honor or of dignity in the obedience which she pays… Let divine charity be the constant guide of their mutual relations, both in him who rules and her who obeys, since each bears the image, the one of Christ, the other of the Church."
Pope John Paul II continues this theme in Familiaris Consortio:
“Authentic conjugal love presupposes and requires that a man have a profound respect for the equal dignity of his wife: You are not her master…but her husband; she was not given you to be your slave, but your wife…Reciprocate her attentiveness to you and be grateful to her for her love."
Clearly, the gospel call for the husband to be an authority figure, balancing complete submission to the will of his creator and perfect reverence for his spouse, is not an easy one, and one that comes with much responsibility and accountability. After years of having their authority usurped by feminism, this is a role many men will have difficulty at best in fulfilling.
There is evidence, however, that the tides may be changing. Movements such as Promise Keepers and Covenant Keepers are taking root, enabling men to accept, reclaim and live out their sacred, God-given role of authority within the family. Books are being published on this subject. With these efforts, there is hope that society can be put back on course with marriages that are stronger and more fulfilling.
While this is still threatening to many women, others have the vision to see the fruit of such change. Author Elizabeth Rice Handford, in her book, Me? Obey Him? affirms the benefit of following God’s plan for marriage. “The woman who submits to her husband will share a oneness with him, a communion she never dreamed of, an emotional peace and security positively unattainable when she struggles with him for power in the home."
Still wrestling with this counter-cultural concept? Perhaps you can find solace in the words of Pope Pius XI: “For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love."
When we consider that Jesus himself taught that at the heart of the law is love, is this such a bad place to be?