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I Submit the Obvious | Catholic Life

I Submit the Obvious

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives should 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.

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

So (also) husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.

“For this reason a man shall leave (his) father and (his) mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.

In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.

Ephesians 5:21-33

Have you ever heard conservative Catholics talk about this passage? They tend to compare marriage to a government or business and suggest that God instructs husbands to “lead” because nothing gets done without someone having final authority. I used to become upset by the way this passage was misused to elevate men over women, now I simply wonder at the way it is first drenched in a utilitarian sauce before being offered up as the supposed meat of Christian married life.

I am not a biblical scholar, but some things are so obvious that I wonder how they are missed by so many. I suspect that the general misapplication of Ephesians chapter five is not merely the result of the way we are trained to read this passage: it is just more fun to make this into something threateningly, absolutely, concrete.

But what happens if we step back and read this the same way that we read the rest of scripture?

The answer for me is that the “practical model” of marriage is replaced with something more mystical. It is not simply the way the passage starts out, and the clear fact that authority is not subordination. It is the fact that the author is writing about Christ and the Church. How then can it be correct to start with the assumption that this passage is about married couples, and only secondarily consider the relationship of Christ to the Church as a  model for human marriage?

Furthermore, a traditional Christian reading of the passage is bound by the idea that marriage is a sacrament/sacred mystery. A mystery would not be a mystery if it were simply another name for efficiency.

With this in mind, I smile when I hear friends say that “someone has to be in charge for marriage to work efficiently.” I may not know much about marriage, but I do know that it is a sacrament–a means of salvation. I worship an omnipotent God whose version of efficiency is coming to earth as a human, living a sinless life, suffering and dying on a cross, and allowing humans the freedom to reject it all. And you suggest that I should believe that that God was suddenly most concerned about efficiency when inspiring the author of Ephesians to write about marriage?

It could just be that I do not have enough experience with marriage, but I suspect that if I wanted an efficient means of salvation I should have sought out martyrdom rather than marriage. Marriage is a lifelong giving of self; a painfully inefficient, indissoluble community of love, worked out in sweat and tears and blood. But I chose marriage knowing that it would be difficult, and so far I am far from tempted by the lure of efficiency through hierarchy. I would much rather work together with my husband for our mutual salvation than to work for him for the efficienct running of our home.

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13 Responses to “I Submit the Obvious”

  1. Molly 19. Jan, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    I’ve thought a lot about this passage myself, and one answer I came up with is that if (and this is the clincher) you totally subscribe to the traditional family roles i.e. husband’s domain is outside the home and women’s domain is inside the home it makes sense to ask a woman to delegate some of her power over home life to her husband to make him part of the family and not just a money/protection earning servant. If all a man does is go out and make money and isn’t active in helping to form his family life than what is he really? If he doesn’t have to have an active role outside of money/protection duties than he’s almost free to do whatever he wants after those goals are met, but give him a little (not all! remember that it says for men to do the same to their wives) more authority at home gives him a reason to well “be a man” in layman’s terms.
    Once again saying we ascribing traditional roles it could be easy for a woman to believe she has final say over everything from meals to decorations to how to raise the children because her “domain” is the home and with that in mind I see this as a reminder for women to keep their husbands active in their home lives and for women to be active in the man’s domain as well (work, money, etc.)
    I don’t know if this is what you were going for but I thought I’d share it anyways.
    And as I tell a lot of people… marriage isn’t easy.

    • Rae 19. Jan, 2010 at 11:03 pm #

      That is a very helpful way for me to understand how the idea of female subordination is useful in contemporary “traditional” families. Thank you!

      The thing that bothers me though, is that that view of marriage does not come from this passage. Without commenting on how families should be set up (and I suspect that different arrangements work better or worse for different families) I wished to point out that this passage is not primarily talking about the structure of human marriage, and that to the extent that it applies to human marriage it applies with a mystical rather than logical reasoning. I actually find myself feeling protective of Paul (or whomever wrote Ephesians) and wishing that I could stop people from ignoring the text in favor of justifying their pre-existing beliefs which really aren’t addressed in this passage.

      • Molly 20. Jan, 2010 at 12:58 am #

        Ahh I see know, and understand. I too think it’s talking about a higher type of marriage (and not in the physical sense either) and I think a lot of people don’t understand that it’s also telling you how your relationship with the church should be. Sadly it’s one of the most used text from the Bible that people quote only the first part of to justify their means, so I understand your frustration with it =)

        I’m glad you like my take on it, even if it wasn’t totally related to your post, I’ve used it to explain to people how that particular part of Ephesians isn’t all bad in the past.

        I also agree with you that a lot of people seem to get caught up in interpreting minute details that they stop focusing on the bigger picture. I often find myself saying if x, y and z were such big issues why didn’t Jesus give a speech about them?

  2. carrien (she laughs at the days) 19. Jan, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

    Yes! Exactly.
    This passage is so often stripped of anything beautiful and used to claim power. Ironic, since it begins with “everyone submit to one and other”.

    Amazing what happens when you observe what is actually there BEFORE interpreting it or applying it.

  3. Sarah 19. Jan, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    Molly, I really like your take on this passage!

  4. CM 19. Jan, 2010 at 10:48 pm #

    I’ve been thinking some about this passage recently. Just read a book that brought up a lot about it. I think you have a great point: we’re missing the point. It’s not really about efficiency.

  5. Kacie 19. Jan, 2010 at 11:08 pm #

    I have heard this passage debated and dissected every which way. All I know is that true love and submission would preempt the problems of control and power…. so those things wouldn’t be issues. I loathe the business model… as though the husband is the CEO…. and the wife is the secretary? As a secretary who feels sort of unfulfilled, I hate that metaphor!

  6. Kacie 19. Jan, 2010 at 11:12 pm #

    Just to clarify – I mean I feel unfulfilled in my work life, not in my marriage! :)

  7. Bex 19. Jan, 2010 at 11:43 pm #

    I just re-watched an episode of The West Wing and thought that the President’s exegesis of this passage was great.

    It was a perfectly lovely homily on Ephesians 5:21. “Husbands, love your
    wives, as Christ
    loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

    Yeah. She’s skipping over the part that says, “Wives, be subject to your
    husbands as to
    the Lord, for a husband is the head of a wife as Christ is the head of the

    I do skip over that part.


    Because it’s stupid!

    For other stuff, not for this. You can’t just trod out Ephesians, which he
    blew, by the
    way, it has nothing with husbands and wives, it’s all of us. Saint Paul
    begins the
    passage: “Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ.” [passionately]
    subject to one another.” In this day and age of 24-hour cable crap, devoted
    to feeding
    the voyeuristic gluttony of the American public, hooked on a bad soap opera
    passing itself off as important, don’t you think you might be able to find
    some relevance
    in verse 21? How do end the cycle? Be subject to one another!

    • Christy 20. Jan, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

      THIS was how I best understood this passage!

      I love that the conversation points out that while the wife must be subordinate to her husband, HE must be willing to DIE for her. (maybe that’s in another part of it?) I love this passage though.

  8. Sarah 20. Jan, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    And that’s why I LOVE the West Wing!

  9. Erin 20. Jan, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    I have always thought of this passage as telling wives to serve their husbands, husbands to serve their wives, and all of us to serve each other. I interpret “serving” as helping/assisting/caring for/listening… a bunch of adjectives. I was recently shocked when a male friend said to another male friend – “Your wife is being disrespectful about x issue – You are the head of the family, she needs to listen to you.” He wasn’t speaking to him as the financial head of the household (for tax purposes!) as his wife is currently making a lot more than he is – he was speaking biblically. As I am not religious, I make the erroneous assumption that my friends are equally as non-religious, and thus that added another layer of shock. Regardless, Christian’s are stereotyped as being overly gender-role bound (along with many other stereotypes) because of the way that many people choose to interpret and practice this scripture in their lives. Personally, it makes me roll my eyes.

  10. Kelly @ Startup Wife 24. Jan, 2010 at 1:12 am #

    Very well said.

    I’m not Catholic, but I am a Christian too, and I’ve heard this passage all the time growing up. I grew up going to a really conservative, Pentecostal fellowship, and the take on women was a little bit extreme. I remember being told once that women should never teach men anything, ever–and it seemed really strange to me just dismiss all the knowledge and wisdom that a woman can offer simply because of her gender.

    I’m married now (1.5-ish years) and it’s interesting coming at this kind of verse with the perspective of a married person. I totally agree–I hate the CEO analogy. Ugh. The partnership analogy, where each partner has different strengths and contributes to the relationship in different, complementary ways, seems so much stronger to me.

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