The Ephesians 5 Wife: Subject or Spoiled?

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The Bible mentions subjugation of wives and everyone gets upset, but Christian Grey does it and nobody bats an eye! Tell me how this makes sense.

I know why this is the case. There is absolute confusion in our culture about sex, love, pleasure, intimacy, marriage, and the Catholic Church. There is such a tangled web of lies that this culture of death has woven under the dictatorship of relativism and individualism that I cannot even begin to unravel them here. I can, however, tell the truth about the Catholic vision of relationships and marriage.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians describes a transformation of marriage from a social institution to a sacramental sign of the love between Christ and the Church. He writes, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church.” (Ephesians 5:22-23) This is where the flags go up and people get upset. Why should she have to be subject to him? What does that mean? She has to be his slave? Why is the wife getting the short end of the stick? This line of thought is easily followed up by a total shut down of the person reading or discussing the passage and a refusal to accept anything further.

If this were the end of the passage, maybe there would be cause for questions and anger, but Paul continues, “Husbands, love your wives  just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25)  OK, so wives need to subject themselves to their husbands, whose mission it is to love those women as Christ loved the Church, which was by dying for Her! More than a husband’s mission, this is his command, and the only context in which the imperative is used in the Greek text. Where as the call for women to submit is never even expressed with it’s own verb, only referencing the verb used in a previous verse in reference to the Church, husbands are explicitly given this command to love.

Having looked at these verses, I see a few things. First, wives are to be subject to their own husbands. That does not indicate that women as a whole are to be inferior to men, but that wives be subject to their own husbands. Second, there is the element of free will and choice. That is, to be a subject is to make one’s self subject to another. In marriage, this is a free choice to submit to another. Finally, the thing that wives are asked to subject themselves to is not abuse or use, but to love. The love of Jesus, which husbands are called to imitate, is self-giving. Jesus says in Mark 10:45, “The son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) He is the shephard who lays down his life for his sheep. The call for husbands to love is also a call to submit to their wives, in the image of Christ.

So, why is there confusion about this passage and the idea of subjugation between the spouses in marriage? The confusion is due to a false definition of love. The command that the husband love his wife is not seen as a call to service and mutual subjugation. Love is not defined in our culture as a self-giving and self-emptying choice, but as desire, as pleasure, as self-fulfillment, and as eros. If that is the culture’s definition of love, then this passage ought to disturb us as a command for wives to serve and submit while their husbands must only live up to this weak definition of love which is really just selfishness. But, when we see love through the lens of the Church, whose life is sustained by the emptying out of Jesus, body and soul, day after day, then the submission which Paul speaks of is not a burden, but a privilege. I consider myself more spoiled than a servant, that it is my calling to submit to, and to accept the self-giving, and not self-seeking, love of my husband and to return it.

Granted, Paul makes this call to be a living sign of the love between Christ and the Church to fallen people. Husbands will fail to love as Jesus, and wives will fail to receive and return that love. In these cases, it is not asked that either spouse, particularly wives, yield to their spouse’s every whim. Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii writes that, “This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife.” The command of a wife to submit does not ask that she ever submit to mistreatment or abuse, but to the love initiated by her husband, in line with reason and dignity, in the image of Jesus. And although some may interpret this passage as a subjugation of wives and of women as a whole, the interpretation of the Church, which guides our actions, does nothing to devalue, but rather elevates women as the direction and recipient of man’s love.

The ways in which this teaching plays out in the lives of spouses is as varied and complicated as the spouses themselves. In my life, it means that sometimes my husband gets me a gift I don’t necessarily love, but that I express gratitude for without comment or complaint. It means that sometimes my husband asks what I want for dinner, and he makes whatever I ask for, even if he hates it. It means that if I ask him to, he will get up with our children on a Saturday morning, even if it was technically “my turn”. It means seeing that he is having a tough day, and taking the kids out of the house even if that wasn’t part of my plan. It means to live as Paul writes in Ephesians 5: 1, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you.”

Lauren Meyers

Lauren Meyers

Lauren Meyers is a 28 year old wife and a mother. She experienced the love of the Lord on a high school retreat, picked up a Bible and the Liturgy of the Hours, and hasn't turned back since. Holding a BA in Classics and Religious Studies and an MA in Education, she currently works as a Campus Minister in Indiana.

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8 Responses

  1. It sounds as though wives and husbands are pretty much interchangeable. Nothing very different (certainly not radically so) from the way of the world these days.

  2. The problem isn’t the verse itself, which could have been copied from any Classical household code, and is actually rather nicer than those found in Aristotle or Cato the Elder. As you noted, Paul doesn’t use the imperative in the “submit” part but does in the “love your wives” section. Paul as writing to an audience that couldn’t imagine free labor for wages; our modern egalitarian marriages would have been unimaginable to them, and God never sends messages that don’t make sense to the immediate hearers.

    The problem is that modern interpreters hear the “submit” as a command, and the most enthusiastic proponents of this view are anti-feminists. They hear “love” as “scold your wife constantly for her shortcomings because it’s making her more holy.” Casta Canubi itself has some insulting words for wives with careers in the parts you don’t quote. It’s perfectly reasonable to reject a (misinterpreted) command to make one’s own life worse.

    1. The problem is that modern interpreters hear the “submit” as a command,
      and the most enthusiastic proponents of this view are anti-feminists.
      They hear “love” as “scold your wife constantly for her shortcomings
      because it’s making her more holy.”

      A pertinent question is just whom it is that KarenJo12 is speaking of when she identifies a group of anti-feminists who “hear “love” as “scold your wife constantly for her shortcomings because it’s making her more holy.”” I, for example, am against feminism in pretty much any manifestation of it that goes by that name, but I do not hear “love” and think it means “scold [my] wife constantly for her shortcomings because it’s making her more holy.” I have never met anyone, whether self-avowed anti-feminist or not, who adopts this mode of thinking and behavior, but I can imagine that there exist some examples of husbands somewhere who do, these being outliers of the sort that exist in any subset of a population. But is KarenJo12 speaking of these outliers? I think not, but just whom is she speaking of?

      1. I recommend anyone to do as KarenJo12 suggests and read the blog she links to and see whether you can find examples of the blogger propounding the idea that love means “scold your wife constantly for her shortcomings because it’s making her more holy.” If it can be proven that this blogger or the commenters or blog links do actually believe this, are they then representing what most husbands believe and how most husbands act, or are they outliers? That is the question I posed in response to KarenJo12’s comment – not whether she could find an instance or instances of men holding the belief that she ascribes to all husbands in general.

        Incidentally, I’ve encountered Deep Strength’s blog before and, though I haven’t read much of it, I’ve been in general agreement with what I’ve read. As for the blogs that his webpage links to, I highly recommend almost all of Dalrock’s posts to date for a better understanding of male and female relationships in our day in our society. That I am in agreement with (apparently) much of what KarenJo12 presents as evidence of husbands who believe that to love one’s wife means to “scold [her] constantly for her shortcomings because it’s making her more holy,” yet I do not myself believe that loving my wife means to “scold [her] constantly for her shortcomings because it’s making her more holy” suggests that KarenJo12 or I may not be giving these blogs a fair reading. This is something that anyone who comes by this way and takes interest would have to judge for himself or herself.

        Finally, with as much respect as is possible for a commenter who is all but anonymous to me, I’m all but certain that not much fruit is to be borne for either KarenJo12 or myself in carrying on a conversation between us. Judging by past interactions and comment history, we are worlds apart in our understanding of how men and women are to relate to one another. I’m willing to bet money that KarenJo12 is much pleasanter to know in real life than her comment history speaks of her, but the latter category demonstrates a person who thinks of interaction between men and women as a matter mainly of offense-defense, belligerence, mistrust, and other terms of warfare. This is not my experience in general with women in my interaction with them as a man, and certainly not my experience with my wife as her husband; nor is it how I actually do (or even remotely wish) to think of male-female interaction at any rate.

      2. I’m glad you treat your wife with kindness. I wish you were capable of respecting her as an autonomous human being. You, and Deep Strength, don’t respect women as anything other than appendages to men. You use softer words, but you really don’t believe women have much mental capacity. Deep Strength is at least open about his contempt for women. I genuinely hope that your belief in wifely submission as you describe it is all for show and that you are not a tyrant in your home, but based on what you’ve written I am not confident.

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