A friend of mine recently posted this list on her popular social networking account – obviously something she read recently based on Ephesians 5, I imagine – and after mocking it sufficiently, she opened it up for others to laugh as well.
- A husband needs a wife who will continue to develop inward and outward beauty. How can you become more of the wife of your husband's dreams? Discover and conform to your husband's real wishes. Explain your hairstyle to others on the basis of your submission to your authority. Separate your "rights" from your responsibilities.
To be honest, I laughed – and made several sarcastic comments (to myself – not publicly) – and moved on with my day. I mean, ‘who in their right mind does this stuff’?
But something disconcerted me about it. Ten minutes later, I went back and re-read her post, more carefully this time, in order to better understand what the writer was trying to say, and in order to apply what I know of the Catholic Church’s teaching to this author’s points. The way the author presents seems offensive at first, doesn’t it? Women, in her esteem, take on the part of a child, being seen and not heard while laying their will before their husbands feet, or worse training themselves to have no will of their own. The husband is 'everything', and seems to disregard his wife altogether (except to instruct her in what she should be doing or what she's doing wrong).
Upon further reflection though, I discovered that much of what this unknown writer says is, in fact, solid advice. I know, I know…my inner feminist revolts to even write that, but at the heart of this author's words is truth that I have found to be true in my own relationship with my husband. So why do I revolt? I think it's because of the wording - and the way he/she framed his/her thoughts.
I went back to the basics and re-read Ephesians 5:21-33.
“[Husbands and Wives] 21Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. 24As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. 25Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her 26to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, 27that 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. 28So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, 30because we are members of his body.
31 ‘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.’
32This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.33 In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.”
Without launching into a bible study a la Scott Hahn, the wording is a bit...touchy.
Nobody likes being ‘subordinate’ or ‘governed’ by someone not themselves. It’s called, “The Human Condition”. We want to be self-motivated, self-taught, first, important, verbally and otherwise recognized as the best and in the last 10 years we have been programmed to believe we are just that. Because in the immortal words of Herbal Essence shampoo makers, “you’re WORTH it”.
But isn’t that just what Jesus tells us not to be? He is constantly berating his disciples when they fight for the best spots, telling them to be little, like children, small, generous with everything. The saints (like Blessed Margaret of Costello) were not people who thought the sun revolved around them and hoarded all things to themselves, they were people of abject humility, profound love and generosity and often lived without even the basic necessities of life because they couldn’t give them away fast enough.
Still, all things being equal, I don’t really care for St. Paul’s or the unknown author’s wording. Both ‘subordinate’ and ‘governed’ have negative, master/servant-type connotations, subordinate meaning ‘belonging to a lesser rank’ or ‘inferior’ and governed meaning ‘to exercise restraining influence over another’. This seems to me to encourage the thought that women are inferior human beings…are not meant, nor fit to be heard or acknowledged. I highly doubt this is what St. Paul was going for. Christ himself clearly did not believe women were inferior human beings (which seemed to be the pervading thought at his time) as he was often railed for treating women too well.
I suspect St. Paul meant subordinate to mean ‘subject to the authority of a superior’ or in my own words, ‘deference with respect’. He even uses the word respect in the last verse of Ephesians 5.
So why all the hullaballo? Don’t we ‘defer with respect’ to God himself, our government, the police, our teachers, bosses, religious superiors, spiritual directors, and even the plumber and mechanic? What’s the big deal about deferring with respect to our husbands?
Well, I suppose feminism and feminist ideology is never going to approve of deference to anyone, not least of which a man. No matter how a person tries to explain it, the Catholic Church’s ideals surrounding marriage and family, and especially this passage, will remain "Patriarchal" and "wrong". And much of feminist ideology has pervaded the media, grade school, high school and university teachings. Our generation, both men and women, have literally been spoon fed this stuff since we were small.
Yet isn't there great wisdom in St. Paul’s words? Isn’t it widely known and generally accepted that men are hardwired to crave respect, and women to crave love? Isn’t Paul re-affirming studies that hadn’t even been done yet? He isn’t conjuring up ways to damage marital relationships – he’s giving fatherly advice to strengthen them.
And someone has to lead, or you get a whole lot of people going nowhere fast. And someone has to follow, or you get too many cooks in the kitchen ruining the soup. Paul is not advocating a tyrannous, malicious, prideful husband forcefully subduing his willful wife. Last time I checked pride, malice, tyranny, violence and anger were all still capital sins. No, this seems to me rather a guide to martial happiness by encouraging spouses to acknowledge and strengthen one another in their masculinity and femininity.
Looking back at the unknown writer’s ideas from this perspective, speaking with my husband about our expectations and desires is a normal and sensible thing to do if you want a happy marriage. Don’t get me wrong. I will continue to question and use my brain to fill in where my husband might lack, respectfully deferring to his good sense and his God-given authority as head of our family. And if he is practicing servant leadership, he will love and respect me and my wishes and desires and together we will continue to discern what is best for us. I don’t know if I will be ‘explaining my hairstyle on the basis of my submission to authority’, (what the?) or ask him to ‘define my responsibilities’, but we certainly will continue to communicate. Why is that such a big deal?
“By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, [Christ] himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to ‘receive’ the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life. This is what the Apostle Paul makes clear when he says: ‘Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her,’ adding at once: ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church.” ~CCCB 1615-1617
**P.S. There is a group out there called "E5" men. It's an online group for men who fast regularly for their women. Quite outstanding really - true servant leaders.**