March 12, 2012

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. 

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-       A husband needs a wife who accepts him as a leader and believes in his God-given responsibilities. Husbands are commanded to govern their wives. God works through a man's decisions - good or bad. Bad decisions reveal his needs and allow the wife to appeal and demonstrate Godly character. The more a wife trusts her husband, the more careful he will be in giving her direction. Never ask others for counsel without your husband's approval. Reassure your husband that you understand and believe that he is your God-given leader.

-       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.

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Not only that but isn’t authority given so that one may serve?  This is exactly where St. Paul goes with his thoughts after exhorting wives to subordinate to their husbands - servant leadership.  He exhorts husbands to love their wives as Christ loved and served the Church by - wait for it - dying on a cross for it.  C.S. Lewis talked about the husband wearing a crown of thorns, symbolizing his suffering for his wife.  

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.**


  1. I too have wrestled with this passage. What woman hasn't? But at some point I realized that submitting everything to my husband had NOTHING to do with him knowing better or being better than me. It has to do with the grace that God allows to flow through his headship in the family. And by practicing this self-mortification I was only aiding my own spiritual growth. I have seen some amazing things happen in our marriage and in him since I began fully submitting to him in everything. He has become a better husband, father, and man overall. Amazing how God's plan can bring so much good fruit! ;)

  2. Good point cathmom! And doesn't it ring true not just in a marriage, but in the spiritual life in general? Practicing self-mortification through voluntarily submitting to our husbands/superiors/etc, and through them to God, aids spiritual growth, and changes not just ourselves, but those around us.

  3. Awesome post, Sarah! If you give your husband respect... oh boy, now he has big shoes to fill!

  4. Thanks Colin! Doesn't he know it. ;) I remind him all the time...

  5. Interestingly, I recently watched a program to do with Hassidic Jews ( the ultra- orthodox ones whose day to day lives most resemble how our Lord was raised and lived and was formed in all matters- as was St. Paul). The women explained that the heart of Judaism is in the home - not the synagogue- and it is in the home where the woman reigns. Read that again and absorb this. Women rule Judaism. The men have a lot of externals in their lives - all those tassels and prescribed rituals, etc. because spiritual things don't come as easily to them. Judaism is all about spiritual beings having a physical experience. OUR society teaches the exact opposite. Follow the logic all the way and you see that St. Paul was commanding men to remember that women are one if God's greatest gifts and to treat them as such and pretty much asking us women to go easy on our men!! Give them a chance to lead!! If men make use of our gifts, they will flourish, and if we women HONOUR our husbands and fathers by listening to them and deferring to them, we call out their fatherly spirit and we humble ourselves as we are prone to spiritual pride. It's not a diss to us at all. Quite the opposite, actually.

  6. Yes! Go to just about any church, anywhere, with few exceptions, and you will likely see women outnumbering the men almost by half. Generally speaking, spirituality just comes easier to women, doesn't it. That's not to say men cannot or do not become holy, they just have to work at it a bit more. So makes sense that God would ask us to honour and defer to another...helping us to take out our spiritual pride while building up and allowing men to be MEN.

    And it's all the more beautiful that in the process of honouring, respecting and deferring to one another out of love, we, both men and women, flourish!

  7. That is very beautiful, 100acrewood. To understand Ephesians 5 from that perspective takes away all the fear women feel at (what we think is) surrendering control. God knows what He is doing, so as hard as it is for us to trust Him, doing so will bear such good fruit, in ourselves, our homes, and in our community.

  8. I think what many people do not understand is how daunting a responsibility it is for a husband to be head of the house. I speak from the point of view of a man of faith, a Catholic in this case. I realize many women do not understand what that verse refers to, or how it mirrors Christ the bridegroom, and the Church his bride. Taken in this context, then it makes perfect sense, perfect because it speaks of Christ and His bride in perfection, we however, live in a fallen world, we are sinners, and the aspect of authority over an other is not always seen in a favorable light. An example of a loved based authority would be we, as parents over our children. Loving parents do not lord it over them. The authority is good and just. It is an authority based in love for ones children. This is no power hungry, mega-maniacal type of authority. On the contrary, this authority would place his or her life on the line for them.

    It is the same type of authority that Christ, the bridegroom, has over His bride, the Church. He protects her, he nourishes her, he suffers for her and has died for her. If we, as husbands, are placed in authority over the family, then we have a tremendous duty and responsibility. The problems we face and the consequences of the decisions we make for our family looms over us. It is no small matter and it is not an authority to take lightly. Actually, to be truthful, at times it is frightening knowing your family is counting on you.

    This authority has nothing to do with women being subservient, but rather, it is a deep respect for her, for a good husband who takes the role of the head, will do what is necessary to protect her, to love the children she suffered in labor and gave him and to provide for their well being. Yes, a good and loving husband and father will also put himself in harms way for them, even to the ultimate end.

    A good husband will also seek counsel from the woman he married, for otherwise he would be a fool. No one knows everything and to seek advice is wise. As was said, the husband as the authority does not mean superiority, but is in fact a life of service to a family that was given to him. No, we don't live in a perfect world as husband and wife and mistakes are made, but that does not mean we should not strive to live a family life modeled after Christ and His Bride. My two cents ;)

    Married Man

  9. Hear hear, Married Man! Thank you for sharing a husband's perspective on this Scripture.

  10. Here is what Blessed John Paul II says about Ephesians 5:

    He highlights that the husband-wife relationship is a reciprocal submission, "out of reverence for Christ" (Eph 5:21).

    A quote from #4 of the August 11, 1982 General Audience on the Theology of the Body:
    "4. The author of the letter ... writes: "Husbands, love your wives...." By expressing himself in this way, he removes any fear that might have arisen (given the modern sensitivity) from the previous phrase: "Wives, be subject to your husbands." Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband, an object of unilateral domination. Love makes the husband simultaneously subject to the wife, and thereby subject to the Lord himself, just as the wife to the husband. The community or unity which they should establish through marriage is constituted by a reciprocal donation of self, which is also a mutual subjection. Christ is the source and at the same time the model of that subjection, which, being reciprocal "out of reverence for Christ," confers on the conjugal union a profound and mature character."

  11. Blessed JPII spoke so eloquently. "Christ is the source and at the same time the model of that subjection" - so in subjecting ourselves to others, spouses included, we both draw from and emulate Christ, and in the process the conjugal union matures. So beautiful, Anonymous. Thank you!



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