I have a strong aversion to the word “submission”, most especially when it’s used in reference to women and marriage? When I hear the word all these images come flooding into my mind: images of domination, inferiority, doormats and indentured servitude, deference in stupid things, husbands using their strength to hurt their wives physically, psychologically, mentally and women meekly submitting themselves to it all. There are a whole lot of negative biases I’ve acquired over the years and I don’t think I’m the only one.
Judging by how often Ephesians 5 is preached on, or even talked about, these days, I think I can safely say that our society doesn’t like to discuss St. Paul’s exhortation to husbands and wives either. We’re all afraid to broach the topic of women’s submission to their husbands, which I think is odd because women are not averse to submitting to their bosses, to the government, to priests or doctors when demands are made of them, but rage at the thought of submitting, even in very small ways, to their husbands. Why? What does it mean to submit, to defer or subordinate oneself to one’s husband and why is that the worst thing in the world for a woman?
I think it important, in a discussion about wifely submission (d. to give over or yield to the authority of another) and religiously based subordination (d. to make oneself secondary), to set some ground rules. For the moment, lets try to lay aside the negative impressions we may have. Rhonda Chervin in her book entitled Feminine, Free and Faithful breaks down the word subordinate into different types. She says that subordination can mean domination by coercion, force or slavery – and this is NEVER what is meant by Christian (ie. wifely) subordination. So for all those out there who dislike the idea of feminine submission because of the real abuse that some women have endured in the name of Ephesians 5, lets try and remember that this is not the truth taught by the Church. The word subordinate can also be related to mercenary situations wherein one bargains for money. These can be legitimate - like work situations, for example – but this is also not what is meant by wifely subordination. Subordination can also be voluntary, and is “willed for the sake of unity and care, as in the case of family, discipleship and community”, according to Mrs. Chervin. “It is based not on imposing one’s own standards, but rather on ethical and religious norms.” This is the realm where the truth of Christian (and wifely) subordination lies. Just because the idea that women should submit to their husbands has come to acquire a bad reputation, doesn’t mean that St. Paul was wrong or misguided. It may only mean that our understanding of it is incorrect.
Secondly, can we also all agree that men and women are equal in nature and dignity? Arguing this point could fill up volumes and it’s all been said before. Try reading the catechism or the writings of any number of popes and saints and you will see that this is an unarguable truth. Men and women are both human beings made in the image and likeness of God. On the basis of this fact alone, although men and women may be different, they are unequivocally equal.
My husband and I have always been on the same page regarding these ideals and have never been unduly bothered by St. Paul’s exhortations to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5. In fact, it was one of the readings we chose for our wedding mass. But I have also never honestly considered what it means to submit or subordinate myself to, and for, my husband. Perhaps it didn’t bother me because I, shamefully, didn’t really care too much about it?
Until I began reading Feminine, Free and Faithful, that is. In it Rhonda Chervin states, “Christian rule is a service of love in duty and must never come out of love of power”, later saying “obedience to legitimate authority is a virtue…it is worthwhile to lay down one’s life for others in imitation of Christ”. For me, reading this begged the question - how do I, myself, living in Canada in 2015, voluntarily submit or subordinate myself to my husband? Not only could I not answer the question, I couldn’t think up even one concrete example of how I do, or have done this in my daily life.Her At one point I put the book down and asked my husband if he knew. He just looked and me, shrugged and asked, “Do you do that?” Not quite the answer I was looking for.
It wasn’t until weeks later in conversation with a friend where my thoughts solidified a little bit. Laying down my life for my husband (or submitting to his authority) is much more tricky and elusive than just “doing what he wants me to do at all times”. There are no clear rules about it and it requires a good dose of healthy discernment, as well as trusting and following your intuition. Sometimes women should blindly follow a husband’s guidance – like when Joseph told the post-partum Mary, “get up, pack it in, we’re heading to Egypt on our trusty donkey.” God has appointed husbands to be leaders and heads of their households, and he gives them special graces to live up to that calling. At the same time, there are instances when we wives absolutely shouldn’t just blindly follow, but when we must question, challenge or oppose a husband’s thoughts and decisions – because he is just as human as the next person and needs to be respectfully challenged in his own selfishness too.
For myself, I realized that I am not laying my life down for, or submitting to my husband any time I want to exert my own will over his, for the sole reason of exerting my own will over his. I am neither being virtuous nor faithful to my vocation in life by doing exactly what I want to do, exactly when I want to do it, just because. In fact, that’s the definition of selfishness. A few months ago we were in the car, on the verge of getting lost (and both of us frustrated with one another) and he asked me what we should do; turn this way or that way. Getting lost and being late is one of my “things” – I get so frustrated and cross when it happens that I usually lose it, so normally in these situations I would completely dominate the situation and tell him what to do and where to go, and then be angry for a while, blaming him for getting us lost. I had no idea which way was the right way, but in a moment of clarity I turned to him and calmly said, “You have really good directional instincts. Follow them.” Best thing I could have done because he got us to our destination with no problems. I trusted him to do what he felt was right and his instincts WERE good. He came through for me. Furthermore, I also, in that moment, made a pact with myself that I would not respond sarcastically, roll my eyes or dramatically sigh if he made a wrong turn, I would simply say, “You win some and you lose some”, supporting him in his mistakes instead of tearing him down. I’ve tried this a few times since then – laying aside my own annoyances for the purpose of love and peace in our home - and it seems to work much better than anything else I’ve tried. Crises (and silly fights) have been averted. (Of course if your husband is notoriously terrible with directions, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend trying this specific course of action with him - as you drive around aimlessly for hours hoping against hope that he’ll somehow get it.)
For me, submitting to my husband means allowing him to make mistakes without ridiculing or emasculating him. It means I support him in his successes, but more importantly in his failures. Subordinating myself means voluntarily sacrificing my own will, at the times I know I need to, while fully understanding that he is an imperfect man and allowing him to do things in his time, in his way. In addition to discernment and sacrifice, submission involves, in one way or another, increasing virtue, surrender, vulnerability, service, love and obedience. And it requires courage - courage to lay down one’s life (or will) for another. Because in the end we are imitating Christ, modeling our lives after Jesus who recognized the Father’s headship, being obedient to him to the very end even though they were one and the same person – utterly equal in nature and dignity.
I am still uncomfortable with the “s” words: submission and subordination, but I’m fully aware that it’s likely because of the lingering negative connotations in my brain, perhaps remnants of feminist ideals or media influences. Although I’m slow at it, I am learning how to love, respect and submit to my husband a little more each day, which is mostly made up of learning how to keep my own selfishness from completely taking over. I suppose I should be just as understanding with my own failings as I’m trying to be with my husband’s – because to be honest there are days that I win some and days that I lose some. But even the striving is going well because we’re happy and content, better equipped to navigate our way through agreements and disagreements alike.