“Wives, Be Subject”?

A while back, the Southern Baptists kicked up some dust on the American cultural landscape by treating as the word of God the Pauline exhortation (Ephesians 5:22) that wives “submit” or “be subject” to their husbands. This single line, ripped bleeding from its context by the American press, was noised abroad as one more proof of the alleged Neanderthal posture of the Christian tradition toward women.

Now it is the case that Ephesians 5:22 is a hard saying, as hard for Catholics as for Baptists, for it is part of our Bible as well. But it is not hard for the reasons we normally imagine. It is hard for the reason stated by Paul’s Master: we must die in order to live.

What are the reasons we normally imagine this text to be difficult? Put succinctly, we are pretty sure we know what Paul really means is “Woman is chattel and Man is Master.” Typically, we go on to say something like, “This is simply Paul’s first century Jewish chauvinism muddying the pure waters of the gospel with crude notions of hierarchy and male domination.” Yet the fact is, it is Paul who expressly says that in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Gal. 3:28). If Paul is simply trying to give the divine rubber-stamp to first century Mediterranean social arrangements, he has a funny way of showing it.

Very well, then. If Paul is not simply assuming Man is superior to Woman, what is he up to? The Church believes he is trying to teach the world about a radically different order of relationships. For Paul makes it quite clear that his view of Man and Woman is rooted, not in contemporary notions of the inferiority of Woman, but in eternal truths about the mutual, self-giving love of the Trinity and God’s self-sacrificial love for his Church. As the Church believes the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are absolutely equal in divine dignity, so She believes that Man and Woman are absolutely equal in human dignity. As the Church distinguishes the Persons as God, so She distinguishes the persons in a human family. And as the Church proclaims the self-offering of Christ Crucified for his Bride, so She exhorts husbands and wives to enter into that life of mutual self-offering. In short, the Church’s understanding of marriage is rooted in the life of the Trinity and in the relationship of Christ to his Church.

The implications of this view of marriage are profound. First and foremost, it means that Genesis has a very deep insight when it says “In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:27). Neither man nor woman alone images fully the life of the Trinity, nor does Man-dominating-Woman, nor Woman-dominating-Man. For as the Trinity is a communal love, so the human family living and growing in love is the proper Icon of this. In such a view of the family, modern egalitarian dogmas which view men and women as fundamentally competitive make no sense.

This is why it is absolutely crucial to read Ephesians 5:22 in the context of Paul’s view of Christ. For neither this passage, nor the rest of his exhortation to married couples is comprehensible if it is taken out of the context of Paul’s understanding of the relationship of Christ and the Church. Woman’s submission to her husband is inextricably bound, in Paul’s mind, not to her supposed status as chattel, but to her dignity in Christ and to the call to both Man and Woman to enter into a relationship of Love, not Domination. This is exactly why the entire passage on marriage begins with the command to both man and woman to “Submit to another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). It is also why Paul goes on to command each husband, “Love your wives as Christ loved the Church.” All this, says Paul, refers, not to some dogma that woman is subhuman, nor to the notion that man is inherently superior, nor to any other contemporary prejudice. It refers to “Christ and the church.” It is a sacrament: an image and foretaste of Christ Crucified and his Bride. It is not a license for Man to be a pig, but to be, if necessary, a lamb led to the slaughter for love of his Beloved. It does not bid Woman grovel, but announces her full dignity in Christ Jesus to image the love the Bride has for her Groom.

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