In our modern culture, most people cringe at the slightest suggestion of inequality. So whether you’re sitting in a pew, listening to a podcast, or reading a blog, a certain scripture verse may cause you to tense up.
I get it. I’ve been there, praying during Mass when the lector almost timidly speeds through those words. I’ve witnessed people clench, keeping their neck rigidly still so as to not make eye contact with anyone else in the church. Heck, one time the guy sitting in front of me at Mass leaned over to his wife after hearing that line and whispered, “well that’s bull****”. You know, the sort of thing you whisper in a church.
So what is the scripture passage in question?
“Be submissive to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be submissive to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the Church, he himself the savior of the body. As the Church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be submissive to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that 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.” – Ephesians 5:21-27
Some Context to the letter to the Ephesians.
The letter to the Ephesians was most likely written by St. Paul in the early 60s (although other dates and authors have been proposed). And depending on which scholar you believe, his letter was either addressed specifically to the people of Ephesus (a major metropolitan city in what is now southwest Turkey) or it was written for several churches in the region (including the one in Ephesus). Prior to writing the letter, St. Paul had spent several years ministering to the people in Ephesus and spreading the Gospel throughout the region.
In some of St. Paul’s other letters (Galatians, 1st and Second Corinthians, etc.), he is writing specifically to combat doctrinal errors and attack moral laxity. But in his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul reflects on the reality of Christ being the head of a universal Church and how, through Christ, God has revealed a great deal about His plan of salvation. As the Ignatius Study Bible says, “Instead of pastoral surgery, Paul gives the Ephesians a dose of preventative medicine.”
What about St. Paul?
Paul was a Pharisee who studied under Rabbi Gamaliel, an illustrious Jewish doctor of the Law, (Acts 22:3, Acts 26:5). With that background, St. Paul would have been intimately familiar with the Book of Genesis. So Paul wouldn’t have written anything that contradicted the Hebrew Scripture (especially the Torah, aka the Pentateuch, aka the first five books of the Bible). Click here to read more about what Genesis says about the relationship between husbands and wives.
When it comes to the submissiveness of the wife, I’ve heard it said that, “this was just how they saw women back then” or “that was before women were seen as equals”. And it’s true that in ancient society wives were often viewed as property and husbands were free to behave as authoritarian tyrants. But as we see in Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:19, and 1 Peter 3:7, St. Paul is pushing back against the prevailing customs of the day by presenting the Christian understanding of marriage as a loving partnership, both equal in dignity.
In Theology of the Body Explained, author Christopher West writes, “Indeed, (the passage) turns the typical interpretation (i.e. that St. Paul is justifying male domination) on its head. Knowing that male domination flows from sin, the Apostle is actually calling husbands and wives to live according to God’s original plan in which there was perfect balance, complementarity, and equality between the sexes.”
So if Saint Paul was pushing back against the authoritarian rule of husbands, what could he mean by “be submissive”?
What this Passage Actually Means
For more help on this, I reached out to a Catholic priest who is both an expert on biblical languages and a teacher at a seminary. He said,
The Greek word for submissive is “upotassesthe”. This word was used in antiquity to describe the action of a column, which stands underneath something only to hold it up. In other words, it has far less of a chauvinistic connotation than modern ears perceive in that verse—it means more of a “support”, or as I prefer “sustain” (which in English means literally “hold together while under”).
So a woman’s role in a marriage is to support her husband’s mission. Not his career or his arbitrary orders; his mission. And those of us who are husbands don’t get to choose our mission. St. Paul spells it out. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. And Christ died for the Church.
At our wedding Mass, the priest looked over at us during the homily. He explained that just as Christ died for His bride, so too am I called to abandon my desires fully and completely out of love for my bride. That as a husband, I am to die to (aka sacrifice) my wants and needs in order to fully love my wife. Then he turned to my bride and said, “And Jess, your job is to help Tim die!”
Husbands are called to sacrifice their wants, their desires, and their needs in order to fully love their wives and children. Like Christ, we should willingly offer ourselves every day out of love and service for our bride.
Not Degrading or Servile
Tragically, this passage has been twisted as an excuse to dominate and even abuse women. Over the years, I’ve heard from many women who have either experienced this abuse personally or have known survivors of such abuse. Some of these women even told me that husbands have used this passage as justification to physically forced their wife into degrading sexual acts. To call this behavior a distortion of Sacred Scripture would be the understatement of the century.
According to the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, the Greek implies that a wife’s submission is free and voluntary, not degrading, servile or coercive. And since a wife entrusts herself to her husband as part of her devotion to the Lord, her submission cannot be unconditional, especially if her husband commands what God has expressly forbids (Acts 5:29). So “wives be submissive to your husbands” does not in any way justify abuse of any kind. In fact, proper understanding of this passage would reveal that it condemns such behavior.
So should a wife be “submissive” to her husband? Yes. A wife is called to support her husband’s mission of self-sacrifice. She is called to be a source of strength. She does not have to bring him his morning coffee, keep her mouth shut during the ‘big game’, or make sure that dinner is on the table when he demands it. She is called to sustain him as he lives out his mission, but he has to live out his mission.
A Mission Worth Supporting
Husbands should view this as a call to action. This is not about the rights of men, but about the responsibilities placed on men by God. The position men should seek is not atop a throne, but on our knees in humble service.
We need to develop a culture of men who emulate Christ through daily sacrifice. Because if a man wants a woman to be the strength and supporter of his mission, then he better have a mission worth supporting. And St. Paul makes it clear, loving your bride is a mission worth dying for over and over again.