Wives Be Subject to Your Husbands, And…

marriage, matrimony, love, faithful

This article first appeared on Catholic Stand under the title Another Look at Wives Being Subject to Their Husbands.

Few Bible passages cause people to cringe the way St. Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives do. In our current culture, gender equality receives a lot of attention from the media and politicians. Since women and men are supposedly equal in every way, many reject St. Paul’s teaching that wives must be subject to their husbands as archaic.

However, since St. Paul’s words are Scripture and therefore still applicable today, this article will elucidate his instructions and give the reader the tools necessary to defend his perennial teaching on this important topic. One must not approach St. Paul’s letters, or any other words of Scripture, with a prejudicial eye toward inequality. Rather, we must view his words as promoting spousal complementarity and order in the marital union.

St. Paul’s Instructions to the Ephesians

St. Paul begins his instructions in chapter 5 with the admonition to put away all immorality. Then he says to the men, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise…. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Thus, men are to be holy, wise in the Lord, and understanding of His will. Within this structure, Christian men are to submit themselves to Christ and to one another (vs. 21). By understanding God’s will and submitting themselves to other men wiser in the faith, husbands will gain the knowledge and discipline to lead their families.

Within this context, St. Paul writes,

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24).

Since Christ’s headship over the Church, his bride (5:29-32), will never change, husbands are to exercise headship over their wives, and wives are to subject themselves to their husbands. But within what framework are husbands and wives called to this responsibility?

St. Paul continues,

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemishEven so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies (5:25-28).

Husbands are to exercise marital headship as Christ does. A husband must sacrificially love his wife and help her prepare for heaven, “that she might be holy and without blemish.”

Thus, St. Paul calls men to imitate Christ’s love for the Church. Christ gives everything to make His bride holy and ready for heaven. He protects her and gives His entire being for her. In this sense, husbands submit themselves to their wives.

St. Paul completes his instructions with the following verses,

For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (5:29-33).

St. Paul tells husbands to love their wives as themselves. If one loves his wife as himself, he treats her as one who is equal. Similarly, Jesus treats His wife (the Church) as an equal in that He loves her, respects her, and gives her the freedom to make her own decisions, while simultaneously providing the knowledge and grace to help her teach and do what is just.

Although husbands cannot confer grace upon their wives, they can behave graciously and pray for God to give them grace. They can take the time to learn God’s will, to share it with their wives, and give them the love they need to grow in Christ. If a husband is contentious about every little thing and behaves hypocritically, he will push is wife away from himself and possibly from God.

St. Paul briefly echoes his teaching in Colossians 3:18-191 Corinthians 11:2-3, and Titus 2:4-5, which is a letter about Church governance and individual behavior. Additionally, our first pope, St. Peter, reiterated St. Paul’s teachings, stating,

Likewise (meaning, as we submit to Christ), you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some [husbands], though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior…. Likewise, you husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker sex, since you are joint heirs of the grace of life, in order that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Peter 3:1-7).

Refuting Some Common Objections

Attempts to categorize St. Paul’s teaching as either a human custom, such as female head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:7-10), or a mutable divine command is nonsensical. Head coverings and covenantal relationships such as marriage are in completely different categories.

The Church can tell us what to wear when engaged in public worship and when that garment is no longer necessary. Similarly, it can tell us to abstain from meat on Fridays or it can abolish this tradition. But it cannot restructure the marital dynamic.

The Church cannot authoritatively state, for example, that wives are no longer subject to their husbands, or that husbands are to be subject to their wives. This would be tantamount to saying the Church, Jesus’ bride, is no longer subject to Jesus, or that Jesus is subject to the Church.

Wifely subjection has been a divine command from the beginning of human creation. Although God created men and women equally in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27), He made man first and then made a “helper” for him (Genesis 2:18, 22) to tend the Garden of Eden together.

We should pause here and note that a helper should be helped by the one who is responsible for the helper’s well-being. For example, employees help employers, but employers must ensure their employees have all the tools to make their help effective.

Similarly, a husband must give his wife all she needs to help him. Husbands and wives are to help one another in different but complementary ways. By observing man’s Fall in the Garden of Eden, we see the consequences of Adam’s and Eve’s refusal to live out their complementary roles.

The Garden

In the Garden, the Fall of man happened for three reasons. First, Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil despite knowing and even reciting God’s command not to eat from it (Genesis 3:1-4). Second, Adam also ate from the Tree. Third, Adam failed to watch over the Garden and to defend his wife from the serpent. His failure resulted in humanity’s loss of moral integrity.

Like Adam, husbands must keep watch over their familial gardens, their households. These are the gardens in which marriages bloom and children grow and blossom. The husband must stand guard against all evils that may threaten his garden and he must protect his wife’s and family’s God-given right to spiritual growth. This requires men to educate themselves in the faith and become disciplined in exercising it.

Rejecting the Husband’s Headship

If one rejects the husband’s headship, one must also reject the husband’s sacrificial love for his wife. One cannot reject part of Paul’s teaching and expect obedience to the other parts of it. Unfortunately, the argument often made is that our culture has changed, and the wife no longer needs to be subject to her husband. Let us test this theory.

Our culture has changed in many ways. Do we, therefore, arbitrarily change other behaviors?  For instance, contraception has permeated marital relationships, Western culture, and other cultures throughout the world. Should the Church teach that contraception is now morally licit? Pornography, masturbation, and murdering babies in the womb has also permeated our culture.  Should the Church change her teachings on these issues?  The answer is no on all counts.

The culture argument is, therefore, completely fallacious. The Church does not modify her teachings because cultures change. Rather, the Church proclaims immutable truths because human nature and, in this case, the sacrament of marriage do not change.

Praxis

Husbands must care for their wives’ and children’s spiritual needs. We must designate daily family prayer time and Scripture reading. We must ensure that our families make it to Mass every Sunday at a minimum and that they rest from unnecessary work on this day. We must make sure our families tithe, give alms, fast, and, if possible, give time to the needy.

We must talk about God in our households and teach wives and children about God’s love, truth, and generosity. Even if our wives are theologians, heads of large companies, or presidents of countries, we are responsible for ensuring that the domestic church gives time to God every day. We must not transfer this responsibility to our wives.

Husbandly headship is about love, order, and sacrifice for the ultimate purpose of getting our families to heaven. Wifely subjection is about accepting his headship out of love for God and allowing him to take the lead in spiritual matters. It is not about mindlessly doing everything her husband arbitrarily tells her to do.

No one says a single woman must be subject to a man or that a single man must sacrifice himself for a woman. But if a woman and man choose to marry, the woman chooses to subject herself to her husband and the man chooses to sacrifice himself for his wife.

Conclusion

St. Paul’s teachings on this matter are tough, but they are not impossible. Husbands and wives must work together, each fulfilling their complementary roles with love, gratitude, and plenty of prayer. In this manner alone, we can build up the domestic church as an edifice that gives glory to God and life to His children.

This article first appeared on Catholic Stand under the title Another Look at Wives Being Subject to Their Husbands.

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