Who’s Afraid of Ephesians 5?

Weddings are great for watching people. (Oh, and for getting married.) Some people like to watch the bride as her veil is lifted, some the groom when he sees his bride walking down the aisle, some the little kiddies as they wreck adorable, photogenic havoc. Me? I like to watch the congregation when the Bible is read. Particularly, if it’s a certain passage from Ephesians 5…

What’s hilarious about this passage is that you can actually see people physically recoil. Backs are stiffened, eyebrows are raised, furtive glances are exchanged, chins get tucked in, and people slide right to the back of the pew – as if the few centimetres gained will be some sort of protection against the words of Ephesians 5:

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. 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 blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 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.

But surely I don’t believe anything as old-fashioned, oppressive, naive or degrading as that?

Auguste Toulmouche, The Reluctant Bride, 1866 (Private Collection)

Auguste Toulmouche, The Reluctant Bride, 1866 (Private Collection)

Except I do.

Even worse, I don’t just believe it, I think it’s fantastic. Why? Because it’s biblical and it’s Catholic. (The two things tend to coincide in my experience…) For example, in 1930 Pope Pius XII made it as clear as it gets when he said there is an order in marriage, an “order of love” as St Augustine calls it.

This order includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and children, the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience, which the Apostle commends in these words: “Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ is the head of the Church.” (Eph 5:22-23) (Casti Conubii, 1930, §26)

Ouch. But yes, that’s what it says. Pius XII is just repeating what St Paul wrote to the Ephesians, and what Christians have been teaching for almost two thousand years. Some people have tried to argue this is simply about mutual submission, or it’s just a culturally conditioned directive so we can feel free to ignore it now.

I don’t that works, but more to the point, I don’t think it needs to work because there is nothing inherently problematic about St Paul’s command. What’s messed up here isn’t Scripture but our understanding of what submission is.

Here’s my take on it anyway.

Whatever we end up saying about husbands and wives, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – wrong with submitting to someone. It has no bearing whatsoever on our dignity or our abilities.

If you are a Christian,  you are already submitting. If you are a practicing Catholic, you are already submitting to people left, right and centre. I mean, we are all called to be subject to one another (Eph 5:21), to governing authorities (Rom 13:1), and to our leaders (Heb 13:17). In fact, there’s so much submitting going on in the Church, I almost want to make it into a nursery rhyme: “The laity’s subject to the prie-est, the priest is subject to the bish-op, the bishop’s subject to the po-ope, and we all have a part to play-ay-ay!” (No? You don’t think it’s going to take off?)

In this, we follow Christ who, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant… and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Php 2:6-9)

So we can’t turn around and say somehow its degrading for women to submit to their husbands, but it’s not for priests to submit to their bishops, or those same husbands to submit to the law. Are women so fragile that we can’t submit to anyone without our tender personhood being oppressed or erased or something?

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, The Marriage of the Virgin, 1670 (Wallace Collection, London)

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, The Marriage of the Virgin, 1670 (Wallace Collection, London)

Still, I think we find it find submission a hard concept because we automatically think of worldly hierarchies. (And yes, thousands of years of charming, charming men acting like absolute brutes has not helped either…) But things are – or at least should be – quite different in Christ’s kingdom. Our hierarchy, our sacred (heiros) order (arche), is a hierarchy of agape, of sacrificial, servant-hearted love. 

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:42-45)

Husbands are the heads of their families so that they can love and serve them. Priests are heads of their churches so that they can love and serve them. I mean, at the very top of our ecclesial pyramid is His Holiness the Pope, to whom the whole Church is subject. And yet the title that sums up his role best might well be “Servant of the Servants of God.” This is not some pious affectation but the inner reality because as the Successor of St Peter, he is the first among the Apostles which means he is also the “slave of all.”

So when we Christians talk about hierarchy, we should be thinking of pyramids that look a little less like corporate ladders to success, and a little more like this…

inverse pyramids

Or like this…

Ford Madox Brown, Jesus Washing Peter's Feet, 1876 (City of Manchester Art Galleries, Manchester)

Ford Madox Brown, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, 1876 (City of Manchester Art Galleries, Manchester)

Or indeed, like this…

Masaccio, Crucifixion of St Peter, 1426 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

Masaccio, Crucifixion of St Peter, 1426 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

A Christian wife who submits to her husband isn’t oppressed, and she isn’t a naive, backward ninny either. She is a woman who knows her King laid down His life for her and is calling her husband to do the same. She knows this has nothing to do with her dignity as a woman and a child of God. She knows it’s not about who’s a better, or holier, or stronger person.

She knows that both she and her husband are being called to image the love between Christ and the Church, and that this is a privilege and a joy.

She also knows this is a great mystery (Eph 5:32) and yes sometimes, it makes no sense to her whatsoever. But she’s ok with that because she knows what makes even less sense… Her God dying on Cross.

And yet, that ended up making the most sense of all, didn’t it?

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8 responses to “Who’s Afraid of Ephesians 5?

  1. Yep, I agree. I really do, as long as BOTH verses are in there. The thing is, in any organization, somebody has to be the final authority. But that doesn’t mean much really, it’s not an organization without the other one either. I takes both, and it’s wonderful when it works, or so they tell me. 😦

  2. Ahh I love this! Since my recent return to the faith and simultaneous calling to marriage, I’ve struggled with Ephesians 5 quite a lot. Thanks for this, it really helps me see it in a new light 🙂

    • My pleasure, I’m so glad you found it helpful! 🙂 And even glad to hear of your recent return to the faith! God is soooo good!! 😀

  3. Well, I’m still a little afraid – I suffered Ephesians 5 Abuse for 23 years and now I’m s ingle mother to ten children….I still love St. Paul, though.

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