Ephesians 5 Round Up: Does “Wives Be Submissive” Have Any Content?
As I wrote a bit over a week ago, my attention was caught by a post in which Brett Salkeld asked the question, Does the Injunction that Wives Submit to Their Husbands Have any Content? He said:
I am not so progressive that I am opposed in principle to the idea that there might be something of value in this claim. In other words, I do not presume that Paul’s teaching on this matter can be dismissed simply as a function of his era. Of course, investigation may determine that his teaching is not central to the Christian understanding of marriage and is simply the result of his writing at a particular time and place, but that is not my presumption. Such claims, for me, must be demonstrated, not presumed. I am conservative enough to insist that they are are not self-evident.
I have found myself frustrated, however, by those authors and commentators within the church who insist that wives must in fact submit to their husbands—that men are, necessarily, the “head of the household.” Such an insistence is typically followed by numerous qualifications and caveats indicating precisely what such a claim does not mean in the concrete. Men are not to be tyrants. They are not to make every decision independently. They are to provide space for the development and self-expression of their wives. All well and good, of course. Who would disagree with any of these? But as easy as it is to highlight what not to do in the concrete, it seems to me that this teaching will have no purchase on the reality of contemporary marriage if no one can articulate what it actually does mean in the concrete.
Is it essential to the Christian understanding of marriage that men be the “head of the household”? Does Paul’s insistence that wives submit to their husbands belong to the deposit of faith, or is it merely a historical accretion on the gospel? Finally, and this is what interests me the most, if this injunction is essential to Christian marriage, what does it actually mean? What does it look like in the day-to-day lives of married people?
I shared a bit of the timidity which frustrated Brett as I attempted to answer his question, but I felt the urge to do so because I agree with him that it seems inappropriate to discard the quote or answer it only with qualifications as to what it does not mean. Nor did I find any of the comments he’d got particularly helpful. So, knowing that as a couple-written blog here at DarwinCatholic we have a pretty good mix of male and female readers, in my original post I asked a number of married women bloggers who are, virtually-speaking, in the neighborhood their thoughts on the matter. There were a number of very interesting responses.
Bearing of Bearing Blog responded with a part one which contained general considerations as to what “wives be submissive” means, and a part two which addressed the question in more specific terms. Both of these are very well thought out and helped to clarify my thinking a bit. I’d strongly encourage reading them if you haven’t already.
Dorian Speed of Scrutinies also responded with a part one and a continuation, talking both about why this can be such an aggravating topic and giving some specific ideas as to what being “submissive” as a wife means.
This is the sort of group discussion between disparate people who hold the same things sacred which I find particularly enjoyable about the Catholic blog community. I really can’t recommend strongly enough that you read the above-linked posts. The only reason I don’t quote more of them is that there’s a finite practical length to posts which I will already be pushing with this one. But do please click through.
I’m going to respond to one of the themes that was brought up several times and then attempt, having read all of these responses and thought further on the topic, to address the questions with which Brett closed his piece.
I’d purposefully directed all of my tags to married-woman bloggers, because I particularly wanted to understand what this passage meant to Catholic women who are married. One of the thoughts several put forth was that the injuctions for women to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives represented a case of telling each sex to focus on what comes less naturally to them. Willa put it in most detail:
Men, I would argue, don’t have to be told to submit. It is something that comes very naturally to them. It is part of their strength, and it can also be a weakness. Sure, they will jostle for first place. But I am always struck by how on athletic fields and in other masculine areas, men are able to acknowledge the best among them, and admire the one who comes in first, without hard feelings or jealousy OR cringing servility. In the past, the best men have had no problem kneeling to a king without feeling a loss to their own dignity. In fact, the most masculine men are usually the ones who can serve nobly and faithfully. Think of the centurion who Jesus spoke of admiringly, who drew the analogy between the men who served him and then applied it to Jesus’s power.
Think also of chivalry and the romantic ideal — a man naturally thinks in terms of service, I believe. Where I think he may sometimes need to be reminded is in the area of “love”– that is, a faithful and long-term drawing-together, a willingness to be perfected and completed by the other, to stay in the holistic relationship and in the true sense “husband” and cultivate his family rather than making his role a sort of stylized formality. I think that this kind of wholehearted love and commitment is harder for a man. Perhaps Adam reneged on his role when he basically took the “whatever” role when Eve set it upon him, and then laid the blame on her for his own lapse of commitment.
Women, I would argue, don’t have to be told to love. They will love whether told to or no. They are attracted to the good even when it’s hidden, and receptive to it. They look for completion in a relationship. But they have a harder time submitting, putting their agenda in second place. Even their service and sacrifice can be a form of control if they don’t watch out. Ask me how I know, as long as you don’t expect me to answer. But “sub-missio” implies making your mission wholeheartedly subordinate to that of the other. I would argue that the feminine difficulty with this goes back to Eve’s seizing of the initiative in the relationship of our First Parents, and was decisively set back to rights by Our Lady’s Fiat at the Annunciation.
The first couple times women brought this up in comments and in response posts, it seemed very odd to me. As a man, I don’t necessarily think of myself as particularly good at submitting. I am, after all, like many other men, very conscious of hierarchy and thus very competitive to be at the top of hierarchies rather than lower down. Reading Willa’s post, however, I realized that this is in a sense what is being said. In management circles, people sometimes talk about “male-type” decision making structures which have very clear hierarchies of responsibility and command versus “female-type” decision making structures which are based on consensus. In a highly “male” structure, each person is clear on his responsibilities and makes decisions on his own about issues within his scope while deferring up the command structure for issues that excede his brief. In a highly “female” structure, there’s a major effort to make sure that everyone agrees before a decision is made, and people feel betrayed if decisions are made without first informing everyone and making sure that everyone is in agreement.
At a practical level, it’s very hard to run any organization (a family very much so) without consensus, but it’s even harder to run an organization if there’s not a clear way of deciding differences of opinion and if everyone thinks he or she has to be consulted before any decision is made.
Applying this to the point at hand, it seems to me that this pair of submit/love commands suggests that Paul is taking the husband to have the final say in the familial decision-making hierarchy, while reminding the husband that his command of the family is not for himself but rather for his wife and for his children.
Brett asked three questions which I’d like now to try to answer to the best of my ability, though I’ll treat them as two:
Is it essential to the Christian understanding of marriage that men be the “head of the household”? Does Paul’s insistence that wives submit to their husbands belong to the deposit of faith, or is it merely a historical accretion on the gospel?
I think I would answer this “No” and “Yes”. I don’t think that it is “essential” to the Christian understanding of marraige that men be “head of household” in the sense that this is how Christ revealed marriage to be and so we must live it that way or else we’re sinning. I don’t think that the husband being the head of a family is an idea created by Christianity or unique to Christianity. However, I don’t think that this is “merely a historical accretion on the gospel” either by any stretch. Rather, Paul is assuming that this is the way that things work, that husbands are dominant over wives in the family command structure, and telling us how, given this, we as Christians should live out marriage. For comparison, look to the following two pairs of commands in chapter six: Children, obey your parents; fathers, don’t provoke your children. Slaves, obey your masters; masters, do not mistreat your slaves.
We may not have slaves anymore, but we still have earthly masters and the advice:
obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
could just as well apply to your relationship with your boss at work in modern day America as it did to a slave’s relationship to his master in the first century Roman Empire. Come to that, managers could use the advice to masters:
And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
Paul isn’t laying out a new set of social institutions here. Instead, he’s telling people how to live in a way that turns their ordinary lives into means of sanctification. He’s not laying out a new set of social structures and redesigning human society, he’s tell us how to live holy lives in the society that already exists.
This is the sense in which I think that a more fundamentalist reading of “wives be submissive” goes wrong: There is no holy and sacred command that we preserve and maintain what we imagine to have been the command structure of a first century marriage.
At the same time, I think those who see this as a historical relic of a partriarchal past go seriously wrong. Paul accepts that a family is headed by the pater familias, and I think he does so not by some historical accident that this is how things happened to work in the particular time and place where he was, but rather because this is how we as humans work. Men and woman are not interchangeable but rather complimentary, and as such husbands and wives have different functions in a family. This does not mean that one is better than the other, but it does, among other things, mean that one is the “head”. This doesn’t mean that the husband makes every decision (that’s a terrible management structure) and it certainly doesn’t mean that he is to do so without regard to the wife (via a Christian understanding of leadership he is the head for her not for himself) but he is the head. And honestly, in a command structure of two, you have to have someone who is finally in charge. There is, otherwise, no tie breaking vote in a group of two.
So given this fact that the husband is, in some sense, the “head”, Paul tells us how we as Christians are to live out lives of virtue within the structure of marriage. The wife is to submit willingly to the husband. The husband is to love his wife as he loves himself, as his own body.
Finally, and this is what interests me the most, if this injunction is essential to Christian marriage, what does it actually mean? What does it look like in the day-to-day lives of married people?
I think what this actually looks like is going to vary a whole lot from couple to couple. That may sound like a cop-out, but since I’m holding that Paul’s injunction is not some magical command of “your marriage must work precisely this way” but rather an injunction on how to live as a Christian within the thing that is marriage, I think that it really will vary not only with time and place but also with specific husbands and wives. One of the things I always realize when I have the chance, as in the responses to my original post, to read about how other people’s marriages work is how little I understand other people. We know the most about being us. I know myself and my wife moderately well. But other people, even ones I know quite well, are often mysterious to me. Sometimes more so as I get to know them better, since when we know little of someone we often fill in the gaps with “just like me”.
To sum up, let me see if I can lay out some of what I think that this headship means for husbands and wives.
- The buck does indeed have to stop somewhere. There are times when no one wants to go on record as making a decision. Congratulations, that’s when you get to step in and make the decision. And take responsibility for it.
- When you are at the top of the command structure you bear responsibility for all decisions. This means that if something your wife wanted to do did not work out well, you do not get to play “I told you so”. If you really thought it was such a bad idea, you should have said no.
- As in any other leadership situation: Do not ask your wife to do anything you wouldn’t want to do. If you love having a clean house, but whenever you personally have free time to prefer to read or play video games or go hang out with the guys rather than doing any share of the cleaning, then you can hardly get upset if your wife shows similar preferences when she has time which she could either spend cleaning or reading a mystery novel. That doesn’t mean you have to do everything, but if you’re not willing to ever do some particular task, yet you’re asking your wife to do it, you are probably being unreasonable somewhere.
- Just as you must love your wife as your own body, you also need to command her the way your command your body. In sports your learn quickly the dangers of trying to make your body do things it can’t. Don’t ask your wife to do things or be things that she can’t.
- Your wife is part of the team; never, ever undercut her in front of other members of the team, much less other teams.
- If your management style with your family is one that would annoy you if your boss used it on you, find a new style.
- Any time you start feeling all “leaderly”, remember the purpose for which you are the leader: to serve others not to boss them around and aggrandize yourself.
For Wives (heavily cribbed from MrsDarwin, Bearing and Dorian):
- When things go badly with a decision, be assured that your husband probably already feels pretty bad about it and don’t pile on.
- Be willing to believe that your husband means the best even when you think he’s not making the best decision. While you should certainly provide him with all the help/advice that he’s willing/able to take, at some point a decision needs to be made. And unless this is the sort of catastrophic issue you think you need to put your marriage on the line over (and if that sort of issue seems to come up all the time, something is wrong) there’s a point in which you need to allow a decision to happen. There is, in Catholicism, a long tradition of obedience as a path to holiness — it’s why monks and nuns take vows of obedience to their superiors. Hard as it may be, you may need to do this sometimes with the thin comfort that cheerful obedience can be a means to holiness even when the decision is not good. (And when the only other choice is resentment, it’s probably more enjoyable in the long run too.) Plus, predictions of failure backed up by uncooperation tend to be self-fulfilling.
- Don’t undercut or mock your husband in front of the children or behind his back with your girlfriends.
- If you want something, be willing to ask for it (and risk a no) rather than silently contemplating what a failure your husband is for not thinking of doing it for you.
- Try to be realistic about who your husband is and what he’s capable of, and try to accept that with grace.