Thursday, November 10, 2011

Submit to Being Submissive

This past week at Bible study, we got a bit off topic - as usual - and the discussion led to that "infamous" passage in St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians:
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 submissive 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. So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church,  because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)
*This word is translated differently depending on what translation you use, sometimes as "subordinate" or "subject". While these words are all synonyms, I am using "submissive" in this case because it is easier to see the point!

These words have a tendency to make feminists cry out in protest, and the average woman in the pew uneasily shift in her seat. People who hear this passage read at weddings start to squirm, thinking, What is this woman signing herself up to do?! Many priests just avoid preaching about this passage altogether, and some that I've heard mention it in passing just to reassure women that Paul doesn't actually mean that you have to submit to your husband, and they leave it at that.

I used to be one of those squirming pew-sitters. Love my husband? Sure. Make sacrifices for him? I can do that. But be submissive? That seems a bit extreme.

It was when I became more interested in learning more about my Catholic faith, encountering Theology of the Body and the role of the Church, that I realized that when Paul writes that "wives should be submissive to their husbands," he actually means it. Scripturally, this is not a unique concept:
  • Wives should be submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited. (Titus 2:5)
  • Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands. (1 Peter 3:1)
  • So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.(1 Peter 3:5)
  • But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor 11:3)
  • Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. (Col 1:18)

However, Paul takes it to the next level and explains in Ephesians exactly what it means for a wife to be submissive to her husband.

The word "submissive" translates to "under the mission of", and so for a wife to be submissive to her husband means that she puts herself under the mission of her husband.

So what is this mission of the husband?

Paul explains that the mission of the husband is to love his wife, as Christ loves the Church. Loving her to the point of making a complete, total, and free gift of self for her good. Loving her by making whatever sacrifices are necessary so that she is made holier, to help her to get to Heaven. Loving her as he loves his own self, by nourishing her and cherishing her. Self-sacrificial love for his wife is the mission of the husband, and the wife is to be submissive to his love.

This kind of submissive? I can totally submit to that idea.

It is only when we take this passage of Scripture in context and "speak in reference to Christ and the church" that the idea of a wife being submissive to her husband doesn't sound so repulsive to the modern female. On the contrary, it sounds kind of perfect. Sign me up!

Since I learned Paul's meaning in this letter, I have had a few opportunities to share my excitement over this knowledge with others. This isn't a new interpretation, but one that seems to get passed over in Christian circles today. You could see the lights click on for others in the room when our priest explained this passage to our Bible study group. We even had a Protestant joining us this past week, and he remarked that he had never thought about the passage in that way, but found this interpretation enlightening and refreshing.

This is when it clicked for me - why I, and many others, never really encounter the true meaning of Paul's words. I was raised Catholic, but I hardly ever encountered the idea of the Church as the living Bride of Christ. While most Protestant denominations recognize "a church", they don't recognize the Church as Christ's beloved.

The Catholic Church: She's not just a building.
When we are not taught, forget, or completely lose the meaning of the role of the Church as Christ's wife, we are missing out. Protestant denominations are especially lacking, as it is difficult to fathom this passage in such a positive, loving light because they don't witness the Church as the mystical body of Christ. In order to not read this passage as a slight slap in the female face, you have to understand that Christ didn't just give a complete gift of himself to each of us as individuals, but instead to his Bride, the Church. This beloved Bride continues to live as the body of Christ today, continuing to openly receive Christ's total gift of love. The Church continues to submit herself to the mission of Christ, just as a wife should be submissive to her husband. In this light, this is the only way that Paul's words make sense. As members of the body of Christ, it should be our mission to submit our hearts to the mission of Christ, which is carried out each day in his Bride, the Catholic Church.


  1. Ahh, I love this passage. I've already decided that if I get married, it's going to be one of the readings. You make a great point about needing to understand the Church as the mystical bride of Christ to really understand the meaning of this passage. I'd never thought of that, but I suppose it's an integral part of the message.

  2. I see submission as an act of love. Also, the husband has to love his wife as Christ loves his Church-- with all her imperfections! :)

  3. Christina - I don't think I really understood Paul's message until I understood it in the context of the Church :)

    Julie - Yes, I agree with you about submission being an act of love... but I think our society (and how I used to think) see submission as an act of weakness, which is why people get so up in arms about this passage.


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