Sunday, August 23, 2009

Controversial Readings

From the book of Ephesians (5:22-25)...

Wives should be subordinate 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 subordinate to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives,
even as Christ loved the church...

It bothers me that verses as clear as this can have such a broad range of interpretation. Paul sets forth here the appropriate hierarchy that should exist within a marriage: man as spiritual head, woman as subordinate. There it is. In black and white. If more marriages were aligned in such a fashion, we wouldn't be seeing the 50% divorce rate in this country. If more men were stepping up to the plate of "spiritual head" and loving their wives "as Christ loved the church", women would yearn to be subordinate. We wouldn't have confused gender roles, we'd have marital clarity and we'd all be better for it.

This doesn't mean that as my husband's "subordinate" I cannot be an equal contributor to our marriage; that I cannot share my thoughts, feelings, and opinions about issues arising. What it means is that he inspires me, calls me closer to Christ, and ultimately, makes godly decisions for the good of our family.

My husband is the head and I am his subordinate.
I am a woman, I have a brain, and I am ok with this.


JesusThroughMary said...

What bothers me even more is that the bishops of the United States have allowed this Scriptural teaching on one of the sacraments to be politicized by giving the option for this reading to be read either in whole or in part at Mass. Now, priests must elect to read the "controversial" passage in Church, and if they do so, the teaching can be blown off by those whom it offends simply by labeling the pastor "a conservative" or "a traditionalist".

I did not go to my own parish today, but to my family's "ancestral" parish (so to speak - the three previous generations of my family went there). I was not surprised that the "Short Form" of the reading was read. I was, however, struck by the irony of the juxtaposition of this reading against the Gospel:

Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said,
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

Kat said...

My feelings exactly, B-Mama! As this reading was being proclaimed at church yesterday (we heard the full passage), I could just feel people cringing around me...And I think your point is right on: If more husbands were responsible men of integrity, more women would see being subordinate to their husbands as completely natural. And if wives were willing to let their husbands be the head of their families, men would be more able to step up to the plate! It has to be a two-way street...Women need to feel comfortable knowing that their husband will always have their family's best interest in mind, and men need to know that their wives respect the decisions that they will make.

Katie said...

While the theme here has substantial merit, unfortunately, due to a combination of the problem of translation (the English word subordinate is inadequate to the meaning of the original language) and a "rules" mentality (which I submit has an American Protestant/Calvinist flavor) the intended unitive nature of marriage is reduced to a hierarchy of power. JPII is much about mutual deference - not submission for the most part. Somewhere in his Theology of the Body he talks about the meaning of the original language actually being that one "opens oneself" (rather than submits). Although my husband and I began our marriage with the vision expressed in this post - as did all of our very devout Catholic friends - after almost 30 years of marriage we most definitely operate much more from a "mutual deference" vision than an authority/submission vision. It's not as clear cut, and sometimes means some decisions must wait until we have unity. There are in fact some spheres of activity that each of us have primary decision making power over, but on important family decisions like where we will live, what house we will buy, where our kids will go to school, and how much we'll spend on a given item (or on Christmas!) we make those decisions together - and consider the comfort level of the other as a deal buster element.

Courtney said...


Thanks for the "mutual deference" perspective. I don't think my husband and I are there yet, but that is where I would like us to be.

Ken Crawford said...

Well said B-Mama. I think it is wonderful to hear women stand up and say they support this scripture passage. It's something every "feminist" needs to hear (it makes no dent coming from a man).

Katie, I wholly agree. When people see this passage as a means to solve "he won't let me do what I want / she won't do what I say" problems, they're completely missing the point.

Inspiration from HFA said...

I love reading your blog and have never commented before but I had to do so after reading this post.

My husband and I had this passage as our second reading at our wedding. We both felt that it is a beautiful example of how a Christian family is a reflection of the Catholic Church and the three persons of the Trinity.

In our household we defer to the Church in matters of morality and defer to the husband in matters of opinion. With the understanding that the husband takes all others' opinions and arguments, as well as his own reflections, into consideration.

Thank you for posting an entry about this. I think it is one of the most important reflections on Christian marriage by Paul and is also the most misunderstood.

That Married Couple said...

I agree with your first commenter. It's a real pity that there's a "Short Form" option. And the beauty is that "This is a hard saying" comes right afterwards, giving priests some assistance if they're wavering!

Jennifer Frey said...

Dear B-Mama,

I'm not sure I grasp the spirit in which this post was written (or the background that explains your annoyance at "broad ranges of interpretation"), so I'm not sure that anything I'm about to say will be helpful. But here are my thoughts, for what their worth.

I think it is a mistake to take controversial and complex passages from the Bible and make them seem really simple and straightforward (and historically, this has been a nightmare--just look up all those passages about masters and slaves and read some 19th century US history). This passage is controversial for good reason: it raises many thorny issues and problems about the rights of women qua subordinates to men. When do wives get to make their own decisions? Do they have to submit when their husbands want sex and they don't? Do they need to submit when their husband's decisions when their husbands are not leading good Christian lives? Do they need to submit when the husband beats them and verbally abuses them? Etc., etc., etc.,

I suspect that this passage is easy for you to digest because you have a great husband, but what about those women who do not? How do they read this when their husbands abuse them and possibly their children? Is that just their cross to bear? What does the Church say to these women?

Now in the end I agree with you that there is a certain hierarchy that needs to be respected, and I agree with you that this passage should be taken more seriously as an expression of the right order of Christian marriage. But I absolutely do not agree with you that this passage is easy to read, and that the issue is, as you say "black and white". It is complicated and as far as I can tell, full of shades of grey.

One final thought: this passage was often cited as evidence that women should not have the right to vote. That in and of itself should merit that we approach it with caution.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer's thoughtful comments are much appreciated-- I also thought about the slave trade and the bible's language on slavery.

Inspiration from HFA said...

I have to respectfully disagree with Jennifer Frey's comments. I think that had Paul written that wives should be subordinate to their husbands and husbands are to be the head of the wife and stopped there, then the issue would indeed be many shades of gray. But, this isn't what Paul has written. It clearly states that a husband is to love his wife "as Christ loves His Church." If a man or woman uses this passage to justify abuse, etc. then they are unclear about how Christ loves His people. If this passage is used to justify denying women basic rights then those people have clearly missed all the examples of Christ treating women with the same respect as men. I believe the people Paul was writing to at the time would have understood exactly what he meant when he speaks of Christ's love for the Church. He also speaks of the husband loving his wife as he "love's his own flesh" and therefore would never harm or degrade his wife as he would not harm or degrade himself. That seems pretty black and white to me. (this is not quoted in the original blog post but is read during Mass in the long form)
The reason this passage is black and white for me is not because I have a wonderful husband (although I believe I do! ;)) but because Paul has basically written a blueprint for a truly Christian (dare I say "happy") marriage, and calls each member of that marriage to strive to fit the models he has set forth. It does not in any way allow room for abuse, inequality or harmful subordination, on the contrary it only allows for a husband to treat his wife with the highest form of love possible and for the wife to, in turn, submit herself to this love.

I think the shades of gray actually come when you DON't read this passage at face value.


Jennifer Frey said...

Dear Olivia,

Just to be clear about your interpretation: Are you saying that the true reading of the passage is that women only have to be subordinate to husbands that are holding up their end of the bargain, so that women who are abused, or are living with men who have rejected God's word and commandments, etc., can make their own decisions and are exempt from subordination? Women of bad husbands are then completely autonomous?

Now, that's a reading I could support--but I don't think it leaps off the page. I think the scripture is silent about the sort of cases I mention--the sort that don't fit the model St. Paul outlines. It doesn't say: wives be subordinate if your husbands hold up their end of the bargain. It just tell us to submit. And yes, it tells men to love their wives as Christ loved the Church--great stuff. But what do we say when the husband isn't holding up his end of the bargain? Does the wife have authority over her husband to demand that he get in line?

Now, in the end, I think we can get an interpretation that makes it out so that women do have some measure of autonomy. I guess I just don't think such an interpretation leaps off the page to most people, and it certainly hasn't done so historically, as this and similar passages were used to justify all sorts of ridiculous oppression of women, including marital rape (an act very forcefully condemned by JP II).

In the end, all that I want to say is that this passage is hard for many people to understand. I think the right response to this is to explain the "true meaning" of it, and not to be annoyed with the fact that so many of us have a hard time with it. it is an objectively difficult passage, as it raises a whole host of thorny and difficult issues. That's all I'm really getting at!

B-Mama said...

Jennifer, please pardon my perceived tone. I embrace others' wrestling with scripture about a topic that is highly controversial. Robust debate is healthy and welcomed here always. Though that doesn't always mean I'm going to like others' opinions! ;)

Going back to the discussion, I completely agree with Olivia's thoughts in response to Jennifer's sound queries. A man upholding "Christ's love for the Church" for his wife has appropriately earned himself a position of leadership within a marriage. While no man is perfect, one who is striving for Christ's standard (and has the fruit of the Holy Spirit evident in his life) surely deserves the love and respect of a woman.

Also, I believe "mutual deference" mentioned by Katie is something that should be occurring even within a marital hierarchy. Much of the interactions between my husband and I are mutually deferential. He is seeking to love me like Christ loves me and in return, I am offering a similar, Christ-like love and respect toward him. We are far from perfect, but in striving for Paul's vision here in Ephesians, I can assure we are a much happier married couple.

Heather said...

The long form was read in my parish, and then the deacon gave a homily talking about the need to have the "courage" to believe in the Real Presence, even if that's hard--without ever mentioning the NT reading. I'm sorry, but I don't think believing in the Real Presence, by itself, takes "courage" in our society, but accepting things like the NT reading definitely does! But even if they READ the whole passage from Ephesians, the parish is afraid to SAY anything about it. Oh yeah, and a local Congressional candidate--who is a member of the parish--was attacked in dozens of despicable political mailers last year for being tangetially associated with a group named after Ephesians 5 for this very reason. But of course the deacon didn't have the "courage" to bring that up.

Well, for those of you who do have some courage--what do you think this verse means for wives whose husbands are not abusers or really bad guys, but aren't doing much to hold up their end of the bargain either. Who don't support the family financially, who don't take initiative to be a spiritual leader, who are generally not evil but just rather lazy? When the wife is picking up a lot of slack, how can she be "submissive" at the same time? (It's meant to be a real question, not rhetorical.)

Honestly Wondering said...

Yes to Heather's question. What DOES this mean. And in what way are we supposed to "submit" to any husbands, good or bad? What does this passage mean!?

JesusThroughMary said...

There are no "if" statements in this passage. Since marriage is a reflection of Christ and the Church, let's go another level up the "chain of command". Having a lazy or dissident pastor does not give me the right to disobey my pastor or to be insubordinate toward him; likewise, my failings do not permit my wife to ignore her duties to me. Respect for the hierarchy cannot be conditional.

Of course, the bishop or pastor who fails in his duties will have to answer before God for his failings, and will be judged more harshly than I would be for disobeying him. Likewise, the husband who fails in his duties toward his wife (and, by extension, his children) will be judged more harshly than the wife who is subordinate toward an abusive husband.

Heather said...

I didn't ask a yes or no question--is the command applicable? I asked a "how" question--what does the command mean and how is it fulfilled in a particular situation?

What does it mean if the husband doesn't really assert authority? This has to be a really common issue these days, with husbands who spend hours in front of the TV not doing much of anything. Does it just mean that we pick up the slack in household chores and childraising without complaining? Does it mean anything more? How are we supposed to encourage men like this to be leaders--IF we're supposed to do anything to encourage them, or just be "submissive" to their laziness?

Jennifer Frey said...

JTM: Your opinion is certainly one way to go, though it does make me shudder. There are men who rape and beat their wives, and to say to such a women that she just has to take it, is to me, very terrible. And, on the other end, and far more common, there are men who waste away their lives and fritter away money, time, and attention and destroy families and marriages in the process. Even in these cases I do not think the woman should just submit. Also, I do not find this interpretation in the writings of JP II.

But, I wonder what the Builders have to say about how to read this passage in hard cases. Perhaps this should be the subject of another post.

MargaretJDMom said...

Blogger ate my last attempt at brilliance, so I will keep it short. Read this scripture passage in light of the church's entire teaching on marriage and family. See CCC 1615-1616 With that, the big questions (like abusers) and the little questions (like particulars about obeying a lazy husband) are easier to answer in my opinion. Marriage is about mutual death to self and taking up the cross in order to follow Christ. Without that context of course this sounds scary!

Heather said...

Going back to B-Mama's original post, she said "What [being subordinate to his headship] means is that he inspires me, calls me closer to Christ, and ultimately, makes godly decisions for the good of our family." If so, does "subordination" mean anything at all if my husband DOESN'T inspire me, call me closer to Christ, or make godly decisions for the good of the family?

And does "mutual death to self" mean accepting laziness and other bad behaviors or decisions without complaint (in which case you're possibly enabling your husband's unsaintly behavior, and maybe even allowing him to be a bad example to your children), or does it mean calling him on it (which inevitably means some conflict and doesn't seem to be "subordinate")?

It's not the principles that I'm hung up on. I honestly don't understand how they are to be APPLIED when the husband is not putting much effort into his side of the obligations.

That Married Couple said...

Isn't there a passage somewhere that talks about how Christian (or Jewish, if it's OT) wives are supposed to conduct themselves when they have unbelieving husbands?
The only thing I could find was 1 Peter 3:1-6, particularly the first two verses. I'm not sure how much this helps the discussion, but here it is:

Likewise, you wives should be subordinate to your husbands so that, even if some disobey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives' conduct when they observe your reverent and chaste behavior. Your adornment should not be an external one: braiding the hair, wearing gold jewelry, or dressing in fine clothes, but rather the hidden character of the heart, expressed in the imperishable beauty of a gentle and calm disposition, which is precious in the sight of God. For this is also how the holy women who hoped in God once used to adorn themselves and were subordinate to their husbands; thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him "lord." You are her children when you do what is good and fear no intimidation.

Honestly Wondering said...

Heather: I meant that I agree that your question should be asked. I don't know the answer to it, because I don't understand the principle behind it. About the 1 Peter passage: I have read of many holy women who have been saints (or venerable or blesseds) who did in the end win their wayward husbands over by their holy lives. I think it is because by their example they shamed their husbands out of behaviors they knew were wrong. I guess I mean that confrontation is unlikely to be effective. At least, I have not tried it, myself because I sense no openness to correction.
I look forward to hearing any others' thoughts.

Heather said...

As I've thought about this more, I think there is a good model for being "subordinate" in the modern day: the relationship between a worker and her boss.

At work, I and the partners I work for have the same goal: serving the best interests of clients. I'm subordinate to the partners, but that doesn't mean I never voice my own opinion or help in finding new clients. When I think a partner is making a mistake, I say so in polite and respectful terms. It's up to him or her to decide whether to heed my recommendation, disagree for good reason, or just ignore it--and I generally have to accept that decision. (I know some people don't take this view in the workplace and never question their bosses, but that does not serve the best interest of the clients/customers and does not make for a healthy company.) The partners let me make many minor decisions on my own, but they are always the ultimate decision-maker. Only rarely would defiance be justified--like if I was told to do something illegal. There could be dire consequences to defiance in these situations, such as losing my job, even if they're justified.

Likewise, in marriage we're supposed to be joined in the goal of serving God and leading each other and our children to holiness. If we look to the workplace model of "subordination," respectfully telling your husband when you think he's making a bad decision or not advancing the goal of the marriage is perfectly appropriate. But if he refuses your advice, you need to follow that decision unless doing so would be sinful or endanger your or your children's bodily safety. Defiance should never be taken lightly because it may very well cause breakdown of the marriage.

Elizabeth said...

Another blogger also mentioned a business analogy for this a few weeks ago. She also tagged on an anthropological perspective that I thought was interesting. Her post is here:

South Paw said...

Thanks B-mama for transmitting truth by touching this touchy subject in our postmodern 'empowered' world.

Heather- I think you answered your own question perfectly as charity demands you point out foibles with a client or an ethical issue privately as an employee, and likewise a wife must do so with her husband. A wife has as much of an obligation as the husband to clear away harmful brush from all of their family members' paths to sanctity. So each wife should privately discuss issues with their husbands that need to be addressed after prayer and sacrifice, and during a peaceful time. That mysterious union is strengthened through guarding the spouses' differences and thus be brought up only between themselves and before God. God wants us to bring up our joys and problems to Him in prayer so clearly we should be having this kind of rapport with our spouse.

B and C said...

We had the long version and it was quite emotional for me to remember our wedding day and to think about life since then. During our wedding, our reader actually stopped and cleared her throat because she was taken aback by the words. :) I recommend the book Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs. It is a lengthy examination of this verse as well as a marriage "self-help" book. I connected with Dr. Eggerich's explanation that "submission" can be likened to respect - men desire respect and women desire love. It is simplistic, but is very true in our relationship.