“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.”
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church . . .”
St. Paul’s famous passage on marriage in Ephesians nowadays does not invite many sermons on the text and does not move many modern couples to choose the reading for their weddings. However, as the inspired word of God and as the teaching of a great saint, the memorable words carry great authority and reflect divine teaching. Priests who avoid homilies on the text sense that the words give offense to modern sensibilities, and couples who marry misread the passage as a violation of women’s rights and dignity. But any honest, intelligent reading of St. Paul’s words does not offend, demean, or violate woman’s inestimable value, worth or honor.
St. Paul writes, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Naturally, both husbands and wives are subject to each other’s influence, wishes, sensitivities, moods and ideals. Both men and women must communicate and be responsive to one another and attend to the other’s feelings and thoughts. To the best of their ability and without violation of moral principles husbands and wives have an obligation to please each other. To be subject to one another means to listen and take into serious consideration all that the spouse says before making prudential decisions. For that reason “Two are better than one” as the book of Ecclesiastes says.
To be subject to one another means to serve one’s husband or wife in the way Christ also served and taught this virtue: “He who is the greatest among you shall be your servant.” When St. Paul writes, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord,” he does not refer to a master-servant relationship based on power and subservience but glad, willing and loving obedience to all reasonable requests that do not compromise moral integrity. St. Paul, of course, does not mean servility or slavery. No loving wife is the mindless slave of her husband, and no good husband is the imperious tyrant of his wife. Both are obligated to please, serve, give and put the other first and foremost above selfish desires. The gift of self in marriage ennobles man and woman; it does not debase or lower them into some inferior status. The communion of man and woman in marriage in the exchange of love’s giving and receiving exalts human love into a participation in the divine life of the Holy Trinity, the endless giving and receiving of the love communicated by the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
“Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” enjoins men to sacrifice for their wives, to devote themselves to them with unfailing fidelity, generous hearts, and foremost consideration. Like Christ who shed His blood, husbands must be willing to defend their wives and die for them. Women honor their husbands by obedience to all just requests, and men honor their wives by respecting their reasonable wishes and by placing their happiness above their own. This reciprocal relationship is not one of equality in the sense that each spouse gives the same to the other or gives in the same exact degree. The mutual giving and receiving of husbands and wives transcends contractual arrangements or legalistic obligations. They do not give in order to receive but give without worrying about receiving, knowing that, in Christ’s words, the left hand does not know what the right hand does. To give is to expect to receive in unforeseen and unpredictable ways because love is potent and fruitful in mysterious ways. Love obliges, for to receive love moves the heart to return love. Husbands who love and serve their wives exemplify chivalry—the devotion of a knight who idealizes and honors the woman he loves as the center of his life.
St. Paul also writes that the marital bond of indissoluble unity integrates man and woman into a mysterious oneness that the words of Genesis also illuminate: “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” He advises men to “love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, as Christ does the church because we are members of one body.” St. Paul’s exhortation, then, expresses the charity of loving one’s neighbor (wife, husband) as one’s self. It teaches the virtue of the natural law, the self-preservation and self-defense that all human beings owe to themselves. Marriage has the same integrity as the human body. The suffering of one part of the body affects the whole constitution of the person. The state of the body affects the soul, and the condition of the soul influences the body. A woman’s unhappiness robs a man of his joy and troubles the entire household, and a husband’s misery brings affliction into the home. To sever a marriage bond amounts to self-mutilation.
St. Paul’s vision of love makes no use of the idea of equality because marriage depends on complementarity, harmony and reciprocity—a man and a woman always honoring each other with charity, justice, and fidelity in the expressions of love natural to a man and a woman. While the relationship between husband and wife does not rest on equality, it is founded on justice and respect. Man and woman offer different gifts of love to each other. When St. Paul writes that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,” he describes a hierarchical relationship, a relationship based on natural differences rather than positions of power. While a man is the head of the family, the woman is the heart of the home, and both are indispensible to the home as well as to the body. In every natural relationship of hierarchy like that of parents and children, both have equal obligations of justice and charity to one another: fathers and mothers have the duty to care for their children and cherish them, and children have the obligation to honor their parents with gratitude, respect, and affection. Children are not inferior to parents any more than women are inferior to men.
In Natalia Fenollera’s The Awakening of Miss Prim, an elderly widow who had been married three times ridicules the myth of equality to Miss Prim who identifies herself as a sophisticated modern woman with a scorn for marriage. Lulu explains, “The basis of a good marriage . . . is, precisely, inequality.” The secret is mutual admiration. Both men and women, the old lady continues, must seek spouses better than themselves because people admire only what they do not possess: “You do not admire in another a quality you have yourself, you admire what you don’t have and which you see shining in another in all its splendor.” Again the relationship between men and women does not submit to the political idea of equality under the law in an egalitarian sense. The law of marriage uses other nobler criteria to determine the highest ideals of love—standards that transcend limited political concepts: “If two people admire each other, they’re not equals. If they were, they wouldn’t admire each other . . . . It’s difference, not similarity, that fosters admiration between two people.”
When inevitable disagreements occur between married couples—honest differences of opinion on prudential judgments or matters of personal taste where both husband and wife show express strong sentiments and have sound arguments but reach no consensus, the decision rests on the virtue of magnanimity. The one who demonstrates the large heart puts the other first and defers. The one who submits does not show weakness but humility. The one who surrenders rises above willfulness and pride and gives a great example of love. Because “love obliges,” this proof of love is not overlooked but remembered and reciprocated at another time, for to receive love is to want to give love. When St. Paul says of love “This is a great mystery,” he acknowledges that love’s ways are not reductive to “thine-mine” relationships, contractual agreements, or simplistic formulas about equality. Instead love’s ways inspire husbands and wives to give without counting the cost and to give with self-forgetfulness and self denial with the knowledge that love always bears fruit and brings surprises and wonders in miraculous ways because love is always new.