St. Paul’s Words on Marriage: Ephesians 5:21-33

“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.

coupleTo 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.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
Articles by Mitchell:

  • Carlos

    And yet Mitchell the words of Paul come with a very different idea about marriage. For Paul marriage meant being responsible for your wife, the wife and family of your dead brother, not only for the spiritual and temporal aspects but also for the sexual and psychological ones. Then there’s the aspect of sexual relationships with the slaves you owned and also the concubines you had responsibility for. Men had responsibilities under Jewish law for all of these people and it meant satisfying their physical and other needs.
    Your take is similar to the one people put out on the 10 Commandments “Thou shalt not kill”. That applied to other Jews not people from other belief systems. The Hebrews went into killing mode as soon as they got to Canaan – the promised land.
    Also at the time Men did all the decision making and the puchasing of women to be their wives, The story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz is an example. When Ruth’s next of kin didn’t take responsibility for her, then Boaz purchased that right.
    When you read back meanings into past texts you do a disservice to the faith and the writings of the person involved, in this case Paul.
    Also you choose the lesser version of the Genesis Story to make out the Male was made first, when in fact the male and the female were made at exactly the same time.
    And as for Miss Prim! It is a story that ‘old time’ men like to quote, Try and read a few of the more recent thoughts and insights from current women who are married and are theologians. You will be surprised how you can get an entirely different view of relationships and marriage.
    And as for decision making! Disagreements do occur but letting a bad decision take place does not show the virtue of magnanimity. It shows stupidity and is the reason for more discord ahead.

    • Mitchell Kalpakgian

      Carlos, why are complicating and muddling a straightforward statement from St. Paul about men and women cherishing and loving one another? God’s truth is not complicated. Obey your husband. Love your wife. Care for each other as you would for your own body. Remember that sacrifice and dying to self is an act of love. How is that a disservice to the faith? Why is a modern theologian to be trusted more than a saint? I do not follow your logic.

  • donttouchme

    “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.”

    What’s the difference between “obeying just requests” and “respecting reasonable wishes”? If the spouses are literally “subject to each other” then the wife can’t logically be subject to the husband. If she is subject to him, then he’s not subject to her. That’s what the word means. If the husband is the head of the wife then while it isn’t necessarily a master/servant relationship, it must be one of a superior to a subordinate. Which is what St. Peter and St. Paul taught and what the Church always taught until JPII invented the new rhetorical subversion Catholic marriage that you employ here.

    • Mitchell Kalpakgian

      Think about St. Paul’s words: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” St. Thomas explains that the fact that Eve came from Adam’s rib, not his head or foot, is significant. Man doe not lord it over the woman, and she does not domineer her husband. There is a clear line of authority (“Wives, obey your husbands, husbands love your wives”) but one in which both husband and wife think of each other first and serve one another. John Paul II did not invent any rhetorical subversion but deepened our understanding of the mystery of love.

      • donttouchme

        How about St. Paul’s words in Titus 2: “3 The aged women, in like manner, in holy attire, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teaching well:

        4 That they may teach the young women to be wise, to love their husbands, to love their children,

        5 To be discreet, chaste, sober, having a care of the house, gentle, obedient to their husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.”

        And St. Peter’s words in 1 Peter 5: “3 In like manner also let wives be subject to their husbands: that if any believe not the word, they may be won without the word, by the conversation of the wives.

        2 Considering your chaste conversation with fear.

        3 Whose adorning let it not be the outward plaiting of the hair, or the wearing of gold, or the putting on of apparel:

        4 But the hidden man of the heart in the incorruptibility of a quiet and a meek spirit, which is rich in the sight of God.

        5 For after this manner heretofore the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their own husbands:

        6 As Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters you are, doing well, and not fearing any disturbance.”

        There is no clear line of authority in JPII’s teaching:
        “This also explains the meaning of the “help” spoken of in Genesis 2:18-25: “I will make him a helper fit for him.” The biblical context enables us to understand this in the sense that the woman must “help” the man–and in his turn he must help her–first of all by the very fact of their “being human persons.” In a certain sense this enables man and woman to discover their humanity ever anew and to confirm its whole meaning. We can easily understand that–on this fundamental level–it is a question of a “help” on the part of both, and at the same time a mutual “help.””
        So they are each other’s “helpmate”.

        And: “The author of the Letter to the Ephesians sees no contradiction between an exhortation formulated in this way and the words: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife” (5:22-23). The author knows that this way of speaking, so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time, is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ” (cf. Eph 5:21). This is especially true because the husband is called the “head” of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give “himself up for her” (Eph 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual.”

        That undermines completely the authority of the husband. He has no authority and he’s owed no obedience. It’s a basic fact and JPII reiterated it everywhere he taught about the family. Do you know of anywhere that JPII explained the rights of the husband and duties of the wife toward him? It was a definite subversion.

        • Mitchell Kalpakgian

          Those are rich Biblical texts that illuminate and deepen the Church’s teaching on marriage. They complement and validate all that St. Paul says in his famous words from Ephesians.

          I find it hard to follow your logic, however, when you argue that St. John Paul II “subverted” the Biblical teaching about the authority of husbands. It does not follow. In LOVE AND RESPONSIBILITY the Pope constantly warned about human beings being reduced to “objects,” especially men reducing women to things and ignoring their personhood and dignity. The contraceptive mentality has certainly allowed men to exploit women and not respect their whole beings as persons with bodies and souls.

          Yes, feminist ideology rants about the evils of patriarchy and insists that there is no maleness or femaleness, no fatherhood or motherhood. Men can abuse women and women can abuse men. But it does not follow from the Pope’s writings that man has no rights or authority as as you state: “he has no authority and he’s owed no obedience.” Where does the Pope say or imply this?

          • donttouchme

            He says it outright in the quote I provided from Mulieris Dignitatem: “However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual.” In the first JPII quote I provided he calls men and women each other’s helpmate.

            Here’s Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii, written in 1930. Note the subjection in marriage is of one party to the other, not mutual, which is what the Church always taught, until JPII tried to subvert the marital hierarchy:” 74. The same false teachers who try to dim the luster of conjugal faith and purity do not scruple to do away with the honorable and trusting obedience which the woman owes to the man. Many of them even go further and assert that such a subjection of one party to the other is unworthy of human dignity, that the rights of husband and wife are equal; wherefore, they boldly proclaim the emancipation of women has been or ought to be effected. This emancipation in their ideas must be threefold, in the ruling of the domestic society, in the administration of family affairs and in the rearing of the children. It must be social, economic, physiological: – physiological, that is to say, the woman is to be freed at her own good pleasure from the burdensome duties properly belonging to a wife as companion and mother (We have already said that this is not an emancipation but a crime); social, inasmuch as the wife being freed from the cares of children and family, should, to the neglect of these, be able to follow her own bent and devote herself to business and even public affairs; finally economic, whereby the woman even without the knowledge and against the wish of her husband may be at liberty to conduct and administer her own affairs, giving her attention chiefly to these rather than to children, husband and family.”

            And you’re unable to provide anything showing where JPII delineates the rights of the husband/father and the duties of the wife. You’re basically wrong about JPII. He was a false teacher in this regard. He should have listened to Pope Pius XI instead of trying to invent a new teaching on marriage and going off the rails.