The reading from Paul to the Ephesians (5: 21-32) on the relationship between husbands and wives read at Sunday Mass recently probably causes more argument and irritation than any other text in the lectionary.
I would argue, however, that the problem people have with this passage is a false one, for the reason that it is not actually saying what it appears to say at first hearing. In fact, its real message is almost the opposite to what we imagine it to be.
In the passage, Paul says: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” He continues: “As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.”
The problem is that we often hear only the first part of Paul’s advice: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands.” We tend to interpret this admonition to mean that wives should do what they are told, that they should be subservient and childlike. So we hear the passage as an excuse for husbands to be bossy and generally rule the roost.
But this sort of thing is not at all what Paul intends. The word “subordinate” has to be interpreted in authentically christological terms. What does it mean to say that the church is “subordinate” to Christ? It means that the Church is open to all the love, grace, and mercy offered in Christ, and is willing to cooperate with Christ for the salvation of the world.
So, the admonition that wives should “be subordinate to their husbands” means that wives should cooperate with their husbands in all those things that are important for the good of the marriage and the family, as well as for the good of the wife herself. Be of one heart and mind with your husband, Paul is saying. Truly listen to your husband, allow him to do the good of which he is capable. Be open to all that is Christ-like in him.
Paul goes on to say in this passage, “Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the church.” Of course, we are inclined to think that the admonition, “Husbands love your wives” is weaker than “wives should be subordinate to their husbands.” This is not the case. No less is demanded by Paul of husbands than of wives.
Paul tells husbands to “love your wives even as Christ loved the church.” This is strong language. Christ’s love for his church is undying, eternal and without limit. It is truly sanctifying, and full of grace, forgiveness and compassion. There is no element of oppression or degradation whatsoever in Christ’s relationship to the Church.
We can, of course, still object to one more phrase in Paul’s advice: “The husband is head of the wife.” This assertion can seem oppressive and demeaning in our modern cultural context. But, again, listen to the total statement, which is, “the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church.”
So we have to ask: What is the practical meaning of Christ’s headship of the Church? It is that he serves his church with complete devotion, love and self-sacrifice. Christ died for his church.
Christ’s headship of the church subverts, revolutionizes and replaces every cultural notion of headship. Christ is head of the Church not as overlord, führer, tyrant, dictator, top dog. He is head of the Church as servant. This point is made over and over again in the New Testament, and it cannot be emphasized enough here. Paul is calling husbands to undying service of their wives and children in the model of Christ.
All in all, then, in this passage from Ephesians, Paul is presenting a most noble dignified and loving vision of Christian marriage. Paul places Christian marriage on the highest spiritual plane and he sets out an elevated view of how husbands and wives should love each other.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Salt Lake City.