Probably the least popular line in Scripture is found in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and will be heard in the second reading at Mass this Sunday. Or maybe St. Paul’s infamous words will not be heard. American liturgical books allow the preacher to omit the offending words and proceed directly to less objectionable advice from the Apostle. The controversial words are, of course: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” The notion that any human being should be subordinate to a fellow human is manifestly abhorrent in this era of equal rights regarding sex and gender, race and nationality, income and education. However, read in context, St. Paul’s complete words are not a slight to some but a challenge to all.
First of all, St. Paul broadly and clearly demands of all Christians, male and female, married and single: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph.5:21).” St. Paul lays the burden of service widely on every believer. All the faithful are called to be attendant on one another’s needs. Then the Apostle begins to make a list of those persons who should be attentive to one another. As written, the original Greek actually reads: “Wives to their husbands as to the Lord (Eph. 522).” The word “subordinate” is not repeated. It is understood that the duty of respectful service applies to everyone. Next, St. Paul has challenging words for husbands. The Apostle instructs, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her…(Eph.5:29)” So the extent of a husband’s commitment is measured by its likeness to Christ’s self-sacrifice on the Cross. It would be difficult to imagine a higher standard. Some might well conclude that husbands have the more onerous task. Clearly, both spouses are challenged to lay aside their own preferences, their own inclinations, in favor of a life of full service to one another.
Just in case anyone has missed his meaning, St. Paul does repeat his challenge to wives: “As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything (Eph. 5:23).” Now the Church certainly has nothing to lose by being subordinate to Christ. Believers would be foolish not to seize every opportunity to allow Christ and his Gospel to reign supreme in their lives. Christ is after all the very Son of God. Who would want to second guess him? Clearly the same cannot be said of every husband or of any husband for that matter. The Church’s subordination to Christ implies that the believing community acknowledges and embraces the good in Christ and then lives out that goodness in its own daily activity. Wives are bid to do the same in their married lives. Wives must discern their husband’s strengths and then vigorously encourage them for the benefit of the family. Wives will also wisely acknowledge their husband’s burdens and conscientiously work to remedy them. For St. Paul, subordination is not subservience; subordination is rather service. The good wife will do all she can to make her husband a better man, a better spouse, a better father. Likewise, the good husband will do all he can to enable his wife to be a better woman, a better spouse, a better mother.
When Christ loved his Church and gave his life for her, he did not alter the individuals within that Church, making them into other persons with more suitable talents. Rather Christ meets believers where they are at, so to speak, and enables them to reach their potential. Christ does not rework people; he matures people drawing them into their better selves. This challenge to offer support is especially given to spouses – but also to believers in general. To this point St. Paul writes, “For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church…(Eph. 3:31).” Every believer must take a good look at his or her own flesh, own self, and do all that each one can to nourish it, to cultivate it. This is the challenge given especially to spouses. They must nourish and cherish their own flesh but also the flesh of their other half; after all, the two have become “one flesh” in Christ, as St. Paul carefully notes.
Certainly St. Paul meant it and revelation affirms it when the Apostle wrote: “For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church…(Eph 5:22).” But headship is not an innate quality for any husband. Wives especially but the whole Christian community must put themselves at the service of these men – as subordinates if you will – encouraging them, animating them, even correcting them in their role of headship. Headship is a grace; just as subordination or service is a grace. And these are “a great mystery” indeed, as St. Paul notes. Husband and wife together must accept and respond to these mysterious graces benefitting one another, their family and their community.
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