There are few words that have made me cringe as much when I hear the Bible being read, specifically Ephesians 5:22. “Wives, SUBMIT to your husbands…”
What does it mean to SUBMIT?
For me it has often been a dirty word conjuring up images of domination and abuse.
Apart from the usual doormat image, I have others that I pull out when I think about it. It looks like cute, small animals cringing and shivering in a corner. It looks like a stunted tree that has never been allowed to flourish. It looks like something in a cage with bare necessities and no opportunity to thrive. It looks like women who are afraid to hold up their faces to the sun and stretch out their arms to the fresh, bracing wind.
Submission just doesn’t fit someone like me who has grown up in an age of empowerment for women and the concept that women are just as good as men at saving the world.
One reaction to these words of Scripture has been, “Well they wrote this a loooong time ago in a different culture in the days when slaves were ok as well. It is no longer a culturally appropriate to speak about such a thing. The Apostle Paul would not want wives to be beaten and dominated by abusive controlling husbands, which is obviously how this sounds.”
Enter an opportunity for my husband and I to be facilitators for an engaged couple using a programme called, “One in Christ.” This is well-grounded in a Catholic understanding of the beauty of marriage, and amongst other things we encounter this scripture in the very first Presentation of the series.
Firstly, the actual scripture in its entirety:
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. Source
Then, this is followed by an awesome quote from Christopher West’s book, “The Good News About Sex and Marriage.”
While we must admit that some men throughout history have pointed to this Scripture verse to justify their fallen desire to dominate women, St Paul is in no way justifying such and attitude. He knows it to be the result of original sin, which is why in this passage he’s actually restoring God’s original plan before sin. He does so by pointing out what marriage was all about in the first place. It was meant to foreshadow the marriage of Christ and the Church. St Paul simply draws out the implications of this analogy.
He starts by calling both husbands and wives to be subject to one another “out of reverence for Christ” (v.21) – out of reverence for the “great mystery” that spouses participate in by imaging Christ’s union with the Church. In the analogy, the husband represents Christ, and the wife represents the Church. So, he says, as the Church is subject to Christ, so should wives also be subject to their husbands (v.24).
Another translation uses the word, “submission.” I like to explain this word as follows. “Sub” means “under,” and “mission” means “to be sent forth with the authority to perform a specific service.” Wives, then, are called to put themselves “under” the “mission” of their husbands. What’s the mission of the husband? “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her” (v.25). How did Christ love the Church? He died for her. (How many men out here would die for their bride?) Christ said He came “not to be served but to serve,” and to lay down His life for His Bride (Mt 20:28).
What, then does it mean for a wife to “submit” to her husband? It means let your husband serve you. Put yourself under his mission to love you as Christ loved the Church. As Bl. John Paul II says, “The wife’s ‘submission’ to her husband, understood in the context of the entire passage of the letter to the Ephesians, signifies above all the ‘experiencing of love.’ This is true all the more so since this ‘submission’ is related to the image of the submission of the Church to Christ, which certainly consists in experiencing His love” (Theology of the Body, September 1, 1982).
What woman would not want to receive this kind of love from her husband? What woman would not want to be subject to her husband if he truly took his mission seriously to love her as Christ loved the Church?
So this has been a real revelation to me but at the same time something that sits so well with me it’s like a homecoming as well. Being a strong-minded woman can be difficult (just ask my husband) in working out the “boundaries” of who wears the pants in the family.
This can be especially true when we have people like Pablo Picasso quoting famously, “There are only two types of women: goddesses and doormats.” I certainly don’t want to be a doormat, so that must mean I should aspire to be a goddess according to this rationale. And a goddess of course is the one with the power. With the final word. With the genius to get everything she wants all the time, then sit back and watch as her minions do her bidding. Mmm. I have to admit that there are times when I am tempted to be this kind of version of a woman. And it may not even need to be that overt. I can fool myself into a justification for my position. I can justify time away from family and my husband’s disapproval because I want to parent like a bush turkey and have the kudos of doing things that those outside our home will think are great while the family suffers in the process. Enter the scriptures and the 2000 year teaching authority of the Church to challenge my ego centric model of an ideal woman.
Enter some amazing words written almost 100 years ago which cut right to the heart of the matter, thanks to Pope Pius XI.
The submission of the wife neither ignores nor suppresses the liberty to which her dignity as a human person and her noble functions as a wife, mother and companion give her the full right. It does not oblige her to yield indiscriminately to all the desires of her husband, which may be unreasonable or incompatible with her wifely dignity. Nor does it mean that she is on a level of persons who in law are called minors, and who are ordinarily denied the unrestricted exercise of their rights on the ground of their immature judgement and inexperience. But it does forbid such abuse of freedom as would neglect the welfare of the family; it refuses, in this body which is the family, to allow the heart to be separated from the head, with great detriment to the body itself and even with risk of disaster. If the husband is the head of the domestic body, then the wife is its heart; and as the first holds the primacy of authority, so the second can and ought to claim the primacy of love. Casti Conubii, 27
Again, this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time. In fact, if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family. But the structure of the family and its fundamental law, established and confirmed by God, must always and everywhere be maintained intact . Casti Conubii 28
So, I have been sitting with these reflections for a couple of weeks now and they are really beginning to trickle down deep into my being as I look at the unfulfilled desires of my heart and whether these are really God’s plan for me and my family, or my own will seeking to do as it pleases. It has given me this amazing peace that I will aspire not to act on major decisions that impact the family without this frame of reference. I will filter it through the mission of the family with my husband at its head and me at its heart.
It has also given me a new insight into a slant of religious obedience I never really understood before. How could great saints be happy about submitting in obedience to their superiors in religious life, when those same superiors seemed to contradict the Saint’s direct revelations from God, like in the case of St Faustina?
I still have much to ponder and learn, but it seems to me that perhaps this obedience in religious life seems akin to the kind of submission that St Paul talks about in the family.
When we are all on the same page about our mission, working for the common good together, then God does great things for us. Conversely, when we are all trying to run our own little kingdoms and not integrating with each other, then strife, loneliness and unhappiness are the result.