Some think St. Paul’s statement: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22) is sexist and old fashion, perhaps like using Mary and Jesus as paradigms of femininity and masculinity. Yet any misreading of St. Paul to “lord over” women would be an abuse, certainly not what St. Paul intended. So, let’s put Ephesians 5 in proper context.
Paul begins this chapter encouraging us to imitate the divine by walking in love: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1-2). Everything we do, especially in marriage, should be united to Christ’s sacrifice of love on the cross and celebrated sacramentally in the Mass.
In this context Paul says: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives to your husbands, as to the Lord” (5:21-22, literal). Notice, the original Greek does not say wife be subject to their husbands, but to reverence Christ in their husbands, as both husband and wife are to be subject to each other. Sacramentally, husbands are called to re-present Christ to their wife; wives are called to re-present the Church, Christ’s Body, to their husbands: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands” (5:23-24).
For husbands, does this mean an easy life with a subservient wife? No way… as Paul explains:
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (5:25-27).
If men truly re-present Christ to their wives and family, they must walk in love, give themselves up as a fragrant offering, and die for them! What is more difficult to do: to be subject to Christ in one’s husband or to die for the Church in dying for one’s wife and children? In reality, both husband and wife are called to do both, to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” and to die as a sacrifice for the other out of love for the Church. This is what the Catholic Church teaches.
So, both husband and wife are called to be subject to each other and to die for the other, Paul calls them to do so as a sacrament, called to nourish and cherish each other’s body:
“as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery [this Sacrament] is a profound one, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (5:29-33).
Every husband (and wife) should sacrifice himself for the Church in his spouse; every wife (and husband) should respect and motivate Christ in her spouse, as did the Virgin Mary. This is the Sacrament of love that Christian marriage is called to be.
Married couples live out a divine vocation through their reverence to Christ in their spouse and in their mutual service. Marriage is the great sacrament of love that witnesses to the world of Christ’s love for the Church and of the Church’s love for Christ.
Yours In Christ,
Fr. John Waiss