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Does the Injunction that Wives Submit to Their Husbands Have any Content?

November 15, 2010

Like many a contemporary Catholic, I am not entirely certain what to make of Paul’s instructions to wives in Ephesians chapter 5. I am, of course, perfectly happy with the emphasis of many commentators who insist on contextualizing the passage in order to highlight that Paul is also making serious demands of husbands. Nevertheless, such contextualization only goes so far. It is one thing to demonstrate that a man’s responsibility to love his wife and give himself up for her, as Christ does for the church, is a serious one. It is another thing entirely to spell out concretely what it actually means for a woman to submit to her husband.

I am not so progressive that I am opposed in principle to the idea that there might be something of value in this claim. In other words, I do not presume that Paul’s teaching on this matter can be dismissed simply as a function of his era. Of course, investigation may determine that his teaching is not central to the Christian understanding of marriage and is simply the result of his writing at a particular time and place, but that is not my presumption. Such claims, for me, must be demonstrated, not presumed.  I am conservative enough to insist that they are are not self-evident.

I have found myself frustrated, however, by those authors and commentators within the church who insist that wives must in fact submit to their husbands—that men are, necessarily, the “head of the household.” Such an insistence is typically followed by numerous qualifications and caveats indicating precisely what such a claim does not mean in the concrete. Men are not to be tyrants. They are not to make every decision independently. They are to provide space for the development and self-expression of their wives. All well and good, of course. Who would disagree with any of these? But as easy as it is to highlight what not to do in the concrete, it seems to me that this teaching will have no purchase on the reality of contemporary marriage if no one can articulate what it actually does mean in the concrete.

Msgr. Charles Pope has blogged about this topic. And he follows precisely the pattern I have identified here: a strong insistence that Scripture does teach that wives are to submit to their husbands, buttressed by a scriptural articulation of what genuine male authority looks like that is totally devoid of any articulation of what genuine female submission looks like.

In response to Msgr. Pope, and to some commenters on his blog, I asked:

Thank you Father,
I do not have any problem with the picture you paint of a Christian husband in this piece. Surely this is the biblical ideal of what authority looks like. What I have always struggled with when people insist that men be the head of their households and that wives submit to their husbands is that I have never seen a single example of what such submission looks like in the concrete. I always want to ask, give me 3 examples of a wife submitting to her husband in three different areas of life. What does it actually look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of child-rearing? What does it look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of employment? What does it look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of household management? etc.

As Dan points out, this is where the rubber meets the road. Unlike Dan, if I read him rightly, I have no expectation that a man can dictate to his wife about housework or her wardrobe. But I think Dan is right in pointing out that even after all your eloquence about what a man’s role in a marriage looks like, we still don’t know a thing about what a woman’s submission looks like.

I am in full agreement with Steve that a wife is not “a servant or an employee.” As such her submission shouldn’t look like that. But what does her submission look like? Without an answer to that, the main difficulty of the modern reader remains.

I was disappointed to receive no real feedback to my question. As such, I am posing it anew here. Is it essential to the Christian understanding of marriage that men be the “head of the household”? Does Paul’s insistence that wives submit to their husbands belong to the deposit of faith, or is it merely a historical accretion on the gospel? Finally, and this is what interests me the most, if this injunction is essential to Christian marriage, what does it actually mean? What does it look like in the day-to-day lives of married people?

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto.  He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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48 Comments
  1. Alex Martin permalink
    November 15, 2010 11:10 am

    Keep reading. “Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: 23 Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body. 24 Therefore as the church is subject to Christ: so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and delivered himself up for it: 26 That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life: 27 That he might present it to himself, a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. 28 So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as also Christ does the church”

    Why does everyone stop reading after the first line?

  2. brettsalkeld permalink*
    November 15, 2010 11:14 am

    Alex,
    Are you saying that the rest of the chapter contains a concrete practical application of the principle in question? I must confess, I am not seeing it.

    In my post I tried to be cognizant of the fact that many people do pay attention to the rest of the chapter by spelling out more concretely what a husband’s role does and does not look like. What concerns me is that he wife’s role still seems quite unarticulated. I don’t see how reading the rest of the chapter addresses that problem.

  3. M.Z. permalink
    November 15, 2010 11:37 am

    Is it essential to the Christian understanding of marriage that men be the “head of the household”?
    I’m not sure a satisfactory answer can be given here given the implicit comparative language. If the question is a matter of male versus female heading, I don’t think we are dealing with an essential understanding.

    Does Paul’s insistence that wives submit to their husbands belong to the deposit of faith, or is it merely a historical accretion on the gospel?
    Even if we are to assume the latter, that doesn’t make the converse good. From the evidence we have, which is scant, the most troubled Jesus was over marriage was the incidence of divorce and the absence of drink, if we are going to be strict fundamentalists. Most of human history has seen marriage by arrangement as the norm rather than marriage by mutual assent. In the case of mutual assent, the question of submission is not grossly important. I’m not attempting to offer expertise where I have none here, but I think we are going to encounter great difficulties applying 1st century Jewish tribal norms to 21st century marriage.

    Finally, and this is what interests me the most, if this injunction is essential to Christian marriage, what does it actually mean? What does it look like in the day-to-day lives of married people?
    I don’t think it looks all that different from what we see today.

  4. ben permalink
    November 15, 2010 11:54 am

    I think in practical terms it means that wives should be supportive of their husbands and not belittle them or put them down, they should not nag their husbands and should not call them stupid or imply the same–especially in public, but in private live as well.

    They should be supportive and helpful when husbands practice the duties of fatherhood with their children, and not undermine the lessons they try to teach their children.

    The wife has a duty to ensure unity in the family and to make sure that it is not divided against itself. The good wife is a consummate cooperator in the work of family life.

  5. brettsalkeld permalink*
    November 15, 2010 12:05 pm

    “Most of human history has seen marriage by arrangement as the norm rather than marriage by mutual assent. In the case of mutual assent, the question of submission is not grossly important.”

    Thanks MZ! I find this extremely interesting and wonder how it is that I have not heard anything like it before. Submission is indeed something quite different in an arranged marriage.

  6. November 15, 2010 12:40 pm

    I agree with the first post, read the rest of the Chapter and see that the wife should be submissive as the Church is submissive to Christ. And if you can’t understand that from the simple text, then just look at the almost 2000 years of Church history we have where the Church has been and is submissive to her groom, Christ. The Church is a pretty concrete practical example of how a wife should act. She is nurturing, caring, loving, supportive, and submissive to the authority of Christ over her.

  7. Melissa permalink
    November 15, 2010 1:06 pm

    In my mind, practical submission of a wife is simply me letting my husband do what he’s better at doing than me. It requires a wife to know her weaknesses, and to submit her pride to what’s best. Whether that’s being respectful of how you spend money when you don’t make any, or not getting upset that your husband plays with the kids instead of helping you with chores, or not getting into an argument over something small when you know you are hormonal-the examples are as varied as there are married couples. But the point is that the spouse comes first, no matter what perspective you are look out from.

  8. Ryan Klassen permalink
    November 15, 2010 1:20 pm

    Yes TJ, but how is a wife nurturing, caring, loving, supportive and submissive in a concrete situation? What about in a case where the wife is the main breadwinner in the couple? What does it look like for a wife to submit to her husband when she makes all the money? Or is that a case where the wife is failing to submit by being the primary breadwinner?

    Or what if the husband is not properly teaching their children? What is the wife to do if the husband insists on teaching their children what is opposed to Christ? What does submission look like in that case?

    I am hesitant to provide answers myself, because I think submission looks differently for different couples and in different situations. When I have been in the first situation, I certainly felt more hesitant to spend money because I felt, at an almost unconscious level, that it was “her” money. I eventually got over it, but it was an uncomfortable feeling. Was that because my wife was not being submissive by earning more? Certainly not because I was going to school and she was working to help put me through. Was it because my wife was implying that it was her money? Absolutely not. If anything, it highlighted my resistance to receiving grace. If it says anything, I guess it says that we should probably ask wives what they think submission to their husbands mean in concrete situations rather than trying to figure it out by ourselves.

    Not that men cannot say anything about this issue, but I find it curious that what wifely submission looks like is a topic discussed much more frequently by men. I would be very interested to hear what some women have to say about what submission looks like in their context.

  9. November 15, 2010 1:21 pm

    TJ:

    If we look at all 2000 years of Church history for our example, we can’t ignore such outrages as the Inquisition, forced baptism of Jews, the Crusades and so on. How does any of that exemplify being “submissive to Christ” or set a template for Christian marriage?

    Once we start filtering “right” and “wrong” examples of behavior from Church history or from scripture, we are right back where Brett started this thread: struggling to discern how to live in the world God gives us today. As Maxwell Smart would add: “…and loving it.”

  10. November 15, 2010 1:30 pm

    I suppose I agree with the first post and with TJ that we can’t get clear about examples of submission until we get clear about the meaning of “submit” in this passage; but we can’t get clear on that meaning until we parse out the meaning of that “as”. What does it mean to submit *as* the Church submits? What does it mean to be “head” of a marriage *as* Christ is head of the Church? I would suggest that it looks very different from, say, the default positions of a post-Victorian social conservatism. But beyond that it’s hard to tell. What about this: Christ loves the Church in such a way that He is continually submitting himself by manner of self-emptying for *her* sake; the Church’s submission to Christ is therefore always a response to the prior submission of Christ *for* the Church. Hence the ideal here is (or possibly could me) much different than a hierarchy of the sexes, as the text has sometimes been read.

  11. November 15, 2010 1:37 pm

    I’m sorry: replace the language of submission with “be subject to” in the above comment. Also, my sense, again, is to agree with Brett that there’s a problem here, but to suggest that in large part the problem as to do with our not thinking rigorously enough about the relationship between Christ and the Church. It’s not clear to me that the Church has *ever* been *perfectly* subject to Christ, so that even this side of the simile is an ideal formulation. I am even tempted to suggest that, because the Church is a temporary institution, the *ideal* portrayed by Paul here is the risen Christ’s relationship to His Body comprised of the elect. In any case, there is too much difficulty in the passage to allow for a naive reading of “be subject to” (I’m not accusing Brett of this, by the way). Or perhaps I’m just rationalizing the decidedly non-hierarchical nature of my own marriage (as it seems to me!).

  12. Bruce permalink
    November 15, 2010 1:48 pm

    Frank has shown us his intense ignorance of the actual facts surrounding the Inquisition, the Church’s relationship with Jews, and the Crusades.

  13. November 15, 2010 2:14 pm

    Ryan:
    Yes the wife is to be like the Church and be submissive to the husband. We all know that the Church is the hands, eys, mouth of Christ…and that she does many things, not seeing just how being the bread winner is that off the wall…the Church carries out many things for the Lord. The main thing is that when a man is a man, not just a boy in an adults body, he will be Christ like. In as much as he is Christ like, the wife should submit to him in the things that he declares and teaches, for he will have what is best in mind for the family. However if he is morally not Christ like, one cannot put anything before Christ. Seems pretty simple, in as much as the man fails or falls he need not be obeyed, rather the wife here should help, in brotherly correction and teach her husband how to live as Christ. This means to do this in humble, if you will submissive way, in that she should not be nagging, or correcting in public or in front of the children. By assuming that there is no need for a wife to be submissive today, in a certain sense seems to attribute to the wife a perfection she does not have. No wife is perfect and in those areas which she is not she should submit when the Husband is right. This is not to say that the husband is totally right though, and thus we get back to what I was saying earlier about the wife charitably correcting or guiding or teaching the husband. In the end, especially in moral decisions where he is right, or in neutral decisions, the wife should submit to the husband letting him take the role of Head, as is the propper place of Christ toward His Church.

    Frank:
    2000 years of good and bad, GREAT so we have examples of what to do and what not to do, and what happens when we do the right thing and what happens when we do the wrong thing. Concrete examples…how does this lead us back to not knowing anything? We learn from history so as not to repeat the same mistakes and we exemplify those parts of history that were great. If one can’t see this then I suppose one just can’t see the truth.
    However the last thing we want to do is be relativistic and say that submissive is something that is different for every person and that it basically doesn’t mean anything anymore.

  14. R.C. permalink
    November 15, 2010 2:28 pm

    Good questions.

    1.”What does it actually look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of child-rearing?”

    “Kids, you have broken XYZ. I am imposing partial consequences now. But I will defer to your father as to whether additional consequences are required. When he gets home, we’ll talk it over, and I will let you know what he decides.”

    [Behind the Scenes: Wife knows he'll add something, but that it'll be mild; she has a good idea what it'd be and could do it all herself right now, but is mindful of the household dynamic of respect for dad and keeping dad involved and up-to-date.]

    2. “What does it look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of employment?”

    “Honey, I really want to take this job opportunity. However, I know that you are uncertain about the effect of my getting home later on the kids, who’ll be in the house by themselves for two hours after school. I’m make a case for what we can do about that, but after we’ve talked it over, if you’re still leaning against, I will accept that as your decision, as our tie-breaking vote in our marital council-of-two, and thus as our household decision…and I will back you up on it if my girlfriends start hassling me about it.”

    [Behind the Scenes: Wife knows that husband needs respect; that respect for him "feels like love" and disrespect feels like contempt and tears him down. Therefore, she makes him aware of his headship and helps him see her as his Executive Officer, who'll back him up in front of the troops (or the peanut gallery).]

    3. “What does it look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of household management?”

    “Honey, in our household budget, there is $100 per month allocated for general household expenses unrelated to kids or my personal needs. And times being what they are, money is tight. However, I think there is a real need for pest control. I’m tired of ants coming into the kitchen, and I’ve seen two Palmetto Bugs in the last month. Will you please help me figure out how to put an extra $30 into our general household budget, so that I can get pest control?”

    [Behind the Scenes: In all likelihood she knows better than he where the money comes from. But nobody likes a know-it-all, and husbands like coming to their wives' rescue, both in the area of pests, and in the area of treating him as competent in an area where she is quite likely the better-informed of the two.]

    To return to something to which I alluded earlier: For a husband, a hint that he’s not competent and that his wife is having to make up for his incompetence is emasculating and love-breaking. Some men are more fragile than others in this area, but for most men, in addition to physical touch, respect is a high-priority “love language.”

    Therefore a wise wife doesn’t just “love” her husband in the sense of showing affection. If she showed affection, but never gave him the impression she needed him or valued his opinion or input on any topic, it’d feel like affection towards a baby or an inferior. It’d feel less like marital love, and more like pity or condescension.

    But by visibly demonstrating — especially in front of others — her respect for his opinions, his official headship, and his rightful role in decision making? She affirms his value in the marriage. If he is a good man, applying this habit makes him a better and more confident man.

  15. R.C. permalink
    November 15, 2010 2:35 pm

    I should probably add to the aforementioned: In our household, we tell our kids that certain duties are “delegated” to my wife by the “royal council.” They turn out to be: All the things she’s way better at than me. In those areas, she makes the call, and if my kids look at me and ask me to make a different decision, I never, EVER do that in front of her. I say: “That’s your mom’s call, and she’s in charge of that aspect of our family life, and I back up her judgment a hundred percent.”

    If we have any disagreement, it’s never visible in front of our kids unless it involves something that one of us needs to apologize to the other for. Then we do that in front of the kids (if convenient and if the subject matter is an appropriate one), so that they know what genuine apologies are supposed to look like.

    Finally, if we ever find that a kid has gotten an answer from one parent that the kid didn’t like, and went to another parent to try to get a different answer, we rebuke and the kid pretty loudly and sharply, and there is some concrete punishment. THOU SHALT NOT PLAY ONE PARENT AGAINST THE OTHER.

    I just thought I should mention the above, as part of the overall context of my earlier answers.

  16. Ronald King permalink
    November 15, 2010 3:17 pm

    The word submit means something different to me. From my perspective it submit means to present to.
    The wife is being told to present herself to her husband as to the Lord. That would mean that she would trust her husband if her husband is loving like Christ with a sacrificial love in which there is no selfish intent with thought, word or deed.
    The husband must be seen as a person of safety in this violent world and he cannot be experienced as a person of potential violence against her.
    She knows that he has potential for violence and he must prove to her that his anger will not harm her.

    So the wife is being asked to risk herself by being open, honest and direct with her thoughts and feelings regardless of how afraid she may be.
    A woman’s amygdala is larger than the male’s amygdala which influences her to be more sensitive to the potential for danger when a man is angry. Consequently, there is more of a tendency to be indirect and manipulative when the woman has not resolved this instinctive fear of males which started with the advent of human self-awareness.
    I would write more right now but I am going grocery shopping and preparing dinner.

  17. phosphorious permalink
    November 15, 2010 3:51 pm

    Melissa says:

    “But the point is that the spouse comes first, no matter what perspective you are look out from.

    And ben says:

    I think in practical terms it means that wives should be supportive of their husbands and not belittle them or put them down, they should not nag their husbands and should not call them stupid or imply the same–especially in public, but in private live as well.

    But since husbands are not commanded to submit to their wives, then they are permitted to belittle their wives? Of course not, or at least I hope it’s “of course not”!

    Brett’s point is a good one: all of the various elaborations on the commandment “wives submit to your husbands” wind up sounding like “spouses submit to each other” or maybe “spouses submit to the marriage.”

    So why insist on “wives submit to your husbands?”

  18. Zak permalink
    November 15, 2010 3:58 pm

    CS Lewis (in Mere Christianity) looks at this from a practical (if provacative) perspective. He says that in the end, you need an ultimate decision-maker (someone where the buck stops). How do you resolve a dispute where husband and wife disagree? His reading od Paul is that husbands should put aside themselves and follow Christ’s model (the good authority side of the coin) but wives should submit to their husbands as the one to make the final decision. He says that perhaps this is the order of things because women may be more concerned about the protections/interests of their family unit, while men (lacking the instincts of a mama grizzly) are more likely to do justice to those outside the family unit. For example, if there is a dispute over financial priorities, a husband should make the decision and sacrifice his desire for a big screen TV (or White Sox season tickets) for what his wife wants and the wife should lovingly submit to the husband either way (each should put aside self), but if the dispute over financial priorities is between giving a certain amount to charity or saving for the kids, the wife (who is instictually more inclined toward financial protection of the children) should submit to the husband (who should determine what to spend based on an overall sense of justice and charity extending beyond the immediate family).

    Without commenting on the theological soundness of this argument (or for that matter, its overall sociological accuracy), I will say that much of my experience and observation would support his description. At the same time, both Lewis’s and my oversvations are drawn from a very limited experience in a certain cultural context, so maybe we just circled back to your original question.

  19. brettsalkeld permalink*
    November 15, 2010 5:06 pm

    I just got back from meetings and was delighted to find this wonderful collection of comments. Who says the comboxes at Vox Nova are toxic? Keep it up folks! I’m off to more meetings and will be delighted if more thoughtful conversation has appeared in my absence.

  20. phosphorious permalink
    November 15, 2010 5:18 pm

    Therefore a wise wife doesn’t just “love” her husband in the sense of showing affection. If she showed affection, but never gave him the impression she needed him or valued his opinion or input on any topic, it’d feel like affection towards a baby or an inferior. It’d feel less like marital love, and more like pity or condescension.

    Again: unless you are claiming that it is appropriate for a husband to condescend to his wife in public, then ths doesn;t answer the question. Respect, deferral to expertise, support. . . these should go both ways, no?

    Perhaps this is a way of getting at the definition of “submit”Brett wants:

    What is it that a wife owes to a husband that a husband does NOT owe to a wife?

  21. Liam permalink
    November 15, 2010 5:48 pm

    If the husband is the head, the wife is the neck?

  22. R.C. permalink
    November 15, 2010 7:03 pm

    Reply to Phosphorious:

    I don’t, naturally, claim it is appropriate for the husband to be condescending to his wife in public.

    But that comes from the other command, the one directed to husbands: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church in that he sacrificed Himself, gave Himself up for her sake.” Would Christ belittle the Church?

    In a reply to another poster, you challenge that the various replies sound a lot like “submit to each other.” Well, that of course is the context; Ephesians 5:21 says just that. The rest of the chapter is elaboration. So we know we’re on the right track if our further elaboration doesn’t stray far from that generalization.

    But your question is a fair one: Why bother having the husbands and the wives described separately during that elaboration? And why use the term “love” in the command to men, but the term “submit” in the command to women?

    I argue it is for two reasons:

    1. The differences in the psychology of men and women mean that when Paul says “submit” to the women, if they follow the command, the results are more likely to come out in the “love language” of men than if he had merely said “love”; whereas when Paul says “love through heroic Christlike sacrifice” to men, the results are more likely to come out in the “love language” of women than had he merely said either “love” or “submit”; and,

    2. In a council of two, there must be a tie-breaking vote. The person most likely to shirk this duty or to be incompetent to exercise it is the man: Therefore God gave that duty specifically to the man, to encourage him to stay involved and not to withdraw, and to force him to rely on the counsel of his wife, and on the grace of God, to be able to exercise the duty competently.

    For of course had the command not been given to men, they’d have let their wives deal with it and gone off to watch football. Isn’t that what Adam did in the garden? He knew the command as well as Eve. He should have set policy for their household, and followed policy even if she didn’t. But she took the fruit, and he seems to have said, “Oh, well, since she did it, it must be okay; and since she says I should do it, I will.” Look who was wearing the pants — metaphorically speaking — in that family.

    And Adam further wished to shirk duty when time came for blame to be laid: “It was the woman’s fault, the woman YOU gave me.” First the blame is on Eve (as if Adam didn’t have any choice but to monkey-see monkey-do), and then it’s on God (“You gave her to me”). Responsibility for anyone other than Adam.

    So God places the responsibility officially on the man, and cuts all those excuses and natural tendencies down to nothing. The buck stops with the husband.

    He could have placed the tie-breaking vote in the hands of the wife. But it had to be somewhere, and God placed it in the hands of the husband.

    So this is, I think, a practical difference: Something the man can do which the woman cannot. Or, if it’s truly played out the right way, it will actually take the form of something the woman can do, which the man cannot: To end debate through loving submission.

    When the time comes that a decision must be made;
    And the spouses disagree;
    And the matter has been examined from every angle;
    And selfish attitudes have been identified on each side and tossed out of consideration, so that the well-being of the family is the only thing under consideration;
    And there is STILL no consensus;
    THEN, in obedience to God, the wife says, “I submit to your judgment, husband: And while we may find out afterwards that I was right after all, there’s no way for us to know that for certain now. So in obedience to God and out of love for you, husband, I’m switching my vote to back YOUR plan, and I’ll back it 100%.”

    I don’t think the husband ever does that. His role is more to state that he has made his decision, and his decision is to identify his own interests in the matter, and his wife’s interests, and sacrifice all of the former for the latter. (Because that is how Christ loved the Church.)

  23. David Nickol permalink
    November 15, 2010 7:24 pm

    It’s all spelled out in the Catholic Encyclopedia!

    f the two sexes are designed by nature for a homogeneous organic co-operation, then the leading position or a social pre-eminence must necessarily fall to one of them. Man is called by the Creator to this position of leader, as is shown by his entire bodily and intellectual make-up. On the other hand, as the result of this, a certain social subordination in respect to man which in no way injures her personal independence is assigned to woman, as soon as she enters into union with him. Consequently nothing is to be urged on this point of equality of position or of equality of rights and privileges. To deduce from this the inferiority of woman or her degradation to a “second-rate human being” contradicts logic just as much as would the attempt to regard the citizen as an inferior being because he is subordinate to the officials of the state.

    It should be emphasized here that man owes his authoritative pre-eminence in society not to personal achievements but to the appointment of the Creator according to the world of the Apostle: “The man . . . is the image and glory of god; but the woman is the glory of the man” (1 Corinthians 11:7). The Apostle in this reference to the creation of the first human pair presupposes the image of God in the woman. As this likeness manifests itself exteriorly in man’s supremacy over creation (Genesis 1:26), and as man as the born leader of the family first exercised this supremacy, he is called directly God’s image in this capacity. Woman takes part in this supremacy only indirectly under the guidance of the man and as his helpmeet. . . .

    And my favorite passage . . . .

    The second branch of the woman question, which of necessity follows directly after that of gaining a livelihood, is that of a suitable education. The Catholic Church places here no barriers that have not already been established by nature. Fénelon expresses this necessary limitation thus: “The learning of women like that of men must be limited to the study of those things which belong to their calling; The difference in their activities must also give a different direction to their studies.” The entrance of women as students in the universities, which has of late years spread in all countries, is to be judged according to these principles. Far from obstructing such a course in itself, Catholics encourage it. This has led in Germany to the founding of the “Hildegardisverein” for the aid of Catholic women students of higher branches of learning. Moreover, nature also shows here her undeniable regulating power. There is no need to fear the overcrowding of the academic professions by women.

    In the medical calling, which next to teaching is the first to be considered in discussing the professions of women, there are at the present time in Germany about 100 women to 30,000 men. For the studious woman as for others who earn a livelihood the academic calling is only a temporary position. The sexes can never be on an equality as regards studies pursued at a university.

  24. phosphorious permalink
    November 15, 2010 10:27 pm

    Man is called by the Creator to this position of leader, as is shown by his entire bodily and intellectual make-up. . .

    . . . as unerringly described by Aristotle in The Generation of Animals.

  25. phosphorious permalink
    November 15, 2010 10:32 pm

    When the time comes that a decision must be made;
    And the spouses disagree;
    And the matter has been examined from every angle;
    And selfish attitudes have been identified on each side and tossed out of consideration, so that the well-being of the family is the only thing under consideration;
    And there is STILL no consensus. . .

    This is an interesting approach, but if this is the cashing out of the notion of “wifely submission,” then it hardly seems worth arguing about. The husband’s “leadership” amounts to little more than a coin-toss when the cases are hard.

    The commandment requires a bit more meat, it seems to me, if we want to take it seriously.

  26. November 16, 2010 9:12 am

    Think of the issue this way:

    How may a husband enforce submission on his wife? If she refuses to follow his orders, what may he do to make her do so?

  27. Mike Petrik permalink
    November 16, 2010 12:01 pm

    It comes down to this: The man is supposed to make the big decisions; the wife is supposed to make the little decisions; and whether a decision is a little decision or a big decision is itself a little decision. Or at least that is what I have been instructed. ;-)

  28. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
    November 16, 2010 12:55 pm

    I do not have time to back up this critique in detail, but in reading the above attempts to give a definite meaning to “wives submit to your husbands” it seems to me that all of them are mired in cultural presuppositions of gender roles—what men and women are “really” like. I think it is worth probing to determine gender differences on an ontological level. But we need to be very careful not to confuse our social constructs with something immutable or “God’s will.” As George Bernard Shaw put in in “Caesar and Cleopatra:” “He is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.”

  29. Ronald King permalink
    November 16, 2010 1:46 pm

    St. Paul is actually telling the wife to come out of hiding and speak directly to her husband as she would speak to Christ with openness in revealing to him directly what she needs from him, her disappointments with him, her fears of him and her anger with him. The female tends to process information differently than the male due to the physical differences between the male and female brain. So they speak different languages and Paul is telling the wife to relate to the husband in clear language that he can understand. However, the wife is fearful of the husband due to the history of violence that males have created and thus she has developed a defense against being vulnerable with her husband as she would be vulnerable with Christ.

  30. David Nickol permalink
    November 16, 2010 1:46 pm

    I do not have time to back up this critique in detail, but in reading the above attempts to give a definite meaning to “wives submit to your husbands” it seems to me that all of them are mired in cultural presuppositions of gender roles—what men and women are “really” like.

    But isn’t the idea of specific gender roles endorsed by the Church? What is it about being a woman that makes someone ineligible for the priesthood? Surely it’s not merely a matter of bodily organs.

  31. Ryan Klassen permalink
    November 16, 2010 2:50 pm

    Karenjo12;

    That is a great question. How may a husband enforce submission on his wife? I think perhaps the analogy with Christ and the church is instructive here as well. What does Christ do when his church is not submissive to his will? Can we go even further with this analogy? What does it mean for the church to submit to Christ, and is that submission the same as the submission of the wife to the husband?

  32. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
    November 16, 2010 2:59 pm

    @David N.

    yes, the Church does speak of such things as “complementary natures” and the like. My point, however, is that in very many discussions—including this one—people confuse specific cultural examples for these intrinsic differences in nature. One only needs to look to the history of the interpretation of this passage to see instances of this.

    Picking up your last point here, perhaps this will provide a path into resolving the original question about submission of wives: what is it in the nature of women that makes them ineligible for the priesthood? I would venture that this should be closely linked to the dichotomy in Paul’s writing.

  33. phosphorious permalink
    November 16, 2010 4:15 pm

    Ronald King,

    “St. Paul is actually telling the wife to come out of hiding and speak directly to her husband as she would speak to Christ with openness in revealing to him directly what she needs from him, her disappointments with him, her fears of him and her anger with him.

    But ‘submit’ is not the word I would use to describe such behavior.

  34. Ronald King permalink
    November 16, 2010 4:28 pm

    It is critical to know the interpersonal neurobiology of men and women and how gene expression and mutation occur in response to perceived safety or threat in order to develop a different understanding the word submit.
    We must first know what it means to be human physiologically and how physiological responses influence human relationships. The male is the source of safety or threat to the female. The female either submits to the male in fear or relates to the male in safety.

  35. Ronald King permalink
    November 16, 2010 7:09 pm

    Phosphorious, Submit can also be a presentation of thoughts, feelings, etc. for the husband’s consideration or for the wife’s consideration.
    Gottman’s research observing couples at the U of WA over 25 years revealed when marriages are failing there is chronic physiological arousal; men fail to accept influence from their wives either through withdrawal or escalation of negative feelings with domineering and contemptuous behavior; and, men are more likely to maintain distressing thoughts. Another critical finding was that de-escalation of conflict through behaviors that soothed the male predicted positive results in the marriage.
    What I interpreted from his research is the fragile ego of the male being the source of distress to him and to his wife. This fragility seems to be related to the underlying sense of shame in males in the sense that males can never be good enough to accomplish the abstract perfection of success in order to ease their internal pain.
    When the wife just looks at her husband with disappointment that shame is triggered and the defense against that shame is anger.

  36. November 16, 2010 7:31 pm

    That’s a nice bit of victim blaming, there, Ronald King. Men mistreat their wives because the wives aren’t sufficiently grovelling. If men think they’re failures, maybe the men should bloody well work harder and not expect adulation from their wives.

  37. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
    November 16, 2010 9:22 pm

    Here is another way to try to sort this out. I went poking around to see in what other contexts Paul uses the word “submit.” I don’t speak Greek, so I have to rely on the translation to render the same verb in Greek into the same word in English. But the one passage that leaped out at me was this one in Romans (13:4-7):

    For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

    This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

    Here we can step away from our preconceptions about gender and get to the root of the word submit: what, in this context, does St. Paul mean by submission. Can this tell us anything about what “wives, submit to your husbands” was supposed to mean?

  38. phosphorious permalink
    November 16, 2010 9:42 pm

    Ronald King,

    1) So the wife has to act so as to preserve the husband’s ego. . . but the husband does not have to preserve the wife’s ego? Is that the assymetry that the commandment enforces?

    2) What you describe sounds much more like a hostage negotiation than a marriage.

  39. November 17, 2010 6:36 am

    “What you describe sounds much more like a hostage negotiation than a marriage”

    HA!

  40. Ronald King permalink
    November 17, 2010 8:43 am

    Karenjo, phosphorious I think you misinterpreted what I wrote. I described traits in a marriage that are harmful and the strategies that are employed that either escalate or de-escalate the problem. If you read what I wrote before that you would have seen that my belief is that the husband must prove to his wife that she is safe with him.
    Phosphorious, I worked with couples for 30 years and yes, it can look like a hostage situation when suppressed feelings begin to emerge in an atmosphere that is protective and safe.
    When the husbands would come into my office I would ask them if they are willing and strong enough to hear criticism and anger from their wives without being defensive and contemptuous. Once that was established then I worked with the wife to express her fear and anger through the vulnerability of pain and taught her that her husband can also be hurt by her words and actions.
    First, the environment in the office had to be safe and it was up to the husband to make it safe so his wife could be direct and open with her feelings.
    Submit actually means to present to in Paul’s context.
    Males and females speak different emotional languages and misinterpret what is said or not said so we had to learn to speak clearly with one another.

  41. David Nickol permalink
    November 17, 2010 10:36 am

    I don’t know if it was what Ronald was saying, but it seems to me if a woman is more capable of de-escalating a conflict than a man, that speaks better for women than it does for men. It wouldn’t be “groveling” to attempt to de-escalate a conflict unless the woman abandons conflict resolution altogether and just submits.

  42. Bruce in Kansas permalink
    November 17, 2010 12:38 pm

    It seems to me the key passage is the husband loving his wife as Christ loves His Church and delivering himself up for her.

    So for the wife to submit to this is really for her to allow that mission (her husband delivering himself up for her) to be the priority in the relationship.

    Wives should submit to their husbands delivering themselves up for their wives.

    To the extent that a husband doesn’t love his wife as Christ loves His Church, he’s not being a Christian husband. He is not accomplishing the mission his wife is called to be support.

  43. phosphorious permalink
    November 17, 2010 2:16 pm

    Ronald King,

    The problem is that the bare imperative “Wives submit to your husbands” sounds as if it assumes the superiority of men. Women, bless their little hearts, just aren’t as smart or as capable as men, and so they should accept male dominance as natural and “good for them.” This is certainly the way C.S. Lewis understood things, but it strikes me as incredibly condescending (and I will leave aside the question of whether it rises to outright misogyny).

    You’re claiming that “submit” here doesn’t mean that, but rather that the wife must “submit” herself just as she might “submit” a job application, for review and appraisal. That’s an interesting gloss on the passage, but it hardly qualifies as a mainstream interpretation. C.S. Lewis’ seems to have won this particular argument in the minds of many Christians.

  44. Ronald King permalink
    November 17, 2010 4:38 pm

    Phosphorious, It is not as simple as submitting a job application. If the husband is insecure it triggers an instinctive response of fear in the wife. She must be able to directly communicate(submit) to him her distress as she would to Christ. It is imperative that the husband communicates to his wife that she is safe to express her distress even if his internal response is anger and hurt. He must be aware of the harm these feelings create if they are acted out against his wife. You know–once bitten twice shy. So he must be unselfish regardless of what negative feelings are influencing him.
    It is in the most intimate relationships that we are most vulnerable to being hurt and men must prove to themselves and their spouses that they are strong enough to let their loved ones know that they will love their spouses’ anger, fear, disappoiintment, etc. with them, and it is safe to express these feelings directly without any sugar coating.
    That is the foundation for a marriage without dominance and one with mutual submission.

  45. phosphorious permalink
    November 17, 2010 5:27 pm

    That is the foundation for a marriage without dominance and one with mutual submission.

    But this is the problem: the commandment is for wives to submit to their husbands, NOT for husbands to submit to their wives.

    Talk of “mutual submission” is a lot of left wing, politically correct, feminazi modernist hooey. . . which I absolutely agree with.

    But I’m under no illusions that this is how the Church understands things.

  46. David Nickol permalink
    November 17, 2010 7:15 pm

    Would we say, in this day and age, “Slaves, obey your masters”? Wouldn’t we be perfectly justified in saying, “Slaves, escape from your masters if you can”?

    So why should we twist ourselves into pretzels coming up with an interpretation of “Wives, submit to your husbands” that we can live with? Why go to the trouble of inventing a meaning just to salvage the words?

  47. Andreas permalink
    November 17, 2010 9:44 pm

    I’m surprised nobody brought this encyclical up. John Paul II wrote an encyclical called Mulieris Dignitatem, on the Dignity of Women,

    The subjection in marriage is mutual, not one sided like in the relationship of Christ and the Church,

    To quote the encyclical,
    “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.”

  48. Kathryn permalink
    November 19, 2010 8:33 pm

    For what my thoughts may be worth to you on this.

    This has always boiled down to submition of the wife being exteporateously defined by the husband in question.

    If he’s a selfish creep submission = doormat.

    My hands do what I want, I never have to admonish them, but then again I never use them for purposes the were ill suted to.

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