Both Husbands and Wives are to be Submissive to One Another
Ephesians 5:22-33 – revisited
22Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.
In some traditions, this passage is read on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s. It is known as elbow Sunday – some husbands like to elbow their wives jokingly to pay attention to these words.
Yet, the misinterpretation of this passage and its foundation to the history of Christian marriage theology over the centuries is nothing to joke about, nor is it something of which the Christian church should be proud. I put this on my list of one of the most egregious sins of the church which has paved the road to much depravity insofar as it has pervaded whole cultures and societies with pseudo-Christian values.
In the second of my five years of seminary, I was required to begin learning Spanish since I was studying to minister in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles which is largely Hispanic. Rather than have solely classroom instruction, I sought permission to travel to the heart of Mexico for an immersion experience in the beautiful state of Michoacán where one of my classmates’ family lived in a small village of about four thousand people. For six weeks, I had a memorable experience of reveling in the culture, cuisine, music, festivities, and infectious friendly spirit of the people. Since they didn’t speak a word of English, I was compelled to use my Spanish. I’m grateful that my ability to give intelligible sermons in Spanish when I was ordained a few years later was because of this educational opportunity.
But there was one experience in my cultural visit that made me uncomfortable. A devout Christian family invited me to their home for dinner because they had heard of a visiting seminarian. It was a family with seven daughters and one son. The head of the house, Salvador, decided to slaughter a goat, un chivo, in my honor. At that time in my life I did eat meat, and I still recall how tasty and tender it was. After dinner, I noticed the daughters were not invited to participate in the living room conversation; they were clearing the plates, sweeping the floor, cleaning the kitchen, and serving drinks and dessert to the men. I jumped up to assist them – some of the daughters were young adults older than I. I was taught it was proper for children (and guests) to at least take your own plate to the kitchen, or optimally grab one or two nearby plates as well – by doing so you show your appreciation for your meal.
Salvador boomed in a loud and intimidating voice, “Pablo, no lo hagas” – don’t do that. Apparently, that was women’s work. Even the youngest child, a boy of 15 years, was not expected to do these domestic chores. I quickly adjusted to the customs of my host family and accepted their gracious hospitality. In coming days, I spoke in the village with some of the muchachas, the young women. I listened to many stories of lost opportunities of education and business, and the struggle to advance, because they needed to imbue the culturally-expected stance of submission, giving the opportunities to the men. They were to enthusiastically accept more menial roles so that the men could flourish.
My friend Salvador, in his zeal for mandating that his daughters clean the dishes while the men conversed in the sala, was simply doing his parental duty to ensure they grow up to make good submissive wives, increasing their appeal to potential mates.
This story of cultural grooming of women to be submissive to men from an early age, could may as well be a story from a family in Eastern Europe, Africa, or the United States – from virtually anywhere.
The above scriptural passage must not be taken out of context – it must be seen together with the next ten verses, especially this one:
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church.
There are many cases of identified domestic violence and abuse perpetrated by men that can be traced to cultural grooming which resolutely denies the latter part of this passage, and even greater numbers of marriages where women have been afraid to speak out against abuse due to deference to their husbands. Indeed, the movements of women’s suffrage, women’s liberation, feminism, support for LGBTQ rights, and the dire need for consent education, are all fighting in part against this pseudo-Christian societal conditioning.
Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church. How deeply did Christ love the church? So deeply, that he died for the church. Husbands thereby are called to live selflessly: to serve, protect, and die for their wives. Husbands and wives, therefore, are called to be submissive to each other. This mutual respect is the foundation of intimacy.
Is the husband still called to be the head of the household? Yes, but it must be done with utmost respect, and a submissive attitude. There is a natural order of some roles which become gender-based. Ultimately, however, all humans have both masculine and feminine qualities. Let’s say that two-thirds of men are masculine insofar as they are decisive, strong, confident, and take the lead. These men may also have underlying feminine qualities, like being sensitive, kind, thoughtful, nurturing, and compassionate. WAIT! Although these are stereotypically feminine qualities, a fully developed definition of masculine should include all of these qualities. A man is most evolved when he can at times be thoughtful, kind, and compassionate. Similarly, the other one-third of men can lead with their best qualities of being sensitive, kind, thoughtful, nurturing, and compassionate.
The men of ancient cultures went out and hunted, while the pregnant women and young children stayed at the hearth. This balance was upset in Jean Auel’s female character Ayla from The Clan of the Cave Bear. She clandestinely learns to hunt, defying the norm that only men hunt. She took the lead with her ability to feed the community when necessary. When found out, she was banished from her community for this offense, and suffered excruciating pain due to that isolation, and even more anguish from being forcibly separated, forever, from her toddler son. She discerned not to submit to her male-dominated clan, but rather to her inner spirit, where God dwells. God had given her the gifts of being able to hunt, to lead, to be courageous, and to provide. By listening to her inner-voice she became a steward of her God-given talents. Thus, her species survived and evolved.
After many months Ayla eventually meets a man who accepts her masculine qualities of hunting, providing, and leadership. They marry their lives and talents, in a bonded relationship where they can both lead and both be nurturing to the extent of their innate talents.
When we are baptized into Christ Jesus, there is not a separate rite for women and men. It is the same rite for male and female – we are baptized into community with God, as children of God. Thereafter, as Christians, we are all called to develop our ability to love, depending on what we have been given.
Jesus gave us two commandments:
Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37-38).
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you (John 13:34).
How are we to love one another? All of Jesus’ life is instruction for us, but especially his central act – submitting to his Father’s will. Recall his words in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion:
My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will (Matt 26:39b).
At the wedding at Cana in John chapter two, the mother of Jesus, Mary, takes a decisive leadership role. It is interesting there is not even a mention of Joseph in this passage, though he likely accompanied his spouse and son. It was Mary who became aware of the need for more wine. She exercised a parental leadership quality by telling her son, they have no more wine. Jesus responds, Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come. I flashback briefly to my own mother saying, “Take out the trash,” to which I would respond, “Why, it’s not even full”.
Next, we have a female, not in the context of marriage, yet nevertheless exercising leadership in a decisive manner as she says to the servants, Do whatever he tells you. These are the most poignant recorded words of Mary. These words are the core of the early Christian community’s devotion to Jesus’ mother, a devotion which has lasted for millennia. These are words addressed to every disciple of Christ, to “do whatever he tells you”. At this event Jesus submits to the will of his mother. Mary is truly nurturing, yet decisive. The lesson here is that we humans, within and outside the context of marriage or romantic relationships, are most evolved when we exercise our inherent masculine and feminine qualities.
Jesus went so far as teaching his disciples that to be a leader, you must be the servant of all (Matt 23:11). He sealed this lesson at the last supper when he washed their feet, commanding them to go forth and do the same (John 13:14-15). It was at this event, upon receiving the instruction of servant leadership, the disciples were ordained apostles.
It is scripturally and theologically inaccurate for a husband to lord his power over his wife, expecting her to submit to him. For the husband to be the head of his household, in the role of priest of his family, he needs to accept the call to be the servant of his wife.
For the married couple, or anyone in relationship – you are called to each be submissive to one another. This is the way to love, respectfully. This is the way of intimacy.