“Wives, be submissive…” Wait — What?
I have never heard a priest preach on this Ephesians passage. More times than not the presider selects the secondary option provided in the lectionary, which omits any references to submission or swaps out the passage entirely. Why? Do some pastors find this subject too sensitive to approach?
I’ll admit that this line may be cringe-worthy, especially for cultures that praise women’s rights and equality for all. It tends to be one of those lines of scripture we brush to the side and avoid altogether. But we shouldn’t read any verse on its own. The text that surrounds it sometimes offers more context. Perhaps we ought to focus more on the previous verse: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:21)
I think the part of this scripture that challenges people is the word “submission” (as some translations use), which has picked up negative connotations and is often seen as the opposite of dominance. Though Saint Paul uses the analogy of marriage, the kind of submission he is speaking about in his letter is the kind of submission Jesus lived out in his life. Everywhere Jesus went crowds followed him, wanting to spend time with him. After meeting the Samaritan woman at the well numerous other Samaritans “begged him to stay with them” (John 4:40), so he stayed. Jesus submitted out of love, even at times sacrificing rest to preach and heal. He healed the outcast and ate with the lowly. And when the adulterous woman was about to be stoned by the authorities, Jesus did not condemn her. Instead he loved her. Jesus’ submission did not give in to civil authorities nor did it permit any kind of oppressive force. Jesus’ submissive life was about peaceful non-resistance, service, respect for all people, and self-sacrifice — all out of love for God.
Unfortunately, this scripture verse — especially when preached by men who might use it to demean women — has lost its beauty. If we consider the verse in this one-sided way it is indeed cringe-worthy. Pauline — or Christ-like — submission is about mutual surrender. Whether husband or wife, Paul is saying both should be submissive to each other out of that same kind of love. They are equal in God’s eyes. Each needs to acknowledge this, first and foremost. Paul goes on to say that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” (Eph 5:28) He places the husband in the place of Christ, saying he needs to build up his wife and be willing to lay down his life for her. We can’t deny that the wife also should be willing to lay her life down for her husband, to advocate for him, and give her all for him, just as Christ did for us. That is love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus says. (John 15:13) Jesus’ short life on earth was about nothing but building others up and advocating for them. He submitted to others not only by advocating for the blind or the tax collectors or the sinners, he even advocated for the law! “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)
A few months ago Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston was giving a homily at an ordination of new transitional deacons. He spoke about how the word “servant” has become a dirty word. No one wants to be called a servant. We instead call them domestic caretakers, home cleaning providers, or au pairs, as if serving another is seen as inhumane or unjust. We see servants as lowly, commanded by a master. Yet we easily acknowledge that Jesus came to serve and not to be served. Why is this? Jesus was never a doormat. His master was God the Father and his service to God was out of love and in the care of the other. This is Paul’s understanding of submission.
Submission means to lower oneself, not to be “worse than,” but to not be greater than the other. I just am. And the other simply is. There are no degrees of “better-ness” to be found. Submission means you and I stand before God, in love, as servants. Husband and wife in that divine sacramental bond also stand before each other, submissive to God, and in a similar way submissive to each other. They give of themselves. They respect and build up the other. They sacrifice their own wants in loving service. This is the spirit in which Paul writes.
Is this scripture rooted in its own cultural history? Like all historical writings, of course. Does it have hints of patriarchy more accepted in Paul’s time? Yes. These realities are why Catholics cannot always take scripture literally. But this does not mean we cannot find truth in this section of Paul’s letter.
In a world of selfishness where too many ask, “What’s in it for me?” Paul offers a sober reminder that all our relationships, especially marriage, must be rooted in mutual self-giving. When one dives into the sanctifying grace that comes from submissive love, one discovers a letting go of the ego and allows oneself to be handed over to the divine and experience an even deeper relational bond with others.