Wives, Obey Your Husbands…

Our readers respond

My last column, "Wives, obey your husbands?" was intentionally provocative… and it worked!

Over the years, as I attended different parishes during college and beyond, I noticed something odd: Depending on the priest, we’d hear different versions of readings from Colossians and Ephesians about how a man and a woman should love and honor each other.

The full text of this New Testament letter from Paul includes this advice: "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as it behoveth in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and be not bitter towards them. Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, provoke not your children to indignation, lest they be discouraged."

But sometimes, entire verses would be omitted to avoid the part about how wives should be subject to their husbands. What was going on?

Turns out that since 1998, U.S. Catholic priests have had a choice: They can choose not to read these verses, or on alternate years (it’s on an A, B and C system, and the Colossians reading is only assigned to Year A) they can choose an entirely new reading.

Is there a right way to handle this beautiful-but potentially confusing-reading? I spoke with two liturgical scholars and priests, and quoted them in my article. Soon, BustedHalo readers were sending in thoughtful and thought-provoking emails in response.

One theme that emerged was the need for context with this-and any other-Bible verse. As Mike wrote in, "The church plops us down in the middle of these letters and stories without giving us any of the context-that’s the job of the priest in the homily," and often that falls short, too.

Read a few of these letters and you’ll learn a bit more about the context of this well-known verse on marriage and family, and then email me at puresex@bustedhalo.com to join the discussion.

Old School?

Dear Christine,
Really liked what you wrote. John F. Baldovin, S.J is right about the necessity of explaining the context. You can’t read (or delete) Ephesians 5:22-24 without reading what goes before it- ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.’ As a man and husband I think we should get rid of verses 25-27 because they seem to indicate that while my wife is enjoined to submit to me, I have to love her as Christ loved the church.

We know that Christ loved the church to death. Jesus sacrificed everything for the church. In our self centered, comfort seeking, ego driven world I’d love to see the man who lives up to that one!

I may be an old school chauvinist at this point but I reckon any woman who could find THAT man would be more than happy to submit to him!!!

Thanks again for your words,

Lack of Understanding

Dear Christine,
I was a little surprised by your approach to this Bible verse. Ephesians 5 is my favorite passage in the Bible. I knew for many years that this was the one reading that I definitely wanted in my wedding. I truly feel that it paints the ultimate picture of the self-giving love that is required in a marriage. In fact, I think the call to men to love their wives as Christ loved the Church sets a standard so much higher than what the passage is asking of women. The husband is being asked to be willing to lay down his life for his wife! And give himself fully and completely to us! All we have to do is return the love we are being shown by our husband.

I don’t think the issue is in the wording of the passage, or even in the possibility of a fundamentalist interpretation like Fr. Baldovin mentions. The issue is in a lack of understanding of what the passage is asking of us, and what the Church gleams from the reading to teach us about marriage. Any reading of the Catechism, of Gaudium et Spes, or of the teachings of John Paul II will paint a clear picture of how we are to interpret the passage.

I wish more people would use this passage to explain the beauty of the marriage covenant, instead of using it to drive more tensions between women and the Church.


Man of Faith

The way it was explained to me is that husbands are supposed to be the priest or pastor to his family. And husbands are called to love their wives as Jesus loves the church. And if a husband leads in this manner then his wife should be happy to support his leadership and decision-making, because the decisions are led by god for the best interest of their relationship and their family and children.

But we all know that in most cases the wives have a large role in helping their husband with decisions that will impact the family. They say you can be right all the time, or you can be married. In a family the husband and wife must come to decisions together.

But if a man is a good leader and his decisions are based on teachings from the bible, then there is nothing wrong with the wife submitting to his decisions. In the dating process a woman can learn more about their potential husband and if he proves himself to be a leader that is faithful and fearful of the lord, then she can accept his proposal for marriage with confidence. But if this man they are dating regularly makes bad choices for the couple, then she would be better off marrying someone else.

Like “an eye for an eye,” it may seem shocking to modern sensibilities, but for the time, it may have been an advance over contemporary practice.

The big problem in America is that so many men follow the ways of the world, like premarital sex, contraception, abortion, not going to church, partying every week and getting drunk regularly. It is difficult to find a man who is faithful to god in this modern age. That is why so many marriages end in divorce. Because many men are not faithful to God’s teachings. One of my, friends was telling me that it is very common for married men he had talked to have committed adultery while married. It made me fearful of what he might have done to his own wife, because he was already married and I was one of his groomsmen. But I asked him where he got his information and adultery being acceptable. And he said he got it from his coworkers and friends. And I told him I got my information from the bible. And then he just became quiet and dropped the subject.

I believe it is just as rare to find a man of faith for a husband as it is to find a beautiful woman who is also strong in her faith. When you find this rare person in your life, you should be thankful that god placed this wonderful person in your life.

I am not sure if this is what you were looking for, but I read your article and wanted to respond. Both of my grandparents had golden anniversaries before they died.

Sensei Ronald J.F. Panlilio

Equal Opportunity

Dr. Whelan,
I really think those who omit those "controversial" verses from Mass readings lack courage and imagination.

They were in the mass for the Holy Family this past year. I went to mass at a liberal parish, which while it did not omit the complete reading, substituted a rendition of it from the CEV bible (an awful translation, but apparently somehow less offensive).

Anyway, I understand that the reading has to be understood in the context of the state of marriage at the time. Apparently, telling husbands to love their wives was a needed. Perhaps some marriages at the time were not good love relationships. I am not a Bible scholar so I don’t know specifically what particular historical issues might have been behind these admonitions.

Like "an eye for an eye," it may seem shocking to modern sensibilities, but for the time, it may have been an advance over contemporary practice. The law of retribution above, for its time, set a limit on revenge. The compensation you demand for a loss should not exceed the value of the loss. Supposedly, acceptable vengeance at the time would have been way out of proportion with the original injury.

Personally, I think the admonitions addressed to husbands and wives specifically apply equally to both. Wives should love their husbands and husbands should obey their wives in the context of an equitable relationship.

Anyway, if preachers had guts and imagination, they might take on the issue of controversial readings. What’s the worst that could happen? Some people will say they are "offended." So what will they do? Leave the parish, or Catholicism? Unlikely—their faith must be weak indeed if that would happen.


Cool Challenge

Provocative article, but as history is important here: The passage is actually not a denigration of women. Rather, we need to look at the context in which Paul is writing.

At that time, men went out to work and were virtually enslaved by the Romans. They got crapped on each and every day and probably came home weary and beaten down and not thinking much of themselves.

So what happens? The wives began to say, "Why did I get stuck with this schlub? Why can’t these MEN stick up for themselves and improve their lot in life.

The men received no more respect at home than they did from the Romans who treated them like dogs. So Paul’s exhortation is not for wives to become "less than" but rather, to be "submissive." To give the guy a break, to take care of them, to not think of themselves as superior or to look down on them because of who they are.

So when they come home-his call is to submit to their marriage vows-those "for better or worse" moments.

The text gives lots of evidence for this if you read the whole chapter-which is only a few lines. The line before that famous one says "Be subordinate to one another." And if you look at the stuff above it-it asks the readers to think of thanksgiving, to imitate God, and to not fall into immorality and drunkenness.

All of this would be fair temptations in a world where people were beaten down and where other men were probably much more attractive in comparison.

The more troublesome line in my opinion is: For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body.

As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.

But how are we submissive to Christ? We know that we aren’t better or above God. But we also don’t think we are garbage either. I think that’s the mindset he’s going for. God doesn’t look down on us, even though he knows we aren’t very good at being like God. So then, women need to not look down on the men even though they know they are married to a man who gets his butt kicked each and every day.

Ephesians as a whole is really all about this theme. It’s thought to be written by an Apostle of Paul’s and not Paul himself (though the debates roll on about that). In General the book’s theme is simple: Being holy isn’t about being a holy roller or being superior—rather it’s about integration. Holiness is wholeness and the road to holiness may be long, but the directions are simple. Don’t argue, don’t insult, don’t quarrel. Be kind and be mutually understanding and forgiving. In trying to do these things, we show that we have been marked by the Holy Spirit.

The church plops us down in the middle of these letters and stories without giving us any of the context-that’s the job of the priest in the homily (and usually he doesn’t do it either).

So, in general, when you are "submissive" to your husband—or when I am to my wife—it’s an opportunity to not look down on their faults or our lots in life together-but rather to look on one another with love and compassion. We know our spouses faults better than anyone else-do we look past them and love them despite them-or do we look to "better game" them with someone else or by denigrating them to our families and friends.

Cool challenge, huh?

Read the column: "Wives, obey your husbands?"