A Reader Wonders about Some of the Marriagey passages in the NT

He writes:

How does the Church interpret the following scriptural passages pertaining to men as head of their families? Do you know of a good book or article that explains what the Magisterium says about how to construe them?
Eph 5.21-28
“21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

1 Cor 11.3
“3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband[a] is the head of his wife,[b] and God is the head of Christ.”

1 Cor 11.7-12
“7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection[c] of God; but woman is the reflection[d] of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of[e] authority on her head,[f] because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”

Col 3.18-19
“18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.”

The Church, as a general rule, almost never offers us The Definitive Explanation of What Each Verse in a Passage Means. Scripture is far too rich and multi-valent and allows for all sorts of interpretations. For the Church’s summary of the theology of marriage, go here.

For a fine piece of instruction, see JPII’s Letter to Families.

One other suggestion, see the Ignatius Study Bible for Scott Hahn’s and Curtis Mitch’s informed commentary on these passages. The key to understanding Paul’s theology of marriage is that it is a sacrament that is, like all sacraments, totally referred to Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the Church. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. Not a lot of room for bullying and domination in that since men with nails through their hands have trouble making fists. Likewise, wives are to love their husband as the Church loves Christ, with humility and gratitude and confident love, not craven servility. The master passage for interpreting the whole thing, in JPII’s thought, is this:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)

All marriage is to construed in the context of that mutually humble love and respect.

I’m not sure that scratches where you itch, but I hope it helps.

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  • Marthe Lépine

    I also have a question along these lines (or an opinion in the shape of a question?): Nowadays, the Church does not teach that one has to follow the exact wording of that other part of Scripture where slaves are urged to remain obedient… Societies have evolved somewhat in Western countries. I say “somewhat” because there still remain some forms of slavery in the form of human trafficking, for one example. But slavery as it existed in St-Paul’s time, and as it was tolerated by the Church centuries ago, no longer exists. Could it also be that we should read some of the verses quoted by your reader as having been, not superseded, but more evolved with time and do not need to be taken at their word only? Of course, there are still a lot of men who want to control or dominate their wives, even Christian men, unfortunately, and a literal interpretation of those verses seems to grant them this right, and many probably do not want to lose that control… Maybe Ephesians 5:21 needs to be more emphasized nowadays than “Wives, be subject to your husbands…”

    • orual’s kindred

      DISCLAIMER! WARNING! What follows are the comments of a not-very-learned laywoman with a keyboard:

      Could it also be that we should read some of the verses quoted by your reader as having been, not superseded, but more evolved with time and do not need to be taken at their word only?

      I think that’s quite possible.

      Also, the verse continues with Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. I think the call to give up oneself for another is still viewed with discomfort at best; and dying, even in a metaphorical sense, is still considered at least as difficult as submitting. As such, it would seem that both men and women are called to sacrifice, whether in a strictly literal reading or not.

      I also notice that these lines are centered around God, in particular Christ’s leadership and willingness to suffer for our sake. Chapter 11 of First Corinthians, Verse 3, mentions that Christ is the head of every man. (I find that I can process Bible passages better when written out that way 😀 ) Verses 11-12 says in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.

      I would think that these passages are more than just some how-to guide for sexual politics (especially given that fascinating bit about the angels). Perhaps Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her should be remembered and emphasized in these discussions as well.

    • Jared Clark

      If they want to control or dominate, they’ll have to look elsewhere than the Books of the New Testament to justify their pride. Husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loves the Church, which is authoritative…but it also involves service and, ultimately, being willing to die if needed. That’s love, not control.

    • St. Paul’s point is not, “Slavery is A-OK,” but rather, “Obey legitimate authority.”

      Slavery as a socially and legally recognized institution is exceedingly rare these days, at least in the West. (Wikipedia describes various kinds of slavery today.) But slaves need not be obedient to illegal masters.

      The abolition of slavery is not the main point of the Gospel, but it is a necessary by-product of our radical equality in Christ. This was Paul’s approach to Philemon: yes, slavery may be legal, and slaves should not treat masters unjustly; but masters should treat slaves first and foremost as brothers and sisters in Christ. Which raises the question, why have slaves at all? Writ large, this led to Christian societies gradually abandoning the practice of slavery until the colonization of Africa and the Americas made it popular again – primarily by ginning up a “racial” reason the non-Europeans were not brothers and sisters in Christ.

      Similarly, our radical equality in Christ shifted the way we think of marriage. If women and men are equal in Christ, then daughters are not property to be given away in marriage; consent is required because they are capable of giving or withholding consent. Therefore, it is wrong for a husband (for example) to abuse his wife. Marriage is not abolished because marriage was never ONLY a power relationship. But it was significantly modified by the application of Christian doctrine.

      Nothing in these passages is untrue – though Paul’s examples assume a different social context than we have today: we must still obey legitimate authority, and spouses do have a certain legitimate authority over one another – an authority of charity, that commands how any authority given by civil law should be expressed.

  • Gary Keith Chesterton

    It has always seemed so clear to me. Both spouses have to have a spirit of submission. Unless each spouse is willing to say “I submit to you, for the good of our marriage. Let’s do it your way,” it’s not going to work. Note that each spouse doesn’t HAVE to say it. Just be willing to.

  • One interesting interpretation of 1 Cor 11.7-12 is that, in some mysterious way, men mediate humanity to women.
    I’ll emphasize that this reading in no way undermines the equality of the sexes. Imagine that a father gives his son $40 in the form of two $20 bills and tells him to give one bill to his sister. Both brother and sister end up with equal amounts. One’s $20 is as good as the other’s.
    The only difference is procedural. The brother is not the source, but he received his gift from the source in an immediate way and served as a medium through which the sister received hers.
    Male mediatorship also helps to explain doctrinal questions such as how Christ’s universal expiation can apply to women and why only men can receive ordination. And like all of God’s gifts, this mediation is a call to service.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    “part of Scripture where slaves are urged to remain obedient”

    Thing is, Paul was advising people how to act in a Christian manner. In a milieu in which Greek men treated women as mere sexual appliances, it was revolutionary to tell them to love their wives as they loved their own bodies. (The Greeks were body-worshipers.) He told wives not to exploit their new-found freedom from the back of the house and go all hog wild. He told Christian soldiers how a Christian soldier should bear himself. He told Christian slaves how a Christian slave should behave. He told Christian masters how Christian masters should behave. That does not mean he was advocating or approving the military or slavery or even Greek-style marriage. Social institutions as such were beyond his bailiwick. If you find yourself in this station, you should comport yourself as befits a Christian; but the Late Modern, accustomed to social engineering, insists on reading such things in the context of social engineering.