When submission becomes a false idol

When submission becomes a false idol July 11, 2015

First, the disclaimer: My husband and I have problems (you don’t live a thousand miles apart if you don’t), but I have never been afraid of my husband, nor has he ever behaved in a controlling or abusive way towards me or our children. I’ve been afraid for him, many times, but never afraid of him.

This blog post is a response to the stories and heart-felt struggles of many other good women, as shared with me over the last three years. In many ways, it is a post TO those women, a reminder, and, since I find myself repeating this message over and over again, a handy way to avoid having to retype the same passages and ideas every time misguided interpretations of wifely “submission” or horrible, awful, damaging Christian marriage advice come up in conversation.  

Now, on to the post. 

Dear, wonderful, struggling Catholic and Christian wives,

Stop trying to convert or change your husbands’ hard hearts through your wifely submission.

There are Christian and even Catholic writers out there who will try to convince you that your husband’s abusiveness, emotional detachment, defensiveness, anger, lust and infidelity, or immaturity is merely evidence that you, his wife, have not submitted sufficiently to soften his heart and seduce him into becoming a better husband, father, and head of the family.

You love Christ, you love the Church, and you love your children. You want to love your husband. You want your husband to love you. So you pick yourself up and try harder, assenting to every whim and decision your husband makes, no matter how degrading or disagreeable, playing the role he allows you or expects you to play, and tolerating cruelty, neglect, or disdain in return. You meditate on the trials of St. Monica and imagine that a time will come when your husband will see your self-sacrificial love and be slain by remorse, repentance, and compassion, and then you will finally have the rightly-ordered Christian marriage which you have idolized for so long. If only you can become perfectly meek and submissive and carry your cross in the meantime.

Dear ladies, this isn’t God’s plan for marriage. And it isn’t what the Church requires of you, or what St. Paul was getting at when he described marriage as a type of the relationship of Christ and His Church.

Casti Connubii 27 and 28 says, speaking of wifely submission as understood by the Church (emphasis mine),

27. This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.28. Again, this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time. In fact, if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family.

Now, I think this is pretty clear. Submission is qualified, and subordinate to the demands of a woman’s conscience, reason, and dignity. For a wife to submit, her husband must first embrace right reason and act according to the dignity of his wife (and, I would say, his children).

Frankly, the whole “right reason and dignity” clause basically means that the whole industry of “submit and he’ll become virtuous” marriage advice is utter and complete shit. If you cooperate with evil (and anything that neglects or acts against the good of wife or children is, make no mistake about it, an evil) in the hope of softening your husband’s heart, you have essentially made an idol out of your husband or marriage and placed it above your own conscience.

Now, on to St. Paul. Ephesians 5:22-33:

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[a] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[b] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

As St. Paul clarifies at the end, this entire passage is primarily about how marriage is an image of Christ and his Church. In doing so, he explicitly calls for marriage to reflect the relationship of Christ to his Church. While verse 22 tends to get all the attention, the really radical passage is verse 25-33. You see, Christ’s self-sacrifice comes first; Christ sanctifies the Church and enables her to submit to his leadership. St. Paul then explains that this is how husbands should love their wives, with the same love with which they love themselves–in response to which, wives should respect their husbands.

Think about this again. The marriage of Christ and his Church came after the crucifixion–there was no Church when Christ walked the earth. Christ’s call for us to take up our crosses and follow him only comes after he takes up his cross. The leadership a husband ought to wield is a leadership akin to Christ’s–a leadership that proposes, but does not impose; a leadership that points to a purpose and end, but invites our full and fully willing cooperation in finding and travelling the road to the given end.

And yes, when a husband leads with a servant’s heart, with Christ’s self-sacrificial love, the only appropriate response is to yield to that love and be unified under a single vision for the family.

But if your husband is broken, flawed, mired in addiction or mental illness or just plain old sin? The path of love may be to remove yourself from the reach of a man who is ensnared by addiction and lashing out violently, so as to reduce the harm he would do to his own soul by his actions towards you. The path of love may be to guard a man’s children when you cannot guard the man himself from his own sinfulness. Your conscience may guide to you stand up for justice for yourself and your children when your husband is unjust to you.

Please, if you’ve been trying to tame your husband through submitting to his temper, his vices, his tyranny–please, remember you owe a yet higher allegiance. Find a peaceful, quiet place and ask God and yourself: Is this reasonable? Is this in keeping with my dignity and that of my children? Am I honored or loved as the heart of the home? Have I claimed for myself the chief place in love? What would that look like?

Then listen. And do not be afraid.

(For further reading: the USCCB statement on domestic violence, whether physical or psychological.)

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  • Many wives have never actually tried submitting. I would say this is good advice to wives you have actually or are biblically submitted to their husbands; but otherwise it can come off as a justification for wives to be disobedient or not submitted.

  • This is directed at women who have, typically, beaten themselves up for years trying to be holy enough to save their husbands and marriages, only to reap abuse and disdain.

    That said, I don't think any woman should "submit" to a man who has not *first* demonstrated Christ-like love and leadership. If a woman finds submission difficult or impossible–or even just frightening and offputting–I submit (haha) that the *first* place her husband should look is towards himself. And perhaps that's where the couple's advisors and support should look too. There should not be an entire industry of Christian marriage self-help books that lay all the responsibility for submission on wives and absolve husbands of the responsibility or expectation of self-sacrifice for "unsubmissive" wives.

  • Well agreed that a husband needs to be m Christlike, but a wives submission is predicated simply on the fact that she is the wife, not on anything the husband has or has not done. She becomes submitted to him by virtue of saying "I do." It is not something that gets thrown in if the husband merits it.

    I also think your article needs to incorporate 1 Pet. 3:1-6, which specifically and unambiguously says that husbands can be won over and converted by their wives submission.

  • You mean the passage that is part of instructions to Christians living among pagans, subject to pagan nations and customs? The part following and parallel to the instruction for Christian slaves to submit to even harsh masters?

    Explain to me how you apply the passage on slaves in a Christian or post-Christian context, and I'll take a stab at explaining why I agree with Casti Connubii and pretty much all of the Bishop's conferences that wifely submission is not unconditional, and should not be unilateral.

  • FYI, I did not say it was unconditional. You have pointed out the conditions when it can be rejected. I just said it was not something merited but that it took effect by virtue of marriage, not by, "If you show me you're Christlike enough then I'll submit."Obviously directions that are against reason, sinful, or harmful need not be submitted to, because one's obligation is to God first. That is the same as with slaves.

    But if the direction is not contrary to reason, not sinful, and not harmful, the wife is morally obligated to obey – just by virtue of being the wife.

    The man must do his part as well, but the thing is, if the man is not being Christlike, if the man is not fulfilling his part, so long as he is not harming the wife or commanding sinful things, he still needs to be obeyed. If he is being a loser, it is between him and God.

  • There was nothing in my wedding vows about obeying my husband. Kate, this is very good.

  • If he is being selfish or unChristlike, his wife ought to be on guard that he is not actually harming her or their children. Her submission still depends on his leadership–she can't submit if he won't or can't lead.

    And I still hold that St. Paul is clear that Christ and the Church is our model–and Christ dies for us *first,* because our sanctification depends upon it. I'm not even sure submission is *possible* under a husband who cannot or does not die to himself for his wife to some extent.Enslavement might be possible, or abdication of personal autonomy–I think a lot of women struggle with a temptation to servility, just as a lot of men struggle with a temptation to dominance. Our vices are more often twisted versions of our virtues than they are to be directly opposed.

  • Roz

    Thanks for that wonderful passage from Casti Connubii. Though some women are unloving and (pardon me) bitchy wives, that's not a problem you're addressing here. In my therapy practice, I've seen numerous couples where the wife feels beaten down because her over-controlling husband uses passages about submission to make his demands and preferences more weighty. I could tell you stories . . .

    It is seriously imprudent to let one's husband's unloving, abusive, or sinful behavior go on without running smack into his wise wife's loving and firm boundaries. Such a wake-up call, combined with skillful pastoral care, makes it more likely that their marriage can become the school of love it's intended to be. It is not love for anyone in his life to abandon his emotional and spiritual well-being to a misguided idea of how a virtuous wife should act. Enabling unrighteous behavior is wrong.

  • Fantastic post, and the clarification on what "submission" really means needs to be out there. I know so many faithful Catholic women who are so paranoid about being traditional Catholic wives and petrified of being "one of those feminists" that they've tipped over into extreme naivety when dealing with aberrant or abusive behavior. And spiritual abuse is a very real problem in abusive "Christian" marriages; such as one spouse throwing around passages like this out of context and damning the other to hell.

    Submission NEVER means "assenting to every whim and decision your husband makes" because submission doesn't mean switching your brain off and clocking out of listening to your own conscience. God first, husband second, so any case of husband demanding anything sinful – thus being un-Christ-like – submissiveness means holding fast to what God wants you to do. So, yeah, submissiveness to husband does have that "qualification" when it would contradict submissiveness to God, but that's just a different way of fulfilling the vocational duties. As Casti Canubii says: "if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family."

  • THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!! I desperately wish that I had known this long, long ago.

    I kept thinking, "Well, what he's asking me to do isn't actually SINFUL — it's insane, and futile, and disregards reality as we know it — but I suppose I have to try to do it anyway, then he'll be happy with me!" Yeah, that doesn't work.

    I'm going to print out that passage from Casti Connubi HUGE and keep it forever! I wish that I had known that I was allowed to use my own common sense and judgement, and not let them be subsumed by an ill-understood rule.

    If I had known I could have stood up for my "dignity as a human person" and "right reason," things might never have gotten as bad as they did.

  • Wow, well written. Unfortunately, some women who need to read and heed this won't see themselves or are unable to comprehend that they are in this warped situation. Perhaps evil manipulates their mind.