Does the Injunction that Wives Submit to Their Husbands Have any Content?

Does the Injunction that Wives Submit to Their Husbands Have any Content? November 15, 2010

Like many a contemporary Catholic, I am not entirely certain what to make of Paul’s instructions to wives in Ephesians chapter 5. I am, of course, perfectly happy with the emphasis of many commentators who insist on contextualizing the passage in order to highlight that Paul is also making serious demands of husbands. Nevertheless, such contextualization only goes so far. It is one thing to demonstrate that a man’s responsibility to love his wife and give himself up for her, as Christ does for the church, is a serious one. It is another thing entirely to spell out concretely what it actually means for a woman to submit to her husband.

I am not so progressive that I am opposed in principle to the idea that there might be something of value in this claim. In other words, I do not presume that Paul’s teaching on this matter can be dismissed simply as a function of his era. Of course, investigation may determine that his teaching is not central to the Christian understanding of marriage and is simply the result of his writing at a particular time and place, but that is not my presumption. Such claims, for me, must be demonstrated, not presumed.  I am conservative enough to insist that they are are not self-evident.

I have found myself frustrated, however, by those authors and commentators within the church who insist that wives must in fact submit to their husbands—that men are, necessarily, the “head of the household.” Such an insistence is typically followed by numerous qualifications and caveats indicating precisely what such a claim does not mean in the concrete. Men are not to be tyrants. They are not to make every decision independently. They are to provide space for the development and self-expression of their wives. All well and good, of course. Who would disagree with any of these? But as easy as it is to highlight what not to do in the concrete, it seems to me that this teaching will have no purchase on the reality of contemporary marriage if no one can articulate what it actually does mean in the concrete.

Msgr. Charles Pope has blogged about this topic. And he follows precisely the pattern I have identified here: a strong insistence that Scripture does teach that wives are to submit to their husbands, buttressed by a scriptural articulation of what genuine male authority looks like that is totally devoid of any articulation of what genuine female submission looks like.

In response to Msgr. Pope, and to some commenters on his blog, I asked:

Thank you Father,
I do not have any problem with the picture you paint of a Christian husband in this piece. Surely this is the biblical ideal of what authority looks like. What I have always struggled with when people insist that men be the head of their households and that wives submit to their husbands is that I have never seen a single example of what such submission looks like in the concrete. I always want to ask, give me 3 examples of a wife submitting to her husband in three different areas of life. What does it actually look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of child-rearing? What does it look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of employment? What does it look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of household management? etc.

As Dan points out, this is where the rubber meets the road. Unlike Dan, if I read him rightly, I have no expectation that a man can dictate to his wife about housework or her wardrobe. But I think Dan is right in pointing out that even after all your eloquence about what a man’s role in a marriage looks like, we still don’t know a thing about what a woman’s submission looks like.

I am in full agreement with Steve that a wife is not “a servant or an employee.” As such her submission shouldn’t look like that. But what does her submission look like? Without an answer to that, the main difficulty of the modern reader remains.

I was disappointed to receive no real feedback to my question. As such, I am posing it anew here. Is it essential to the Christian understanding of marriage that men be the “head of the household”? Does Paul’s insistence that wives submit to their husbands belong to the deposit of faith, or is it merely a historical accretion on the gospel? Finally, and this is what interests me the most, if this injunction is essential to Christian marriage, what does it actually mean? What does it look like in the day-to-day lives of married people?

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto.  He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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