The Second Reading for Sunday, August 26, is from St. Paul (Ephesians 5:21-32), in which Paul offers the instruction in 5:22, "Wives should be subordinate to their husbands, as to the Lord."
On the other hand, doesn't the first verse, 5:21, put the whole thing into perspective? "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ," says Paul. He obviously is speaking of mutual subordination.
But why the special reference to "wives being subordinate" in the second verse?
Homilists who bravely choose to comment on the first Epistle rather than the "shorter" one, often point out that Paul was addressing the customs of that pre-democratic era, in which a certain subordinate social status for women was taken for granted. But this doesn't help much. For St. Paul also states emphatically in Galatians 3:28 that there is no distinction between male and female in relation to Christ. Something else is afoot.
And if we proceed a little further in the Ephesus Epistle, Paul reveals the overarching context of the earlier statement. It has to do with the interrelationship between Christ and the Church:
Some translations read "this is a great sacrament" rather than "this is a great mystery." But, whatever the translation, it becomes clear that Paul is referring to the special significance of matrimony, which is not just a civil contract but one of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church — such that, when a couple receives the sacrament, they become historical participants in the great ongoing drama of Christ's espousal of the Church, and they in some way reflect in their own lives the submission, or lack of submission, of the Church to its Head.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on Ephesians, explains why this sacrament is characterized as "great:"
In other words, whether a couple joined in matrimony reflect on the fact or not, their relationship indeed becomes a reflection of that larger ongoing drama of redemption and atonement. If, for example, the Church is permeated with insubordination and dissent, one would expect this to be reflected in the sacramental matrimonial relationship, and vice versa, because of the organic connection of all believers within the mystical body of Christ.
But Paul is not thinking of a disciplined command-structure. Down a few verses from the statement about wives being subordinate, he clarifies what he means by subordination. It has to do specifically with a sacred and sacramental mutual respect: He writes (5:28) "Husband should love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself…." And (5:33) "Each of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband."
Might there be some special reason for the apparent focus on the respect due to husbands by wives? Certainly there were no proto-feminists in Ephesus proclaiming that "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." But there may have been peculiar local disturbances of the Christian congregation by wives ridiculing husbands, or encouraging their children to lack of respect for their fathers, or simply causing havoc in households by stubborn insistence on their own agenda.
Paul, like the Fathers of the early Church, may have also been thinking of the story of Genesis, in which Eve was proactive in leading Adam to the "original" sin of disobedience — leading to God's judgment (Genesis 3:17) that from now on, men would have to earn their living by the sweat of their brow, and women would have to be subordinate to their husbands.
St. Augustine, in his commentary on Genesis, recognizing that God's original intention was that there would never be any subordination of female to male or vice versa, interpreted the penance now imposed on women in a negative fashion:
In other words, respect your husband and avoid at any cost "lording" it over him. One might argue that this is a reasonable, almost tailor-made, "penance" for the cosmic disruption which Genesis connects with the original sin. If in our common experience women don't lord it over their husbands very often, this may be worth a tip of the hat to St. Augustine.
Howard Kainz. "What St. Paul Really Meant by Female "Subordination". Crisis Magazine (October 1, 2012).
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
Crisis Magazine is an educational apostolate that uses media and technology to bring the genius of Catholicism to business, politics, culture, and family life. Our approach is oriented toward the practical solutions our faith offers — in other words, actionable Catholicism.
Copyright © 2012 Crisis Magazine
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.