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Accessed on September 18, 2019 - 3:50:14

Are wives supposed to submit to their husbands?

Katie van Schaijik, Aug 08, 2012

Over at First Thingsin an article on "obedient wives," Margaret Fox touches a flashpoint of mine.  She refers to an association called the "Obedient Wives Club" formed last year in Malaysia.

The group argues that social problems like divorce, adultery, prostitution, and even domestic abuse could be solved if wives obeyed their husbands and exhibited the sexual prowess of a high class prostitute. In other words, men wouldn’t be unfaithful, hire prostitutes, or beat their wives if they were kept happy in bed. 

Of course, as a woman and a Christian, Margaret Fox is appalled.  But, she finds that just because she's a Christian, she's often thought to endorse the same idea.

Many of my neighbors who take offense at the OWC’s message believe that, as a Christian, my own views on gender represent the exact same patriarchal prejudice. After all, the OWC bases its teachings on the Scriptures of another Abrahamic religion: Islam. 

I know how she feels.  I once found myself in an online discussion with progressives who argued that Christians and Muslims have basically the same repressive sexual morality, since it all boils down to virginity until marriage.  (This came as a genuine shock to me.  I mean, how could anyone not see the abyss of difference between the Christian understanding, wherein a young woman's sexuality is her own, and Muslim teaching, whereby it belongs to the men in her life?)

So far, so good between me and Fox.  But then, a snag.

...many self-styled progressive Christians would like to omit verses like Ephesians 5:22—“Wives, submit to your husband as to the Lord”—from the Bible altogether. They draw the battle lines at that word, submission, and glare at me expectantly: which side are you on?

Speaking as Christian who rejects utterly the "progressive" modifier, I want to say that I think there are good reasons for balking at that particular verse.  In a post-feminist world, it is problematic, and it has been widely misunderstood and misapplied in certain Christian circles. 

Back in my undergrad days, during the heyday of the Covenant Community phenomenon, Ephesians 5:22 was invoked as the basis for wretchedly abusive policies and practices.  Their basic teaching on marriage—even in Catholic Covenant Communities—was that "the role of the husband" was to lead; "the role of the wife" was to submit to his leadership.  It was "God's plan for marriage." In this view, the husband is, unambiguously, in a position of authority over his wife.  She is his subordinate.  She becomes holy by obeying him.  

Along with countless other zealous Christians wanting to "take a radical stand against feminism," I eagerly embraced this teaching as a freshman and sophomore.  After all, there it was, right in Ephesians, plain as day.  I thought anyone who didn't embrace it was guilty of lukewarmness, if not outright dissent.

Then I encountered the writings of Dietrich von HIldebrand and John Paul II.  Also, I fell in love.  My eyes were opened both intellectually and experientially to the ugliness and wrong of this interpretation of that passage.  Around the same time, the Covenant Communities began to experience problems.  Many women were objecting to the way they were being treated.  And, of course, the more they objected, the more they were "admonished" for being "rebellious."  Eventually, Bishops had to intervene and force corrections, particularly on the point of "headship and submission" in marriage.  

But the basic idea hasn't gone completely away.  I encounter it often among religious Christians: talks or articles laying out "the Biblical model" for marriage, focussing on Ephesians 5.  "Wives, be submissive to your husbands, as to the Lord." These authors always include (just as Margaret Fox does) a stress on the fact that the husband has to love his wife as Christ love the Church—as if that resolves any problem anyone might have with wifely submission.  

But does it?  I don't think it does, quite. Further, I don't think this interpretation really is "God's plan" for marriage.  Consider:

1. In the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, we have an authoritative interpreter of Holy Scripture.  In the 50 or so years since the sexual revolution began, the Church has issued scads of encyclicals and documents on the subject of marriage.  None of them set up the husband as an authority over his wife.  None of them stresses the need for her to be submissive.  None of them.

2.  The Church has dropped "obey" from wedding vows.  Why?  Was it a regrettable concession to liberals, like the execrable gender-neutralizing of parish hymnals?  I don't think so.  I think it was a recognition that the word is no longer fitting.  It doesn't do full justice to the dignity of women in marriage.  

3. In John Paul II's Letter to Women, he called feminism a "substantially positive" development in history.  He acknowledges that the dignity of women had not been adequately recognized and respected in history and culture, in law and customs, and that the time has come to rectify the injustice.

4.  In his own teaching on Ephesians 5, JP II says that the preceding verse  provides the interpretative key: "Defer to one another."  The verses following are meant to be read not as assigning gender roles, but as throwing light on the mystery of marriage as an icon of the mutual, self-donating, life-giving love of the Holy Trinity.

5.  In The Jeweler's Shop, the character Andrew proposes to Teresa this way: "Will you be my life's companion?"  He chose the words carefully.  He was asking her to be his companion for life, not to take up a function in his household.  This captures a genuine shift in Catholic understanding and ethos.

The thrust of Karol Wojtyla's philosophical personalism and his teachings as Pope, especially in his Theology of the Body, are opposed to an externalist, functionalist interpretation of marriage.  Again and again, the personalist Pope directs attention to the mystery of spousal love.  And he opposes it—radically—to the master/slave dynamic of the Fall.  Before the Fall, Adam and Eve lived in a harmonious, reciprocal union and communion of love.  After the Fall, shame enters the picture, and with it the sinful tendency to objectify and abuse others and ourselves.  Adam is tempted to "Lord it over" his wife, and she is tempted to behave slavishly toward him.  In the mutual self-donation of spousal love in the Sacrament of marriage, this evil dynamic is undone.  Man and Woman are restored to their original unity and full dignity as persons.  

Now, none of this is to suggest that there are no important differences between the sexes in marriage, or that there's no meaningful way to speak of the woman as the heart of the home, while the man is the head of the home.  But it does offer, in my view, a deep and decisive refutation of a superficial, externalist reading of Ephesians 5 still prevalent in some Christian circles.  It gives us true personalist grounds for denying that wives are supposed to submit to their husbands as if to an authority figure.  

From her strong stress on reciprocity in marriage, I suspect Margaret Fox would agree.