Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord. 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. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord. 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. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. . . husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the Church, because we are members of his body. . . “the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband. (Ephesians 5: 22–25, 31–33)

At each wedding service we read these words. Understandably, in an age that seeks to affirm the equality of the sexes, and in particular the equality of husband and wife, these words provoke mixed reactions. Are St. Paul, and therefore, the Bible and the Church to be condemned as chauvinistic; as putting down wives and by extension all women; and as holding to a view that exalts the power and authority of the husband over the wife, demanding servile submission by wives to their husbands?

Understanding the Context

One scholar in describing the status and role of a wife in ancient Judaism, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire at St. Paul’s time, tells a truly dismal story. “In the Jewish form of morning prayer” at that time, William Barclay says, “there was a sentence in which a Jewish man every morning gave thanks that God had not made him ‘a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.’” He adds, “. . . in Jewish law a woman was not a person, but a thing. She had no legal rights whatsoever; she was absolutely in her husband’s possession to do with as he willed.”

Regarding the ancient Greek world, Barclay describes it as “even worse.” Demosthenes said, “We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and of having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs.” Respectable wives lived their lives in total seclusion. Barclay notes, “The whole Greek way of life made companionship between man and wife next to impossible.” The wife’s main role was to provide legitimate children to inherit property and titles.

“In Rome,” Barclay adds, “in Paul’s day the matter was still worse. . . . By the time of Paul, Roman family life was wrecked. Seneca writes that women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married.” And, of course, only men could legally initiate divorce. He ends his description with these words: “It is not too much to say that the whole atmosphere of the ancient world was adulterous. Chastity was the casualty of the increasing luxury of civilization. The marriage bond was on the way to complete breakdown.”

Thus, generally speaking, women were allowed no rights, no freedom, no ownership of property, no self-determination, no control over their lives. A young woman was told who she was to marry by her father; she was totally controlled by her husband; if she became a widow, she came under control of her eldest son. Marriage was a legal issue whose purpose it was to secure the transfer of property from father to son.

Of course, we can find exceptions, which show tenderness and loving regard between some spouses. But it was neither the rule nor the ideal in the Roman Empire at the time that the Letter to the Ephesians was written.

St. Paul ’s Approach

One of the principles of the missionary work of the early Church, was to preach the Christian message in a way that sought to change the way people thought and lived in a revolutionary Christian way; but to do it in a way that did not look revolutionary or disruptive. The Christian strategy was to change things slowly and from the inside.

One example of this approach can be seen in the answer that Jesus gave about paying a tax to the Roman authorities. We read that: (His enemies) asked Him,

“Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “the emperor’s.” He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to Gods the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:21–25).

 

Jesus was undermining the supreme and exclusive authority of the emperor by distinguishing His authority from that of God. In the end this attitude would destroy the ancient Roman Empire and replace it with a government that was seen as “under God.”

St. Paul ’s approach to the relationship between husband and wife was similarly revolutionary, but with the appearance of a much less radical character. The world has still not fully understood it, nor have even Christian husbands and wives put it into full practice. The lesson remains to be learned!

The Message In Brief

St. Paul , in short, begins by telling women what they have heard from their mothers since their earliest days; that is, to be subject to their husbands. Nothing revolutionary there. But when he turns to husbands he tells them to do something that they never heard before. They were to love their wives exactly as Christ loved the Church. And how did Christ love the Church? By dying for the Church!

The rulership of the husband was to be like the rulership of Christ over the Church: a rulership of sacrifice, love, and service. But in Ephesians 5 there is also a verse that reverses the roles so that mutuality of loving service and mutual obedience in a Christian marriage becomes a still revolutionary understanding about the relationships of spouses. Husbands should rule over their wives in a spirit of love, self-sacrifice and concern for the welfare of their wives, And wives should be obedient to their husbands. Yes. But in the same way wives should rule over their husbands in a spirit of love, self-sacrifice and concern for the welfare of their husbands. And husbands should be obedient to their wives! The revolutionary concept in Christian marriage, is mutuality in love, service, caring, and obedience.

This was definitely something new. St. Paul does not appeal to custom or law to explain this headship: he compares the relationship of husband and wife to the relationship of Christ and the Church. Here is a step leading to something different!

By describing the relationship of husbands and wives as parallel to the relationship between Christ and the Church, St. Paul introduces into their relationship an radical factor: love. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for Her, in order to make her holy. . . , husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:25-26, 28).

The most difficult thing for modern people to understand about this reference to love is that it is understood not romantically, but theologically. Romantic love means putting the other person up on a pedestal in a starry-eyed way that exaggerates the beloved’s good qualities and is blind to the inevitable shortcomings of the person. That is not Christian love.

Christian love is theologically based. Christian love is patterned after Christ’s love. He came into the world precisely because we were not perfect and He sacrificed Himself when He didn’t have to, for our benefit, our good and our welfare. To love someone is to care for that person so much that you want to help them, you want to meet their needs, you want to be present for them in all your relationships with them. It is not focused on one’s own needs, it is focused to the welfare of the other. This is the heart of Christian love.

Now, I know of no better place for the practice of this Christ-like love than in marriage. If a husband puts his wife’s needs first and seeks to meet those needs with care and concern and if a wife puts her husband’s needs first and seeks to meet those needs with care and concern, something remarkable happens. Each of the spouses’ needs are met, but not by grasping and demanding or striving to fulfill them selfishly, but as a gift of love from the spouse. In the end the needs are met, but out of love from the spouse.

So St. Paul adds: “He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for (Ephesians 5:28–29). And, of course, the opposite is true: she who loves her husband loves herself. For no woman ever hates her own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it. And again, how does a person serve those needs? (He or she) nourishes and cherishes the spouse, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of His body. So in Ephesians 5: 31 St. Paul adds: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”

A shorthand way of expressing this passage’s teaching about how the relationships between Christian husbands and wives should be, is “mutual selfless benevolence.” Selfless benevolence is desiring, wanting and doing what is good for the other. That this selfless benevolence should be mutual is critical, of course. Spousal love that is not mutual is not complete: it takes two to make a marriage.

But, should a husband love his wife; but a wife only show respect for her husband?

An Apparent Difficulty

St. Paul concludes this passage this way: “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:32-33). Clearly, it sounds, after all that he has said, that he is not moving very far beyond the status quo. Men should love their wives; but he tells wives that they should show reverence and respect for their husbands. Implied in that “respect” is “obedience” and “headship.”

Let it be said first on this question that probably part of what St. Paul is trying to do is to maintain a sort of social order for the sake of the organic unity of the family. He is in fact reserving for the husband a sort of public headship, especially as the family unit faces the outside world. But, this cannot displace the revolutionary change he is demanding, especially of husbands in relationship to wives.

The focus of his teaching is about the interpersonal relationships of spouses. Within the household of marriage, husband and wife each exercise headship over the other and obedience to the other. In any Christian marriage based on love patterned after the love of Christ for the Church, both husband and wife exercise authority over the other spouse and both husband and wife obey each other. The key concept is mutuality. Yes, the husband is the head of the wife and the wife should obey her husband. But in many interpersonal relationships and family life situations, the husband listens to and obeys his wife as she gives direction, so that she, too, exercises her own headship and he an obedience to his wife. It is wrong to see this in an individualistic way. Husband and wife are not just two persons in relationship. They are “one flesh,” “whom God has joined together” in a holy union. In Matthew 19:6 Jesus says, “They are no longer two but one flesh.” The critical ideas, then, are not the exercise of power and authority or obedience and submission, but mutual concern for each other’s welfare and good; that is, love.

The central place of mutuality between spouses profoundly changes the meaning of marriage a deep and profound way in this Christian understanding. How do we know that this is St. Paul’s intention? Are these things said to accommodate Christian teaching to the demands of feminists, or to “adapt” Christian teaching to changing social customs and views? No, that is not the case. The Bible itself shows that “mutuality approach” to marriage is the authentic Christian teaching.

Icon: Wedding at Cana 2
The Wedding at Cana

The Mutuality of Marriage

We see that this discussion of the relationship of spouses in marriage exists in the context of the mutuality of relations between husband and wife when we go back to the text and see that it is immediately introduced in Ephesians 5:21 with these words: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Husbands and wives are to be mutually subject to one another; and, of course, they are to mutually serve each other’s needs in love. It is, therefore, correct that in many ways, a wife should be subject to her husband and obey him and respect him. But it is equally correct that in many ways, a husband should be subject to his wife, and obey her and respect her. If they are loving each other as Christ loves the Church (caring, serving, assisting, helping, supporting, meeting the needs of the spouse) then this “mutual headship” in their interpersonal relationship is not burdensome, but an aspect of their love and a privilege of service to the other.

That is why in another place, St. Paul says, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:4). And our Lord, in another context that applies well to Christian marriage says:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all (Mark 10:42-44).

“Headship” in Christian marriage means mutual service in love.

A Word to the Wise

In an individualistic age like ours, this approach to Christian marriage—a mutuality of loving service—is not always easy to put into practice. It takes a great deal of patient growth, effort, much forgiveness, and plain, ordinary, work to make a marriage. Yet, wherever there is good faith effort at mutual selfless benevolence (basic Christian love), something begins to happen. Caring for the other this way leads to a bonding between husband and wife that is deep and profound, so that as the years go by, the two genuinely and fully become one in body, heart, mind, and soul. Such a unity can only take place with the help of God. Consequently, spouses need to be in communion with God if their own marital communion is to be realized.

Fr. Stanley Harakas is the Archbishop Iakovos Professor Emeritus of Orthodox Theology, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, Mass., and a member of the Honorary Board of the St. Nina Quarterly.