“Wives, be subject to your husbands…” (Eph 5:22). So begins one of the most controversial and misunderstood passages in Scripture. When this passage is read at Mass, women are indignant while their husbands brim with delight. Taken out of context, this verse has caused great hardship to women and marriages throughout the centuries.
But when this verse is read in the context of St. Paul’s discourse on marriage in Ephesians 5, it describes the key to a joy filled, loving marriage relationship. Often overlooked is the verse prior to the one quoted above, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). Husbands and wives are called to mutual submission to each other out of reverence for Christ. According to Pope St. John Paul II in his epic work, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB), Ephesians 5:21-33 “cannot be correctly understood except in the broad biblical context…the ‘crowning’ of the themes and truths that ebb and flow like long waves through the Word of God revealed in Sacred Scripture” (TOB, 87:3).
In this post, we will delve into John Paul II’s TOB to develop an understanding of the beauty of the relationship between man and woman as God intended at the beginning of creation, especially in relation to the misunderstanding of the submission of the woman to the man. This week, we will look at the Scripture. Next week, we will look at the sacrament of marriage as covenant and as a sacramental sign.
Let’s start by looking at the text of Ephesians 5:21-33 (RSV):
 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.
 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.
 As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.
 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,
 that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
 Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
 For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church,
 because we are members of his body.
 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
 This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church;
 however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter, Letter to Families (Gratissimam Sane), says,
Saint Paul’s magnificent synthesis concerning the “great mystery” appears as the compendium or summa, in some sense, of the teaching about God and man which was brought to fulfilment by Christ.” (GS 19)
John Paul II goes on to identify why St. Paul’s teaching on marriage is so despised in our modern culture,
Unfortunately, Western thought, with the development of modern rationalism, has been gradually moving away from this teaching…Modern rationalism does not tolerate mystery. It does not accept the mystery of man as male and female, nor is it willing to admit that the full truth about man has been revealed in Jesus Christ. In particular, it does not accept the “great mystery” proclaimed in the Letter to the Ephesians, but radically opposes it. (GS, 19)
In TOB, John Paul II says that if we want to interpret this passage, we must do so in light of what Christ has told us about the human body (TOB, 87:2). There are two meanings of the body in Ephesians 5: the metaphorical meaning, that is, the body of Christ which is the Church, and its concrete meaning, that is, the human body in its perennial masculinity and femininity, in its perennial destiny for union in marriage (TOB, 87:3). The juncture of these two meanings is key to understanding St. Paul’s words, “This mystery is a profound one” (Eph 5:32), for the one-flesh union of husband and wife represents the union of Christ and the Church.
Using a well-known passage from the Gaudium et Spes (GS), John Paul II says that Ephesians 5 reveals “‘man to man himself and makes his supreme vocation clear’ (GS, 22:1) inasmuch as he participates in the experience of the incarnate person. In fact, when he created him in his image, God created him from the beginning as ‘male and female’ (Gen 1:27)” (TOB, 87:6).
What are we to make of John Paul II’s statement that man “participates in the experience of the incarnate person”? Christopher West in his book Theology of the Body Explained (TOBE) says “this phrase…in some way penetrates and describes the Pope’s entire catechesis. This is what TOB-and this passage from Ephesians-are all about. They seek to ground man in the experience of his own incarnate personhood” (TOBE, 379). West goes on to say that modern man has detached the person from the body, relegating the body to a subhuman nature like the rest of the animals. “The body does not call him to anything. It makes no demands on him…his body is like a thing [that] he believes he can do anything he wants with it” (TOBE, 379). To modern man, the only intent of the body is self-gratification. In the process, man makes himself into a god and fails to experience the incarnate God in his inner being.
The first thing St. Paul says in this passage in Ephesians 5 is that husbands and wives are called to “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21). This is a mutual submission, not a subordinal submission of the wife to the husband. Husbands and wives are called to submit to each other as in reverence to Christ. John Paul II describes this submission as a complete giving of oneself to the other in love, that is, to make a complete gift of oneself, always seeking what is best for the union.
D. J. Leahy in his biblical commentary, The Epistle to the Ephesians (EE), points out that St Paul’s admonitions are notably first to husband and then to the wife. The man as head does not lord over his wife and children, but like Christ, he is called to be a servant-leader, giving of himself totally for the good of his family.
“As to the Lord” (Eph 5:22) provides the key to the thoughts here expressed. Baptism confers equality on all individuals from the point of view of religion, but in society (of which the family is at once the smallest and most important unit) there is a natural hierarchy. The husband is the head; the wife is subject to him. By Baptism this order is not broken; it is ennobled. St Paul compares it with the love of the Church for Christ, the head. There should, then, be no room for either despotism or craven fear. (EE, 1124)
Pius XI in his encyclical Casti Connubii (CC) beautifully and aptly addresses the context of man’s headship, “For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in the ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love” (CC, 27). [emphasis added]
St. Paul calls husbands to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25) and wives to “be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22). John Paul II says of this,
Love makes the husband simultaneously subject to the wife, and subject in this to the Lord himself, as the wife is to the husband. The community or unity that they should constitute because of marriage is realized through a reciprocal gift, which is also a mutual submission. Christ is the source and at the same time the model of submission–which, being reciprocal “in the fear of Christ,” confers on the conjugal union a deep and mature character. (TOB, 89:4)
Ephesians 5:21-33 is permeated with the analogy that “the reciprocal relationship between the spouses, husband and wife, should be understood by Christians according to the image of the relationship between Christ and the Church” (TOB, 89:8).
Accordingly, Christian spouses are called to model their relationship after the relationship of Christ and the Church. This is a spousal analogy where “the wife is an icon of the Church as Bride and the husband is an icon of Christ as Bridegroom” (TOBE, 386). In this regard, John Paul II states,
…we can develop the thought contained in the great Pauline analogy in two directions: both in the direction of a deeper understanding of the Church, and in the direction of a deeper understanding of marriage…how marriage becomes a visible sign of the eternal divine mystery, according to the image of the Church united with Christ. In this way, Ephesians leads us to the very foundations of the sacramentality of marriage. (TOB, 90:4)
Next week we will look into the sacramentality of marriage as covenant and grace, and as a sacramental sign.