Happily Even After
My Subordinate Wife
by Josh Noem
The second reading from Sunday Mass this past weekend offered some good material for pillow-talk among spouses: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife,” St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians (chapter 5).
Anyone who has met Stacey knows that I am not “head” of her. By the same token, nor is she head of me—telemarketers who call asking for the “head of the family” get a muddled response because we each share decision-making responsibilities mutually.
We didn’t so much make a decision about sharing headship—the balance simply emerged from the nature of our personalities. In the end, though, the balance of power that we share is actually not too far from the encouragement that St. Paul offered the Ephesians.
Paul was writing for a community in which a woman who married a man left her own home and moved in with him and his extended family. She frequently was not given her own living space and had no power in the household.
Paul’s aims in writing these words were two-fold. First, he wanted order and harmony in the community. The equality we share as sons and daughters of God did not mean that everyone’s roles were the same. He wrote elsewhere that there are many parts to the body, and each part is valuable, but each part also has a different function. So, on one hand, Paul was asking wives to avoid disruption and to adhere to the social order of first-century Ephesus.
On the other hand, Paul makes a much greater demand of the husband when he writes in the next line, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ love the church and handed himself over for her.”
People often get tied up in the “wives be submissive” part and miss the rest of the story.
Paul was asking husbands to go well beyond this established social order, which only required them to treat their wives as glorified slaves. He told the Ephesian husbands to love their wives as Christ love the church. How did Christ love? He gave everything—he gave his life in self-emptying, sacrificial love.
In this sense, then, I guess Stacey and I do share headship of the family. In Paul’s words, we strive to “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ … (who) is head of the Church.” At bottom, Paul encourages us to love each other with mutuality and with the same self-emptying love that Christ showed us.
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