What St. Paul Really Meant by Female “Subordination”

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.” Following this Epistle, an optional alternative “shorter” epistle is offered; actually it is only a few lines shorter.  This optional substitute reading is possibly a concession to those who are afraid to read about wives “being subordinate” to their husbands—thus risking sideway glances and whispering among the congregation, or even an occasional radical feminist walking out of church. One cannot imagine the nuns at the LCWR choosing this reading for their Masses; and, taken in isolation, it might imply a subordinate status for women in the Church as a whole.

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:

As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish…. This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to 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:”

Notice that four Sacraments are termed “great.” Baptism by reason of its effect, since it blots out sin and opens the gate of paradise; Confirmation by reason of its minister, it is conferred only by bishops and not by others; the Eucharist because of what it contains, the Whole Christ; and Matrimony by reason of its signification, for it symbolizes the union of Christ and the Church.

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 in practical terms what might be the signs of any special female subordination, mystically connected with the subordination of Christ with the Church?  After over 40 years of marriage, I can hardly think of a time when I gave an order and expected my wife to obey—or vice versa, received from her a bona fide “command.” I think the experience of most couples who remain in harmony is that one listens to the plans and desires of the spouse, sometimes making compromises, sometimes standing firm on this or that principle—but it’s not like a miniature military arrangement.

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:

The apostle indeed says, “serving one another through love” (Gal. 5:13); but he would never have dreamed of saying, “Lord it over one another.” And so married couples can indeed serve each other through love; but the apostle does not allow a wife to lord it over her husband.

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


Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

  • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

    (Epesians V:23) “For the husband is the head of the wife; as Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body.” Though Saint Paul here speaks of a man, we may rather translate ‘man’ than ‘husband’, being the same sentence and same words as 1 Cor. xi. 3. where even the Prot. translation has, that the ‘man is the head of the woman’.-‘He’ (Christ) is ‘the saviour of his mystical body’, the Church: though some expound it, that the husband is to save and take care of his wife, who is as it were his body. -Rev George Leo Haydock’s Notes based upon the Douay-Rheims Holy Bible. This is a direct translation from the Latin Vulgate, the only Bible to be declared without error by Holy Mother Church during the Council of Trent (December 13, 1545-December 4, 1563).

  • Thank you for that excellent discussion of a Biblical passage that always gave me pause. I believe I am now better prepared to discuss this passage with family members when addressing those troubling questions that invariably arise after that reading. Catholic priests would be wise to include some of your thinking in their future homilies on this topic.

  • Hominid

    Could it be that Paul simply was a wise pragmatist who recognized that men and women are not equivalent in their innate capacities?

    • Karen

      What kinds of innate capacities? Women are stupider than men?

      • Hominid

        I’m not sure what you’re asking. Women get pregnant, men don’t. That biological imperative dictates several anatomical, physiological, and psychological differences between the sexes. Those differences preclude equivalence of the sexes and dictate a pragmatic division of labor. If you wish to speak in general statistical terms about sex-associated distinctions, I’m willing to do so, if we all keep in mind the broad range individual differences that exist. Perhaps you could invest your question with more clarity? What do you mean by ‘stupider’?

        • Karen

          Please describe the mental and psychological difference between men and women.

          • Hominid

            In how many words? Read some books, Karen.

      • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

        Miss, the word “stupider” does not exist…

        • Andrew


        • CiteYourSources

          “Stupider” is actually a word.

          • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

            “Stupider” is not an acceptable English word. Mere common usage and/or inclusion in online dictionaries does not make a word grammatically correct. Remember, just because it’s on the internet does not mean that it is true; just as common street language or ebonics in popular use does not change the rules of grammar. When using adjectives, American’s tend to be linguistically lazy and just add “er” or “est” to a word in order to demonstrate something to a greater degree; however this does not work for every word in the English language, no matter how much your lazy tongue wish it were so. To denote increased levels of stupidity requires additional words, such as: “more stupid”, or “most stupid”. For example: “They were grammatically
            most stupid for thinking that “stupider” and “stupidest” are actual English

            • Crystal

              Patronising prick. It may not be grammatically correct – but I guess you can comprehend the meaning.

  • RobM1981

    Great discussion. It’s astounding, and depressing, to see how weak the Christian churches have come vis’a’vis this. Paul’s writings make it clear that marriage is not only between one man and one woman, but he also makes it clear how that relationship must be structured. As with all things in the Word, this isn’t up for debate.
    There are passages where we can debate “what does this mean,” but as the author rather brilliantly points out here: this isn’t one of those cases.
    Every time I hear someone refer to marriage as being “fifty-fifty” I am reminded of Paul’s writings.
    Marriage is 100/100, period. Fifty-fifty implies that both parties are holding something back, and that is poison to a marriage. Christ loved the church to the point of death. He gave everything he had, with no reserve.
    Did he have to? Of course not. Obviously not. But he did.
    That’s how a man is to love his wife. Completely and unreservedly. Jesus didn’t sit on the couch, watch the local entertainment, and demand that the apostles bring him wine. He worked, endlessly and tirelessly, to build the one, true Church.
    Under that kind of a situation, a woman submitting to her husband makes sense. That doesn’t make it easy, any more than the man meeting his obligations is easy, but it makes sense.
    Only when a couple are completely and totally intertwined, like Christ and his church, will marriage accomplish what it is meant to accomplish.
    I have always viewed successful Pioneer marriages as being great examples of this. There Pioneer families had clear-cut roles, and the man was the clear-cut leader – but he was doomed without two things: (1) a complete committment to his family, and (2) a wife who was equally as committed to the life they were building together.
    It was 100/100, with clear roles for each partner, or failure.

  • The best natural analogue is the dance…

    Point of fact: to lead is to accept a great lot of trouble. Most men don’t want to lead. They want to sit back and let things happen around them. The more common trouble in families is not that the man is a martinet, but that he neglects the duties of leadership altogether, shuffling them to his wife, who now has to be a full time mother and a half time father, and that is exhausting. Women themselves know this, which is why even a feminist would consider it a mortal insult if you told her that she henpecked her husband, or that he was tied to her apron strings. People who love, in any case, are too busy thinking about the welfare of the beloved to tally up deeds on a scoresheet.

    • Karen

      You know different men than I do. Most men I work with and all of the ones I remember from childhood were martinets who ruled their families by screaming and frequent use of their belts and fists. They always justified their brutality by this Bible verse.

      • Andrew

        maybe you’re just unfairly judging them. All I know is that I don’t know a single man who has so violently and immorally beaten his wife and children the way you say they do, so I find it hard to believe that this is the typical male.

        • JAne Ausome

          you don’t get around much, do you? Maybe in your group of friends there isn’t anybody who behaves like that–and even if they did why would they admit it?–but around the world it is more common. Definitely in eastern europe, africa, and the middle east (places in which I lived for some time). From what I saw, however, violence was more common in younger couples, before children are old enough to be appalled. In older couples, passive aggressiveness was prevalent.

      • JohannaInExile

        Subordination does not mean an open free for all in violence. While I don’t have children, and am a female, my dogs are subordinate to me and I love and care for them. I can also tell you, that coming from an abusive father (and abusive male members of the family) that they were giving you excuses and leading you astray with this bible verse.

        My husband of 18 years is awesome, and refuses to raise his voice to me at all. Which at first I thought was very strange, but all the men in his family are humble, loving, and sometime pranksters! They are also protective, and I have met many men that have blown away my childhood misconceptions of men in general. Men can truly be noble and amazing, and I believe that when they are what God created them to be – they are much happier joyous men.

  • JohannaInExile

    When the full version was read at my mass, I turned to my husband and said, “Wives got it pretty easy.” He asked me how that was so? I said, “All I have to do is be subordinate to you, but you have to sacrifice yourself to me like Christ sacrificed himself for the Church.” The husband’s part sounds harder to me!

  • Casey

    What a disappointing article! I thought it was actually going to be reasonable and anti-feminist, but it utterly lacks substance.