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?

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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).

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