So when I referenced Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in my last post, I quoted from the end of it, where he says “this is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.” For those of you unfamiliar with the passage, I’ll be honest and quote the whole thing:
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. 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. So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.
“For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:21-33)
You probably know this reading either from a) those Sundays in church where Mom and Dad elbow each other mercilessly throughout the epistle or b) rants about how Christianity is anti-feminist. I don’t want to go too deeply into the latter point today (definitely another post), but I do want to reflect a little on that darn “subordinate” word.
Once, while my husband was deployed, I went to an adult ed class on this reading once because hey, who can resist hearing it dissected, especially by a husband-wife team. Each took the lesson aimed at their sex and broke it down, and the wife’s explanation went more or less like this: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands” can also be translated as “wives, submit to” or “be submissive to” their husbands. To be “submissive” or “subordinate” means to subject oneself (or place oneself under) the “mission” or “order” (think not only in terms of being boss, but also what it means to belong to “an order”—usually there are strict codes of conduct involved) of another. And what is the husband’s mission? To love his wife as his own body, to lay himself down for her as Christ gave everything of himself for the Church. (Love is of course the action of willing the good of another, and Christian love is the action of willing the good of another above the good of oneself; “there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.”) The speaker was in tears as she described, then, a wife’s duty: to let her husband love her, to submit to her husband’s love for her.
So really, the wife comes off pretty easy in this passage (and you’ll notice Paul’s instructions for wives are shorter than his instructions for husbands): all you have to do is submit to the fact that your husband has to lay himself down for you. Honestly, if the word “submit” wasn’t used there, you could probably read it as “walk all over the husband who has laid himself down for you.” It doesn’t even say you have to love him back!
But what does it mean to submit to someone loving you? This was the question I posed my dad, and his response was more or less, “You have to let him love you.” Say what? “When he tries to do something for you, let him do it, even if it’s not exactly how or what you wanted him to do.”
This is the answer you see in the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” section of Ladies’ Home Journal, where the wife is complaining about how she is overworked trying to raise the kids AND keep the house clean AND possibly hold down a job on top of it and the husband complains that whenever he tries to help he is rebuffed because he “wouldn’t do it right” and then his wife is exhausted and rejects all his other advances and instead of being a caretaker he just ends up being another thing to be cared for within his own home. “Let him do the dishes,” the counselor advises. “He might not load the dishwasher the way you would, but he is a grown man and fully capable of doing it. Let him help.” Respect him and his abilities—trust that he’s capable—let him take care of you for a change. Wives are called to submit to their husbands’ love because it is so hard to give up control of our fears and our doubts and our insecurities and our million things that we are thinking about it, to just let ourselves be loved.
And you are called to love him back. You’re submitting to him as the head of the body as the Church submits itself to Christ. Because Christ gave everything of himself, the Church is called to return it all to him; because God created and sustains everything we are and have, we are called to give all the glory back to him. Obviously the wife doesn’t get her glory from her husband, but in giving the gift of letting go and accepting the love he pours out for her she understands and accepts the love and glory of Christ, and loves both of them all the more. And the husband, in pouring himself out as Christ, sees in the return love of his wife the model of how he himself ought to love Christ, and in more fully loving Christ he is more fully able to give of himself.
Confronted with each other’s submission to the love of the other—the husband in pouring himself out, the wife in giving it back—and seeing in it the love between Christ and his Church, how can they not exclaim gloria in excelsis Deo?
and on earth, peace to people of good will.