Let the Scriptures Speak
Good News, Tough Choices
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Jesus' talk of eating his body and drinking his blood, John says, was a turnoff for “many of his disciples.” “This saying is hard,” they said. “Who can accept it?” Even when Jesus makes it clear that he was not inviting them to cannibalism, he does not back off from demanding the total commitment of faith. And from this time on, “Many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” This passage serves us a stunning reminder that the life of faith—vividly exemplified in our participation in the Eucharist—is always a radical choice.
Joshua confronts the people of Israel with the same kind of choice. Addressing the assembly of all the tribes at Shechem he says, “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve” (Josh 24:15). But if the readings from Joshua and from John highlight the need for radical choice in the life of biblical faith, it may be the second reading, the one from the letter to the Ephesians, that best illustrates the demands of faith for us today.
In the 1970 version of the New American Bible, the reading from Ephesians begins, “Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be submissive to their husbands as if to the Lord because the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of his body, the church, as well as its savior.” The language of submission is the last thing most people, male or female, want to hear in our culture today. It has led some couples planning their wedding service to seek a substitute reading for what has served for centuries as a standard reading for wedding Masses. Has the growing sensitivity to gender language and the Christian “discipleship of equals” suddenly rendered invalid and irrelevant the teaching of Ephesians on the sacrament of matrimony? I think not. But we may have something to learn by looking carefully at the letter's language of submission.
First, we need to be fair to the original language of the text. The Greek does not say, in so many words, “Wives should be submissive to their husbands ... ” That phrasing comes from the honest efforts of the English translators to break up a long Greek sentence to make for easier reading. The thought really starts with the preceding verse (Josh 24:21), “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and that imperative governs everything that follows. In other words, the primary mandate is to mutual subordination out of reverence for Christ. Then the sentence continues by spelling out that mutual submission with “wives ... to their husbands as to the Lord.” In their attempt to break the sentence into smaller units, the translators chose to repeat the verb from verse 21 (“be submissive”  or “be subordinate” ) in the next verse, giving us “Wives should [be submissive/subordinate] to their husbands,” causing many readers to be distracted from the fact that this clause is simply beginning to unfold the mandate to mutual subordination that governs the whole passage.
“That helps,” I hear some readers say. “But how about the ‘headship’ of the husband over the wife?” The context soon lets us know that being “head” here has nothing to do with domination, for the husband is to be head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church (Josh 24:23). In verse 25, that relationship is spelled out: “Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.” As one commentator has put it, headship here means being the wife’s “first servant.”
Whatever we want to make of the author's assumptions about the distinctive roles of the spouses in their relationship, the overriding message is that, in the body of Christ, the marital relationship is utterly transformed into the life of mutual subordination demanded of all baptized disciples. In the end, this passage from Ephesians on marriage is simply a spelling out of the teaching of Jesus that his followers are to be characterized by service of one another (Mark 10:43-45) and the laying down of life for one another (John 13:34-35). A hard saying, yes; but the hardness has to do mainly with mutual subordination, not with the gender struggle. And that mutual subordination takes its life from the subordination of each to Christ. Whatever the role expectations of spouses in a particular culture, baptism into the Christian covenant transmutes them absolutely.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University