I, like many other twenty-four-year-old women this summer, devoted some hours to reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. As I read, I became interested in Atwood’s vision of how a power-hungry group could manipulate the Bible to support their oppressive regime. I was particularly troubled by the relationship between Commanders—men in authoritative positions—and their wives. Although their union did not look like a Christian marriage, the theonomic military dictatorship governing the Republic of Gilead insisted that this was the society that God had envisioned.
This claim raises an important question: what does a Christian marriage look like? Atwood appears to suggest that Christianity supports a society in which women are inferior to men, and slaves to their husbands. I want to address Atwood’s vision of Christian marriage, and grapple with one of the most troubling Bible verses for feminists, in which Paul instructs a wife to be subordinate or submissive to her husband.
So, let’s dive right in. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul explicitly defines the role of wives: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22, NABRE). Other translations of the Bible use the word “submissive.” Before we go on to look at his instruction to husbands, let’s first draw attention to what Paul did not say.
Paul did not say wives are inferior to men
Paul did not say that wives are inferior to their husbands.
Treating women as inferior to men is offensive to a woman’s dignity and is not in line with Catholic teaching. In his encyclical Familiaris Consortio: The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, St. John Paul the Great (Aka Pope John Paul II) explains,
In creating the human race “male and female,” God gives man and woman an equal personal dignity . . . God then manifests the dignity of women in the highest form possible, by assuming human flesh from the Virgin Mary, whom the Church honors as the Mother of God, calling her the new Eve and presenting her as the model of redeemed woman. The sensitive respect of Jesus towards the women that He called to His following and His friendship, His appearing on Easter morning to a woman before the other disciples, the mission entrusted to women to carry the good news of the Resurrection to the apostles—these are all signs that confirm the special esteem of the Lord Jesus for women.
The Lord did not create men and women to be in competition with one another over which sex is more powerful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that man and woman were both made in the image and likeness of God, and both have equal dignity (paragraph 1700). This dynamic of equality between the sexes does not change upon entering the marriage covenant. In fact, it is explicitly mentioned in the nuptial blessing: “May her husband entrust his heart to her, so that, acknowledging her as his equal and his joint heir to the life of grace, he may show her due honor and cherish her always with the love that Christ has for his Church.”
Paul did not say that wives should be slaves to their husbands.
Being subordinate or submissive to your husband is not the same as being your husband’s
slave. St. Ambrose says this about as bluntly as one can as he implores the men of his time: “You are not her master, but her husband: she was not given to you to be your slave, but your wife. . . . Reciprocate her attentiveness to you and be grateful to her for her love.”
St. Paul instructs wives to be subordinate to their husbands as they are to the Lord. God has given us the free will to choose whether or not we wish to follow him. When I act virtuously, go to Mass, and pray, it is my choice to submit to what I know God wants for my life. So it is with my husband. I am not indentured to him, I choose to submit to what I know he wants for our marriage. Do I always agree? No. Is it sometimes scary to allow someone else to make important decisions that affect my life too? Yes. But I choose to submit out of love. Out of my own free will.
And, maybe this would be a completely irrational decision on my part if it weren’t for what St. Paul says next in Ephesians 5:25-28.
Paul did say: Husbands, Love your wives
Let’s not be incomplete. In grade school, I was taught that if I didn’t understand what a word or phrase meant, I should read the sentences above and below in order to get the context for what was written. How often do we fail to do this when quoting Scripture to back up a point? In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul does not leave the husbands hanging. He has instructions for them, too:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church . . . So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
How does a husband love? In his book Love and Responsibility, John Paul the Great said that man’s (here he is speaking of “mankind” generally) ability to love “depends on his willingness consciously to seek a good together with others, and to subordinate himself to that good for the sake of others, or to others for the sake of that good.” To love someone is to subordinate oneself to another’s good.
So wives are to subordinate themselves to their husbands. And husbands are to love their wives, which means they are to subordinate themselves to their wives’ good. So, when I submit to what my husband wants for our marriage, I am submitting to his submission for my own good. I’m okay with that.
It is also important to note the differences between the active and passive use of the word subordinate. St. John Paul the Great writes that when two people are pursuing the same common good, not only does this make them equals, it “precludes the possibility that one of them might be subordinated to the other.” Doesn’t this conflict directly with what St. Paul instructed for wives? No, because St. Paul instructs wives to choose to subordinate themselves to their husbands. This gets back to the point above that wives are not slaves to their husbands. Their subordination is a free choice. The husband should not do anything to the wife that would cause her to “be subordinated.”
But don’t take my word for it, listen to St. John Chrysostom:
You want your wife to obey you as the Church obeys Christ? Then you must care for her as much as Christ cares for the Church. Should it be necessary to die for her, to be cut into a thousand pieces, to bear any sort of suffering, you should not say no.
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church.” What did Christ do for the church again? He freely gave himself over to suffer and die on the cross for our sake. Husbands, following Christ’s example, are to die to themselves for the sake of their wives.
In conclusion, St. Paul asks a lot of wives when he instructs them to be submissive to their husbands. But marriage is not a one-way street. In accepting their wives’ submission, husbands are to sacrifice everything for the benefit of their wives. Both willingly give up a part of themselves for the benefit of the other, in the efforts to seek a greater good together—eternal life in heaven.