Some of the most politically incorrect verses in the Bible exhort women to be “submissive” to their husbands. St. Paul uses this language several times in his epistles (the Revised Standard Version uses the word subject):
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24).
This language recurs in other New Testament letters, for example Colossians 3:18 and Titus 2:5. To some modern readers it confirms their worst suspicions about Christian male chauvinism. They think it also gives cover to husbands who want to lord their authority over their wives, treating them like servants or worse.
There is more than one way to understand this text.
The biblical Greek word used for subject or submit is a form of hypotasso, which has the sense of “putting under.” It denotes the ordering of one thing beneath another thing. The Latin roots of the English word submit have the same meaning.
That makes sense in the context of these verses, where an analogy is drawn between a wife’s relation to her husband and the Church’s relation to Christ. The Church is clearly “ordered beneath” Christ, just as the body is ordered beneath the head. The Christian tradition tends to take these words at face value and ascribe a headship of authority to the husband within marriage. St. John Chrysostom, a late-fourth-century Father and Doctor of the Church who wrote about Christian marriage, suggests that this is for the sake of practicality:
[J]ust as when the generals of an army are at peace one with another, all things are in due subordination, whereas on the other hand, if they are at variance, everything is turned upside down; so, I say, is it also here.
In this understanding, subordination means an ordering of roles and authority that allows a marriage to function smoothly, just as similar ordering allows a body to function. (Paul develops this same theme in regard to the whole Church in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.)
Critics of this reading usually fail to note the rest of the passage, which commands a husband to love his wife as Christ loves the Church. This means giving himself up for her, “nourishing and cherishing her” (Eph. 5:25-29) just as Christ gave his life for the Church and continues to love it and build it up. This actually entails a more difficult and sacrificial duty than is prescribed for wives.
This duty should put to rest any notion, either on the part of critics or bossy husbands, that the Bible commands wives to be lowly and subservient, with their husbands free to demand obedience like a dictator. Husbands may have final authority in marriage, patterned after Christ’s headship over the Church, for the sake of a smooth-running household and in light of the principle that parts of a body serve different purposes, but that authority is itself subject to the requirements of love and self-sacrifice.
Keeping in mind this duty of love, and building on the preceding verse (21) that introduces this passage in Ephesians—“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”— John Paul II interpreted these passages slightly differently: in a context of “mutual submission.”
Although there’s an apparent contradiction in such language, since two people or things can’t be “put under” each other in the same respect, in this understanding we can interpret submission not as an ordering of authority but as the mutual regard and self-giving love that both husband and wife must practice in marriage. Paul is simply expressing that idea in two different ways, corresponding to the analogy of marriage with the relationship between Christ and his Church.
As John Paul wrote in his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, in his writings on submission Paul
knows that this way of speaking… is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ” (cf. Eph. 5:21). This is especially true because the husband is called the “head” of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give “himself up for her,” and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life (24).
Whether these passages refer simply to mutual loving consideration between husband and wife or whether they reveal truths about proper roles and duties within marriage, in neither case do they claim that men are superior to women, or worse, give husbands dictatorial powers over their wives.
For more about the biblical vision of Christian marriage (and lots more besides), see Todd’s booklet, 20 Answers: Marriage & Sex, available now from Catholic Answers Press.