Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ephesians 5: thoughts and a tiny bit of actual experience

This December I seem to be blog-reading much more than usual (the best substitute I can find for crawling into a hole and hibernating, which is what I'd really like to be doing) and so I started to notice a topic that was making its rounds on the controversial Ephesians 5 "wives, be submissive to your husband" passage. (I'm linking to the starter post but I first read about it at bearing blog -- since then I've read responses from many other quarters).

I just have a few thoughts and if they work out somewhat on the screen I may actually hit "publish".   I realize that the topic was really "what is your experience on this topic" so I put in a couple of things at the end but really I couldn't think of anything much to say about that, so this is mostly just thoughts.  But they are LIVED thoughts ;-)

First, bottom-line -- women and men are equal in human dignity and freedom of will.   So whatever "submit" means, it doesn't mean "accept the fact that you are second-rate".  That is probably too obvious to be said.  But after all, some men in some periods of history have thought that women were inferior and they have even imagined they had the support of the Church on this so perhaps it isn't as obvious as all that.

God formed the first woman from the rib of the man, but He specially created her soul and the same is true of all her daughters.   The Queen of the Angels and the pre-eminent among mere humans is a woman, after all.  So no inferiority in value and worth.

Second, St Paul was writing corrective advice -- advice that wouldn't be necessary if there hadn't been a Fall and the consequences of the Fall.   That's probably obvious too. 

Thirdly, and this just occurred to me, St Paul was writing instructions in the wake of Jesus's teachings on marriage as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.  Jesus had done something rather revolutionary to the Jews of His time.  He had authoritatively restored the original state of marriage which had been temporarily somewhat abrogated due to "the hardness of your hearts."  But now those hearts of stone were to be turned into hearts of flesh.  Couples were no longer allowed to divorce; marriage was a sacrament and for keeps.  Family had always been a primary unit to the Chosen People, though I expect the concept had become Hellenized and Romanized during the latter days.   But now, the conjugal relationship had been revealed to have a deep, Eucharistic meaning, analogical to that of the Bridegroom and His Bride, the Church.   But such new insights sometimes are attended with confusion.  I could see that this new equal footing, this acknowledged complementarity and reciprocal completion, could be attended by some confusion about how to apply the truth to daily life. 

This leads me to my fourth thought, which requires going back to the Fall, where Eve, the mother of us all, seized command of the relationship by taking the fruit and eating, and then giving Adam, from whose rib she had been formed, the fruit.  The fruit to me thus seems to have been handed over with an implied directive.  Adam then relinquished command out of a desire (apparently) to stay close to Eve at all costs, and he took the fruit, surely against his better judgment.  Here I admit I am going out on a limb.  But I am going to argue that this story plays out as a prototype of the female and male "natural" fallen tendencies in relation to each other, and that this has something to say with regard to Paul's corrective injunctions.

Men, I would argue, don't have to be told to submit.  It is something that comes very naturally to them.  It is part of their strength, and it can also be a weakness.   Sure, they will jostle for first place.  But I am always struck by how on athletic fields and in other masculine areas, men are able to acknowledge the best among them, and admire the one who comes in first, without hard feelings or jealousy OR cringing servility.   In the past, the best men have had no problem kneeling to a king without feeling a loss to their own dignity.  In fact, the most masculine men are usually the ones who can serve nobly and faithfully.  Think of the centurion who Jesus spoke of admiringly, who drew the analogy between the men who served him and then applied it to Jesus's power. 

Think also of chivalry and the romantic ideal -- a man naturally thinks in terms of service, I believe.  Where I think he may sometimes need to be reminded is in the area of "love"-- that is, a faithful and long-term drawing-together, a willingness to be perfected and completed by the other, to stay in the holistic relationship and in the true sense "husband" and cultivate his family rather than making his role a sort of stylized formality.  I think that this kind of wholehearted love and commitment is harder for a man.   Perhaps Adam reneged on his role when he basically took the "whatever" role when Eve set it upon him, and then laid the blame on her for his own lapse of commitment.

Women, I would argue, don't have to be told to love.   They will love whether told to or no.   They are attracted to the good even when it's hidden, and receptive to it.   They look for completion in a relationship.     But they have a harder time submitting, putting their agenda in second place.   Even their service and sacrifice can be a form of control if they don't watch out.   Ask me how I know, as long as you don't expect me to answer.    But "sub-missio" implies making your mission wholeheartedly subordinate to that of the other.  I would argue that the feminine difficulty with this goes back to Eve's seizing of the initiative in the relationship of our First Parents, and was decisively set back to rights by Our Lady's Fiat at the Annunciation.

When we look around us at today's post-Christian society, surely we see some corroboration of this hypothesis.   What do we see happening when tradition and religion fall by the wayside?   We see women taking command of their families as single moms.  We see men loving women for a little while and then leaving them in charge, carrying through on the "whatever" role.  I am not saying that the single moms struggling to survive or the dads shut off from their family and children WANT to be that way.  But this is the sociological picture; this is what seems to be playing out in the default mode, which seems to corroborate Paul's cautionary words.

And look at the churches when women take more of a hand in running things.  They do it well; so well that the men tend to shrug "whatever" and decommit, letting the women manage things, to the detriment of the nature of the Church.   Again, I don't think men have to be told to submit; they have to resist doing it when it's not right.

A man and a woman brought together in matrimony look into each others' eyes and need to see each other as their companion on the way to Heaven and in the noble duty of raising children equal in spiritual dignity to themselves. My guess is that St Paul was trying to help, by removing a particular type of scale from each partner's eyes that might prevent them from seeing each other truly.  How that relationship works out in day to day -- this doesn't seem to be specified by the Church, and I imagine for good reason.   Each marital relationship is in a sense a special creation.

To me, the injunction to submit includes respect and warm affection for my husband's differences, the way he is even when it doesn't seem as good as "my" way, and avoiding the temptation to live "through" him (which seems to me to be a form of un-submissiveness).   It meets staying committed to him as himself, not as someone to shape and mold, no matter how indirectly.    It means not "enabling" him in order to make him dependent on me, and not trying to make him miserable with my moods.  But these are particulars, and mostly negative.  They won't necessarily apply to anyone else, and they certainly aren't what lies in the heart and soul of our relationship.  They are what you might call habits, goals, warning signposts where I've stumbled in the past.  

I DON'T think it has much to do with who stays home -- in our case, both of us stay home and work, though his endeavors bring in more money than mine do, and mine are more closely connected with house management and child-raising.  But that seems to me to be totally irrelevant -- leaving the home as a norm for economic reasons seems like a post-industrial-revolution artifact to me, somewhat unnatural for both spouses, and I hope it ends up going away!   In the past men and women worked in complementary roles and house management, trade and child-raising were much more inter-connected than they seem to be now.  But that's (to me) a rather different topic, and so now I'll let this post trickle out to its conclusion.

I will just add that I personally don't find it easy at all to be truly submissive, as opposed to simply passive or withdrawn.   And I'm not a choleric and I don't enjoying managing things.  So I'm sure it must be very hard indeed for someone whose temperament is more commanding.   But I don't think it's easy for any woman.


  1. Wow, this is fantastic, Willa! This is the freshest reading of this line from scripture that I've read in a long time. And it rings so true to me! I'm going to print it out and read it to my husband.

  2. As usual, Willa, your reasoning and ability to articulate that reasoning are spot on. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Willa, I read the same posts you did and yours is by far my favorite. You expressed some things here that I have never heard put quite that way, I believe there is some wisdom here. Also, as I was reading I took special note of your mention that Eve was taken from the rib (meaning cell, I believe?)of Adam. I never noticed it before, but that verse alone should disprove the women-are-inferior argument. We're made of the same 'stuff' if you will. Not eloquent, I know, but hey, it's late here and I'm tired. I was too chicken to post my response to the original post, very glad you posted yours.

  4. Brilliant, Willa!

    I also like that you threw in the part about work location. I completely agree that having our work so separated from our home is post-Industrial. Wendell Berry would definitely say so, and I think the Industrial impace of zoning laws is what we see played out now. Many of the jobs that men leave home to work used to be comfortably done at home, but that is now illegal. We don't allow buisness and home life to mix.

    My husband worked at home for a few years, and our homelife definitely benefitted. I think I will always miss that, and I hope he gets to come back home someday...

    I totally agree with you that men naturally submit, and that it is both a strength and a weakness. That alone is reason for we women to take care, is it not? My sister-in-law and I have often talked about this (our husbands are twins). At one point early in her marriage, she stopped telling her husband what she wanted, just so she could find out what he wanted--he was so, so willing to serve her! I had to do something similar when we had only one child.

  5. I really loved this. It rang so true. I, also liked what you wrote about both parents working at home for most of history. SO true. Thanks you for this great article. You should write a book about this.

  6. Excellent post - thanks. I think you're right - especially the point about churches where women end up running everything (and I say this as a woman, running something at a Church, LOL).


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!