“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses these words to introduce his instructions to husbands and wives, to children and parents, and to workers and supervisors. Like Confucius, Paul taught that one must know who one is in relation to others to be sure of what one ought to be doing. Ever since Paul wrote these words, people have been pulling bits of them out of the larger context and using them to try to control each other.
Men and women are different. The difference can be seen microscopically (the difference between X and Y chromosomes) or by studying the entire package. Some differences may be culturally induced (nurture rather than nature), but that does not make them wrong. Whether one attributes the differences between men and women to a wise Creator (as I do) or explains them as “survival of the fittest,” the differences between men and women help to form stronger families, stronger communities, stronger nations, and a better world.
Paul tells men to love their wives with a sacrificial, Christ-like love. This theme diverts Paul into the mystery of Christ and the Church, in which every marriage of a man and a woman becomes a picture or analogy of Christ and the Church. Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord.” Since he has already told all Christians to submit to one another, it seems odd that he would reiterate that instruction to the wives.
To submit is not to be inferior. Jesus Christ submits to God the Father even though they are equal in power, in wisdom, in glory, and in every other way. To submit is not to be a willing victim to sinful behavior. Christians are told to exhort one another to good works. We are told to remove the logs from our eyes so we can see clearly to remove the specks from our brothers’ eyes. When Eve was created, she was to be a teammate of Adam. (Four hundred years ago the translators working for King James I of England chose the term “helpmate.” More recent translations have shortened the word to “helper,” but “teammate” is more accurate.) They were to work together in their assigned jobs: to care for the Garden, to rule over the land animals and flying animals, and to be fruitful and multiply.
All Christians should love each other and submit to one another. I speculate that Paul told husbands to love their wives because the masculine gender is more likely to stray from their proper mates. Men are more easily tempted to be unfaithful; women are more likely to stay and nurture their families. (These are generalities—of course many exceptions can be found.) Paul stresses that husbands should love their wives because strong love will keep a husband faithful to his wife.
In the same way, I speculate that Paul told wives to submit to their husbands because, as love seems more natural to women than to men, their desire to nurture can be changed into a desire to control. Sometimes men find it easier to let the women in their lives control them than to claim leadership in their families. Men joke about being tied to apron strings and about the old ball and chain. Men notice that the love of their wives can be expressed as controlling rather than as submitting.
Husbands are to focus their effort on loving their wives. Wives are to focus their effort on submitting to their husbands. Husbands and wives both should love each other and submit to one another. Paul does not address the matter of who goes first. A husband is not permitted to say, “I’ll start loving her when she shows she has submitted to me,” and a wife is not permitted to say, “I’ll begin to submit when he shows that he loves me.” Marriages flounder over such arguments, because marriages consist of two sinful people trying to share their lives with one another. The only remedy is that greater love of which marriage is a picture. Christ’s sacrificial love removes the stain of sin, making the Church and each of its members pure and holy in the sight of God. Without that guarantee, marriage would be a burden. With the forgiveness of God generating forgiveness between wife and husband, the teamwork can be joyful. J.