An”Unpopular”Teaching on Marriage

OK, so many of you who went to Mass today hear the “Infamous”  line:  Wives  should be subordinate to their Husbands as to the Lord. For the Husband is the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is the Head of the Church…so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything; (Eph 5:20-21, 23) Well apparently the Holy Spirit didn’t get the memo that we don’t think and talk like that today!  🙂

Alright, so maybe it grates on modern ears today but don’t just dismiss what God teaches here. One of the great dangers of this passage is that it is so startling to modern ears that many people tune out after the first line into their own thoughts and reactions and thus miss the rest of what God has to say. You may notice that there is text that follows and before a man gloats at the first line or a women reacts with anger or sadness we do well to pay attention to the rest of the text which spells out the duties of a husband. You see if you’re going to be the head of a household there are certain requirements that have to be met. God’s not playing around here or choosing sides. He has a comprehensive plan for husbands  that is demanding and requires him to curb any notions that authority is about power and to remember that,  for a Christian, authority is always given so that the one who has it may serve  (cf  Mark 10:42-45).

So what are the requirements for a husband?

  1. Husbands, love your wives– Pay attention men, don’t just tolerate your wife,  don’t just bring home money, don’t just love in some intellectual sort of way. LOVE your wife with all your heart. Beg God for  the grace to love your wife tenderly, powerfully and unconditionally. Did you hear what God says? LOVE your wife! Now he goes on to tell you to love her in three ways: passionately, purifyingly and providingly.
  2. Passionate loveeven as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her. The Greek word (Paradidomi) translated here as “handed over” always refers in the New Testament to Jesus’ crucifixion. Husbands, are you willing to give your life for your wife and children? Are you willing to die to yourself and give your life as a daily sacrifice for them? God instructs you to love your wife (and children) with the same kind of love he has for his Bride the Church. That kind of love is summed up in the cross. Love your wife passionately, be willing to suffer for her, be willing to make sacrifices for her and the children.
  3. Purifyingly to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Now a husband cannot sanctify his wife in the same way God can. But what a husband is called to do is to help his wife and children grow in their relationship to Jesus Christ. He is first to  be under God’s authority himself and thus make it easier for his wife and children to live out their baptismal commitments. He ought to a spiritual leader in his home, praying with his wife and children, reading scripture and seeing to it that his home is a place where God is loved and obeyed, first of all by him. His wife should not have to drag him to Church, he should willingly help her to grow in holiness and pray with her every day. And he should become more holy as well and thus make it easier for his wife to live the Christian life.
  4. ProvidinglySo also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it – Husbands, take care of your wife in her needs. She needs more than food money and shelter, these days she can get a lot of that for herself. What she needs even more is your love, understanding, and appreciation. She needs for you to be a good listener and wants an attentive husband who is present to her. Like any human being she needs reassurance and affirmation. Tell her of your love and appreciation, don’t just presume she knows. Show care for your wife, attend to her needs just like you instinctively do for your own self.  That’s what God is teaching here.

OK, so scripture DOES teach that a wife should be submitted to her husband. But what kind of husband does scripture have in mind? A husband who really loves his wife, who is a servant leader, who is makes sacrifices for his wife, who is prayerful and spiritual, submitted to God’s authority and who cares deeply for his wife and her needs. The same God who teaches submission (and he does) also teaches these things clearly for the husband. The teaching must be taken as a whole.

For more on this consider listening to my sermon on this from today. It is here (Teaching on Marriage) in mp3 format. It is 35 minutes!  but consider downloading it if you can’t listen just now. You can download this and other sermons of mine by going here: then right clicking on the title of any talk and selecting the “Save Target As”  option. You can also get my sermons at iTunes. Just search on my name. Perhaps put this or other sermons on your iPod and listen when you get the chance.

This video clip is from the movie Fireproof and depicts a heartfelt apology from a husband who realizes he has not loved his wife as he should. A beautiful movie available at Amazon if you have never seen it.

23 Replies to “An”Unpopular”Teaching on Marriage”

  1. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this post! I that if more married couples submitted to this, as God commands, would there be so many divorces? So many single parent households? I think not….
    Plus I always look at it like this…he (my husband) is the boss, if it all goes to the birds….it’s his fault 🙂 LOL!

  2. Msgr. Pope, thanks for tackling one of the most difficult readings on which to preach. I think it is not only an opportunity to “set the record straight” about a misunderstood passage but also to confront the reality that in most houselholds these days the woman really is in charge and tends to run the show. The priest I heard preach talked about headship as the husband taking the lead in service to his wife and his family, stepping up to the plate in family affairs and this message is an important one as well, especially in two -parent working households when there is not enough hours in the day to do it all and often the wife and mother carries the bigger burden.

  3. WOW is all I can say!!! You could not have made it any clearer. Maybe if we keep praying hard enough, and you keep preaching the WORD like this, just maybe we will be able to at least lower the divorce rate!…..LOL

  4. As I read it, the passage is not difficult to understand, but people read it and take the “burger king” approach to marriage, i.e., have your way (as opposed to God’s way). I think this section of Ephesians 5 begins with the call to “submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.” Submit out of reverence to Christ. We need to spend more time thinking about the meaning of the text. Far too many say it is too hard even though the theme is constantly repeated starting in the beginning where the “the two become one and have dominion over God’s creation (Gen 1) and they were naked and not ashamed, i.e., fully open in communicating and relating to one another (Gen 2). at some point in time, we got to the present state i.e., naked and ashamed (Gen 3) and we often choose to stay here.

    i have a basic question for one who would consider submitting consistent with the text. What is the appropriate response to a spouse who would submit consistent with divine law and enter a relationship by submitting out of reverence for Christ. My choice to attempt to live by this law is the best choice I have made in this life because my wife sees my intent and consistently responds to me in the way Christ responds to all. so, What is the appropriate response and will you commit to it?

  5. The problem with this passage being the *Second* Reading at Mass is that it’s very easy for the Priest to not have to comment on it in his homily and only speak about the Gospel reading. This happened on the rare occasion when a relative of mine went to Mass (she was badly burnt by the church growing up). As you can imagine she reacted very badly to *her perception* of what this passage said. I really don’t think you can proclaim a scripture passage as provocative as this one without providing at least some commentary on it.

    Things will change when I am Pope… 😉

  6. Lots of qualifications and caveats. In my view, this kind of teaching undermines the husband’s authority. Yes, he has obligations and duties, and so does the wife. This is a sort of eloquent, roundabout way of saying that wives don’t need to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. It doesn’t work.

  7. It’s easy these days to say that a husband should be willing to be crucified for his wife, but not that a wife should obey her husband in doing housework or in the way she dresses.

  8. Dan, if housework needs doing, why would the man expect his wife to obey? Seriously. Can’t the husband typically do his share of housework? Is the typical husband so wimpy that he can’t learn to vacuum or wash the dishes? (By the way, Don’t forget: Obey is not in Catholic marriage vows. Your wife is not a servant or an employee.)

  9. Thank you Father,
    I do not have any problem with the picture you paint of a Christian husband in this piece. Surely this is the biblical ideal of what authority looks like. What I have always struggled with when people insist that men be the head of their households and that wives submit to their husbands is that I have never seen a single example of what such submission looks like in the concrete. I always want to ask, give me 3 examples of a wife submitting to her husband in three different areas of life. What does it actually look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of child-rearing? What does it look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of employment? What does it look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of household management? etc.

    As Dan points out, this is where the rubber meets the road. Unlike Dan, if I read him rightly, I have no expectation that a man can dictate to his wife about housework or her wardrobe. But I think Dan is right in pointing out that even after all your eloquence about what a man’s role in a marriage looks like, we still don’t know a thing about what a woman’s submission looks like.

    I am in full agreement with Steve that a wife is not “a servant or an employee.” As such her submission shouldn’t look like that. But what does her submission look like? Without an answer to that, the main difficulty of the modern reader remains.

  10. Steve, I suppose because her role is to submit to her husband as to the Lord. Nobody argues that a husband has a right to be a tyrant or that his wife is his employee, but she is his wife, and he is her leader. If he thinks for the good of the family the house should be cleaner or his wife should dress more modestly, she should be submissive in that, which means, practically speaking, obedient.

    Brett’s right on. Nearly everything written on this subject now is supersensitive to modern feminism, in effect, in my view, hobbling husbands, so they think they basically have no authority that their wives don’t have, that they are equals in every sense. Or even that they have less authority than their wives. But servant leadership isn’t the same things as submission. Jesus isn’t submissive to his Church, even though he gave up his life for it.

  11. How may a husband enforce submission on his wife? If she refuses to follow his orders, what may he do to make her do so?

  12. This is a really interesting topic. I would add one caution to it, though: I’ve heard a lot of talk about a husband being his wife’s “leader.” However, the term “leader” (or any similar term) is not used in the original Greek in the headship/submission section, so I’m rather leery of looking at it like that. The word “head” used in Greek is “kephale” which most often means, literally, a human head (in other words, the husband being the “head” of the wife is referring to the husband being the head and the wife being the body, one flesh, rather than the husband being the leader and the wife being the follower). It is my understanding that the original Greek readers would not have read the “head” verse to mean “leader,” so I don’t think we should either, if we are serious about getting down to the true meaning of the verses.

  13. Thank you father for writing this.

    The way I see it, when the scripture says, “wives obey your husbands” this is a task directed at the wife, not the husband. What I gather from that is that there is never any place for a husband “forcing” his wife to do anything. Instead, this is a task that the wife is supposed to take seriously and accept herself. Jesus said all of us must pick up our cross and follow him. As it is the husband’s duty to love his wife, so it is the wife’s duty to respect and submit to her husband.

    I think Brett’s point is the best here…the answer to his question is what I would really like to know as well.

  14. So you ask what does submission from a wife looks like to a husband who dies to himself in love for his wife and family? It looks like this. Taking a part time job instead of working full time because my children and my husband needed my presence in the evening for family time…. not to cook and clean as a maid but to be present to them. He let me choose if I wanted to continue full time or not work at all and we both decided that it would be good with part time work even though it was evening work two nights a week leaving three days I could be home in the evening with my family. We had a slight change in financial situation but it was not a huge impact thanks be to God.

    It is me taking on the role of the heart of the family in maintaining a clean home and cooking maybe twice a week so that there are different dinners throughout the week but my husband ordering out twice a week so that I don’t have to be burdened with all the work.

    It is being intimate when he asks because I know what his needs are and him with me when I ask because our bodies do not function the same way. The end result is that we both are closer when we come together as God intended.

    So when a man has true sacrificial love for his wife, she trusts him completely so can submit herself to him in her heart knowing that what he has decided for the family is in the best interest of the family out of love. Sure we make mistakes as we often do but we also forgive each other so as to continue to renew bond. It is not easy dying to self but that is what the Sacraments are for.

  15. To those questioning what a submissive wife may look like in today’s society (who, I note, are primarily male) :

    (I have taken the liberty here of using quotes from Brett’s post)

    “What does it actually look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of child-rearing?”

    As a mother of a 7 year old who is still married I can tell you that the parenting of our son is driven, primarily, by my husband’s wishes. That doesn’t mean he’s always the one to implement the plan, but he’s the driving force in creating it. Coming from an abusive background, I am not a fan of spanking or any kind of physical punishment. While he meets me on that point (partially because it is useless for our son), he dictates the other punishments and standards for behavior.

    He is also the driving force behind our choice to homeschool and oversees that process. He’s active in our son’s life and makes the choices of proper company for our son to keep as well as making the decisions on what our son should and should not be exposed to.

    I may not always agree with his choices, but I yield to his decision. It may not always be the easiest path for me to follow, but it is the one God wants me to travel. There have been many times that his decisions have caused personal hardship on my account in this area. I accept them graciously and offer the sacrifice up to God.

    “What does it look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of employment?”

    I am a stay-at-home mom. With my husband’s consent, this next year I will be working from home for minimal hours to help subsidize our income. I have been a stay-at-home mom since I married my husband. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. When I became pregnant shortly after our marriage, that decision was made and we have stuck by it.

    Not all women are asked to stay home. Many are asked by their husbands TO work to subsidize the income of their families. It’s a question of employment not being about “me, me, me” but being about US. If he says (as he did when we began homeschooling) “Okay – you’ll need to quit your part time job to stay home with our son.” then that’s what I did.

    “What does it look like when a woman submits to her husband on a question of household management?”

    I’m a wife. My “inherent” job historically has been to care for the home and the family within it. Do I do it perfectly? Nope. Do I do it to the best of my ability? I sure do try.

    If my husband wants dinner on the table at 6:00, then dinner should be on the table.

    HOWEVER, that also means that he understands that if there’s a sick dog, trouble with schoolwork, and I’ve got the flu he will be understanding.

    As with working, it’s not all about “me, me, me” – it’s about US.

    NOW, in regards to Dan and his comment:

    I do believe that if a wife is not fulfilling her obligations to her family that is expected of her in the Bible, she SHOULD be called on it IN KINDNESS by her husband. I would HATE for myself to be considered a trashy dresser by my husband and him to never say a word. Likewise I would hate to dress too conservatively and make him uncomfortable in front of his colleagues. Same with the housework – if I’m not keeping the house to a reasonable standard, then that’s an issue. If it’s because he has stuff everywhere and I don’t know what to do with it – then it’s his burden to find that stuff a home. If it’s my belongings causing the issue, then it is my responsibility.

    Submission is different in every marriage but I will say that those who marry without discussing what it will likely look like in their marriage prior to the wedding are seriously heading down a very dark road. Our relationship has evolved much in the 8 1/2 years we have been together. We’re still working it all out and likely will be in that process for a lifetime…but if you try to set your personal standards for marriage along with Biblical standards you have a MUCH better starting block for everyone. 🙂

  16. I think there is probably much less of a chance of a husband abusing his authority and becoming a tyrant nowadays than there is of a wife effectively denying his authority and becoming disrespectful or even defiant. So my personal feeling is that this piece has its emphasis wrong. He takes great pains to demonstrate how a man is supposed to love his wife, but says next to nothing about how a woman is supposed to love her husband. You can’t say a wife needs to be submissive without getting dirty looks or being thought an anachronism or a joke. If men aren’t loving their wives as well as they should, most of the blame probably belongs to the influence of feminism, which makes men doubt themselves and their authority. A submissive wife can help turn that around.

  17. I totally reject the premise that a woman should be submissive to her husband,and I can honestly state that if my husband expected that of me we would have been divorced long ago.Our marriage is based on mutual respect, love.friendship and companionship.We both work ,consequently we share the household chores and parenting duties.Our eldest child is at university and the younger ones are doing very well at school. Our children are used to seeing us being affectionate to one another and supporting one another during difficult times.We feel that we have given them a very positive example of what a marriage should be and submission plays no part in our marriage.

  18. From the very beginning of christianity as an organised faith there has never been definitive answers given by the church as to exactly how scriptures are the revelations of god and the standard of truth.There are many christiian denominations with their own intepretations of scriptures who claim theirs is the only correct one and that all the others are wrong.My interpretation of various passages in the bible have been formed over the years and my understanding and concept of it may be different than yours, but I would respectfully contend that it is no less relevant.
    I don’t totally reject scripture per se, but I do reject some interpretations of it and one of those is the concept that a wife must be submissive to her husband.
    There are some woman who are very happy and content to have their husband make all the decisions and have total power and control in the marriage,it makes them feel content.cared for and happy.There are also men who are perfectly content to have their wives take control in the marriage and if that works for them and creates harmony in the marriage then well and good.However, there are also women and men who view marriage as a partnership of equals and would be content with nothing less and I can’t see anything wrong with that.

  19. Jackie, who says that a man being the head, as Christ is head of the Church, is not conducive to mutual respect, love, friendship, and companionship? This is precisely what St. Paul points out, and what Msgr. Pope reiterates in this post. Also, I read your later comment, wherein you point out that you do reject some interpretations of this particular scripture. St. Paul isn’t saying anything about a woman merely being a submissive mouse or doormat who leaves all of the decision-making to her husband, and he is not saying that a husband has “total power and control” in the marriage. For think of who and what Christ is, and the concept of servant-leader that Msgr. Pope talks about. Furthermore, St. Paul says that men and women should “be subordinate to each other out of love for Christ.” Also, what St. Paul also says about a woman “submitting to her husband” is that she should respect him. He doesn’t say that this means that a man has a right to be a tyrant. Again, think of Christ’s lordship and what he means by “love one another, as I have loved you,” to say nothing of the very fact that marriage as a sacrament is supposed to be “an outward sign of God’s love for us.” How, after all, and to what extent, does God love us? And, for that matter, what do you understand to be “God”?

    And as a matter of fact, it is your interpretation of Ephesians 5 in the last paragraph that is arguably *insulting* to both men and women in the Christian sense: Christian women do speak up if something is not right, and not just, and is disrespectful of our dignity, for caring for each other’s souls is important to us. And husbands who love us do their best to listen, if they’re smart. We care for our husband’s souls, we expect our husbands to step up to the plate and care for ours, and we are both to care for the souls of our children. Marriage is a sacrament, after all, which means that it’s an instrument of God’s gift of salvation. We understand that open communication is what keeps a marriage going. We are openly affectionate, and we strive to talk things through and work things out. We are both meant to be respectful, humble, and honest with each other at all times. How is that not “mutual respect, love, friendship, and companionship” if not “partnership”? Many of us also work and have careers, and we have fiances and husbands who support and encourage us in those endeavors. God gave us all the gifts of faith and reason; he expects us to use them. No less is reiterated to us time and time again in Pre-Cana.

    However, there are also women and men who view marriage as a partnership of equals and would be content with nothing less and I can’t see anything wrong with that.

    You have a very odd idea of equality in the Christian sense, which should make you question what you said earlier: “from the very beginning of Christianity as an organized faith, there has never been definitive answers given by the Church as to exactly how scriptures are the revelations of God and the standard of truth.” Here’s a hint: Christ said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and “You are Peter, and on this rock, I build my Church. What you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven, and what you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven.” Start there. Also, check out the councils of the Early Church. This should also raise pertinent questions about what Scripture actually is, what the Bible is, where the Bible comes from, and where it belongs. It should also thereafter raise serious questions about what happens when we assume that one interpretation of Scripture is as good as another. What makes you think that your personal interpretation of scripture, “formed over the years” as it may be, is correct? If you’re going to talk about interpretation “formed over many years” as the criterion, then the Church has two millenia that you don’t have. That you reject some interpretations of Scripture puts you in good company: so does the Catholic Church. I recommend that you check out how the Catechism of the Catholic Church exhorts us to read Sacred Scripture holistically. Scripture doesn’t interpret itself. But, if you’re content to assume that the Church is just making this all up as an “organized religion,” and that everybody she disagrees with she simply “persecutes,” because that’s just what the Big, Bad, Catholic Church does, dontcha know, then I guess you’re just out of luck.

    As for your idea of “equality,” how are Christian men and women not equal, and equal in marriage, given that we believe that we were created equal in dignity by God? After all, it is our very equality that comes from God, and it isn’t something that we make up out of whole cloth. As such, if we care about our equality, we are never to put something less than God before God, which means that as spouses, we are never to put each other before God, and we are never to expect that the other should fulfill our deepest needs that only God can. We are also to remember at all times that we and our spouses were created in the image of God. Else, the result is indeed what God told Adam and Eve when he banished them from the Garden of Eden– that the man should “rule over” the woman.

  20. The life of Saint Monica, mother of Saint Augustine, is the perfect example of an obedient and pious Catholic wife, even when her husband was harsh. She submitted completely to God’s will, and eventually, God worked wonders for her. It’s an unfortunate fact of our generation that such clear instructions from Apostles, inspired by Holy Spirit, need sugarcoating to be even “acceptable”.

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