August 15, 2018
The second reading (Ephesians 5:21-32) is one of the most misunderstood passages about marriage in the New Testament. I have learned a great deal about this passage from Michael Lawler, and will summarize his article “The Sacrament of Marriage: Biblical Basis” in Marriage and Sacrament (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993): 36-51 below.
The passage in which the writer offers his view of marriage is situated within a larger context, which sets forth a list of household duties that exist within a family at that time. This list is addressed to wives—husbands, children—father, and slaves—master. All that concerns us here is what is said about the husband and wife. There are two similar lists in the New Testament. The Ephesians’ list is the only one to open with a strange injunction. This injunction, most commentators agree, is an essential element of what follows. The writer takes over the household list from traditional material. His critiques challenge the absolute authority of any one Christian group over another other.
The author established a basic attitude required of all Christians, an attitude of giving way or of mutual obedience. Mutual submission is an attitude of all Christians, because their basic attitude is that they fear Christ (i.e. this fear is not being AFRAID, but of being IN AWE of what Christ has done of them!). It is specified as giving way to one another. That mutual giving way is required of all Christians, even of husbands and wives as they seek holiness together in marriage, and even in spite of traditional family relationship which permitted husbands to lord it over their wives. As Christians have all been admonished to give away to one another, it comes as no surprise that a Christian wife is to give way to her husband as to the Lord.
What is interesting to the ingrained male attitude that sees the husband as the supreme lord and master of his wife is that the reading specifies that a husband also is to give way to his wife. That follows from the general instruction that Christians are to give way to one another. It follows also from the specific instruction about husband. That instruction is not that the husband is the head of the wife but rather that in the same way that the Messiah is the head of the church is the husband the head of the wife. A Christian husband’s headship over his wife is an image of, and totally exemplified by Christ’s leadership over the Church. When a Christian husband understands this, he will understand the Christian responsibility he assumed toward the woman-gift he receives in marriage as his wife.
In a Christian marriage, spouses are required to give way mutually, not because of any inequality between them, not because of any subordination of one to the other, not because of fear, but only because they have such a personal unity that they live only for the good of that one person. Mutual giving way, mutual subordination, and mutual obedience are nothing other than total availability and responsiveness to one another so that both spouses can become one body. A Christian husband is instructed to be head over his wife by serving, giving way to, and giving himself up for her. Headship and authority modeled on those of Christ does not mean control, giving orders, making unreasonable demands, reducing another human person to the status of servant or worse slave to one’s every whim, it means service. The Christian husband is the first servant of his wife.