How should we understand ‘wives, be subordinate to your husbands’?

My son’s favorite plea these days is for independence. “I will do this by my own,” he tells me while climbing the stairs and pulling his hand away from mine. He is not “obeying his parents in everything” as this Sunday’s reading from Colossians urges, but he is 2-and-a-half and this is to be expected.

And, if I am honest, the readings for the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph offer several good lessons that I am also too often willing to ignore. There are a number of options for the readings, but a common thread runs through them all. They tell us that how we treat our family members matters and then, appropriately, give us some instruction on how to treat each other well.

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Some of this advice seems obvious, even if it can be hard to follow: Honor our spouses, honor our parents. Offer one another heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness. As a wife and parent, I am on board with this.

But some aspects of these readings are tougher sells. I start to feel anxious just reading about Hannah leaving Samuel or about Mary and Joseph frantically searching for a young Jesus. Their experiences remind us that being a parent means engaging in a constant battle between trying to provide the best for your children while simultaneously grappling with all that is out of your control.

In these readings, I am reminded that although I carried them and birthed them, my children, ultimately, are not my own.

My children are the most precious part of my life. I want to keep them close to me; I want to protect them; I want to help them grow to be holy men and women. And so often I think this means making sure that I can orchestrate every detail of their lives so as to shield them from suffering.

But in these readings, I am reminded that although I carried them and birthed them, my children, ultimately, are not my own. They, like Samuel, are dedicated to the Lord. They come from God, and my job is to guide them back to God.

And the only way to manage this is, again, told to us in these readings: Over all our efforts, all our qualities, we must “put on love...the bond of perfection.” We are asked to think a little less of ourselves. To teach our children to listen and to obey, and then to let them go their own way, even if we do not understand it. To hope that whatever anxiety they cause us, we will find them exactly where they are meant to be. To believe that ultimately, we will be reunited with them in our Father’s house.

To love someone means that we are willing to decrease so that another may increase.

Another tough sell is that little line in the second reading that I often find troubling: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands.” Yet in the context of the readings for the day, I am able to draw something fruitful from it. If we look at the qualities required to fulfill the request rather than the connotation of the word itself, what is simply being asked of wives is sacrificial love. To love someone means that we are willing to decrease so that another may increase. This is not the same as losing one’s sense of self; it is simply the recognition that we must let go of our own plans and pride in order to encourage others on the shared path of God’s mercy before us.

And if this is what it means to love, then a few lines later when husbands are asked to love their wives, maybe the same is being asked of them, just in different words: Make yourselves less so that another can be more. In this light, neither partner is asked to be demurely deferential or to be a doormat. We are simply asked to do what families do, which is sacrifice for each other. We work late nights to support each other; we give up jobs to be with each other; we look away from our screens; we clean up after each other, we laugh, we sit in silence, in sorrow, in solidarity with each other. And we do this with the aim of modeling the love of Christ, who sacrificed his life for all of us.

There are so many pressures on families these days, and it is all too easy to run around filled with anxiety or bitterness; to provoke each other; to become discouraged. And, in our grasping and searching and wandering we long for some feeling of control. But the readings for the Feast of the Holy Family urge us otherwise: We are asked to let the peace of Christ control our hearts. This means that we must let go of who we thought we were in order to fully become who Christ asks us to be. It means that we must stop insisting we will do things, as my son says, “by our own,” and instead recognize that all that we are we owe to the one who keeps reaching out to us, taking our hand, even as we try to pull away. The one who guides us and stands beside us, with every step we take.

This reflection also appears on catholicwomenpreach.org.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
3 weeks ago

The Joke is

The husband says I make all the big decisions and she makes all the little ones. When asked what big decisions he has made, he said none so far.

Another bit of philosophy, is that a great marriage is when both parties think they got the better part of the deal and sacrifice to keep the deal.

Tim O'Leary
3 weeks ago

An alternative to that joke. A husband says he makes all the big decisions and his wife the little ones. He decides what position the family takes on political issues and foreign affairs. His wife decides what to spend the family money on.

J Cosgrove
3 weeks ago

Tim,

I saw a statistic recently that wives control about 80% of family expenditures. But it may be an old wives' tale. https://outline.com/d2s9Cv

Nora Bolcon
2 weeks ago

Unfortunately, this has been a truly painful joke for many people throughout history.

Sadly, our church hierarchy loves this mistake by St. Paul. While they take out Deborah and other good uplifting stories from our lectionary, they constantly leave this sexist message of St. Paul's in, despite the laity continually requesting they make this change and take it out. So it is no coincidence it is still there but is yet another definite design to keep misogyny in place in our church.

St. Paul alike to many Jews, has misinterpreted the reasons God had men in control of the property for Israelite families- it was to keep the property at an equal spread between the tribes not to subordinate women. You will not find God ever stating that he wants women subordinate to men or that he made them to be subordinate to men. God tells us that the result of sin leads man to distrust and continually try to control his wife. Therefore the result of the sinful fall is the reason God tells us man will subjugate his wife. This is a bad thing - not a good thing. It brings division and disunity in marriage.

This is why upholding this belief is actually blasphemous against any man and women who are baptized in Christ. They have been freed from the results of sin - all sin. Yet, if we tell them to act like fallen men and women, and they do, then why should these people's faith in Christ be assumed real? If this is their chosen witness in marriage, then why should Christ or anyone else hope to find them among the saved? Risen men and women are equals in all ways, including sacramentally, which is why our current ban against women priests, bishops, cardinals and popes is anti-Christian, as it presumes Christ was not capable of freeing men and women from all forms of bias and oppression or from all sin. This belief attacks Christ more than it even attacks women.

St. Paul was not perfect. There has only ever been one perfect person and that is Jesus Christ alone.

In fairness to St. Paul, he did not ever intend for his letters to be used as sacred scripture and was only writing to advise new Christians how he felt they could carry out faith within their relationships. The letter this line comes from is a correctional letter where married men and women are having orgies and he is trying to implement some form of order from chaos. He never intended Christians to use his advice as a new Christian Law. Much understanding is lost when we reject intent and context of writers.

Even St. Paul, in Galatians, refers to those who take the truth of Christ and the advice of the Apostles, and attempt to create new legalistic ways to live thru Christianity as Stupid People who have lost their way! St. Paul asks them did Christ free you from a perfect law of God (the Torah) only to have you take on a new flawed law made by man?

What Paul should have taught probably is the advice he gave to men, and taught it to both men and women. Women love your husbands like you love yourself or your own body and cherish them and take care of them this way and men do the exact same thing for your wives. Men and women do not think differently, nor do they require different treatment in general, and different treatment in marriage always results in imbalance and damage. I would also remind anyone reading, that St. Paul was also the one who wrote that in Christ there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, or male and female. All are one in Christ. He also referred to various women as apostles, deacons and lauded their witness and how they ran churches in their homes - often even unmarried women.

Robert Klahn
3 weeks ago

"And if this is what it means to love, then a few lines later when husbands are asked to love their wives, maybe the same is being asked of them, "

Maybe? You cannot teach eternal truths based on maybe.

It is either yes or no. Anything that leaves it ambiguous leaves it to human determination.

There can be no ambiguity in the truth. Sorry bout that, but your explanation is obviously not valid.

Fortunately, I can recognize it is a teaching of Jewish tradition, Jesus did not say that. That is how I will recognize it.

Jim MacGregor
2 weeks 5 days ago

Huh?

Rocky Balsamo
2 weeks 6 days ago

Great thoughts, Kerry! My wife and I try to make decisions together. We respect each other and although we don't always agree, we go to great lengths to reach a compromise. Our actions are how we honor our covenant. And those actions are a living framework for family spirituality. "I think today it's more important for us to so let God live in us that others may feel God and come to believe in God because they feel how God lives in us." -Thomas Merton

Rita Rings
2 weeks 6 days ago

Thanks for speaking for all mothers! You have a gift and we are graced by your work. A grandma in Ohio🌹

Suzanne Artley
2 weeks 6 days ago

Or, we could understand it as St Paul's attempt to keep the community from scandalizing the Ancient near east world. In the Roman world, most women could be divorced or murdered by the Pater familas social structure if they spoke out or stood out. The exceptions were courtesans and women of great wealth and influence. Paul was trying to keep the community from being crushed because he thought the second coming was immanent. The egalitarian nature of Christianity was a scandal.

CAROL STANTON
2 weeks 6 days ago

Kerry, thank you for your thoughtful breaking open of the Word. If a presider chooses the option of reading the " subordinate " part (and it is, thankfully, an option not to read it) then that presider has the responsibility to break it open as you have.....because those words " wives, be subordinate to your husbands" are heard in all their oppressive literalness and for some husbands actually reinforce abusive behaviors toward women. Once that phrase is proclaimed it is difficult to un-hear it. Never do we hear it's correlative proclaimed and only if we are lucky do we hear a homily such as yours.

Mary Galeone
2 weeks 6 days ago

I heard a woman describe being a victim of domestic violence as her husband quoted “wives be submissive to your husbands”
For me that concludes the discussion.

Christine Schroder
2 weeks 5 days ago

Thank you Mary! What is the difference between gender discrimination and racial and ethnic discrimination? I do not understand WHY these passages are still readings in our liturgies.

Nora Bolcon
2 weeks ago

They really should not be and many have requested that they be taken from the lectionary but Pope Benedict XIV refused to do so when he revised the latest English version. The laity need to start demanding women like Deborah be returned to the lectionary and this part of St. Paul's letter be removed. This choice of wording from St. Paul is an error on St. Paul's part and even St. Paul did not consider this more than just advice to a very roudy and chaotic city. He did not consider this a law of the church or a belief to hold over all women or a reason to treat women differently than men. That was not his intent and that is not the context of Paul's letter.

Andrew Wolfe
2 weeks 5 days ago

I'm sorry, but this is too shallow for words. To begin with, we miss the superior formulation of Eph 5 where St Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ gave His life for the Church. While recognizing the fundamental call to service that is central to Christian marriage in both sexes, Ms Weber completely avoids considering the traditional perspective of marriage and the family, in which authority rests in the husband, which was in effect before the 1970s. We cannot grapple with these verses without engaging this understanding.

The claim that marriage was a means of subjugating women and reinforcing patriarchy is, of course, both too unredeemedly un-Christian, and too ill-supported, to consider seriously even a moment.

How can we be united with prior eras of Christians in which "obey your husbands" was considered literally using just Weber's formulation? It needs much more exploration!

Rose Marie Doyle
2 weeks 5 days ago

Peter 3:1-7 explains that men are to understand the more delicate nature of the wife, but this requires communication. He agrees with St Paul that the wife is to submit to the husband. This is a hard saying in our present culture, but Peter wants women not to fear the husband’s decisions but put their confidence in God who will surely advocate and bless as he did for Sarah when her obedience resulted in her entering the king’s harem. Advising without (criticizing), putting faith in God’s word and in His power and love advances women in holiness and preserves peace and order in the home - the best environment for children and love to thrive.

Bill Mazzella
2 weeks 5 days ago

Jesus said that he came to serve not to dominate. "Matthew 20:28 New International Version (NIV) 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Once we follow these words the rest is easy. Domination is contrary to Christ as the present bishops in the coverup and many officials in the past have shown.

Molly Roach
2 weeks 5 days ago

Except that "be subordinate" has been used against women while "love your wives" has not been used against men. This is a very complex and long standing dilemma in the history of our culture and the church. Cannot be made better by ignoring the power of the traditional understanding of and politics around this text.

Bill Mazzella
2 weeks 5 days ago

Rationalizing always occurs, especially on this. Bishops and popes have historically shied from the humble shall be exalted and the last shall be first. Just as too many Christians walk past the injured at our borders. Unlike the hated Samaritan. As far as misogyny, this is why Mary Daly was so dramatic in her treatment of men. She knew shock was the only way. She never took a question from a male student. That got the attention of many males.

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