Betty Duffy

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Ephesians 5, According to a wife in need of submissiveness remediation

Darwin, of Darwin Catholic, has asked the question, “What does ‘Wives, be submissive’ mean?”


I’m probably not the best person to answer this question, as my gut instinct from my earliest memory has been to rebel completely at the mere thought of being pressured into doing something. I might have loved practicing piano until my mom told me to do it—then I wouldn’t have practiced if my life depended on it. To get me to do something, one has to trick me into believing I’ve chosen to do it myself.

So if my husband suggests that I need to be home more, or keep the house cleaner, he has ordered up an absent wife and a pigsty. Fortunately, I think he knows this about me. And actually, the same is true of him—probably also true of humanity, because we have free will, and we like to use it…freely.

At the same time, if I happen to know that my husband likes clean spaces and a present wife, I'll probably give him the gift of each to the extent and frequency of my ability, which waxes and wanes. And when it's offered, I'll call this freely given gift, "Submission" to his desires.

When Ephesians 5 is read at a Sunday Mass, you always see a lot of nudging in the pews among husbands and wives:

"See, you’re supposed to do what I tell you,” he says.

“And perhaps I will when you love me better,” she replies.

We want to interpret this reading as an injunction to our significant other rather than to ourselves. We assume, “wives be submissive to your husbands” means that the man is going to start commanding her life in authoritative tones, and she is going to be a docile creature with down-turned eyes, at the ready for her husband’s every whim.

We think the injunction is a deletion of her free will, whereas, I see it more as an opportunity to exercise her free will. She is offered throughout her day numerous opportunities to submit to her husband, to her vocation, to the will of God, and sometimes she’ll do it well, and sometimes, she probably won’t. But just having the words in the Bible, “Wives be submissive” gets her thinking that maybe it’s something she should be doing as opposed to what comes naturally to her (In my case, micromanaging everyone else’s lives).

If I had to take a stab at why Paul wrote this passage, I would say that it’s because submission comes as a greater challenge to most women. Just as laying down one’s life for others is a greater challenge for most men. There are always exceptions, but we practice what challenges us in order to grow in holiness, which is why we can't wait for the other to do their part before we start to do ours (assuming we're talking about a relatively functional marriage, free of co-dependency behaviors and abuse). Any kind of wifely submission--from the decision to take on a more traditional familial role to letting her husband do the budget—has to, and ultimately does, come only from her--not from his heavy hand.

Bearing has mentioned that work and education are red herrings in the debate, because we assume always that women want more education and work opportunities. If I wanted to work, I'm sure my husband would allow me to do so--we've discussed it before. I think more women suffer these days in feeling pressured by their husbands or by economic demands to continue working when they’d rather stay home and raise their children. To me, this is the new women’s oppression. Also, women who would like to have more children, but who are forced to contracept or abort. And yet I’m always surprised by how willingly modern secular women submit to their husbands or significant others in these areas.

Unless we were in true material need, I would see my husband's pressuring me to contracept or to leave my children in someone else's care in order to work as incompatible with my human dignity. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I might… not …submit. But I don’t know, maybe I could somehow come to see working outside the home as God’s will for me, via my husband’s headship.

The bottom line is that I don’t have control over how my husband loves me. And he doesn’t have control over whether or not I submit (use of force, in my book, constituting automatic disqualification from Christian Marriage). So the only way to interpret this passage, just like all of Scripture, is as a call to personal conversion. Not my will, but thine. It’s Christianity 101.


Other Responses to this question from:
Mrs. Darwin
Bearing
Dorian Speed

8 comments:

Melanie B said...

"If I had to take a stab at why Paul wrote this passage, I would say that it’s because submission comes as a greater challenge to most women. "

That's been my take on it. I think a great temptation for women is to treat their husbands as another one of the kids: to nag, to complain about his behavior to one's friends; like you say, to micromanage his life. To me part of the call to submission to his headship is a call to recognize him as an adult.

Peter and Nancy said...

I cringe when I hear women say (outright or implied) that they can't be submissive because their husband isn't capable of handling things as well as they are. I usually wonder, "then why did you marry him?"

In the area of submissiveness, it has been hard for me to leave behind my experiences as the daughter of a domineering alcoholic. I deliberately chose a strong but tender man for my husband, and happily so. He's made submissiveness much less of a fearful thing.
Nancy

BettyDuffy said...

Nancy, alchoholism has made appearances in our family too, which is why I felt like I needed to qualify that "be submissive in EVERYTHING" part of it. For instance, I would not put my kids in a car with a drunk driver--even if that drunk were my husband adamantly ordering me to do so. Fortunately, we haven't had to deal with that particular scenario--but it could potentially happen in an otherwise functional marriage. We're meant to bring our powers of reasoning to the Gospel, and I think there really are times when submission can do harm.

There's also the possibility that I've just spent the day looking for loopholes to Ephesians 5.

Melanie, I thought Bearing's second post on the subject did a really good job of addressing what you mention--treating our husbands as the adults that they are, not demeaning them outside the family, etc.

Young Mom said...

I love this write up! Because your explanation of what it is NOT "We assume,
“wives be submissive to your husbands” means that the man is going to start commanding her life in authoritative tones, and she is going to be a docile creature with down-turned eyes, at the ready for her husband’s every whim. We think the injunction is a deletion of her free will"
is exactly what I was taught to believe. I detest it now, I feel that model for marraige destroys communication and leaves marriage empty.
I also love what Melanie B said about the call to submission being a call to remember he is an adult!

Dorian Speed said...

Yes - really good response by Melanie. I also like what you said in your other post about feeling like the whole topic is very intimate. I'm not great at writing about marriage because it's not a part of my life I feel comfortable laying bare for the perusal of who-knows-who.

Hope said...

There was a time when I thought to be a submissive wife meant not having an opinion and deferring to my husband in everything. I became very passive aggressive when I was in that mindset.

Letting go of the need to be right helped me. What also helped me was using my voice and stating my opinion without my serenity being dependent on getting my way. I can't express enough how huge those changes were for my inner peace.

My husband's family had what I think is a very warped view of submission and it drives me crazy. My MIL has lost her night vision. My FIL wants to go out at night and has not drivers licence. He gets rather demanding. One of my SIL said the other night, "But mom is supposed to be submissive so she has to do what dad wants."

BettyDuffy said...

"What also helped me was using my voice and stating my opinion without my serenity being dependent on getting my way."--Hope, YES!

allisonwelch said...

My husband and I experienced a moment of grace tonight. Thanks for encouraging me to savor it here. The boys were cleaning up the after dinner dishes (a blessing in and of itself) and the radio was on (another blessing-a reprieve from the insidious "screens" in our life.) Anyway a song came on the radio and I became caught up in it's slow alluring beat. I held my hand out to my husband as if asking him to dance. There was a moment when we first started swaying when I had to tell myself not to lead, but instead to lean into his rhythm. It was beautiful I tell you, one of the most tender moments we've had in a good long while. And I thank God my children were there to witness it. Surrender never felt so good.