A Commentary on Ephesians 5 and Headship

By Lickona, Lisa | Ave Maria Law Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

A Commentary on Ephesians 5 and Headship


Lickona, Lisa, Ave Maria Law Review


INTRODUCTION

In Ephesians 5, we encounter the celebrated analogy of the love between Christ and the Church and the love between husband and wife. Seen in the light of Christ, the ontological ordering of man and woman "from the beginning" bears within it an ethical obligation: man and woman are called to give of themselves. (1) Thus, the author of Ephesians 5 pronounces these commands:

   Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be
   subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the
   head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and
   is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let
   wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands,
   love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for
   her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing
   of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself
   in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she
   might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love
   their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves
   himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and
   cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of
   his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother
   and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one." This is a
   great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church;
   however, let each one
   of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she
   respects her husband. (2)

For a theologian, Ephesians 5 is a scintillating passage. It suggests that the most common and mundane realities--the love of man and woman, sex, and childbearing--are of themselves open to the life of grace; that what seems almost instinctual--the drive of romantic love--reveals its highest meaning in a profound mystical union: the love of Christ for the Church and the union of God and man in the Eucharist. Not surprisingly, Ephesians 5 stands as one of the decisive texts for the theological works of Pope John Paul II, especially his celebrated Theology of the Body. (3)

And yet, Ephesians 5 is at the same time one of the most troubling passages for theologians and pastors alike, because it contains the famously one-sided command that a wife "be subject" to her husband, who she is to consider her "head." (4) In Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II stops just short of apologizing for the command to wives that is "so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time." (5) He contrasts the "old" teaching of wifely subjection with the innovations of the Gospel message. As an example, he cites the revolutionary teaching of Galatians 3:28 rejecting the distinctions between man and woman, slave and master. (6) Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II never rejects the teaching of the subjection of the wife to the husband, but exhorts us to interpret it in context. "[T]he challenge presented by the 'ethos' of the Redemption is clear and definitive. All the reasons in favor of the 'subjection' of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a 'mutual subjection' of both 'out of reverence for Christ.'" (7) In the end, Pope John Paul II clears the way for a new approach to the question of the subjection of the wife to the husband within the context of marriage as a "mutual subjection," a shared vocation of love. (8)

This Article considers the following questions: What could the submission of the wife mean when we interpret it within the context of the reciprocal and mutual communion of love and life that marriage is intended to be? What function could this submission have within marriage? And finally, what meaning could it possibly have in our modern context?

Part I of this Article discusses some very obvious observations about maleness and femaleness drawn from personal experiences as a wife, mother, and farmer. …

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