What Does Wives Be Subordinate Mean?

Let’s consider a modern understanding of Ephesians 5:22.

There are many women I’ve seen in church who cringe whenever this reading comes around. I used to be one of them, so I can’t blame them too much. Under today’s rhetoric and cultural understanding, it can sound bad.

Wives should be subordinate to their husbands. (Eph 5:22)

That actually isn’t even the whole verse. And that is where we should probably start in giving this reading a second chance. The whole verse is: wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.

Immediately, this is about more than your relationship with your husband. Immediately, we are brought around to our relationship with the Lord when it comes to our relationship with our husband. And why is that?

Because marriage is more than a civil union between two people. It is more than living together and even having kids together. There are existential consequences to entering into the Sacrament of Marriage and living it out.

Marriage is a sign of God’s ultimate union with us in Heaven. This indeed is a mystery that we should contemplate and pray on!

It also means that marriage should aim to show the fruits of Christ’s love in us: peace, joy, chastity, kindness, gentleness, generosity and self-control. Marriage here on Earth serves as a holy sign of the ultimate union we all hope to partake in at the table with Christ.

Here is my offer to you; that this verse not serve as a cultural reference of the relationship between husband and wife, but as an internal spiritual reflection on how marriage is modeled after Christ and His Bride, the Church.

Some readings use the word “subordinate,” like the one above, while others use the word “submissive.” I think both make people a little uncomfortable.

Submission, though, means to be under the mission. So, wives, be under the mission of your husband.

What is the mission of your husband? The rest of Ephesians 5 lays that out:

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.

For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body.

As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her 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.

So [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, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.

“For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.(Ephesians 5: 21-31)

So, the mission of a husband is not to treat your wife like an object, or to force things upon her, or to expect things from her in a way that is unfair and unloving. It is not to use her, or cheat on her, or halfheartedly commit to her. That is never a mission we would be asked to support.

The mission of the husband is to love his wife like Christ loves His Church: with tenderness, gentleness, and humility.

And THAT is a mission we, as wives, should want to support for our husbands.

The mission of a husband is to lay his life down for his wife, and that is what we, as wives, are being asked to be under the mission of. That is what we are being asked to support in the spouse we chose to strive to get to Heaven with.

To any women that have been used or abused in a relationship with a man, the big caveat in all this is that we should only be under the mission of a man who exemplifies the characteristics of Christ. It is possible to have a husband whose mission is to lay his life down for you as Christ laid down His life for the Church.

So in accepting, and even liking this verse, we are not admitting to undue submission, or being subordinate in ways that are ultimately abusive. We are saying: I will be under your mission, because your mission looks like Christ on the cross. And our mission together is to get each other to Heaven.

Once I heard about this interpretation, my understanding of this verse completely changed. I went from feeling defensive about my freedom to feeling proud about supporting this kind of mission of the man who is my husband.

Instead of wanting to roll my eyes and call the Bible outdated, I now see it as a spiritual goal in my own marriage, and a calling to holiness that Christ has set for each one of us.

-Sarah White

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