The following article is written from an Orthodox Christian’s perspective informed by John Chrysostom. It is the author’s opinion, however, that the analysis of scripture presented in this article is representative of that of the universal body of Christians.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” – Ephesians 5:22
The above verse is one of today’s more popular criticisms of Christianity. A quick online search of “Christianity opposing women” leads to the all-esteemed badnewsaboutchristianity.com, where Paul’s verse is at the top of a list of out-of-context quotes to ensure no woman sets foot in a church ever again.
Facetiousness aside, Paul’s verse does not sit well on modern ears. This article attempts, through the commentary of John Chrysostom, to put this verse in its appropriate context and explain why the Orthodox Church sets this apparent restriction on women.
Let’s first look at Ephesians 5:22 in the original Greek, which uses the word “υποτασσόμενοι” (hupotassomenoi) in place of “submit” in the English translations. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon defines hupotassō as follows: 1) to arrange under, to subordinate 2) to subject, put in subjection 3) to subject one’s self, obey. This definition is admittedly bone-chilling, but it has its context as well. In the New Testament, the idea of subjection and obedience is not only applied to marriage. For example, the same “hupotassō” is used in Luke 2:51 to describe Jesus after his parents returned to Jerusalem to find him in the Temple:
“Then He (Jesus) went down with them (his parents) and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart.”
Subjection in this case describes a child’s role in the ideal familial relationship. If Jesus Himself exhibits submittance, it is certain that we, as icons of Christ (as the Orthodox Church understands humans), must be obedient in appropriate relationships as well. We see from Romans 13:1-2 that women are not the only ones with subjecting to do:
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgements on themselves.”
Obedience breeds harmony, and disobedience breeds conflict. Describing Ephesians 5:22 in his Homily 20, John Chrysostom writes, “When harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both for families and states, are thus produced.” Obedience to others against one’s own will for the preservation of greater harmony helps minimize pride. Chrysostom goes on to reference Romans 13:2. If those resisting external authority incur the judgement of God, he asks, how much more severely will God judge a woman resisting her own husband’s authority? He asserts that women, in serving their husbands, are in fact serving the Lord, just as those who feed and clothe the poor feed and clothe Christ Himself.
Should women, then, blindly follow the directions of their husbands? I contend they should not. The verses immediately following Ephesians 5:22 compare the marriage of man and woman to the relationship between Christ and the Church:
“For the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the church; and He is the savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” – Ephesians 5:23-24
The Greek word for “church” is ekklesia. The Ekklesia in pre-christian Athens was not a religious body. It referred to the principal assembly of the democracy consisting of all Athenian citizens. Orthodox Christians understand the Church in a similar way: not a building, not a group of people swearing allegiance to bishops, but a conglomeration of the citizens of Christ’s kingdom. Individuals who do not act in accordance with His laws have their citizenship revoked and thus cease being members of the Church. In concordance with the above analogy, then, a woman should not obey her husband’s words if he contradicts Christ because she will no longer be the Church.
Let us now explore the man’s side of the metaphor between marriage of humans and marriage of Christ and the Church. Paul goes on, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). I cannot explain this verse with the eloquence of John Chrysostom, so let us turn to his interpretation:
“Husbands, do you want your wife to be obedient to you, as the Church is to Christ? Then be responsible for the same providential care of her, as Christ is for the Church. And even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for her, yes, and even to endure and undergo suffering of any kind, do not refuse. Even if you undergo all this, you will never have done anything equal to what Christ has done. You are sacrificing yourself for someone to whom you are already joined, but He offered up Himself for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him…[The Church] had blemishes, she was ugly and cheap. Whatever kind of wife you marry, you will never take a bride like Christ did when he married the Church; you will never marry anyone estranged from you as the Church was from Christ. Despite all this, He did not abhor or hate her for her extraordinary corruption.” (John Chrysostom, Homily 20)
A man has the utmost responsibility of loving his wife. He should display the same unfathomable love for her that Christ did for humanity on the crucifix. This is the part of Ephesians 5 that critics of Christianity tend to overlook.
Up until this point we have laid out some of the wife’s personal benefits in submitting to her husband. We have qualified this statement by assuring the wife that she need not obey her husband’s word should it contradict the teachings of Christ. We have seen that Christ expects a man to unconditionally love his wife in return for her submittance. We have defined the marital roles of obedience and love and explained their importance. We have not, however, given reasons as to why each gender embodies his or her specific role. Why, a feminist might ask, should the woman be subject to her husband? Why shouldn’t the woman lead the family and love her husband? Why can’t the man submit?
To these questions I can provide no sound answer. I do not know why God has appointed things the way He has. I can, however, say that love and obedience are not mutually exclusive. A woman who obeys her husband even if she disagrees with him is in fact showing love for him. A man who denies his woman’s every request is not loving her. It is my opinion that both genders must take on a bit of both roles. Few rules in Christianity are black and white.
I close with the following verses from the same passage in Ephesians:
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery…” (Ephesians 5:31-32)
Marital roles are important, but not as much as the marriage itself, the sacred union of two entirely separate entities into one body. The contemporary shift in focus from the actual marriage to the roles within it may help explain why at least four in ten marriages in the United States end in divorce. A broad understanding of marriage as a transformative mystery instead of a set of gender-specific regulations will lead towards the harmony John Chrysostom spoke of.