Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Wives be subordinate to your husbands"

“Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.”  Now, let me ask you honestly, how many wives poked their husbands as that was read?  How many husbands twisted uncomfortably in their seats? This is perhaps the most dangerous passage in all of Scripture to preach on, in fact, most preachers usually try and avoid it. But, I feel a little dangerous today, so let’s see if we can’t make some sense of it. 

How many of you saw the very funny movie, My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding, which came out a number of years ago now?  As you remember, it’s about a large ethnic family focusing on their awkward daughter who pursues her dreams, falls in love and marries.  But, there is a scene early on in the film that, I think, gives great insight into our dangerous passage from Ephesians.  After years of working in the family restaurant, the daughter decides she wants to go to college.  She musters up the courage and asks permission of her father, who immediately says “no”.  Crying on her mother’s shoulder the mother responds, “Don’t worry, I will talk to your father.”  Feeling the hopelessness of the situation the daughter responds, “He won’t change his mind.  He is stubborn. ‘The man is the head of the household.’”  The mother strokes her daughter’s hair and smiles, and says, “Yes, the man, he is the head. But the woman? She is the neck. And I can turn that head any way I want.”

That funny scene gives us a new perspective on these words from St. Paul, and that’s exactly what is needed.  The problem with this phrase from Ephesians, “Wives be subordinate to your husbands,” is that we tend to isolate that passage and not look at the rest of the reading.  Alone, this passage is troubling and seems to support a subjugation of women, but that is an understanding that is out of context.  When we look at the bigger picture, we find St. Paul not encouraging a chauvinistic household, but one that is balanced; not one where husbands lord authority over wives, but one where everyone is subordinate; everyone is the servant of the other. 

There are two keys to this reading – the first is the initial words we heard today, “Brothers and sisters, be subordinate to one another.”   We are all called to be in that position of subordination to each other, deferring to each other, serving each other.  So, if “wives be subordinate to your husbands” is true; then it is also true to say, “husbands be subordinate to your wives,” “children be subordinate to your parents,” “parents be subordinate to your children.”  This reading doesn’t want to perpetuate a power dynamic, it wants to eliminate it; leaving in its wake a community of servants. “Be subordinate to one another.”

What does this subordination or servanthood look like? Just a few lines before today’s passage, St. Paul gives us that detail.  He writes, “Put on, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.” 

This is the point that St. Paul wants to make, we are not called to be powerful in relation to each other, we are called to be powerless; we are not called to be lords over one another; we are called to serve.   This is the point of our faith – to reject the ethos of our society that wants us to subjugate those around us; to focus on what makes one person better than the other; to grabbing more for ourselves even to the detriment of others. It asks us, quite simply, to see one another; and not just some;  not as competitors, but as brothers and sisters. To be servants of all; to put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; to be forgiving. 

St. Paul asks that question in our hearts today – are these the things that define who we are through the grace of our baptism?  When someone looks at us do they see compassion and kindness, gentleness and a spirit of forgiveness or do they find judgment, greed or perhaps worse, indifference?

Let us pray to cast off the old and put on the new.  Let us look at the world in a new way, through the eyes of faith, eyes that cause us to ask not what can I get, but what can I give; not who will serve me, but rather who can I serve today.  My friends, let us be servants to one another and to all out of reverence for Christ and through our simple acts of kindness and service, let us change the world.

May the Lord give you peace.


  1. Well done!

    The deacon at my parish tried to develop the same basic point, but I think you nailed it with the line, "When we look at the bigger picture, we find St. Paul not encouraging a chauvinistic household, but one that is balanced; not one where husbands lord authority over wives, but one where everyone is subordinate; everyone is the servant of the other," and the development in the following paragraph.

  2. Thank you for explaining this passage of today's reading so well. I have always felt irritated by the word "subordinate."

    Unfortunately, this reading has been misinterpreted by many people. I see this especially with women being abused by there husbands.

    Again, thank you for clearly clarifying this reading. You are truly a loving servant of God.