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St. Paul on Marriage

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 29, 2008

In response to my column Toward a Policy on Women, I’ve received a number of urgent emails from self-proclaimed feminists who think that I could not possibly know anything about women, and who further insist that St. Paul’s own comments on marriage must be understood as being shaped by the culture of his time, and so be discounted or reinterpreted. Whether or not I know anything about women is, of course, a fair question. Women are clearly one of God’s great mysteries! But St. Paul is another matter.

How do we know that St. Paul’s teaching in Ephesians is not merely a reflection of the culture of the day? In fact, how do we know that any Scriptural passage is not just a cultural reflection? Though ultimate decisions rest with the Church (for Scripture is the Church’s book), most generally there is considerable evidence in the text itself. When, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for some larger purpose, the sacred writer is telling a story, recounting events, describing human rules, drawing analogies or mentioning things in passing, we may expect him to be drawing heavily on his own culture and his own cultural perceptions. Thus his point may be very well-made overall, but we are not bound to understand each detail as a Divine oracle. What is certainly true in all of Scripture is whatever the Holy Spirit intends to teach.

Sometimes what the Holy Spirit intends to teach is not immediately clear. But when the sacred writer rises to the level of direct exposition and formal teaching about God’s eternal plan or God’s eternal will—when in fact the entire point of a particular passage is to make God’s unchanging will crystal clear in specific instructions to the faithful—then we clearly see that the Holy Spirit is teaching something rather directly in that passage, and we are not at liberty to dismiss His teaching as a mere reflection of the local culture when it is really a reflection of the mind of God. Indeed, it would rather defeat the purposes of the Holy Spirit if we were justified in doing so.

The Text

In the famous text in question, Ephesians 6:21-33, St. Paul begins by stating that all Christians should “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (21). He then opens his discourse on marriage by saying, “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” (22-24).

He then turns to husbands, saying:

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.” (25-28)

This passage directed at husbands appears intended also as a further development and explanation of the truth contained in the previous verses directed at wives. Thus at the very end of this passage, St. Paul sums up: “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” (32-33).

Interpreting the Text

Now this is clearly intended to be a sublime teaching rooted in a Christian mystery, the relationship of Christ to His church. The teaching on marriage is deliberately tied to the “new covenant in my blood” (Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25), and it is revolutionary when applied either to the Jewish understanding of marriage or the ancient Roman notion of “pater familias”, which gave the father absolute authority over the life and death of his wife and children. Because this teaching is so different and so rooted in Christ’s new dispensation, it is very clear that St. Paul (and the Holy Spirit) intend it not as a cultural comment but as a perennial Christian teaching. It is to last as long as Christ’s relationship with the Church lasts.

Frankly, I think the cultural problem with this passage is the opposite of what my critics assert. The problem is not with first century culture (which the passage so clearly transcends) but with the culture of our own times, which reflexively condemns any differences in the roles of men and women and regards submission to authority as mere servitude. This culture has similar problems with the idea of “respect”. But our culture is wrong and, if we have faith, we cannot dismiss St. Paul’s teaching as so limited by his own culture that it does not mean what it says. Nor can we condemn a literal interpretation as “fundamentalist”. Finally, we are not free to pick and choose the parts we like while blithely reinterpreting the rest.

Are there ways to deepen our understanding of what all this means, ways to express it that are not conditioned by, say, a 19th century secular understanding of wifely obedience? For those women who see feminism as having liberated them from just such an understanding, this question is significant, and the answer is very definitely affirmative. First, of course, any particular text must be interpreted in light of all other texts that bear on the same subject, and of all relevant Magisterial teachings as well. Second, one thinks of such brilliant initiatives as John Paul II’s theology of the body, which does so much to clarify and deepen our understanding of the relationship between men and women, by rooting it in both nature and God, thus stripping away the secular distortions of this mystery.

But the main point here is simply that St. Paul's views are a trifle more significant than my own. Readers may often have to “reinterpret” what comes from my own mind into something else precisely in order to understand the truth more perfectly. But when it comes to St. Paul, understanding serves the truth and “reinterpreting” in this way does not; the two exercises are as different as accepting and rejecting God Himself. Divine Revelation is in a special class of utterances. St. Paul has his own claim to submission and respect.

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