Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Wives, Obey Your Husbands

by Christopher Rengers


Fr. Rengers, O.F.M.Cap. presents the case from both reason and revelation why the man or husband should be the head of the family and why, in the words of St. Paul wives should be submissive to their husbands.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


29-32 & 50-53

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, December 1999

Authority means the right to command. It implies the right to make a choice for another person. The other person, meaning the one who is commanded, does not thereby lose freedom. He can choose to obey or disobey. He may ask for a reason. He may cite circumstances that will influence the person who has the authority to change his command, to alter it, or to cancel it. But if the person having authority is not convinced, and re-states his command, then the one commanded has again the simple choice of obeying or disobeying.

Authority Comes From God

Jesus speaks of authority. "All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18). He told Pilate: "You would have no authority unless it were given you from above" (John 19:11). Authority always comes from God. If it comes from God, then it must be recognized. It cannot be ignored without moral fault.

If the command given is unreasonable or un-moral, then disobedience is the better choice. If it is reasonable and moral, then obedience is the better choice. In fact, disobedience will be a moral wrong. It is sinful.

The person holding authority can be chosen in different ways. When a pope is chosen, the present custom is to give active and passive voice just to Cardinals of the Church. But once the person is chosen, the authority comes to him from God. Leaders of countries may be selected in a variety of ways, by kingly descent, by free election, by lot (though not likely). Once chosen, they receive authority from God. They have the right to command.

Parents Have Authority

The most basic social unit of society is the family. Here we do not have a situation where authority may be given to a person selected by election or lot. By nature, which means by the prior decision of God as evidenced by the way he arranged things, parents have authority over their children. They have the right to command, to make choices for the children This follows from the very need children have to survive, to grow to physical, emotional and spiritual maturity. It is most evident in their infant years and pre-adolescence.

Adolescence is a time when much discretion is needed by those who have the authority of parents. They must wisely widen the area of non-command, of letting the children grow in independence. This area gradually widens, and eventually authority in the true sense of the right to command will fade to the vanishing point.

The Family Needs A Head

It is not hard to get people to agree that parents have true authority. It is especially difficult in our modern society to get people to agree that the family must have a head. There must be in the family one person to make some filial choices. In short, we are saying that the husband and father is the head of the family and has a true authority over the wife. He has the right to command. This does not mean universally, indiscriminately, but in a defined area.

To define this area requires discussion by the individual husband and wife. This does not mean that the area is completely to be determined by subjective mutual agreement. The nature of things according to God's plans will demand some priorities for the husband and some for the wife. The bonum fidei, the good of the faith, for instance will have to have a priority of choice. Moral good must have a priority over economic advantage. But a large part of the area will differ for different couples, according to their own agreement.

Eventually the area will be determined. Within this area, then, the wife owes obedience to the husband. He has the right to command, which means to make the choice.

The reasons for saying that the husband and father exercise a true authority are logical and theological. The logical are derived from reason. The theological reasons are based on revelation as given in Holy Scripture. First, we will examine the logical reasons for the need of a head of the family.

Two Co-pilots Not Logical

A family with no true authority vested in one person will be rudderless in the stormy sea of life as it exists on this earth. It will not be able to survive crises that inevitably develop, when choice is deadlocked. The example may be given of an airplane. It needs a pilot and a co-pilot. To have two copilots with equal choice in moments of need and crisis will end in disaster. The same can be said of a ship or of an automobile. The ship needs a captain. The auto needs a driver. Two people cannot steer a car through a maze of traffic, if both have equal choice in steering. Sooner or later, a situation will come up where one will brake while the other steps on the gas. One will veer to the left and the other to the right. The copilot in a plane may be more skilled than the pilot, the driver of a car less skilled than a passenger, but when the plane is in motion and the car moves along the road, the pilot and the driver have to be in command.

Why The Husband?

The reason for saying that the husband rather than the wife is the head of the family goes deeper than culture and custom. It is based on the plan of God as known from logical thinking about the nature of the two sexes. It is also based on strong indications in revelation.

Logically as based on her nature, a woman has a need to be submissive. She wants to be led and guided. She becomes more womanly and more lovable when she follows this bent of nature given her by the creator. As she becomes more lovable, the influence over her husband in leading him to make the right choices increases. He wants more to please her. He tries harder to make the correct choices. The husband, as given to him by the creator, has more need to command, to lead. It is not that he is pig-headed. This is a need of nature, implanted by the creator who made that nature. What is said here has general application, but more so in the particular context of the husband-wife relationship.

Mother, A Model

Logically, too, children, if they are to learn the meaning of authority, have to have a model to follow. They find this model in their mother who obeys their father and recognizes in him a real authority backed up by God. Unless a child has this model, the child cannot develop a true concept of the meaning of authority, and its need in human affairs.

The mother's submission, however, must not be unthinking, fearful or cringing. It must be submission reflecting her dignity as a rational creature who recognizes the need for order in the family, an order which implies having a head of the family.

A 50 - 50 arrangement, where the husband and wife act as co-managers, will lack the example of authority which the children need. They will be deficient in recognizing authority in other situations in life, in school, in the state, in the Church.

The breakdown in respect for law and for figures of authority such as teachers and law officials, such as police and leaders of states, all point back to a lack of authority in the family. The lack may well stem from not having a true head of the family, from a wife who shows no example of submission and of recognition of authority which children can follow as a model.

Helps Understand God's Authority

Logically too, for anybody who believes in a personal God, there has to be a strong recognition of and example of authority in the family, if all concerned are to understand the authority of God. It is necessary for the father of a family to know he has authority and use it, if he is to recognize God's authority over him. It is necessary for the wife to recognize and submit to the husband's authority, if she is to understand God's authority over her. It is necessary for the children to have an observable model of authority used and heeded, and to follow it themselves, if they are to be truly submissive to God. Where the authority is over-exercised or mean, children will tend to fear or rebel against God. Where it is underexercised, they will tend to have a sentimental, buddy-buddy relationship with God and minimize his laws.

The end result for all concerned will be a loss of happiness. Happiness comes from keeping the right order of things as ordained by God, just as health comes from keeping a right order of many parts in the body and a correct balance of emotion and the spiritual side of a person. Order is heaven's first law. Disorder means trouble, loss of smoothness, loss of function. This applies to an automobile engine and to a human body. It applies more to relationships between persons, and most especially of all, to creature-persons to their creator-Person.

Springboard To God's Universal Authority

Before we come to any persuasions from divine revelation, there is another persuasion from reason that points to the need for a strong father acting as head of the family and using authority. It is rooted in the need to recognize the distance between God and man, between creator and creature, in the need to recognize a God who can and does command, who makes laws. The jump from a completely democratic family or a 50 - 50 arrangement is much more difficult to make in understanding the creature-creator relationship. Where husband and wife, father and mother establish between themselves and among the members of the family an observance of authority, it is easier to bow to the necessary authority, to an acceptance of the immutable natural law planted by God in the heart of man. The heart has to be the right kind of heart or the divine seed will not grow in it. The cultivation of the right kind of heart has a strong dependence on a pattern of headship in the family.

Love Needs And Recognizes Inequalities

The proper use of authority in the family also provides a framework for the healthy growth of love. Love depends on the recognition of inequalities as well as equalities. Love flourishes in a relationship that understands and accepts inequality. The inequality may be physical, psychological, moral, intellectual. An infant calls forth love, for example by the very fact that it is physically unequal to the parents and needs their help. Love between a man and woman must recognize unequal psychological needs in each other. Love will be ready with forgiveness when it recognizes moral weakness in the other person, will be quick with understanding that intellectual incapacity makes a person unable to do a certain job or attain a better salary. Love recognizes that when rights are equal, the use of them cannot be indiscriminate, or demanded on a mathematical kind of basis. People suffering from sickness and accident wait in the emergency room, for example, but the person who has stopped breathing will have a right to immediate attention even though he came in last. Living together in the close relationship of marriage brings recognition of these inequalities. Authority provides the stimulus and guidance for the early and proper recognition of inequalities. In itself, in fact, it sets up an enduring inequality. This is the framework for the growth of a proper order of goodwill relationships, or in more usual terms, for the growth of love. A constant emphasis on rights tends to lessen love, and reduce relationships between persons to a mathematical basis. Authority provides guidance and establishes firm direction in the reconciling of differences. Rights are often too hard to measure in a given situation, especially by the contending parties. It would be terribly hard to have a baseball game without an umpire. It is terribly hard to have a peaceful family without a head.

In recognizing the authority of her husband, the wife helps to create an agreeable security in him. He undergoes a change, is more open to her persuasions. In this way authority paves the way to love. This might be summarized by saying that co-op with the top brings co-op from the top.

Love Begets Love

This fact has universal application, but more particular application in a family because it is according to nature as God made it. Love for the top brings love from the top. Love implies the right order of things as planned by God. This right order includes in a primary way the recognition of authority. Where there is present the disorder of nonrecognition, a major block is placed before the full and ordered development of love between husband and wife, and on down through the family.

What has been said so far is on the basis of logic. Though there is reference to God, it is a reference derived from reason. These persuasions for the need of a head of the family and having the father be that head should be open to acceptance by anybody no matter of what religion or of no religion.

Now a few ideas will be given which are taken from revelation. These could be persuasions for all Christians, and those from the Old Testament could be persuasions for Jews. The ideas or facts cited are not offered strictly as proofs but as persuasions or indications.

Is The Rib A Fib?

1. In the story of man's creation, God created a man, Adam, from dust and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). Later God said it was not good for man to be alone (v. 18). God cast man into a deep sleep and took one of his ribs. And God made the rib into a woman (21, 22 of ch. 2). The narrative indicates the close unity that should exist between a man and his wife. It also indicates an order of creation, a plan of the creator. "I will make him a helper like himself," God said (18). The taking of a rib, whether you accept this literally or figuratively, graphically illustrates a dependence of woman on man, a relationship in which one is first and the other second. The story could have been told in another way. God could have taken a lump of clay or a portion of dust and divided it equally and formed one half into a man and the other half into a woman, and then breathed the breath of life into their nostrils. This way of telling it would lend more credibility to a plan of God in which he intended man and wife to be absolutely equal in their partnership. The way it is actually told lends some credibility to a plan of God in which he intended the husband to be the head of the partnership.

Husband To Wife As Christ To Church

2. St. Paul in chapter five of Ephesians says (v. 22 - 24) "Let wives be subject to their husbands as to the Lord: because a husband is head of the wife, just as Christ is head of the Church, being himself savior of the body. But just as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let wives be to their husbands in all things." The rest of what St. Paul says makes quite clear that this subjection is not a slavish subjection, but one which holds for both husband and wife an obligation to love each other. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church, St. Paul starts his chapter with an exhortation to be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. In chapter six, he exhorts slaves to obey their masters as they would Christ. The various passages have been construed as reflecting the cultural situation of the time. The dwelling on headship and love in regard to husband and wife, however, link headship and love together in a much stronger way. Paul wants them to be co-existent and he draws out and refers to "the mystery" of Christ and the Church. The union of husband and wife illustrates this mystery of close unity. It is a unique unity, but as the unity of Jesus and the Church has him as the head to the body, so the unity of husband and wife has the husband as head to his own body. It is rather difficult to relegate this strong comparison to the area of culture only. The stronger indication is that St. Paul is teaching a truth about God's plan for marriage in its fullest beauty and ideal state.

Jesus Subject To Joseph

3. Jesus is true God and true man. Whatever he did and said is a pattern of life for all mankind. If a person wants to be simply argumentative, he can of course take such a criterion and stretch it to the ridiculous. We would have to learn how to read and write Hebrew and speak Aramaic. All would have to be carpenters, presumably, and probably wear beards and long hair. There is, aside from some areas of the ridiculous and other areas pertaining to his own times and culture, a legitimate area of his action and speech and example which has a universal application in providing a model for all people. Through Jesus, God shows all of us his plans for humanity.

If we accept the universal primacy of Christ, as set forth by St. Paul in chapter one of Colossians (15 - 21), the place of Jesus as universal model is even more clearly shown. "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature. . . . All things have been created through and unto Him, and He is before all creatures, and in Him all things hold together."

Jesus was born of a virgin Mother, Mary, and had a virgin-father, Joseph. He was subject to them (Luke 2:51). But Joseph was the head of this family. He was so, according to the Jewish customs, and beyond this, was recognized as the head of the family in several angelic visitations. When Joseph was in perplexity about Mary's virginal pregnancy, the angel came to him, and told him not to fear to take Mary as his wife. An angel came to Joseph in a dream to tell him to "take the Child and His mother and flee into Egypt" (Matt. 2:13). "So, he arose and took the Child and His mother by night and withdrew into Egypt" (14). An angel later appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and told him to return to Israel, and again in a dream Joseph was warned to go to Galilee rather than to settle in Judea. All through these heavenly special instructions, Joseph's place as the head of the family is recognized. This seems to be more than recognition of a cultural situation, especially considering the Divine Motherhood of Mary. Only in the choice of the name Jesus was angelic instruction given to Mary as well as Joseph (cf. Matt. 1:21 and Luke 1:31).

Ideal Family Plan Follows Holy Family Model

Beyond this, we can assume that for the human, psychological development of Jesus, the eternal Father would have wanted a family situation, beyond all demands of culture, in which this Child would have the ideal situation, the perfect condition, to develop into the best possible human being. In this family there had to be the exact right order of relationships between husband and wife, parents and child. This child did not need the advantages that one culture might have over another in the forming of a perfect personality and character. He did, however, in the context of what is essential to the physical and psychological development of a human person, need parents. Just as he needed them for shelter and food, so he also needed them, according to God the Father's plans, for the ideal and complete development and growth of his emotions, affections and mentality. Presuming that the plans of the Father called for the best possible husband-wife relationship in raising the divine Child, then Mary's submission to Joseph and Joseph's acting as head of the family has necessity. It was necessary for the complete and ideal growth of Jesus. Jesus who understood love better than any other human being needed, in as far as he was human, the perfect surroundings to acquire that understanding of love. When he spoke of love and said that love of God was the first and greatest commandment and that love of neighbor as of self was the second greatest commandment, he spoke from concepts of love he had acquired and of love he had experienced as a human being. The very word, "love" with the particular aura of concept and emotion it had for Jesus, must be traced back to his infant and childhood experiences of the love he knew at Bethlehem and in Egypt and at Nazareth. His knowledge and understanding of love came originally to him as a human being from contact with the love of Joseph and Mary for each other and their care and love for him. He experienced love in which the father was the head of the family, the mother submissive to him.

Jesus Learned The Language Of The Heart

The plan of God the Father is indicated in the conception and birth and gradual growth through infancy and childhood of Jesus. Just as this growth was gradual, so was the spiritual side of his growth gradual. By this is meant the development of character and personality. If there is anybody who influenced such growth, it had to be Joseph and Mary. They were not just two people who put out the food, sewed the clothes, provided a roof to live under and had no further influence on Jesus. They had the most important influence which ordinarily parents have. As they provided the language of the tongue, they also provided the language of his heart and mind. Jesus spoke the tongue he heard them speak. His own Heart echoed the language their hearts had for each other and for him. The gentleness of a wife who was submissive to her husband taught Jesus the meaning of gentleness. The strength and the answering gentleness of Joseph to Mary's submission taught Jesus the way for a man to be strong, decisive, and merciful and loving, all at the same time. The example of Mary obeying Joseph provided the model for Jesus who later would say: I do always the things that please him.

Jesus Came As A Man

4 . We might look for further persuasions of God's plan for family structure in the fact of the Son of God assuming human nature as a man rather than as a woman. Mary is "our tainted nature's solitary boast" in the words of Wordsworth. She deserves the title, Mother of God, for the Person she bore was divine. He was the Son of God. Mary represents the pinnacle of honor for all women. In her all women are honored, and all men are honored. Yet the fact remains that she is not divine. The only human being who is at the same time divine is Jesus. And he was and is a man.

Order Of Person In Trinity Unchangeable

5 . The final persuasion may come from the names of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Is it an accident of culture that the First and Second Persons of the Trinity are referred to under masculine titles? Is not this rather universally essential? Jesus taught us to call on the First Person as "Father." He spoke often of the Holy Spirit, as the advocate, the comforter. Since all three Persons are spirit, there is no possible bodily connotation to the masculine terms. But it seems there is something essentially didactic and helpful in the masculine terms for us to understand our set-up as human beings. The masculine terms will help us to establish a better relationship between ourselves and God than would feminine terms or he/she terms, or it terms. If there is something essential here in the context of helping human beings act more truly as God's creatures, then we need the original and core example of a masculine headship in the initial formation and learning process of the infant and child. Translated again into our live, human situation, this means that the family needs a head and the head should be the man.

The Holy Trinity itself presents the unfathomable picture of life at its fullest. In the Trinity we have the utmost unity, the utmost love. Yet there is a necessary and exact order of the three Persons. They are absolutely equal in essence, in power, in knowledge, in love. Yet they are unequal in their relationship to one another. One is first, one is second, one is third. You cannot interchange this order. The necessity is absolute. The human relationship in a marriage reflects also on its plane a necessary inequality and a necessary equality. You cannot tamper with the order without causing trouble. The necessity in a marriage of course is not the unfathomable necessity in the Trinity. It can be misunderstood, denied, violated and the marriage will possibly continue. But, if things are to be the way God wants them, and this of course, will be best for human happiness, then the right order of relationships in a marriage must be kept, understood and honored. When husband and wife do this, they prepare themselves for more understanding of life here on earth. They reflect better the Holy Trinity. They have a better chance of bringing themselves and their children to final fullness of life in eternally thanking and praising the Trinity.

Fr. Christopher Rengers, O.F.M. Cap., was ordained in 1942 and did graduate work in history at St. Louis University. His assignments have been teaching, parochial and hospital work, and promoting devotion to St. Joseph and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Books in print are Mary of the Americas and The Youngest Prophet, both by Alba House. His last article in HPR appeared in the April 1996 issue.

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