Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

On the Headship of Husbands

by Stella Morabito


An interesting article about Stella Morabito's journey from feminist rebellion to Biblical feminism.

Larger Work

New Oxford Review



Publisher & Date

New Oxford Review, Inc., November 1997

It took me many years to get over it. I felt the standard feminist anger at St. Paul for saying that dreadful thing: "Wives, submit to your own husbands" (Eph. 5:22). Never mind his next admonition, "Husbands, love your wives" (Eph. 5:25) — obviously a condescending throwaway line. Power was the issue. And how could power in the hands of the male possibly be reconciled with the equal worth of the female? There was no doubt about it: Submission meant subservience, inferiority. Jesus could not possibly approve.

The feminist argument seems plausible because it seems to be based upon Christian truths: the truth that no human being should ever be put in a position of degradation; the truth that every Christian is called to respect the dignity of each and every human being. Yet the logic of these truths directly challenges the feminist assumption that the headship of husbands means power and translates into the degradation of women.

And if we accept the feminist argument against headship, we are left with many open-ended questions. Does God not will any particular order for a man and a woman in holy matrimony? If there is an order, what is it specifically? Are there any God-given roles for a husband and wife? If so, what are they? If not, are their roles interchangeable? In short, what is the theological point of holy matrimony?

Much has happened to me since I started exploring the issue of gender and Christianity. I am now a member of a steadfastly traditionalist, and therefore isolated, Anglo-Catholic parish in the Episcopal Church's Diocese of Washington, D.C. This means I have argued against the ordination of women. It means I protested when the female suffragan bishop and her entourage invaded my parish last year in a so-called visitation that was forced and uncanonical. I am the sole lay delegate from my parish to the diocesan convention, and I have dutifully gone to the convention each year, where I witness firsthand much ranting about "inclusiveness." This past January I waited my turn at the microphone during a debate over a resolution which was aimed at deposing any clerical or lay leader in the national Church opposed to women's ordination. The priestess who spoke just before me fumed about how "undemocratic" opposition to the resolution is. She was loudly applauded. As she took her seat, I understood and sensed within her the deep hurt and feelings of rejection that led to her anger. And yet the central issue for her was worldly power. That's all she and her associates seemed to want to talk about. They frequently stress the political and worldly context of their arguments by using the term "empowerment." Raw power is always the central issue when we only deal with gender in terms of the sinful vacuum of a world with its back to Christ.

I finally understood that, before I became a traditionalist Anglo-Catholic, the heart of my struggle over these issues was my resistance to the order of creation. The basic question was so simple: Should I accept the order of creation or reject it? I soon realized this question was merely a corollary to the basic question that we habitually avoid: Should I accept God's will or reject it? Still, I was troubled. When responding to the modern arguments about the role of women, I had to ask myself: Does the order of creation as described in the Scriptures signify the inferiority of women? A number of annoying biblical terms haunted me: Woman is the "helpmate" of man (Gen. 2:18); the wife is to "submit" to her husband (Eph. 5:22) and "obey" him (I Pet. 3:4-6); and the woman is the "weaker sex" (I Pet. 3:7). In our culture there are no two ways about it: All these terms are now pejorative, all these concepts are now reviled. And, to make matters worse, many men habitually exploit those passages for their own worldly and selfish gain. On the surface, this apparent male bias and condescension seemed to be a strong case for "editing" or rewriting Scripture passages that deal with the order of creation of male and female.

Yet none of my qualms was relevant to the facts. People are never going to stop manipulating the Bible for selfish and worldly ends. That's the sinful human way. I simply had to concede that God had a purpose in creating humanity as male and female. After all, we are not one asexual species. Even if I believed that the writers of the Scriptures were somehow biased, I could not deny that God intentionally created humanity as male and female — one species with two halves, each having different functions. I could not deny that Jesus Christ came to us in the form of a human male born of a human female. And I could not doubt that Christ died for the sins of both men and women. After pondering a few simple truths such as these, I understood that any "editing" or rewriting of Scripture is heresy that inevitably leads to more heresy.

It can be very difficult for many of us to cut through modern usage of terms when reading Paul's admonitions to Christian husbands and wives. He definitely sounds chauvinistic to contemporary ears. We so easily view the idea of headship of the husband as a position of power. This is not only the modern worldly view of headship, but an ancient view as well. However, the Christian view — Paul's view — is neither. The headship of the husband is not a position of worldly power. Rather, it is a function of total surrender to the Cross. I finally came to terms with Paul's call to submission in marriage when I began to reflect on Christian marriage as a two-partner dance. Leading in a dance is simply a function. Following in a dance — i.e., "submitting" or "obeying" — is merely the reciprocal function. Both the husband and the wife are subject to Christ, as a man and a woman are subject to the music as they dance. If the husband's role is to lead, and the wife's role is to follow, so what? What's the big deal? How does it make the wife inferior? The husband superior? To claim such things of dance partners would be as nonsensical as stating that an axle is superior to the wheel attached to it. They are simply acting as one unit. In fact, they don't get anywhere unless they act as one unit. The most important element of the dance is that both partners must follow the same music.

If the husband is not listening to the music of the Gospel, he can neither lead nor function as a Christian husband. Is the wife then supposed to "submit" or follow when he steps on her toes this way? How can she? Contrary to popular revisionist belief, the writers of the Scriptures do not advise her to wallow in her suffering and to submit to abuse from a wayward husband who doesn't obey the Word. None of that is part of the solution offered in I Peter: that the wife, by example, show her reverence for the Word in order to bring her husband back to the Word (3:1-2). This passage reminds the woman that her first allegiance is always to Christ. She must, figuratively speaking, just keep humming the music of the Gospel to let her husband know he is out of line and out of step. Her tune should remind him that they are both called to total surrender to the Cross. The wife can't easily do this if she loudly complains about his sins or tries to lead him or push him around the dance floor. The best bet is to remain humble yet active, and firmly determined to let the Holy Spirit lead her thoughts, words, and deeds. Then the husband is most likely to be brought back into the dance. Otherwise, there can be no dance, no Christian marriage.

And what of the wife who falls away from obedience to the Word? What is the husband's function when she steps on his toes or tires of the dance? Paul's answer is that the husband is not to humiliate the wife any more than she is to humiliate him. Paul specifically reminds the husband not to be "harsh" (Col. 3:19). He does so in the same spirit in which he reminds a wife not to berate her husband. In both cases, the husband and wife must put their egos aside in order to submit to God's will for each of them. In fact, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul prefaces his whole discussion of headship with a statement clearly indicating that neither party has power over the other: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:21).

With that as a given, Paul goes on to say wives should be subject to their husbands "as to the Lord." Paul then reciprocally commands, "husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church." To get the full impact of what Paul meant by this "love," one should obviously begin by reflecting on Christ's love and sacrifice for His Church. If further understanding is necessary, it might be helpful to review Paul's definition of love in I Corinthians 13:4-7: "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful, it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends." In other words, the husband, too, is supposed to lead his spouse back to the Word through his own humble obedience to the Word. The wife is called to submit to a love that is in itself submissive. It is through participation in this order that a husband and wife can fully become, as they are meant to be, one flesh.

Feminists and revisionists, however, will not see it that way. To them the whole idea of the "headship" of the husband means only two things. First, it means power. Second, it assigns specific roles for each gender. So the feminists seek to replace Paul's formula for organic unity with the formula of secular equality. It is an unordered view of equality where there are no specific or reciprocal functions. The result is chaos, where there is really no room for the Cross to be the tempering, binding, and ordering force in marriage. It's a dance where everybody leads and nobody follows. Indeed, it conjures up the image of a ballroom where only trendy line dances such as the electric slide or the macarena are permitted. And that's a best case scenario. Everyone would inevitably end up wandering about doing his or her own thing.

Nevertheless, revisionists insist on viewing the headship of husbands as demeaning and outdated. They apparently refuse even to entertain the possibility that headship and submission to headship can be reciprocal functions of total surrender to the Cross. Rather than consider this, they simply shout out a passage in Paul's letter to the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). They maintain that this passage — which is actually only about baptism — supersedes the idea of headship or any order to our creation as male and female. If you point out that this passage applies only to baptism, they just ignore you.

Certainly, by virtue of valid baptism, we are — regardless of our sex or other circumstances of birth — united into the One Body of Christ in the world. But how does that translate into the notion that God intended all Christians to have the same function? How does that translate into the absence of any specific God-given order for our creation as male and female — the only basic distinction in the creation of humanity? Revisionists ignore the fact that we are incarnational beings, created as male or female. The task of Christians is to deal with God's creation as He wills, not as we will. Therefore, our bounden duty is to put aside our egos.

When we filter out the modern distortions of Paul's message, his logic becomes obvious and plainly positive. If a man and a woman are to unite as one flesh that submits to Christ, they must perform complementary functions in order to work together as one.

Even among those of us who accept this, however, many accept it in theory only. We may agree that the New Testament writings on this subject are always in the context of the husband's submission to Christ. We may acknowledge that Paul meant that the husband and wife must always submit to a higher authority in Christ Jesus, to whom they are both subject. Nevertheless, the world's grip on us is often too strong to allow us to accept actively the core meaning of headship. Worldly standards repeatedly seduce us into rejecting Paul's words. We know that people are going to sin by abusing any power — or a falsely understood implication of power — given to them. We have become accustomed to assuming that the headship of the husband is primarily a position of power rather than a function of total surrender to the Cross. So, with good intentions, there is an impulse to toss aside Paul's words on the headship of husbands without realizing that we are at the same time rejecting God's purpose and order.

It is not easy to accept the functions and purposes God has assigned us in His creation. My own struggle was simply part of the never-ending earthly battle against pride. Like most children at play, we want to be what the members of our peer group say they want to be. We attach value to the values of others, forgetting how hollow this makes our own values. Yet we think this gives us a sense of control and power. Any implication of submission — even in a Christian context— is immediately suspect Whether we are women or men, we instinctively focus on the sins committed against us: humiliation, disrespectful behavior, the indignities of everyday life. But life is always going to be a contest between the weak and the strong, a series of resentments, unless we surrender all power to the Cross.

Without Christ as the head of our lives and the lives of our spouses, anything that seems to threaten our dignity is fair game for attack, even if it is the very order of creation and the will of God. The world wants us to forget the Truth: Until we embrace the Cross by understanding and heeding the call to submit totally to the will of our Creator, we are doomed to a losing battle for our dignity as human beings, both in marriage and in everyday life. •

Stella Morabito is a member of the Vestry of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Bladensburg, Maryland. She lives in Potomac, Maryland, with her husband and three children.

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