by Mary Shivanandan, MA, STD
Western Fathers such as Augustine and Jerome allowed that generation would have occurred by sexual intercourse in Paradise but maintained their own suspicion of the goodness of sexual intercourse in the Fall (Augustine) .
The exaltation of virginity from St. Paul onwards led in many instances to the disparagement of the earthly realities of married life if not of marriage itself. Gregory of Nyssa, who was himself, married is eloquent on the trials of married life that distract from serving the Lord. In his treatise "On Virginity," he first describes the blissful state of a happy couple entering marriage, then the envy of others, the fear of misfortune, the, death of children, the invasion of relatives. He asks:
He continues the diatribe on the evils that come with marriage for several more pages.
Nevertheless, Gregory of Nyssa was careful not to disparage the institution of marriage, since that would be a Gnostic heresy. John Chrysostom is similarly careful in his treatise on virginity not to condemn marriage, but simply to enumerate its lesser goods and some evils in order to extol virginity. (The rhetorical training that students such as Chrysostom received in the ancient world tended towards a somewhat exaggerated contrast for effective speaking.) Chrysostom was not married and from an early age led an ascetic life. Marriage, he calls a heavy bondage and begins by listing the faults of a wife:
He cites St. Paul as giving only two choices to the aggrieved wife, to train her husband patiently or to "endure nobly this unproclaimed war, this battle without a truce." He attributes many other physical and emotional troubles to the married state. The treatise On Virginity was probably written when he was still a deacon.
Ephesians 5: 21-33: Chrysostom.
When he was ordained a priest at the age of 37 in AD 386, Chrysostom preached his first homily. The source for his homilies was Scripture. He had a particular love of St. Paul's letters. "I feel drawn so strongly to Paul that I simply cannot stop reading him." he confessed. His audience appears to have been the average congregation which is easily distracted (he chides them for paying more attention to the lamplighters than to what he was saying) His task is to strengthen them in their faith and right living. Chrysostom takes the passage on marriage in Ephesians 5 as an occasion to instill loving behavior into both husband and wife.
Since this passage with the admonition of St. Paul for wives to submit themselves to their husbands as to the Lord, creates great difficulties for modern-day feminists, I have selected it as the springboard for this article on feminism and marriage. The passage has been called a summa of Church teaching on marriage and has been interpreted in several ways through the centuries. Today I want to compare John Chrysostom's interpretation with that of John Paul II with some reference to medieval and various contemporary interpretations. Finally I shall show the application of the passage in the lives of some couples today.
Chrysostom begins his commentary on 5:22-24 by focusing on the blessing of agreement or harmony between husband and wife. From the beginning God intended there to be a very close bond of love between the man and the woman. And he quotes Gen. 1:27, Mat. 19:4 and Gal. 3: 28 with regard to the creation of man as male and female. It is to foster this harmony on which the whole household depends that St. Paul advises "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as unto the Lord." It is for the sake of relationship, relationship between husband and wife, between parents and children and between master and servant. The husband occupies the place of the head and the wife of the body but the husband is head "as Christ is also of the Church, and He is the Saviour of the body." He mitigates this inequality in two ways by saying that since husbands and wives are part of the Church both are subject to Christ and the husband has the arduous role of loving his wife and giving himself up for her. For she is his own body. He sums it up as follows:
He is adamant that unless one is in a position of authority there can never be peace. The wife possesses "an authority and a considerable equality of dignity but at the same time the husband has somewhat of superiority." In marriage this authority must be exercised with love not fear and it is the husband's principal duty to love. Both, however, are admonished to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (5:21) Even if the wife does not reverence him, the husband is still to love her.
The Scriptural text influences Chrysostom towards elevating marriage and the spousal relationship. When the couple pray together their house "is a little Church" and when they go to Church together, "the married [are] but little below the unmarried." But his patronizing view of women is seen in the way he refers several times to the wife as a "child" and the feminine sex as weak. As long as women are not regarded as equal in dignity with men, Ephesians 5 is inevitably interpreted as a form of subjection that places woman in an inferior position.
Turning to the medieval era, St. Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on Ephesians 5 accepts at face value the subjection of the wife. "So he especially warns them about subjection. This is as to a lord since the relation of a husband to his wife, is in a certain way like that of a master to a servant." The difference is the master commands the servant for profit to himself and the wife for the good of the family. Note here how he interprets lord, not as Christ but as a lord. He modifies it by saying that the husband is not really a lord but "as to a lord." The comparison of the husband as head of the wife as Christ is of the Church emphasizes this subjection.
This is not the only way in which Aquinas' interpretation is less affirming of the woman than Chrysostom's. He devotes a lecture to the phrase, "He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh." He begins by pointing out that "as the flesh is subject to the soul, so is the wife to the husband." Since no one holds his own flesh in contempt, a man should not hold his wife in contempt. But he cannot give full value to Paul's analogy because of an ambivalent attitude towards the flesh. First man loves himself less than God, so he will love his wife less than God. A lesser love is in comparison with a greater a "certain hatred." Aquinas wants to make this connection because saints often want to be separated from the flesh as a hindrance to virtue or immortal life. They punish the flesh in order to subdue it. And that is really, he says, an act of love.
Aquinas continues that it is natural for a man to love his wife more than his parents because he is superior to his wife and children and inferior to his parents. He devotes only one paragraph to "they shall be two in one flesh," confining his remarks to the necessity of union for procreation. Because Paul uses the term a "great sacrament," Aquinas interprets the man leaving his father and mother as mainly Christ leaving his father to cleave to his wife the Church. Yet the text explicitly admonishes the husband to love his wife. Aquinas says that he is to love his wife as he loves himself in relation to God and not "as she draws him into sin." He ends his commentary on Ephesians 5 by quoting "And let the wife fear her husband, with the fear of reverence and submission since she must be subject to him."
Although Aquinas does not refer to the wife as a child, in this commentary he disparages the relationship of the wife to the husband in a way that Chrysostom does not. Fortunately Western Christianity offers other models of marriage, particularly springing from popular ethics manuals and liturgical celebration of marriage which praised human spousal love. So in the late Middle Ages, the Book of Vices and Virtues stressed marriage as "fundamentally and principally a bond of love, carnal as well as spiritual." Nicole Oresme, a theologian, who studied at the University of Paris in 1348 and was later confessor to Charles V, accentuated the affectionate and sexual bond within marriage in his writings. He called the love between husband and wife both friendship, and delight. Their friendship "comprises at once the good of usefulness, the good of pleasure, and the good of virtue and double enjoyment--that is, both the carnal and the virtuous or the sensual and the intellectual pleasures." In sexual matters he advises the husband to develop the art of love." He must strive to satisfy his wife's desires and not seek satisfaction outside the marriage bed. He must accord her respect in all his dealings with her. Oresme reiterates the tradition that the husband is the master of the household but insists that he will only obtain his wife's obedience through love. He demands an even greater fidelity from the husband. In both these areas he echoes Chrysostom.
Modern scholars have paid great attention to the language of a scriptural text, taking into consideration both word and context but their interpretations still vary greatly. Where other contemporary scholars have seen mutual subordination of husband and wife from admonishment to both to submit to one another in Christ in Ephesians 5:21, Stephen B. Clark in Man and Woman in Christ discounts this. He quotes Col. 3:18 and 1 Pet. 3:1 and says the main object of the passage is "structural" or "contextual." He claims that the corresponding exhortations to the husband-parent-master are secondary and supportive of the main exhortation." He definitively declares that "the passage speaks primarily about wives subordinating themselves to their husbands and about the corresponding care husbands should give their wives."
Clark cites use of the same Greek term in Lk. 10:17, Rom. 8:26 and Heb. 2:8 to show that it refers to putting someone under another. What makes it Christian is that "Christ stands behind the authority of the husband." He elaborates this by saying that Paul is encouraging the wife to subordinate herself directly to her husband, not just regard him "as the medium or occasion" for her obeying Christ.
Pierre Rémy of the Catholic Institute of Paris, finds a much richer symbolism in the images used in the text which has great relevance for the submission attributed to the wife. Seeking to assert the equality of the man and woman, Rémy, like Chrysostom, proposes the solution of the couple, not just the wife as being on the side of the Church submitting to Christ, just as Christ submitted to the Father (Heb. 5:8, Jn 14:10). Ephesians 5:21 confirms this by calling on both to be submissive in Christ. Both are filled with the Holy Spirit from their Baptism. The Sacrament of Marriage incorporates them into the Church as a couple "two in one flesh." With this interpretation, the couple prophecy the reconciliation of the sexes in the Spirit not just in marriage, but in the Church which is composed of half men and half women.
While this interpretation is much more favorable to the equality of the man and the woman does it minimize too much the difference intended by the author between the sexes and the way they are to relate to one another? Scripture scholars have looked at the meaning of the word ---- (hupotassomai) in other contexts. No one disputes that it means submission but depending on a number of factors its meaning can range from subordination to voluntary submission. While the active voice in the Hellenic world means "to place under" or "to subordinate" in the Septuagint it is means to acknowledge someone's dominion or power, for example, to surrender to God. In the New Testament it is restricted to Luke, the Pauline works, James and 1 Peter. The majority of statements in the active voice are Christological with particular reference to Ps. 8:6 "thou has put all things under his feet." (cf. 1 Cor. 15; Heb. 2: Eph: 1:22) Its widespread use in this context suggests that it constituted part of the early Christian confession.
In the middle voice it denotes voluntary submission. Paul uses it for important theological statements. In 1 Cor. 15:28 the Son subjects all things to himself then subjects himself to the Father. When it is used in the form of an exhortation, it denotes submission to a divinely willed order, such as Heb. 12:9 submitting to the discipline of a parent, (cf. Lk 2:51, when Jesus submitted to Mary and Joseph) It is in this sense that it is used in Ephesians 5: 22-24 of the wife submitting in a divinely willed order to the husband. It is noteworthy that although the word can be used of the submission of slaves to their masters, the word (hupakouo) is used for children obeying parents and slaves their masters in Ephesians 6  as if to highlight the difference of quality between the two kinds of submission. It is generally an exhortation to the person to give up their own will for the sake of others in agape love. The submission takes on a new aspect when it is given under the control of the Lord and is related to tapeinophrosune or a humility that seeks others' welfare before one's own.
I have spent time on the meaning of the word because any interpretation must be faithful to the text. Clearly the text signifies that both the man and the woman are to voluntarily submit in love to each other in the Lord but specifically the wife is to lovingly submit to her husband. In turn the husband is to give himself up for his wife. His surrender is no less great than hers, perhaps more so but in the divinely willed order, a certain initiative belongs to the male and a response to the female.
In looking at earlier theological descriptions of marriage and the marital relationship, several distortions were discovered. These related either to regarding the wife as innately inferior, or to associating bodily functions such as sexual intercourse, birth and breast feeding exclusively with animal nature and in some way tainted with sin. It is no longer acceptable to consider women as inferior to men. Attitudes toward the body are still ambivalent but advances have been made in seeing the body as the visible expression of the person made in the image of God. The great surprise is that while a number of feminist theologians such as Phyllis Trible and Phyllis Bird tend to equate fertility with animal nature, John Paul II has developed a theology of the body which elevates sexual intercourse and bodily existence generally to the sphere of the fulfillment of the person.
John Paul II made an extensive commentary on Genesis 1-3 during a series of Wednesday audiences from September 5, 1979 to April 2, 1980 which have been gathered into a book, called The Original Unity of Man and Woman. From the Genesis text, John Paul II posits a state of original solitude which precedes the original unity of man and woman who are two equal "solitudes." This concept of original solitude is critically important in John Paul II's anthropology. He derives it from Gen 2:18, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him." There are two meanings implied in solitude: (1) derived from man's very nature and (2) derived from the male-female relationship. The first form of solitude precedes the second not chronologically but existentially.
When Eve was created out of Adam's side, "original unity," says John Paul II, "becomes part of original solitude." John Paul II's affirmation of the body is expressed in his assertion: "That man is a 'body' belongs to the structure of the personal subject more deeply than the fact that he is in his somatic constitution also male and female." Being a body is part of original solitude . And it is only through an affirmation of everything that constitutes the person in solitude that a communion of persons can be brought about. John Paul II has taken the phrase Communio personarum from Gaudium et Spes no. 12 and made it his own. This means that in any intimate relationship between a man and a woman, it must be recognized that each is a self-determining subject with bodily integrity in a unique relationship with God.
Together with other contemporary theologians, such as John D. Zizioulas, author of Being as Communion, W. Norris Clarke and John Crosby, John Paul II views man as a subsistent relation in the manner of the Trinitarian persons. This means that being in relationship is constituent of man's nature. He cannot fulfill himself except by becoming a gift to another. His need to transcend himself comes from two sources, his human limitation which is in need of completion and his innate richness which seeks to communicate itself to others. The sexual urge is rooted in the spiritual drive for transcendence. Such a view of the sexual urge puts it in a whole different light from much traditional Christian reflection on the subject. John Paul II takes a positive view of eros and passion when it is directed towards the total gift of self in marriage. He speaks of the "nuptial" meaning of the body. Such a view of the body as an expression of the person allows for a positive attitude towards all sensual experience when it is integrated with the love of the person in truth.
Of the various Pauline passages that John Paul II reflects on in his catechesis on marriage and celibacy, Ephesians 5 provides him with the greatest insight into the nature of marriage. In the analogy of marriage and the "great mystery" of Christ and the Church, the redemptive and spousal dimensions of love are brought together. Although married couples are addressed directly, John Paul II says that the "linking of the spousal significance of the body with its 'redemptive' significance is equally essential and valid for the understanding of man in general: for the fundamental problem of understanding him and for the self-comprehension of his being in the world." Part of this problem is the meaning of being a body as a man and a woman which in turn relates to the significance of the masculinity and femininity of the human person .
In Ephesians 5, Christ is said to be Head and Savior of the Church, as well as Bridegroom. He gives himself up for the Church, and so redeeming love is transformed into spousal love. John Paul II interprets the head-body analogy as primarily of an organic nature. In the context of the man-woman relationship it seems to imply that the married couple form one organic union, the one-flesh union of Genesis 2:24. But it is clear from the Genesis text that the man and woman are "two distinct personal subjects who knowingly decide on their conjugal union." In relation to marriage, St. Paul is stressing here the union in one flesh of marriage not superiority and inferiority. In the whole passage "bi-subjectivity clearly dominates"
In the image of the Church presented in splendor as a bride "all beautiful in body," bi-subjectivity again clearly predominates, and the emphasis on the body bespeaks the importance of the body in the analogy of spousal love. The husband's love must be a disinterested love. In being admonished to love his wife as his own body, Ephesians 5:28 has in mind the union in "one flesh." The union does not obliterate subjectivity. John Paul II explains this by saying that through love the "I" of the other becomes the husband's own "I," and the "body is the expression of that 'I' and the foundation of its identity." Although it is a "reciprocal relationship," the husband is the one who loves and the wife the one who is loved. It is in this sense that John Paul II interprets "submission." It "signifies above all the 'experiencing of love,'" an interpretation that can be given especially from the analogy of the submission of the Church to Christ. The metaphor of nourishing and cherishing one's own flesh Scripture Scholars link to the Eucharist, which affirms again the dignity of the body and leaves "a profound sense of the 'sacredness of the body'"
In Ephesians 5 John Paul II highlights the total nature of the gift of spousal love. Noting that the analogy between the Christ-Church relation and marriage is inadequate for comprehending the transcendental reality, nevertheless he says it can penetrate to a certain extent the essence of the mystery of the love of Christ and the Church and reflect back on the love of husband and wife. Christ's love is a "love proper to a total and irrevocable gift of self on the part of God to man (i.e. both the Christian community and every individual man) in Christ." Spousal love rather than parental or compassionate love emphasizes this total gift of God to man in Christ. It is a radical gift, even if it can only take the form of participation in the divine nature.
Even with man's loss of original grace marriage never ceased to be a sign of God's covenantal love, and prepared man for the sacrament of redemption but this sacrament of redemption is given to the "historical" man of concupiscence. The redemption of the body is more than a gift. It is also a "task," as is made clear in the Sermon on the Mount, and flows from what John Paul II calls the "sacramental substratum" of man and woman in the context of the conjugal pact in the mystery of creation, and later in the mystery of redemption. This sacramental substratum is always present in each individual man and woman, arising from their original dignity as made in the image of God and implicit in the duty assigned to fallen humanity in the reality of the redemption. The fruit of this dominion (over concupiscence) is the unity and indissolubility of marriage. There also flows from it, writes John Paul II, "a deepened sense of the dignity of woman in the heart of man (and also the dignity of man in the heart of woman), both in conjugal life together, and in every other circle of mutual relations."
Through the grace of the sacrament of marriage, what St. Paul calls "life according to the Spirit," man and woman can find again "the true liberty of the gift, united to the awareness of the spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity." Eros and ethos find a meeting place in the "heart" of the man and woman and in their mutual relations. "Life according to the Spirit" also includes accepting the blessing of fertility (the opening to parenthood), receiving the new child as the "first fruits of the Spirit"
As can be seen, John Paul II, like Chrysostom, finds in St. Paul's analogy in Ephesians 5 of the marriage of Christ and the Church and human marriage, a significance far beyond admonition to a single married couple. But he has gone further than Chrysostom especially with regard to "the meaning of being a body, on the sense of being, as a body, man and woman."
Scripture is designed not just to reveal to us the nature of God and his plan for mankind but to teach us how to live as children of God. If Scripture remains simply at the level of academic study it is a dead letter. Rather it is meant to transform our lives. The remaining part of this article will spell out some of the practical implications of the teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5. Both Chrysostom and John Paul II make it abundantly clear that both husband and wife are to submit to one another in the Lord but the husband is the one who initially loves and the wife the one who is loved. Both emphasize the total nature of the love, the husband by giving himself up for the wife and the wife by voluntarily submitting herself to the husband. John Paul II goes further than Chrysostom in elevating the body as the expression of the person.
There is a specific reason for this. John Paul II has developed his theology of the body, the person and marriage in response to the challenge of modern contraception. It is only since the end of the 19th century that contraception has become widespread. Formerly children were spaced naturally by breastfeeding. In addition maternal and infant mortality took its toll. The key fact about modern contraception, which is designed to space children technologically, is that it separates sexual intercourse from procreation if not in fact, then in intention. When a couple use contraception, they say to one another, I want to be united with you but I do not want to accept you as you are in all your bodily integrity. I reject your fertility. In other words their love is not total.
The rejection of fertility affects the woman more than the man because her fertility is a much greater part of her makeup. A feminist researcher, Niles Newton, has shown how the man engages in only one reproductive relationships that of sexual intercourse while the woman participates in three, sexual intercourse with the man, birth and breastfeeding with the child. An orgasm is associated with each of these reproductive relationships, since the orgasm is designed for physical and psychological bonding. Dr. Newton states that a woman's sexual experience is not complete until she has gone through the whole process of sexual intercourse, birth and breastfeeding. It is no wonder that so many adolescent girls , once they engage in sexual intercourse become pregnant. Unconsciously their feminine nature pushes them to complete the cycle.
Feminists then urge the woman to abort her child in order to regain mastery of her situation. Such an act not only goes against a woman's psychological nature but interferes with the deepest physiological reactions of her body. What then is a woman to do? Is she to remain at the mercy of her fertility in the sexual relationship? Not at all. St. Paul admonishes the man to give himself up for his wife and to love her as his own body. If he truly loves her he will accept her in all her bodily integrity, including her fertility. This means accepting the woman's cycle. God, the author of nature, has designed the woman's body to be fertile only 4 percent of her life span, if you take into consideration only the fact that she ovulates once a month from puberty to menopause and the egg lives for only 12 to 24 hours. On the other hand the man produces sperm on a continuous basis from puberty until his death. It is only when a certain type of mucus is present in the woman's body that the sperm can survive and fertilize her ovum to create a new human person. Together the life of the sperm and the presence of mucus form what is called the joint fertility of the couple. Aware of their joint fertility the couple can decide whether to conceive a child or to avoid a pregnancy.
Conceiving a child is rightfully a decision between God, the man and the woman. Contraception largely removes God's part from the picture. The woman or the man for their part can block their fertility without any say-so on the part of the other. For example the woman can take the Pill without her husband knowing or the man can have a vasectomy. With natural family planning, however, which accepts and does not suppress fertility, it remains always a mutual decision. Nothing is done either to the man or the woman to interfere with their bodily integrity. When they come to sexual union they give themselves to each other totally whether it is the time of fertility or infertility.
What happens when couples take Revelation seriously and act as if God has designed them in all their bodily integrity for spousal love? Couples witness time and time again to the beauty of married love when they follow God's plan. They often come to NFP after physical dissatisfaction with technological methods. But the psychological dissatisfaction is often deeper. One wife said:
In the testimony of men can be seen the specific working out of Ephesians 5. Without the husband's cooperation, practicing NFP can be difficult. One husband confessed: "It was a painful struggle, for I had to die to the illusion that my own feelings were more 'true' than the tradition of my faith. . . I think I was secretly afraid of continence." The practice of NFP made him realize how much emphasis he had given to genital rather than relational intimacy. The periods of abstinence remind him to make a conscious effort to become "more emotionally intimate and more vulnerable." Another husband also chafed at the Church's teaching and his wife's cycle which made abstinence necessary. Gradually he came to realize that the problem was not his wife's cycle but himself and his own self-mastery. Now he sees it as a gift he gives to their love.
Another couple shied away from abstinence as unnatural but their experience taught them otherwise: "We have come up with a new definition of abstinence; we decided that abstinence for us from now on, is the answer to our search for freedom. Freedom in love-making and in our desire to be one in our coupleness, in our Catholic sacramental live as a couple."
While the husband's main task is to give himself up for his wife, the wife must be willing to trust (in other words submit) first to Christ and then through Christ to her husband. She can close herself off through contraception both from God and her husband. The great temptation of the woman, as John Paul II says, is sentimentality. She does not want to demand the hard thing of her husband and so she gives up her bodily integrity. She does not realize how much she gives up along with her bodily integrity. Her loyalty must be first of all to God and her own integrity and then to her husband.
A true feminism in marriage or outside marriage can never be at the expense of the bodily, psychological and spiritual integrity of either the woman or the man. Both Chrysostom and John Paul II point to a certain order of love in St. Paul's text in which the man is called initially to love and the woman to be loved and mutual love in Christ to be the task of both. Far from being an enslavement this relationship frees both the man and the woman. But it only makes sense in the redemption of Christ. Chrysostom makes this clear in his commentary on Ephesians 5: 21 when he says that submitting to one another in Christ, will make all "thy slaves." To quote:
This is the folly of the cross of which St. Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 1: 18. Whatever message society gives on gender and sexuality in marriage, if it contradicts Revelation, it will bring neither freedom nor harmony.
1. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), 247-249. See also St. Augustine, City of God, ed. Vernon J. Bourke (New York: Doubleday, 1958), 317-8 and 353.
2. Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity,
Bird does not find in the texts any "word of shared roles, responsibilities and authority
here, only a shared task of the species carried out in the dominant mode of patriarchal society." See Phyllis
Bird, "'Male and Female He Created Them'': Gen.
1-27b in the context of the Priestly Account of Creation, Harvard Theological Review 74: 2 (1981) 129-159; and
Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality: Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978) 104.
Diakonia, Vol. 29 (1), 1996.
This version: 11th February 2003