What Really Is Headship in Marriage?
“Wives should be submissive to their husbands as to the Lord.” ~ St. Paul
The dreaded “submission” featured in Ephesians 5 lands like a four-letter word on the ears of many who are otherwise eager to put Catholic social teaching into practice in their lives. This negative response to the idea of headship in marriage is understandable when considered in light of what we see in modern culture. Are we not surrounded by intelligent, capable women who make effective and compassionate leaders? Shouldn’t we put all of those God-given talents to use instead of limiting them? Shouldn’t we be preventing husbands from treating their wives poorly, rather than enabling them?
Yes. Absolutely. That is 100% correct.
The solution proposed by 20th century feminism is to simply take half, or more than half, of the power in a marriage and give it to the wife. Then at least she’ll have a fighting chance. But while this model may equalize the playing field, it does not create harmony, and it does not unlock the love that is the constant need of every human heart.
What Does Headship in Marriage Really Mean?
Fortunately, Jesus (with a little help from St. Paul) has given us a much better answer to the problem of exploitative power dynamics in marriage. It starts by refiguring our idea of how beings with free will can relate to each other.
In fact, the whole concept of a human relationship in which a competitive power dynamic exists is contrary to the purpose and meaning of marriage. The essence and purpose of this and every sacrament is love, and as Pope St. John Paul II explains in Theology of the Body, the opposite of love is to use someone. People don’t like to be used, so the only way to “win” is to exercise power over them. Women who grew up seeing situations in which men held most of the power are determined to snatch up as much of that power as they can and hold on to it so they can avoid being used in the same way.
The fatal flaw inherent in this idea is that it does not leave either spouse open to giving or receiving love. In a relationship based on love, power has no part to play because no one is willing to exercise it against the other.
Marriage is a way for us to imitate the example of God’s love as a tiny glimpse of what awaits us in heaven. God, who is love, offers himself unconditionally. Within the trinity, love is exchanged between persons without reservation or condition. There is no competition between them, and no power dynamics. God’s relationship to His creation is similar; He is not competitive. Though he is far more capable than us, He uses those capabilities only to serve us, never to use us. He gives only love, and wants only love. He gives His love freely, and leaves us free to return that love if we choose.
This is the kind of love we are called to imitate in marriage. It is a state of total self-giving in the service of the other with no desire to use and no fear of being used. Power is irrelevant. Joy is overflowing. This sacrament is given to us as a sign of things to come, to prepare us for participation in the perfect and universal love of heaven.
If St. Paul’s teaching on headship in marriage is properly understood, Ephesians 5 describes the paradigm of a truly loving relationship. Devoid of any connotations of power and compulsion, submissiveness takes on a very different meaning. No one is called to be a doormat. To submit to the other means to offer one’s self completely, as God offered Himself to us in the body of Christ. It means to love the other unselfishly.
Another Look at St. Paul
Now let’s have a look at what St. Paul actually says about headship in marriage in Ephesians 5, in light of our enlightened understanding of the meaning of submission.
21 “Be submissive (subordinate, subject) to one another out of reverence for Christ”
Husbands and wives are called to mutual submission, mutual self-giving, mutual love. The wife’s call to be submissive does not place her beneath her husband, but in communion with him. In the next few verses, St. Paul describes this communion in more detail.
22-23 “Wives should be submissive to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the Church, he himself the savior of the body.
Here St. Paul shows us the specific way in which marriage imitates the divine love of heaven. The marriage of Christ and the Church signifies the redemption of man, the victory of love, and the commencement of our blissful union with Christ and with each other. This is why marriage is such great preparation for heaven! Saint Paul then expands on this comparison to illuminate the specific way each spouse is called to self-donation.
24-25 “As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.”
Here we can see the role of masculine and feminine nature in marriage. The calls of the husband and wife to submissiveness are not unequal, but neither are they identical. In this context to be subordinate and to love mean essentially the same thing. The wife is called to be self-giving “in everything,” and the husband is called to be self-giving “as Christ,” who loved and submitted unto death. The Christ-like role of the husband is appropriate to his masculinity as the Church-like role of the wife is to her femininity. For a man, to love as Christ loves the Church means to advance his love fully and completely as Christ does with no guarantee that it will be returned. To love as the Church loves Christ means to first be the joyful and willing receiver of that love, and then to return it fully and completely as Mary did when she accepted the child Jesus into her womb.
By performing their roles according to their particular natures, husband and wife fit harmoniously into a relationship that exchanges love without competition, power, or a hint of use.
Headship in Marriage Does Not Demean the Wife
Though the husband’s role of headship in marriage gives him the initiative, the wife’s role is no less important, nor does it limit her freedom.
To take an obvious example, in a marriage proposal, it is the man who asks the question, but that accomplishes nothing by itself. It is the answer that brings the joy or the disappointment. He cannot force his beloved to accept him any more than she can force him to ask the question. They are both free, they are both necessary, and they are both different. Both roles require the trust, humility, and courage to give of themselves for the sake of the other.
While there is great value in the connection between the sacrament of marriage and the marriage of Christ and the Church, every metaphor has its limitations. Casting the husband as Christ and the wife as the Church does not in any way indicate that a wife must be more in need of redemption than her husband. Nor does it mean that a wife should treat her husband like God. The symbol is not the real thing. No husband or wife is perfect, always right or will always love his or her spouse as deserved. There is only one perfect spouse on record—Mary, the wife of Joseph.
It is also important to realize that headship in marriage does not designate specific tasks for either spouse. Instead it calls them to take up both authority and duty not from a desire to control or dominate, but as an act of self-giving love for the other, and to accept the authority and duty of the other as a gift from them, rather than resenting it as an imposition. The nitty gritty of the division of labor and who is considered the expert on which topics may vary widely between marriages in which the spouses have different talents. The issue isn’t who is doing what, but why they are doing it. A husband who works a few extra hours a week because his wife prefers to stay at home and care for their children is doing his duty as head of the family, just as is the husband who makes some sacrifices in his career so that his wife can pursue a job that she loves.
Just as headship in marriage is not a call to dominate, submission is not a call to put up with abuse. A wife’s call to submission begins with accepting the self-giving love of her husband. She is not called to allow herself to be used as a sex object or in any other way that denies the fullness and dignity of her humanity. Saint Paul calls his readers to love courageously and unselfishly, to find the incredible human value in oneself and one’s spouse, and to donate themselves to the other without reservation.
In short: properly understood, Ephesians 5 is a dream come true for everyone who feels the desire to love and be loved.
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Jenna's pro-life work began in college when she headed the student organization Choose Life at Yale, and directed the annual Vita et Veritas pro-life conference. After studying abroad in Russia and working in Rome, she has returned to her beautiful hometown in Montana and supports life by writing articles for HLI and knitting adorable blankets for all the babies she knows.