Writing to the Ephesians, Paul the apostle urged all followers of Christ to mutual subjection: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” [Ephesians 5:21]
But then in his very next line there, Paul began to spell out a hierarchy of subjection that contradicts mutuality of subjection.
Furthermore, he wrote about that hierarchy in the context of a household that is rich enough to own slaves.
Let’s look at the household Paul describes.
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The Household Hierarchy in Ephesians 5:21 to 6:9.
Mutual subjection of all.
5:21. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Husbands are first in the household hierarchy, while wives are second.
5:22-33. 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. 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 flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers 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.
Children are third in the household hierarchy.
6:1-4. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Slaves are last in the household hierarchy.
6:5-9. Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Masters, do the same to them, and forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.
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Centuries after Paul, the Catholic Church came to confess the truth that the subjection of human persons to slavery is gravely immoral.
But since Paul’s notion of subjection within a household included the immorality of subjecting human persons to slavery, Catholics must question how to understand the relationships of mutual subjection among the members of a household.
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Paragraphs 1605 and 1606 in The Catechism of the Catholic Church assert a striking approach.
1605. Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The woman, “flesh of his flesh,” his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a “helpmate”; she thus represents God from whom comes our help. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The Lord himself shows that this signifies an unbreakable union of their two lives by recalling what the plan of the Creator had been “in the beginning”: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”
Marriage under the regime of sin
1606. Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character.
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If we are to be faithfully obedient, that is, subject, to the Church’s published teaching in the Catechism, we can accept the mutuality in Ephesians 5:21, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
But we may not simplistically subject wives to their husbands, just as we must reject Paul’s acceptance and urging that human persons be subject in slavery.
A man, a husband, must subject himself to the Church’s teaching that a woman, his wife, “represents God from whom comes our help.”