When Eve was tempted in the garden by the serpent, he was able to convince her that God the Father was a moralizing tyrant who wanted to prevent Eve and Adam from achieving their full potential – and that God sought to accomplish this by lying to them about what would happen if they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I believe that with the vast majority of moral teachings around sexuality, the devil still speaks and tickles the ears of many people today by conveying the same deception about the Church’s moral teaching. How many people would view the Church’s teachings as chauvinistic (competitive with women), deceptive (cult-like), and a moralizing tyrant with all her moral rules and laws. In order for any of us, who are currently at odds with Church teaching to examine this critically we must be willing to entertain the possibility that the Church isn’t the “bad guy” but in fact is a loving Mother who is merely attempting to tell us what it means to be a man and woman, and furthermore to liberate both men and women in this truth, towards joy and peace. That is difficult for many, especially those who are actual victims of sexual inequality. Sexual inequality can occur and does occur, and must not be ignored. After all, God himself describes the very punishments between Adam and Eve, describing friction between spouses as a result of leaving paradise. That punishment is not a positive-law punishment, but rather the natural consequences of departing from God’s design – in other words, it is the fruit of their own decisions, and not desired by God. Sin is its own punishment, and reshaping our own anthropology according to our own egotistical pride will naturally deform relationships even if we cannot immediately make such a connection.
Since sexism does exist, it is common for people who have been emotionally hurt to be repulsed by anything that remotely suggests sexism or is correlated to it. This is a defense mechanism, meant to protect us from more abuse. Men naturally feel objectified when watching a “chick-flick” because the emphasis on men’s emotional expression is objectified – a different type of objectification that women are repulsed by when likewise they witness their husbands viewing pornography. However, within the confusion and truth of sexism, the devil will insert truths that seem sexist and correlate them falsely to our own wounds and pain in order to habitually foster an attitude that resents Church teaching and thus applies our own emotional resentment towards what is unjust and what is just at the same time, although we may fail to see this subjectively due to our own fallibility.
Therefore in order to examine matters of sexuality and sexual differences between men and women I would suggest taking up the Spirit of Socrates and Plato by first challenging our own presuppositions. A great work in this life involves “unlearning” falsehoods that we subjectively perceive to be true – and this is probably a difficult task for most of us. It is difficult, especially for the “activist” who has emotionally invested in a particular mission, rooting their views deeply against what has long been held to be a matter of injustice. There is no doubt that for many these emotionally invested frustrations with injustice do exist legitimately, but it is what they wrap themselves around, specifically matters of justice that concern me. A half-truth is more dangerous than a complete lie. A complete lie is not believed by anyone, which there is no measure of truth to it – and it is therefore laughed at. But a half-truth is accompanied by a lie, whereby in mixing the two the truth adds to its convincing power, while the lie remains often implicit or fallaciously in correlation to the truth, but nothing more. Essentially this leads to “throwing out the baby with the bath-water.” One who hates the lie, throws out the truth, or one who has affection for the truth adopts the lie as well, without proper discernment. As a result, you develop a polarized position within the community, and no one rests in the truth itself. The lie poisons others from the truth, or the truth (half-truth) becomes the tool of the deceiver, a Trojan Horse.
Think of a woman who was neglected by her own father simply because she was a woman, while watching her own brothers being favoured by the father. Her envy springs from woundedness, longing for affection for her father. She could tell herself she doesn’t “need affection from a man,” but this is merely a coping mechanism to avoid the real pain that comes with mourning the lost affection of what she had a right to, and a childhood need. She could however try to be like her brothers in order to gain the affection she feels she needs to earn, denying her true identity, placing a mask that will root itself into her life so deeply that she cannot even begin to be aware of who she truly is. What happens to this woman when she grows up and hears that the man is the “head of the house” and the woman is the “body?” Does she hear the infallible scriptures without wounds tainting her own reading of it, without the fear and pain somehow boiling up to resent the words themselves? If a person goes without healing, how can we ever hear the truth without projecting our own assumptions and defensive mechanisms upon the texts that God seeks to offer us in order to liberate us from this sexual inequality? How can we have a pure vision of God’s own word if we are not in a position of docility towards it, but rather in a place of resentment, bitterness and hurt?
When I was in my first parish, as a priest, I came across the previous lectionary which had crossed out the passage of scripture which indicates that the man is the head, while the wife the body. In that lectionary someone (whom I presume was a woman) had used a black permanent marker and crossed out that reading. Scripture, a sacred book, used for the sacred liturgy was so hated, as God’s own law about the true, that it was defaced, and someone felt entitled to commit a sacrilege. This sacrilege did not happen merely by enforcing something contrary to scripture, but by actually crossing out the Sacred word itself – and this helped me understand the reality, the deep resentment that “some” experience towards God’s teaching on sexuality, but likely and more importantly the wounds that motivate and lie hidden underneath such resentments.
Therefore, I would like to offer some reflection on Ephesians 5:23, which has become a source of contention amongst “some” women within the world today. I offer it, with a sense of compassion for those struggling with Church teaching. Church teaching, in my teenage years did not come easily to me, and entering into my adulthood, discovering philosophy gave me more tools to understand it. Furthermore, transcending the medium of apologetics I also began to see the spirituality of the truth in regard to God’s teaching – that these are not positive laws, artificially imposed upon our humanity, but they actually heal us, help us understand our true nature, and bring it to life in a complete and exciting way. And so what I would like to do in this post is validate the half-truth, and condemn the lie that is often correlated with it, thereby giving women the encouragement to rage against sexism, while also not relativizing sexual differences in the process.
The exhortation of St. Paul is an exhortation of scripture. We cannot separate St. Paul from the fact that this particular text has been deemed infallible by the Church. If a person were to say, “I hate St. Paul” in regard to his writing, we must equally say that such a statement applies to: “I hate scripture.” Let’s face it, we cannot conveniently compartmentalize these passages as “St. Paul’s writings” as if they are not also and more importantly Sacred Scripture. How we frame the nature of these words can help us approach the words with faith or derail our approach to scripture with resentment and doubt. Matters of doctrine cannot be understood without faith first being assented to. Understanding follows faith, in matters of theology, because the human mind is far too plagued with its own complexity and our fallen nature in order for us to be truly objective.
All of that is to say that in order for us to demonstrate real trust in God, we must not make faith contingent upon our own understanding. We must approach God as a mystery, realizing that while we cannot understand everything He is saying immediately, we can nonetheless trust that He is good, and has in fact proven it to be the case in all that He has done for us. Some might say, “But Father, I do trust God, and I don’t believe he meant this to be scripture” or something along those lines. But is this not merely a symptom of us creating our own God, to whom we would prefer to worship? We shape a god from our understanding, rather than allowing God to shape our understanding through faith. We must start in a place of trust, not deferring to our own judgment, and then ask the question, “God I trust this is the true, but I don’t understand how that can be the case.” When we operate with this disposition, can reform our mind – but not in a deceptive manner. God is not asking us to avoid critical thought, in fact He is asking for that exact thing – but critical thought cannot exist when we begin by resenting, objectively, God in His law and who He is. If you have an enemy, whom you resent, and states something true, yet hard to hear about yourself, you know from experience, that it is difficult to agree with what they say, because of either how they say it or who is saying it. It is difficult to listen to God if we begin by distrusting him. Therefore, critical thought implies, in this area of discernment first and foremost in a trust in God, which is thereby extended to Sacred Scripture, since He is its authentic author.
Verse 21: Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ
In this exhortation, scripture conveys challenge not to women alone, but to both men and women. There is a mutual subordination that both men and women must have for one another. Therefore, when discussing marriage we begin with a sense of equality between both men and women – both moral creatures who are called to “defer to” one another. Subordination means “deferring to.” The Greek term “hypotassō” literally means “to place under.” In the nature of this language it is clear that this term is expressed in a free or voluntary manner, which means it is not a type of “slavery” or a type of inequality between spouses. How could it be a matter of inequality, if both were called to simultaneously subject themselves to one another? Something else is clearly being stated here – and it is quite deep if you spend some time meditating upon it. In many relationships there is a tendency in our day and age to “look out for number one” before looking towards the needs of the other. Here scripture is suggesting that one look out for the needs of their spouse before their own needs – and that this should be a mutual endeavour amongst each other. Love does not foster a preoccupation with oneself, but rather seeks the good of the other for their own sake. We do not need to worry about our own back that is taken care of by our spouse; but what we need to consider is the back of our own spouse. We need to not be preoccupied with how I will be loved, but rather how I will love. If both couples accomplish this, they are entirely liberated from the ego, perpetually loved with abandon and loving with abandon.
The motivation of this subjection, scripture reveals, is for “out of reverence for Christ.” Sometimes we forget this – that Christ is really the motivation behind all our relationships. The Jews in Egypt did not merely want freedom from slavery, they prayed fervently for freedom to “worship God.” What this implies, friends, is that through the relationship that a husband and wife have, they are in effect learning to love Christ, and be loved by Christ through the very choices and relationship they have with one another. This is because Marriage is a sacrament of how Christ loved the Church – and therefore, the manner by which Husband and Wife love each other becomes a means to love God through their spouse. Consider the fact that it is not always possible to love Christ directly as Christ has loved us – because Christ forgave our sins, yet Christ is without sin. We cannot “forgive” Jesus, because there is nothing to forgive. However, we can give God the love of forgiveness back to Him, by forgiving our neighbour, our spouse, and thereby demonstrate to Christ that we are not merely receivers of His love, but also imitators of His love. In the vocation of marriage, the spouses take up the role to be an evangelical sign to the whole world, how Christ has Loved his Church. Through them, in their interaction, they exhibit the love that Christ demonstrated on the cross, and through grace, actually bring the power of that love into the world, reshaping and redeeming our relationships that are formed by a father and mother’s own witness.
Moving forward to the more controversial passage, we must not depart from what has been previously stated. This is the context to which we can understand, reasonably what Sacred Scripture says about women and men in their relationship with one another.
Verses 22-24: Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the Church, he himself the saviour of the body. As the Church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.”
Women are certainly being singled out in this particular verse in regard to their moral responsibility toward their husband, and if this verse is merely read away from the previous context it would generate a sentiment of inequality with the mind of the readers. However I would like to examine this passage from my own heart as a man to give it a better understanding of why it is actually incredibly beautiful of both women and men. But in order to do this, I ask that you be willing to leave aside any assumptions about what this passage might mean, and be willing to understand it in a different manner – if you perceive it as sexist.
First of all, the passage here recapitulates the term “subordinate” which was earlier used to discuss both women and men in the relationship together. This is now moving from a general truth to a particular person in the relationship. Verse 21 focused on their equality as husband and wife, now the scriptures are focusing on their differences as man and woman. Someone can be different, while also being equal, and thus difference and equality are not opposition views – but for some they are perceived that way. Please consider dropping that perception, because we don’t realistically treat people like that. People have different ways of thinking, different gifts to offer the work-force and world and community – and yet all of us have the same dignity. So women and men are different by God’s design, but they are equal in dignity – that has already been established in the previous verse – and now we are constructively discussing the differences between men and women – which are not “social-constructions” but spiritual dimensions that are also manifest in the psychological differences and the sacrament of the body between men and women. Differences such as hormonal as well as the sexual make-up of each person in body and mind, by design –part of God’s creativity at work. For some, this is read in a competitive manner: “If they are different who is better?” But this recapitulates the same false view that that Eve had of God, being in competition with her. Despite the fact that competition does exist because of sin, that is not what such differences mean, it just means the differences are exploited as such. Here we have to confront the half-truth and the lie. The half truth is that there are differences, but the lie is that these differences imply competition and inequality – a type of quest for domination – which is very different than voluntary subordination. One is violent, oppressive, while the other is voluntary and mutual, out of love and service of the other.
Some might denigrate this passage to the cultural time and social constructs that existed then, and while that might deserve some degree of merit and consideration it is nonetheless also speaking about something universal, ontological (the nature of things), and objective. This passage is not about cultural relativism, it is about how God created man and woman, together, and the nature of marriage itself, by His design, rather than our own. If we are to examine the Greco-Roman tradition, husbands imposed order upon the household, but here St. Paul is using the term “subordinate’ in voluntary fashion which naturally excludes involuntary acts that would intimidate or involve inequality. So even in the context of the time, what is being written is actually challenging the cultural climate that existed within the domestic home.
St. John Paul II, in examining the difference between men and women insists that this is an equal type of service, but also that it manifests itself in a different mode between each other as male and female. That is to say that while both are called to subordinate themselves, they do so by utilizing their differences so that this subordination is complimentary not competitive. So, concretely one might ask what are the differences then between men and women? Before I state them clearly, I would like to suggest caution – many consider “limitations” to be oppressive. We live in a culture that states, “Whatever you put your mind to you can accomplish” or “Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do.” The half truth in these sentiments is based upon a rejection of oppression – people from preventing us from fulfilling our potential because they observe our real strengths and capabilities as competitive to our own sense of fulfillment (perhaps as a result of envy). This type of oppression is unjust. The lie however is that all types of limitations are a form of oppression. For instance, if my arm had no limits, it would extend indefinitely and never become useful. The very limits of my eye-lids permit myself to see, while the limits of skills teach me to rely upon others and give them an opportunity to serve and grow in love. Without corporeal limits, our existence would be meaningless and horrible. We appreciate limits all the time – but when we interpret them as oppressive and enslaving we naturally rebel against them. Our rebellion is against the evil of oppression, but we it is falsely correlated to our sexual differences.
Therefore, in regard to both men and women there are limitations and strengths, but both of these are considered “liberating” and meaningful, lest we exploit them for competitive reasons rather than complimentary. As St. John Paul II states: “Limitation of one’s freedom might seem to be something negative and unpleasant, but love makes it a positive, joyful and creative thing.” The bodily differences between men and women are in fact probably the most creative aspects within the entire universe – as they, with God’s grace create an immortal soul that cannot ever be destroyed. That bodily act between men and women should also be understood as a sacrament to the spiritual birth of new life in Christ – that when a man gives to His wife, and she receives that gift as a way of loving her husband, the end result is that the love they have for each other overflows into the creation of a community that transcends their own love for each other.
St. John Paul II explains that the very physical dimensions of the body between men and women communicate to us the spiritual and psychological differences between men and women and that these differences also extend to us an image of the Trinity. Within the Trinity we understand – according to orthodox theology – that there is no inequality between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – that all three persons are equal in dignity, but different in the manner of relating to one another. If this is the case with God, then we can respectably apply it to the differences within the relationship between men and women. This is often done, when we associate the Father with the husband, and the Word that proceeds from the Father’s mouth with the wife, while the fruit of that love is the Holy Spirit. This is challenging for us because we often associate the “second person of the Trinity” as the “Son” which denotes something masculine – and therefore it seems to inadvertently promote an effeminate vision of Christ. This is not what is meant in this regard. There are two ways of understanding the Trinity, one is referred to as the Immanent Trinity, and in this regard we examine God as He relates to Himself. Following this we discuss the “Economic Trinity” in how the Trinity relates to the Human race. God is generally related to in the masculine in relationship to the human race, as is noted throughout scripture – the reason for this will soon be understood. But in relationship to Himself, God has no gender – and so when we refer to Him as Father and Son, while these statements are true we cannot allow ourselves to be deluded into believing that these terms are anything more than analogical to who God is – and therefore limited in how they express the truth about God. God transcends gender – and therefore, the terms Father and Son benefit us in one way, but do not fully capture the essence of who God is. Other theologians have often described God in the Immanent Trinity as “Lover, Beloved, Love.” The Father is the Lover or the initiator of the love, while the son is the receiver of the love, and the Holy Spirit is the love itself between them.
To initiate love does not make one superior to another – especially if it is understood as an act of service, rather than enslavement. Furthermore the act of receiving love (be-loved) is not inferior if it isn’t reduced to some passive act of permitting another to dominate as we would see in the twisted sexual fantasy of 50 Shades of Grey. Rather, the subordination of the “beloved” (women) is a very active and powerful action, and the act of initiating by the “lover” is often misunderstood as a powerful act of dominance when in reality the vulnerability of a man in initiating an act of love is glossed over or altogether unknown. Both equally require vulnerability and are as a result incredibly powerful.
Women are thereby to be understood as beloved, while men are to be understood as lovers – this is the objective criteria between men and women and leads to a healthy understanding of the relationship between the body and the head, the woman and the man. When people hear the term “head” they often think of “what is on top” or therefore what is superior to all else. This is not the orthodox understanding, since we would not equally say that God the Father is superior to the Son. We would however say that the Father is the “principle” in the Trinity, or the initiator or the Lover. The head is often the first thing to move, before the body. The body moves according to what the mind communicates – yet the mind cannot act without the body and what the body communicates to the mind. The mind therefore subordinates itself to the needs of the body, and does not dictate or oppress the needs of the body to its own will – if the body is not served, the head dies with it. In this regard, the head acts “for” the body, and the body acts “for” the head. This is the mutual subordination that was spoke of before, and the means by which that difference is communicated equally.
When I went into a high-school I gave the common example of how a man is often the one who proposes to wife. He buys a ring, finds a setting that conveys a context of love and affection and then initiates the proposal whereby the woman either receives or rejects (freely, voluntarily) this proposal. What the “head” or man does not do is dictate to the woman that she will be his wife – that is called kidnapping – it’s sort of illegal and very wrong. Rarely and hopefully never, does the man insist in the name of “equality” that the woman buys the man an apple-watch in order to balance off the price of the engagement ring that he purchased for her. I asked the high-school boys why this was the case. One of them answered, “because her ‘yes’ is enough of a gift.” Many in the class were taken back by this statement in adoration of the love that was communicated by it. But it might be helpful to explain why this is the case – and is more than a sentiment, but strikes to the very heart of men.
As a man, we initiate an act of love, and by it do not dictate to others what our will is, but rather offer ourselves through our work or act, to another as a gift. This is not an easy task for us, it involves incredible vulnerability because we have just “offered up our body” or our “everything” to another, and they have the freedom to say “no” which could crush us. To say “no” to a man who has put everything on the line, means that he experiences in all this vulnerability rejection of not only his act, but what the act itself was meant to communicate: here I am, this is what I am, would you accept that as a gift for you?
Nonetheless, women should not feel obligated to respond to this proposal – they have the freedom to reject the proposal, and as a result to reject the person in the context of such a relationship. This is a woman’s right, and should not be condemned but respected with great reverence, as Christ respects the right of His wife the Church to decline an invitation. Furthermore, because men lack the moral character of Christ as do women, women must answer the question prudently, and not allow themselves to be manipulated or deceived by a man who is selfish and in need of reform. In saying “no” she would be upholding, like the body does for the head, the man to a high-standard of love and respect that all women deserve. In this way, women offer men the opportunity to lead, not as a form of oppression or superiority, but as an opportunity to live up to the standard by which they are called to subordinate themselves to the body, to the woman. Women have the role that often facilitates action in the man, whereby he is no longer lazy and self-absorbed, but challenged to be conscious of the needs of others. It is my experience that women often initiate actions only after the neglect of men, filling in for the gaps of what men have failed to do for them. When my sisters or my own mother are direct about a task with me, it is usually because I have missed or ignored hints and suggestions that have attempted to encourage me to initiate a task of service towards another. Men could not genuinely lead if women did not teach mean how to be conscious of the needs of others. Women require men to lead, but not because women are ignorant and stupid – but rather because women are intuitive, wise, and aware of the needs of others, and they love their husbands by teaching them to learn to be conscious of such relational needs. On the other hand, men are not stupid and unwise when it comes to the ordering and structure of family living. It is unfortunate that today, in an honest attempt to build up women, men are often portrayed in media as a single-minded, selfish, stupid Homer Simpson father and husband.
Husbands build up women by deferring to their wisdom in regard to relationships and the dynamics of emotion and behaviour. Women are effectively forming their children in relationships, thus forming all of society in how we interpret, empathize and encounter one another. Women build up men by encouraging them to initiate tasks not because women cannot accomplish the given task, but because they are called to be-loved, and uphold men to this standard. By upholding men to this standard, they demonstrate not only his responsibility but also encourage him in demonstrating confidence in the task at hand. They accept him for who he is, which has incredible consoling power to a man. The very body of a woman demonstrates the spiritual character of the sex act, whereby the man gives to the woman himself, and she accepts him into her own body. It is only woman who posses an empty space within herself that welcomes another into it. Furthermore, it is through accepting the man, that she also accepts life into her womb, where the child is nurtured, protected, and perfected to the point by which it can live on its own. Women receive a gift from man, but women perfect that gift, and return it to the man as a gift. This exchange of love has an incredible impact of internalized between a husband and a wife. Consider a woman, protecting the child, intimately being united spiritually and bodily to that child, and to nurture it for its own sake, as well as for the sake of her husband who longs to hold that child, but cannot because of his own limitations. He longs to receive that child, but it is not yet perfect and ready to be held by him, and thus the man respects this role of woman and yearns for the day to give love to his own son or daughter by way of the mother and wife presenting the child perfected to him.
Reducing, therefore, the reproductive aspect of a woman to a mere mechanical act demonstrates anything but feminism, and rather a desire to be like a man. The spiritual nature of a woman is directly and beautifully and powerfully tied to her capacity to bear a child within her womb. In the Christian Catholic Tradition, we behold Mary who crushes the head of the Serpent under the weight of her carrying her own son. Her faithfulness and receptivity to life is the very means by which evil is shut out from this world and the power of women is exerted – spiritually and biologically. This does not mean that all women need to give birth in order to exert their own authority, but rather this authority of maternity is not mere passivity, and is a spiritual reality that is communicated in the mode of being the “beloved.” Women who are celibate demonstrate the same spiritual maternity by receiving others into their life, though not biologically but spiritually or relationally.
There is a lot more that can be said, on this note – and there should be more said. However, at this time, I would suggest meditating on this as a unique dimension to how women relate to men. Women call me to action, and facilitate that action as a way of accepting them, and upholding their dignity. Men initiate an act because women deserve to loved and thought of, and considered, and served. In neither of these cases do men and women demonstrate inequality, but rather both love each other in different modes/ways. If we can detach ourselves from that lie that these modes of difference involve inequality or superiority then we can also begin to understand who God is as Lover, Beloved, and Love. God is not in competition with Himself, and while having differing persons, those differing persons nonetheless exchange love in a beautiful manner that is complimentary. Without that complementarily there is no real exchange, but only a mundane blandness of giving yet no receiving or receiving yet no giving. And when the sex-act in marriage is completed, and the man and the woman have lined up their affect to the motions and actions of conjugal love, the exchange of love becomes transcendent in God’s grace. But if the act of conjugal love is somehow dissonant with the affective design of God, it will always lack the beauty and goodness that truly imitates the Trinity.