Submissive Wives

It is that time of the year again. The priest at the Mass I attended called it the “elbow Mass.” He was referring to the Mass with the reading from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians about the relationship of husbands and wives.

That is the one containing the lines about how “wives must obey their husbands as they would obey the Lord,” because just “as the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.” (Ephesians, 5: 21-24) The priest called it the “elbow Mass” because of the way husbands and wives in the congregation elbow each other, making light of this “outdated” understanding of the relationship within a marriage.

There is much truth in what this priest said. I have never seen any literal “elbowing” during Mass when this Epistle is read, but I have heard fellow parishioners at social gatherings joke about the lines, as if they are not to be taken seriously.

Over the past decade or so, I have noticed that most priests who deal with this theme in their homilies treat it as an example of a culturally determined concept that should be interpreted in light of the modern understanding of the dignity of women, as if St. Paul’s thoughts were shaped by the same forces that denied women the right to vote. Or they skirt the topic entirely, much as they would his call for slaves to be obedient to their masters, which pops up just a few paragraphs down in this same Epistle.

The dangers implicit in this reaction should be obvious. Picking and choosing and reinterpreting the Bible based on the cultural biases of our time, is the essence of Modernism. Betty Friedan and Cosmopolitan magazine do not deserve a veto over Sacred Scripture. St. Paul deserves to be treated more seriously on this topic. If not, why treat him seriously elsewhere? Or any of the Gospels for that matter. If they become outdated when we decided that they are, everything is up for grabs.

That said, I think we would agree that, if the Epistle to the Ephesians had been discovered last year at an archaeological dig in the Middle East (and somehow authenticated), the translation would be different from what we have today. The translators would not use phrases such as “subject in all things” and “submit to their husbands.” Those words can lead to misunderstandings for a modern audience. The purpose of a sound translation is to provide Christians with an accurate view of God’s word. If there are words that take on a different meaning with the passage of time, that should be taken into account by translators. Ronald Knox, whose mid 20th century translation of the Bible is widely respected among conservatives, did not use the phrase “subject in all things” in his translation of Ephesians. Instead, he uses the words “women must owe obedience at all points to their husbands.” That makes a difference.

Why? Because St. Paul is not teaching that wives should obey their husbands “in all things.” Then why did he write those words? Because he says other things in that same Epistle. It should be obvious, but let’s say it anyway. St. Paul would not demand that wives obey their husbands if they demanded that they get an abortion. He would not require wives to submit to their husbands if they came up with a plan to produce and market porn movies of their children. In fact, I don’t think it would violate the spirit of the Epistle if the little lady put her foot down quite emphatically and demanded that her hubby grow up if he came up with a plan to spend their children’s college tuition on a new Mustang or a trip to Las Vegas with his old fraternity brothers.

The full line in the Epistle is “Wives be subject to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Emphasis added.) That does not mean obey him in a knee jerk. Husbands are not granted infallibility by this Epistle. It does not give him the right to be a snarling curmudgeon. The Epistle instructs men to “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.” (Emphasis added.) This is the point Ronald Knox was emphasizing when he translated this passage as “women must owe obedience at all points to their husbands.” (Emphasis added.) The husband’s responsibility is to treat the family as “Christ does the church”; to lead it to virtue; to do God’s will; to help the family members save their souls. Jesus would not issue cruel or sinful — or capricious — commands to His people. “At all points” refers to the laws of God and the Church.

Why wouldn’t a wife be expected to obey if her husband were insisting, for example, that their children attend Mass and the sacraments or stay away from classmates who were bad company? If the wife disagreed about these things — if she thought a leisurely Sunday was more important while on vacation than getting up for Mass — then she would be in error. St. Paul’s injunction applies. She would have an obligation to submit to her husband because he is playing the role in the family that Christ would play with His followers.

How would I change the translation of these passages in Ephesians if I were put in charge? I don’t know. I am not a Scripture scholar. I do not read Aramaic. But I have no doubt that St. Paul did not mean that wives should submit even when the husband was leading the family away from God and the Church. That’s commonsense. If a new translation could eliminate all “elbowing” in the pews each time this Epistle is read that would be a good thing.

In the same vein, I think it would be worthwhile if some translator could clarify that when the Gospels speak of “the Jews” during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, they are not referring to all Jews, but to the Jewish leaders and those in the crowds who were present at the events. (Maybe such a translation would end the silly brouhaha over Mel Gibson’s new movie.) It is safe to assume that a large portion of the Jews in Jerusalem — to say nothing of Jews living in other cities in ancient Palestine — were out tending their flocks and working in their shops on the day Jesus was crucified, unaware that anything out of the ordinary was taking place. In fact, Matthew makes that clear, referring not to “the Jews” in the passages describing the trial and death of Jesus, but to “the high priests and elders” and the “multitudes” who called out for Jesus’ blood to be upon them and their children. “Multitudes” means a lot of people, not every Jew alive at the time.

Then again, maybe we do not need a new translation of Ephesians. Maybe all we need are preachers who treat it with respect rather than run in embarrassment when people make light of those parts of it that have become politically incorrect.

James Fitzpatrick's new novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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