Mutual Submission?

Over at Sunshine Mary’s, someone pulled out this tired old canard.  I was going to respond there, but it turned into a Latin lesson so I thought I’d put it here.

Men are to submit to their wives sometimes,

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. — Ephesians 5: 21

Let’s deal with this constant misconception and be done with it, shall we?

Interestingly, though most modern bibles seem to split them into two sections, verses 20 and 21 are a single sentence in the Latin: [20] Gratias agentes semper pro omnibus in nomine Domini nostri Jesu Christi, Deo et Patri, [21] subjecti invicem in timore Christi.  “Literally: Giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God and Father, be subject to one another in fear (the reverence kind) of Christ.”

In other words, Paul wasn’t talking about marriage yet in that sentence; he was talking about Christians in general. Also, subjecti (literally “be thrown under”) may mean “be subject to,” but it can also mean “be supportive of”. And invicem is an adverb meaning “mutually,” so the common translation of “each other” doesn’t mean he’s talking about two people. He’s not; he’s saying Christians need to place themselves beneath one another mutually.

Now, on to verse 22, where he gets into the details of how this is to be done, starting with wives:

[22] Mulieres viris suis sicut Domino, [23] quoniam vir caput est mulieris, sicut et Christus caput est ecclesiae, ipse salvator corporis. [24] Sed ut ecclesia subjecta est Christo, ita et mulieres viris in omnibus.

A slavishly literal translation is, “Wives to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church, His body, himself its Savior. But as the Church is subject to Christ, so also wives to their husbands in all things.”

Now the context is much clearer.  How are Christians to be subject to each other?  Well, wives are to be subject to their husbands as they are to the Lord.  Why?  Because the husband is the head of the wife.  Note that Paul isn’t saying the husband should be the head of the wife; he’s saying he is.  There’s no choice about that; he can’t decide to let his wife be the head sometimes.  (An interesting note: ut, translated here with “as,” very often has a meaning of “in order that.”  So you might translate verse 24 as, “But in order that the Church be subject to Christ…”  That would make sense, because when wives stop submitting to their husbands, doesn’t it seem likely that the Church rebelling against Christ will soon follow?)

Now on to what husbands are to do.  Note that Paul doesn’t just say, “Men, you do the same.”  Or he could have saved ink and used “spouses” in the above verses instead of wives and husbands.  But he didn’t; he chose different words altogether, as he does later when he talks to children and slaves.  To men, he says:

[25] Viri, diligite uxores, sicut et Christus dilexit ecclesiam et seipsum tradidit pro ea, 

Literally: “Husbands, love your wives, as also Christ loved the Church and gave himself over for her,”

While Paul told women to pattern their marital actions after the Church, he is saying men should pattern theirs after Christ.  Instead of subjecti (to submit), he switches to tradere, which means to surrender or devote oneself, and pro, which means “for” in the sense of “on behalf of.”  That makes sense, because obviously Christ didn’t surrender himself to the Church (that would have been in the dative, “ei” instead of “pro ea”); he surrendered himself on behalf of the Church.  Husbands aren’t called to surrender themselves to their wives; they’re called to surrender themselves for them.  Huge difference.

What does all that mean in practice?  The Church is to be completely obedient to Christ, following his commandments to the letter.  Likewise a wife to her husband (except that she doesn’t have to follow clearly sinful commandments, because Christ doesn’t give those to the Church, of course).  Christ loves the Church wholeheartedly and gives His life for her.  Husbands are to do the same, sacrificing their time and toil, even their lives if necessary, to provide for the needs and ultimately the salvation of their wives.  (Note I didn’t say anything about the “wants” of their wives; Christ gives His Church what she needs, not what she wants.)

By this point, it should be clear from the context that this is only “mutual” in the sense that husbands and wives are called to do things for each other’s mutual benefit, because all Christians are called to sacrifice for others, and marriage doesn’t exempt you from that.  But the specifics of how husbands and wives are to sacrifice for each other are very different.  If you say men submit to their wives, you’re saying Christ submits to the Church.  That just doesn’t make sense, unless you redefine “submit” to mean something other than what it means.  Christ commands and loves the Church; the Church obeys and beseeches Christ.  Never the other way around.

12 thoughts on “Mutual Submission?

  1. “half-Latin screed”

    Yeah? Then, so be it. This persistent lie just won’t die, despite the havoc in our homes, churches, and countries:

    “Men are to submit to their wives sometimes,
    21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

    You’ve been pounding your head against the wall, haven’t you? Your frustration came through loud and clear:

    “To summarize: that’s not what it means.”

    Thanks for the Latin refresher and a healthy dose of Christian doctrine. I laughed for quite a while. Cheers.

  2. While this is a very useful lesson in Latin grammar, the Latin translation of the Bible is just as much a translation as the English is, which means the punctuation and grammar are a choice by the translators. A choice where they tried to get the original meaning as correct as possible, yes — but still a translation: it’s entirely possible that they could have chosen a better word in this or that sentence, or found a spot where the Greek doesn’t directly translate and they had to paraphrase a bit. This would be a better post if you could analyse the grammar of the original Greek, rather than that of a Latin translation.

  3. Hi Cail,

    I followed your link over from SSM’s blog and I’d just like to add my two pennies’ worth with regards to the Latin in Verse 24: Sed ut ecclesia subjecta est Christo, ita et mulieres viris in omnibus.

    It’s true that “ut” can serve to introduce a final clause or a purpose clause, but that’s only if the corresponding verb is rendered in the subjunctive. In this case, that would be “Sed ut ecclesia subiecta sit Christo”. As such, “ut” would simply mean “as” or “just as” or “in the same way”. Of course, this being the Latin Vulgate and my education in Latin being limited mainly to the Classical, it might just turn out that whoever translated Paul’s letter into Latin may have intended for that particular bit of wordplay.

    Great post all in all! It’s refreshing to see another Christian have interest in the Latin text.

  4. Thanks! You make a good point about the subjunctive; I should have included that. I wasn’t suggesting it should be translated as a purpose clause (I’m not nearly expert enough to second-guess the pros); only that ut can carry both meanings, so it could have been a bit of a pun by St. Jerome, as you say. Or not. Unfortunately I don’t know any Greek to know if the same kind of construction could happen there in the original.

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  7. Very good article. I am going to give you the text from the REAL Douay Rheims Bible. The Rheims New Testament was translated from the Vulgate in 1582, and combined with the Douay Old Testament of 1609 to form the Douay Rheims Bible of 1610.

    The REAL Douay Rheims is a “slavish” translation, giving the actual and true meaning of the text.

    What most Catholics think is the Douay Rheims is really the Challoner Edition, as it notes on the title page. The REAL Douay Rheims is available at

    Ephesians 5:
    15. See therefore, brethren, how you walk warily, not as unwise, but *as wise:
    16. Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
    17. Therefore become not unwise, but *understanding what is the will of God.
    18. And be not drunk with wine wherein is riotousness, but be filled with the Spirit,
    19. Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns, and spiritual canticles, chanting and singing in your hearts to our Lord:
    20. Giving thanks always for all things, in the name our Lord JESUS Christ to God and the Father.
    21. Subject one to another in the fear of Christ.
    22. Let *women be subject to their husbands, as to our Lord:
    23. Because *the man is the head of the woman: as Christ is the head of the CHURCH. Himself, the Saviour of his body.
    24. But as the CHURCH is subject to Christ, so also the women to their husbands in all things.
    25. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the CHURCH, and delivered himself for it:
    26. That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word,
    27. That he might present to himself a glorious CHURCH, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it may be holy and unspotted.
    28. So also men ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife, loveth himself.
    29. For no man ever hated his own flesh: but he nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ the CHURCH:
    30. Because we be the members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones.
    31. For this cause shall man leave his father and mother: and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh.
    32. This is a great sacrament. but I speak in Christ and in his CHURCH.
    33. Nevertheless you also every one, let each love his wife as himself: and let the wife fear her husband.

  8. Cail,

    But does the US Catholic church actually teach any of this? I get the distinct impression from the clergy that they do not.

  9. Hurting,

    No, most of the clergy don’t. But the great thing about Tradition is that we never throw anything away, so the truth is still there even when no one’s teaching it. It’s still there in the Scripture, of course, but also in the writings of numerous saints down through the years. And you can hear and read it from traditionalist clergy, like the ones who say the Latin Mass today. The Catholics who follow Church teaching on marriage and whose priests preach it are the ones having large families, so it’s coming back; it’s just a matter of time.

  10. @hurting – For the Catholic Church, I can confirm that an excerpt from Ephesians Chap 5 is the 2nd reading on the 21st Sunday in Ordinary time, Year B of the 3 year cycle. But there is a fascinating bit of politically correct editing. We read an excerpt, not the whole thing, and the reading starts with the conclusion of 5:21, representing “be subordinate to one another” as a separate thought/command. As our gracious host has pointed out, that clause is just the conclusion to the overall meaning of 5:21 (especially clear in the original Greek). This editing appears to be someone’s best attempt to soften the clear meaning of 5:22 – the congregation hears “Be subordinate to one another”, then hears “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands”. I believe I have to answer “no” to your question.

  11. Eastside,

    No passage invokes more homiletic equivocating from the pulpit than Ephesians 5:22.

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