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Should wives be submissive to their husbands?

Anna Krestyn - Agenzia Fides - published on 03/05/13

Spouses are called to love each other in their complementarity

“Wives, submit 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, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (
Eph. 5:24).

So reads the well-known but disputed Scripture passage on the roles of husband and wife, as written by
St. Paul the Apostle. Upon encountering this passage, many a modern eye or ear might deem it a chauvinistic and unfair command that deprives a woman of freedom and takes away her personal dignity. But the Church’s teaching on this point – often terribly misunderstood by both men and women – is one that not only recognizes, but also safeguards the dignity of women.

This teaching simply cannot be taken out of the fuller context of
Ephesians 5. The continuation of the aforementioned passage, which is far too often overlooked, includes the command to husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy. … In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

How can a husband love his wife as Christ loved the Church? Like Christ, he is called to sacrifice himself for her good, to the point of continually laying down his life for her in their married life. But just as this sacrifice of love must be freely given, so must it be freely received in a spirit of docility – a spirit of ‘submission’, if you will, before the order of love itself. This is hardly the master-slave relationship that many have come to erroneously accept as true Christian doctrine upon a superficial reading of St. Paul’s metaphor; rather, it is a true symbiosis born out of a love that is primarily characterized by complementary natures coming together as one.

The last thing the Church teaches is that wives are supposed to live in cringing submission to their husband’s every whim and command, no matter how unjust it might be; such a relationship would be contrary – indeed, incompatible – to love. “This subjection [to her husband] does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or the dignity due to wife” (
Casti Connubii, Pius XI).

From a pastoral perspective, it is probably more beneficial for couples to reflect less on the question of authority and more on St. Paul’s injunction to both husbands and wives, which comes before his individual commands to each,  to be “subjected to one another out of reverence for Christ” (
Ephesians 5:21).

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa (Preacher to the Papal Household under both Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI) says, “In this case, to be subject means to take into account the wishes, opinion and sensitivity of one’s spouse; to discuss, not to decide on one’s own; to be able to give up one’s own point of view. In short, to remember that both are ‘spouses,’ that is, literally, persons who are under ‘the same yoke,’ freely chosen.”


For Your Marriage, USCCB

Casti Connubii, On Christian Marriage, Encyclical, Pope Pius XI, 1930

Mulieris Dignitatem, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, Apostolic Letter, Pope Bl John Paul II, 1988

Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage, Pontifical Council of the Family

Theology of the Body, Pope Bl John Paul II

The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, Pontifical Council of the Family

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