More About the Dreaded Passage from Ephesians

If we keep this fact in mind, then we can finally understand what Ephesians 5:21-33 is really saying.

Carl Bloch, “Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane”, 1873
Carl Bloch, “Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane”, 1873 (photo: Public Domain)

As we’ve seen in Part I, the Genesis account of the Creation and Fall makes very clear that — against our notions of egalitarianism — man and woman are not created equal. Nor are they created unequal. Equal and unequal have nothing to do with it. Rather, male and female are complementary — that is, they complete each other, and as a union, are together made in the image of God.

We’ve also seen something absolutely essential for our understanding of the dreaded Ephesians passage: the punishments of the man and woman aren’t equal either, but distinctly related to their respective complementary natures.

If we can keep this all in mind, then we can finally see what Ephesians 5:21-33 is really saying, because the admonitions of St. Paul to the husband and wife follow the same complementary pattern of the punishments.

In order to understand this, we’ve first got to take a look at Jesus Christ, whom St. Paul identifies as the new Adam (1 Corinthians 15), who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). If we think about the punishments God meted out to the old Adam, what the Son of God did is much more clear: He took the punishments of the first Adam upon himself as redemptive.

Read again Genesis 2:17-19, and think about the passion and death of Jesus. Jesus suffered pain and toil in the Garden of Gethsemane, the sweat of his brow actually mixed with his own blood, a crown of thorns on his head. And then, he suffers death. All of the first Adam’s punishments, but now, these very particular punishments have become the redemptive means of salvation.

But there seems to be a break in the parallel to Genesis. As we noted, God created male and female as both, in their union, made in the image of God, not just Adam alone. Where is Christ’s bride? Just as the old Adam was put to sleep so that his wife and helper could be taken out of his side, so also when Christ dies, the Roman soldier’s spear brings water and blood from the side of Christ, standing for baptism and the Holy Eucharist. So it is that the Bride of Christ, the Church, is taken from his side. The image of God is the union of Christ and his Church, bride and bridegroom, husband and wife.

And so the parallel is retained between the Old Adam and wife, and the New Adam and his wife. We are now able to see, in the dreaded Ephesians passage, how all husbands and wives fit into this redemptive framework.

As with Jesus Christ himself, the punishments have been transformed into the redemptive cures. We noted previously that the passages on the punishments in Genesis match the presentation of St. Paul’s admonitions to husbands and wives in Ephesians. So, as in Genesis, the woman is addressed first.

She is told to be subject [Greek, hupotassō] “to your own husband, as to the Lord.” The Greek word actually means to be placed underneath, as a subordinate would be under a leader, in order to be able to carry out a common aim. It is the equivalent of the Hebrew mashal in Genesis 3:16, where the woman is told as a punishment that her husband “shall rule [mashal] over” her.

This subordination is not supposed to be pleasant. It’s a punishment. The union of marriage was not meant to be marked by subordination, therefore, it grates against the deeper union the wife naturally desires. But she is now — in following Christ himself — to bear this suffering as redemptive, as participating in the redemptive activity of the union of Jesus Christ and his Church.

That is why St. Paul (1 Timothy 2:15) adds the other aspect of the woman’s punishment in Genesis, pain in childbearing, as redemptive, saying the woman “will be saved through bearing children.” The original punishment in Genesis has not been rescinded here either. Childbearing is painful toil, but it is now, following Christ’s own redemptive sufferings, redemptive.

The parallel between Genesis and Ephesians continues with St. Paul’s admonitions to the man. Again, just as the woman was addressed first in both accounts, so also the husband receives a much longer treatment by St. Paul.

And so we hear: “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” The Greek word for love here is agapaō, which is especially associated with God’s love and Christ’s love, especially Christ’s sacrificial love.

Unlike the wife, the husband is directly associating with Christ’s self-sacrifice. Just as only Adam was punished directly with the curse of death, just as Christ the New Adam embraced that punishment and made it redemptive, so also the husband must sacrifice himself for his wife. The wife is not told to love her husband as Christ loved the Church. She is not told to sacrifice her life for her husband. He is the one that must act like Christ, and accept this sacrifice. As with the admonition to the wife to be subject to her husband, this will not be pleasant. Redemptive suffering never is, but it is his means of participating in the redemption through Christ and his Church.

Note also that the woman is not told to love her husband as her own body, nourishing and cherishing it. Only the husband is given this command about his wife. The Greek for “nourish” is ektrephō, which means to feed, hence nourish, but in the largest sense, to ensure the full, healthy growth of. And the Greek for “cherish” is thalpō which means to keep warm, and in intense care for something tender. Both together remind one of the way that a gardener takes care of a garden. How does this relate to the Genesis account?

Whereas in the Genesis account Adam is created to till and watch over the garden, in St. Paul’s Ephesians’ account, the husband’s focus of his efforts has been shifted from the garden to his wife, in fact, to her redemption. He is giving up his life for her, nourishing her, cherishing her, taking care of the needs and pains of her body as if they were his, so that she might be sanctified, presented “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Adam’s negligence led to his wife’s fall; the Ephesians’ husband’s diligence must lead to his wife’s redemption.

Just as Eve fell, in part, through Adam’s negligence in watching over the garden, so now the husband in Ephesians’ diligence is (following Christ) focused entirely on watching over the salvation of his wife — hence, again, the admonition of St. Paul that he must die for her.

Will that be pleasant for him? No more pleasant than the wife’s subordination. In both cases, however, the suffering, the toil of Genesis, is now made redemptive—not in an egalitarian way, but in a complementary way.

Importantly, as St. Paul then makes clear, it is the marriage union of the complementary modes of redemption of husband and wife that, together, make up the image of God. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.”

We know this union is redemptive because St. Paul immediately follows up with, “This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church.” The word “mystery” is translation of the Greek word mustērion, meaning a sacrament, a sign that effects what it symbolizes. That is, the union of husband and wife is a sign of the union of Christ and his Church, one that is, following him and through him, an instrument of redemptive suffering.

That is the whole meaning of the dreaded Ephesians passage. And that is why it is naturally dreaded, just as Christ himself naturally dreaded his own death, asking the Father that, if possible, this cup could pass from him. But supernaturally, it is the very key to the redemption of marriage itself, of husband and wife, and the union that is the image of God.

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