A little bit of goodness goes a long way. It spreads like ripples in a swimming pool. Dip your toe in the water, and you create a ripple that makes its way to the other side of the pool, bounces off the wall and returns back to you. By the time it reaches you, the little waves look different than the original ones you’d sent out, but they are waves nonetheless.
So it is with the goodness that we spread when we submit ourselves to one another. This is the meaning behind the message of the reading (Ephesians 5:21-33), which is one of the scripture readings recommended for weddings. Many couples choose not to use this scripture because they misunderstand it. They read it apart from the Gospels and assume that it tells the wife to be inferior to the husband and that wives must always give up their own desires and goals when conflicts arise between the two of them.
This is far from the truth, as is made clear by what Saint Paul says about the husband’s role in the marriage. For a man to love his wife the way Christ loves the Church, he has to be a lover who is also a servant. This is what the wife is to submit herself to: To be served by her husband the way Christ serves us!
The husband, as head of the family, is the High Priest of the home, making self-sacrifices like Jesus did. He’s to be a good shepherd who pastors the family into lush fields of spiritual nourishment, like Jesus the Good Shepherd. He’s to be a loving provider who takes care of the needs of his family, and he’s to be a holy prophet who delivers God’s wisdom to them – like Jesus.
This is what the wife is to submit herself to, and nothing else. If the husband treats his wife this way, it’s a no-brainer that she will want to submit to his caring priestliness! I know that in my role as wife I am most able to reach my highest potential when my dear husband Ralph is being Christ for me. Also in my role as Executive Director of Good News Ministries: If not for Ralph’s sacrifices offered in love, I would not have been free to build Good News Ministries as I have done.
Marriage is not a soul-crushing superior-inferior relationship; it is equality in true love. We are Christ for each other. Holy submission means mutual respect and cooperation.
When a husband is not being Christ to his wife, she’s under no obligation to submit to his sinfulness or worldliness. She is still called to love him and to do good to him, but if he’s abusive or unfaithful, she might have to love him from afar.
The same Ephesians 5 principle carries over into other relationships involving headship: parishioners and their priests, employees and their bosses, citizens and their government leaders, and dependent children and their parents. Each person who has authority over us is called to be Christ for us, and we are called to submit to whatever is Christ-like.