ST. PAUL ON MARRIAGE: A BRIEF RESPONSE TO A “PRIEST IN RUSSIA” by Giacomo Sanfilippo

The following brief remarks respond to “Notes to Protestants from an Orthodox Priest – Ditch the ‘Honey Do’ List,” which was published earlier today.

Russian-Orthodox-wedding09

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord…. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church…. Children, obey your parents in the Lord…. Slaves, be obedient to…your earthly masters…as to Christ…. Masters, do the same to [your slaves]…. (Eph 5:21-6:9)

Thus the Holy Apostle Paul lays out a blueprint for harmonious relations in the 1st-century Christian household. What immediately becomes clear is that he exhorts each family member either to behave like Christ or to treat the others as if they themselves were Christ. Each member approaches the others in a self-sacrificial mode of relationship characterized by reciprocal servanthood. When considered carefully, spiritually, prayerfully, this passage—part of which is read during the Orthodox rite of marriage—allows no self-aggrandizement of the husband, no infantilization of the wife. 

This becomes clearer if we retain the structure of the original Greek in the opening verse:

…being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ; wives, to your husbands, as to the Lord….

Paul addresses the exhortation to be subject, or to submit, to the husband and the wife equally, even as he articulates a vision for how this might work in actual practice to reflect and reveal the mutual love of Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride the Church.

The nature of the mutual submission of husband and wife becomes clearer still when we consider the Greek ὑποτάσσω (hypotasso). This verb has the literal meaning of to place oneself under or to arrange oneself under another. This implies a freewill act of the one who submits, not a coercive act of the one to whom submission is rendered. This reciprocal movement of love no more infantilizes the wife than the husband; it coerces the wife no more than the husband. If we trust Paul when he asserts that the “profound mystery” of marriage reflects the nuptial union of Christ and the Church, we do well to recall that the incarnation of God and the deification of man exalts the Church to a place of equality with Christ, seated with Him and in Him at the right hand of the Father. Everything that pertains to the God-man by nature now pertains to us “human gods” by grace.

This should be the paradigm for our marriages, not scolding our wives like a child when she “disobeys.”

Significantly, we find a different verb altogether when we move to the obedience of the children and the slaves: ὑπακούω (hypakouo), cognate with to listen and used in the sense of obeying commands. The Gospels employ this word when sea, winds, and spirits obey Christ. 

In summary, the language of the passage cited at the beginning of this article envisions the wife on the level of her husband, not that of their children and slaves.

I conclude with a passage from my “On ‘Orthodox’ Wife-Beating:”

That is, the “good wine” of grace upon grace transfigures all of human life—even marriage—into the radiant image and likeness of divine life. Divine grace collaborates with diligent human effort to transform the “old wine” of natural marriage into the “new wine” of marriage worthy of the Kingdom of God, a new marital paradigm in which the Christian husband assumes the role of Him who came not to be served, but to serve; and the Christian wife offers her “submission” not under compulsion, but as a free-will act of love because she sees her husband dying every day for her and her children on the cross of his crucified male ego.

Divine grace does not emasculate men; quite the contrary, it redeems and transfigures their fallen, sinful, belligerent masculinity according to the likeness of the deified masculinity of the incarnate Son of God.  

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. His “Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love” appears in the current issue of The Wheel.

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