Are wives subject to their husbands?

So-called Christian ‘tradition’

violenceFrom the earliest Christian times until the twentieth century, Christians were convinced that a wife was subject to her husband in everything. She was considered a servant, not an equal partner. The man took all the decisions. The wife had to obey her husband in whatever he dictated.

Here are some samples from classical Christian writers:

  • “Both nature and the law place the woman in a subordinate condition to the man.” Irenaeus, Fragment no 32.
  • “It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater . . . This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power.” Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153.
  • “Nor can it be doubted, that it is more consonant with the order of nature that men should bear rule over women, than women over men. It is with this principle in view that the apostle says, “The head of the woman is the man;” and, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands.” So also the Apostle Peter writes: “Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.” Augustine, On Concupiscence, Book I, chap. 10.

Theologians throughout the centuries accepted the inferiority of women. Anthony de Butrio spoke for all when he said: “It is fitting that woman does not possess the power of the keys because she is not made in the image of God, but only man who is the glory and image of God. That is why a woman must be subject to man and be as his slave, and not the other way about.” Commentaria, II, fol. 89r.

The dominant position of the husband was also stated in Church Law. The Decretum Gratiani (1140 AD), which became official Church law in 1234 AD, a vital part of the Corpus Iuris Canonici that was in force until 1916, declared: “In everything a wife is subject to her husband because of her state of servitude.” The legal situation of women under the Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234 – 1916 AD) has been summed up as follows: “A wife is under the power of her husband, the husband not under the power of the wife. The husband may punish her. A wife is obliged to follow her husband to wherever he decides to fix his residence.” (L’Abbé André, Droit Canon, Paris 1859, vol. 2, col. 75.)

What was the origin of this ‘tradition’ of the husband’s dominance?

There are three sources to explain this presumed ‘tradition’:

  1. Christianity sprang from the Jewish religion. And in Old Testament times, the Jews had been a male dominant society. All relationships in the family centred round the father (the patriarch).He could divorce his wives as he liked (Gen 16, 1-6; Dt 24, 1-4).
    He decided on the future of his children and had absolute authority over them (Gen 43, 1-15; 2 Sam 13, 23-27).
    He was in every sense the head of the family (Ps 127, 3-5; 128, 1-6; etc.).
    It was the man who received the family property (see the exception of the daughters of Zelophehad, Num 27, 1-11; 36, 1-12).
    It was the man who as sole owner of the family property could distribute it to his sons (Dt 21, 15-17).
    Male predominance also found its expression in the Hebrew language. “Ishâh” (woman) was derived from “ish” man (Gen 2, 23).

  2. Christianity grew up in societies ruled by Romans. According to Roman family law, the husband was the absolute lord and master. The wife was ‘owned’ by her husband and completely at his mercy. He could punish her in any way he liked. As far as family property is concerned the wife herself did not own anything. Everything she or her children inherited belonged to her husband, including also the dowry which she brought with her to her marriage.
  3. New Testament guidance to Christian families reflect this background. Read, for instance, the following text:

“Husbands, love your wives. Do not treat them harshly.
Children, be obedient to your parents always, because that is what will please the Lord.
never drive your children to resentment or you will make them feel frustrated.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; not only when you are under their supervision, as if you only had to please human beings, but with sincerity, out of respect for the Master. Whatever your job is, put your whole heart into it, as a service to the Lord and not for human beings. For you know that the Lord will repay you by making you his heirs. It is Christ the Lord that you are serving . . . .
Masters,treat your slaves justly and fairly. Realise that you too have a Master in heaven”.

Colossians 3,18 – 4,1

See also Ephesians 5,22 – 6,9; 1 Peter 2,18 – 3,7; 1 Timothy 6,1-2.

Now it is obvious that Christians are no longer bound by Old Testament customs or Roman Law. So what to make of the injuctions in the apostolic letters: in Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Peter and 1 Timothy?

The advice given by Apostles to families in the Early Church are known as the ‘household codes’. These are behavioral codes that do not aim at social reform. They seek to promote Christian values within the existing social framework. They advised the early families to accept the social conditions of the time and live in harmony with their neighbours and the established laws of their country.

The catechists who taught these household codes did not address such fundamental questions as the basic equality of men and women, or the inalienable right of every slave to be a free person. That was simply outside their scope. Such basic matters are touched upon elsewhere, when Paul asserts that there is no distinction between men and women, free person or slave, Greek or Jew (Galatians 3,28; Colossians 3,11; Romans 10,12). Here the purpose is simply immediate, practical advice.

In our own, new, circumstances the ancient advice is no longer valid. We can now – thanks be to God! – live up to our true Christian values. No one should be a slave. Children have rights, also in the family. Husband and wife should be equal partners in marriage.

Pope Francis too rejects the patriarchal interpretation of these texts: Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected.  This includes all improper interpretations of the passage in the Letter to the Ephesians where Paul tells women to “be subject to your husbands” (Eph 5:22). This passage mirrors the cultural categories of the time, but our concern is not with its cultural matrix but with the revealed message that it conveys.  As Saint John Paul II wisely observed: “Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband…  The community or unity which they should establish through marriage is constituted by a reciprocal donation of self, which is also a mutual subjection”. (Catechesis (11 August 1982), 4: Insegnamenti V/3 (1982), 205-206) Hence Paul goes on to say that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph 5:28).  The biblical text is actually concerned with encouraging everyone to overcome a complacent individualism and to be constantly mindful of others: “Be subject to one another” (Eph 5:21).  In marriage, this reciprocal “submission” takes on a special meaning, and is seen as a freely chosen mutual belonging marked by fidelity, respect and care. Sexuality is inseparably at the service of this conjugal friendship, for it is meant to aid the fulfilment of the other. (The Joy of Love, 19 March 2016, no 153).

For a fuller explanation of these texts, please, read here.

What is the situation today?


wijngaards Like Pope Francis, many enlightened bishops and priests in the Catholic Church do now recognise that husbands and wives should equally share the rights and duties of family life.

Unfortunately, other church leaders hang on to the traditional interpretation of the ‘household codes’. Bishops and priests in less educated communities still urge women ‘to obey their husbands’ and do whatever they tell them to do.

Also, regrettably, domestic violence does occur in Catholic families too.

John Wijngaards