Toward an Orthodox Understanding of Gender Relations in Marriage
Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT
Brethren, give thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject 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, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” Ephesians 5:20-33.
There are two Scripture lessons read during the Sacrament of Marriage. The first is from John’s Gospel (2:1-11), and the second is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (5:20-33). Over the past 20 years, I have had several couples desiring to get married ask if it were possible for the Epistle Lesson to be replaced. When I informed them that the sacrament must be celebrated in its entirety, some individuals expressed a degree of disappointment.
One prospective bride stated, “How can I feel good about getting married in the Orthodox Church if I’ll be made to endure verses like, ‘the husband is the head of the wife’ (Eph. 5: 23), and ‘let wives be subject in everything to their husbands’ (Eph. 5:24)? Besides the fact that I personally do not agree with these verses, these references might offend my guests.”
While attempting to respond to couples with these types of concerns, I would proceed to share the following observations.
Gender relations both in the public sector and within the private spheres of marriage and family have changed in the past few decades. When compared to previous generations, family scholars and researchers indicate that these changes have specially impacted Baby Boomers and members of the "X" Generation (Withers, Osmond & Thorne, 1993; Kundson-Martin, 2002). Hence, when couples come to our churches to receive the Sacrament of Marriage, many of them struggle with the desire to be socially correct and to have a Christ centered marriage.
Let us examine some of the verses in Ephesians that can potentially upset some couples seeking to marry in the Orthodox Church. Is it possible to reinterpret these verses to meet there needs? Can these verses make a difference in the lives of those couples choosing to wed in the Orthodox Church? What is it that the Church is trying to teach couples when reading Ephesians 5:20-33?
These are some of the questions that this short article will attempt to address. My hope is that the information that follows will compel the reader to search for a deeper understanding of gender relations from an Orthodox perspective. It is this writer’s opinion that the wisdom contained in Ephesians can positively impact marital and family satisfaction.
Orthodox theology asserts that men and women are equal. One Orthodox theologian states, marriage “is patterned after the divine life of the Holy Trinity. According to traditional Orthodox belief the Godhead is a Trinity of consubstantial, coequal, and coeternal persons in perfect unity” (Calivas, 1997, p. 53). However, the Church does not base its understanding of gender relations on equality, nor does it necessarily encourage its faithful to cultivate egalitarian marriages.
Orthodox spousal interactions and transactions are based on an Orthodox understanding of marriage. The Church calls spouses to embrace a Christ centered perspective of marriage. Specifically, two other theologians have stated, “Everything in marriage… is to be done in Christ. With the purpose of bringing the couple closer to Christ and each other in truly Christian love” (Ford & Ford, 1994, p.xxxi).
Orthodox spousal relations are influenced by Christ-centered divine wisdom like that which is contained in Mark 12:31 and John 15:12.
In Mark’s Gospel (12:31) Christ teaches, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This verse provides a fundamental basis for Christians’ interpersonal interactions with others. It teaches that a Christian’s transactions and interactions with others should be predicated on a concern for one’s neighbor’s needs, as well as one’s own personal needs. This verse also indirectly teaches that manipulation, control and exploitation are unacceptable.
An equally relevant verse is found in John’s Gospel (15:12). A few days before Jesus would submit to crucifixion, he would gather his disciples and offer them the following counsel. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (JN 15:12). This verse provides a fundamental basis for interpersonal relations between Christians. It reminds Christians that their interactions with other Christians should not only be guided by the wisdom contained in MK 21:31, but also by a higher spiritual principle. This verse calls a Christian’s attention to Jesus Christ’s selfless sacrifice, and reminds Christians that their interactions and transactions with other Christians should be based on their Savior’s loving, self-sacrificial example.
Power and control become less relevant to a discussion of gender relations and marital satisfaction and stability, as do justice and equality. Issues such as equal rights take a back seat in spouses’ efforts to respond to one another. Concerns with individual needs are also given less importance when compared to one’s partner’s needs, the marriage’s needs and their family’s needs.
Spouses seeking to live an Orthodox marriage are called to consider their partner’s needs along with their own needs. In many instances, they are even called to ignore their own needs in an effort to meet their partner’s needs. For example, this wisdom is clearly illustrated when St. Paul addresses himself to an issue related to marital sexual relations. “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does” (Cor. 7:3-5).
Orthodox spouses are called to serve and love one another with the kind of self-sacrificial love that Christ personifies on the Cross. This kind of love is not power-centered or self-centered, but other-centered. It compels spouses to empty themselves of their pride and arrogance, as Christ did when he “emptied himself… [and] humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). So it is that St. John Chrysostom’s writings offer numerous admonitions to husbands and wives such as the following. “A wife should respect her husband even if he shows her no love, and a husband should love his wife even when she shows him no respect.”
When husbands are called to be “the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church” (Eph. 5:23), this does not presuppose they are being given license to manipulate and exploit their partners. Writing about the nature and type of leadership that husbands should provide, St. John Chrysostom points out that Christ did not use “threats, or violence, or terror or anything else like that” to lead the Church. Husbands are thus called to model themselves after Christ’s selfless example when they lead. They are called to emulate Christ who taught, “For the Son of man… came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Advising husbands regarding this matter, St. John Chrysostom offers the following additional counsel, “…even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for [your wife], yes, and even to endure and undergo suffering of any kind, do not refuse.”
Conversely, when wives are asked to submit themselves to their husbands, they are not being asked to assume a subservient position. Nor are they being asked to tolerate abuse and exploitation. They are being asked to submit themselves to their husbands out of their love and “reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Quoting from St. John Chrsostom, “When you yield to your husband, consider that you are obeying him as part of your service to the Lord.”
Some Final Thoughts
I believe that marriages today could profit from a deeper understanding of what the Orthodox Church has taught us about gender relations in marriage. Christ-like self-sacrificial love can go a long way in defusing conflict and enhancing marital and family satisfaction. Moreover, research comparing religious marriages with non-religious marriages would support this last point. Researchers studying successful marriages indicate that religious couples are happier and are less inclined to divorce (Hansen, 1992; Robinson, 1994).
In a divorce prone culture like our own, I believe that it is important to counterbalance what society is teaching us about gender relations in marriage with what Christ teaches. Striking this prayerful balance can prove very useful in spouses’ efforts to meet individual, marital and family needs. Seeking to discern the not-so-obvious value behind Ephesians 5:20-33, can positively impact individual, couple and family well-being.
Calivas, A. C. (1997). Marriage: The sacrament of love and communion. In A. C. Vrame (Ed.), Interfaith marriage: Orthodox perspectives. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
Ford, D. & Ford, M. (1994). Marriage as a path to holiness. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press.
Hansen, G.L. (1992). Religion and marital adjustment. In J. F. Schumaker (Ed.), Religion and mental health (pp. 189-198). New York: Oxford University Press.
Knudson-Martin, C. (2002). Feminism in MFT: Where has it led us? Family Therapy Magazine. pp. 28-31.
Robinson, L. C. (1994). Religious orientation in enduring marriage: An exploration study. Review of Religious Research. 35, 207-218.
Withers Osmond, M., & Thorne, B. (1993). Feminist theories: The social construction of gender in families. In P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, S. K. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of family theories and methods: A contextual approach. New York, NY: Plenum Press