Perhaps no words of Scripture are more controversial nowadays than the utterance of St. Paul to the Ephesians found in this coming Sunday's second reading: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.”
St. Paul gives the same advice in his letter to the Colossians, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.” It would be wrong, of course, to read these admonitions to married women without also reading St. Paul's cautions to married men: “So husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church.” Clearly the apostle is not favoring men over women. Both spouses share demanding responsibilities toward one another. And it should be further noted that this twin advice to husbands and wives is included in a whole context of communal responsibility. In the same breath, St. Paul writes to children, fathers and slaves: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged. Slaves, obey your human masters in everything, not only when being watched, as currying favor, but in simplicity of heart, fearing the Lord.” St. Paul envisions a whole community of mutual respect. He kindly concludes his provocative instruction with much less formidable words, “In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.” It would be difficult to find fault with such amiable guidance.
St. Paul's directives to the men and women of early Christianity can be better understood and even appreciated if the place of women in early church life is contrasted with the status of women in the pagan world. Christian burial sites interestingly provide first hand indication that the lives of Christian women were equally valued with men. The epitaphs written for Christian women were as lengthy as those composed for Christian men. This was never true at pagan burial places. Also the death of a female child was mourned just as much as the passing of a young boy. This was not true among pagans. Active women, like Phoebe, for example, were commended for their alert participation in church life: “She has been a helper of many and of myself as well.” Females were given more respect in community life than among pagans and even among Jews. Pagan society was notorious for exposing female babies to the elements while welcoming the birth of boys. Hence Christian girls, and therefore women, greatly outnumbered pagan women in the ancient world leading to many more mixed marriages and eventually to the conversion of pagan husbands. The prohibition of divorce among early Christians conferred tremendous equality and security on women who previously could be banished almost by whim. Chastity, too, was expected of both men and women. Fornication and adultery were mortal sins for both sexes, demanding virginity and fidelity on the part of both spouses - again a great departure from pagan custom. Abortion was certainly banned in Jewish society but it was unquestionably an option in the pagan world. Christianity continued this Jewish respect for new life, emphasizing that parental openness to all offspring was an aspect of marriage that may not besevered from spousal fulfillment.
Recently author Rodney Stark (“The Triumph of Christianity”) largely credits the substantial number of women in the early church with the initial success of Christianity. Because baby girls were welcomed at birth, because Christian women enjoyed more stable and enduring marriages, because Christian wives often converted their pagan husbands, the Christian world soon overwhelmed the pagan world. Hence, in spite of any popular tales to the contrary, Christianity, neither then nor now, sanctioned the suppression of women or their talents or their charisms. History proves just the opposite is true. Christianity appreciated then and still appreciates the spousal and maternal roles ordained by God for believing women. Early Christian women were assured rights as spouses and as mothers that the pagan and even the Jewish world denied them. The early Christian woman's able embrace of her vocation as spouse and parent, wife and mother, revolutionized society and advanced Christianity. These female roles, uniquely bestowed by God on women, are crucial for the renewal of Christianity in our own day when promiscuity, divorce, gender disregard and abortion plague Western society once again.