Marriage and Ephesians 5:21-33

bride and groom in church

In my work as a marriage and family therapist I will see nine couples on the brink of divorce this week.  I wish I could get them to see the wisdom in today’s first reading, Ephesians 5: 21-33.  It is counter-cultural and feels like walking on water to couples jaded by love’s failures. Yet contemporary research on healthy marriage strongly supports its basic tenet:  surrender to the mutual discipline of love. Its practice can be a planted grain of mustard seed that can grow a loving marriage.

Some of the words in Ephesians 5 cause us to flinch.  We skip the passage. Yet Ephesians 5 can be life-changing, especially for marriages in the beginnings of troubles or those who have hit a dull spot.  So today I am turning over this meditation to a saint who wrote and spoke eloquently and recently about this passage:  Saint Pope John Paul II.

Saint Pope John Paul II had a great interest in what makes a good marriage.  In the early days of his priesthood he would spend time in the mountains with couples, seeking to understand the qualities and habits that made for strong, loving families.  His text, Man and Woman He Created Them:  A Theology of the Body, was ready to be published just as he became Pope.  He used that text for a series of Wednesday audiences  from September 5, 1979 through November 28, 1984.

For today’s reflection I am going to summarize and then quote from the talk for August 11, 1982.  The scripture for that talk was Ephesians 5: 21-33, our first reading today.

Saint Pope John Paul begins with the words from Ephesians, “Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” He then describes a holy triangle in marriage: Christ, husband, and wife.  He notes that in Christian marriage the reciprocal relationship between husband and wife springs from their shared fear of the Lord.  This fear is not a servile fear, but reverence from a close relationship with God, especially from their living the mystery of Christ which is presented earlier in Ephesians.  This mystery is Christ choosing them from all eternity to be united into the very life of God.  Because each spouse is called to be united into the very life of God, each spouse is also called to grow in capacity to love, for capacity to love is the life of God.  Marriage, with its daily ups and downs and its great joys and sorrows, can be a profoundly nurturing way for that growth. That way of growth is to “be subject to one another.”

I now quote from Saint Pope John Paul II:

The expression that opens our passage of Ephesians 5: 21-33….has an utterly unique eloquence.  The author speaks about the mutual submission of the spouses, husband and wife, and in this way shows also how to understand the words he writes afterward about the submission of the wife to the husband.  We read, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”  When he expresses himself in this way, the author does not intend to say that the husband is the “master” of the wife and that the interpersonal covenant proper to marriage is a contract of domination by the husband over the wife.  He expresses a different concept instead, namely, that it is in her relationship with Christ—who is for both spouses the one and only Lord—that the wife can and should find the motivation for the relationship with her husband, which flows from the very essence of marriage and the family.  This relationship is nevertheless not one-sided submission.  According to the teaching of Ephesians, marriage excludes this element of the contract, which weighed on this institution and at times does not cease to weight on it.  Husband and wife are, in fact, “subject to one another,” mutually subordinated to one another.  The source of this reciprocal submission lies in Christian pietas (loving, reverent submission to God) and its expression is love.

The author of the letter underlines this love in a particular way when he turns to husbands.  He writes, “And you, husbands, love your wives,” and with this way of expressing himself he takes away any fear that could have been created (given the contemporary sensibility) by the earlier sentence, “Wives, be subject to your husbands.”  Love excludes every kind of submission by which the wife would become a servant or slave of the husband, an object of one-sided submission.  Love makes the husband simultaneously subject to the wife, and subject in this to the Lord himself, as the wife is to the husband.  The community or unity that they should constitute because of marriage is realized through a reciprocal gift, which is also a mutual submission.  Christ is the source and at the same time the model of that submission—which, being reciprocal “in the fear of Christ” confers on the conjugal union a deep and mature character.  Many factors of a psychological and moral nature are so transformed in this source and before this model that they give rise, I would say, to a new and precious “fusion” of the conduct and relationship on both sides.”….

Reciprocal submission “in the fear of Christ”—a submission born on the foundation of Christian pietas—always forms the deep and firm supporting structure of the community of the spouses, in which the true “communion” of persons is realized.

The author of Ephesians, who began his letter with a magnificent vision of the eternal plan of God for humanity, does not limit himself to highlighting only the traditional aspect of morality or the ethical aspects of marriage, but goes beyond the limits of such teaching and, in writing on the reciprocal relation of the spouses, uncovers in it the dimension of the same mystery of Christ, whose herald and apostle he is.”

True, the nine couples I will see this week have all failed to practice the concept of mutual submission to the discipline of love.  And true, the desire and ability to change from the more self-centered habits that got them in trouble is rarely a fully mutual choice.  Almost always somebody goes first:  one spouse begins to try very hard to live in submission to LOVE.  That person begins to think of doing loving things.

As Saint Pope John Paul II implies, submission to love does not include submission to violence, nor does it mean grudging acceptance of duty.  It means choosing to love the other in ongoing, practical ways with a gift of the heart–as much as you can.

In practice, especially if a couple is in trouble, submission to love is to choose to do the next loving thing, taking it one day at a time.

Modern science, Ephesians, and Saint Pope John Paul II all predict the result is a turning (sometimes very slowly) of the relationship in a new, healthier direction.  Sometimes it takes a while to get both spouses making such choices.  And sometimes a relationship is so fractured or one person or the other is so besieged or hardened against love that the Ephesian remedy does not work.  True.  But, in one form or another, mutual submission to the discipline of love is found in literally all happy marriages.

The Ephesian 5 solution is counter-cultural.  But it works.


Lord, forgive me for the many times I did not follow Ephesians 5 in my marriage.  Forgive my husband, too.  Thank you for giving us the grace to follow it at other times. Yes, when we followed it, love bloomed.  As a widow now, I cannot make things different, but help me to live the discipline of submission to love in my relationships with my children and their families. Help those who are married to follow the advice to be mutually submissive to love.  Especially strengthen all those today who struggle to do the next loving thing.  Hold tenderly all those whose marriages are troubled.  Pour your grace into families to heal them, to encourage them.  Help those whose marriages are strong and loving to continue to nurture each other and to reach out to share love with others who struggle.  In the name of the mystery of Christ, which calls us all to heaven…Amen.

About the Author

Mary Ortwein lives in Frankfort, Kentucky in the US. At different times in her life she has been an elementary and college teacher, a full-time wife and mother, founder of pro-life service agencies, a marriage and family therapist, a non-profit agency administrator, and a writer of relationship and mental health curriculum. A convert to Catholicism in 1969, Mary had a deeper conversion in 2010. She earned a theology degree from St. Meinrad School of Theology in 2015. Recently retired, Mary takes as her model Anna, who met the Holy Family in the temple at the time of the Presentation. She is a widow who finds joy in prayer, in being a part of parish life, and in offering hospitality to those who are journeying toward God–especially those who have previously wandered away from God, those who are journeying home to Eternal Life, and those who are seeking a deep relationship with God and other Christians.

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  1. On my wedding day I received the best advice any person could receive. It came from a Lutheran man who was an old and happily married man. He said you have two choices in your married life. “You can be, right or happy.” Mostly I choose to be happy. Happy is good. Thanks Mary and God Bless

  2. Mary,

    Thank you for this wonderful reflection. I am going to share it with my friends who are married.

    I read the reflection and it got me thinking real hard about marriage. I am not married myself and lately I have developed a kind of fear for marriage. I think its because I have seen some of my friends walk down the aisle only to divorce a few years later, some Infact after a few months.And so for now i have decided to put any thoughts of marriage on hold. But I know when God decides I should get married, I will go.

    The tales from my friends about their marriage life show that it is a life full of struggles featuring conflict and selfishness. Its my wish that couples profess the principles that are laid out in the bible especially by St. Paul.

    I pray that God protects the institution of marriage

  3. Thanks Mary! This is especially poignant to me as I have been enduring long-term struggles in my marriage and divorce is on the horizon. I think, and I try, and I fail. These words are comforting and hopeful to me at least; but marriage is a 2-way street. It might be too late for any of this to heal the wounds and divisions we have; but at any rate it was something worth reading and meditating on. Bless you for sharing these wonderful words today!!

  4. Hey Mary,

    Your reflection reminded me of something I read by Peter Kreeft. This is taken from his explanation of a verse from “The Song of Songs”.

    Love somehow mysteriously exchanges selves. I am not mine but yours; you are not yours but mine. And this is the only way for me to be truly me and you you. The gift given in love is more than feelings, deeds, time, or even life: it is the very self. The givers become their own gift.

    This view seems applicable not only to our married life, but our religious life too.


  5. Thanks Mary for this beautiful reflexion on marital love between spouses done in the way that it was meant to be by God’s design. I’m already in this boat, plenty of mistakes have been made… May we be more attentive to Jesus’ guidance from now on & entrust our future to His Divine Providence. Holy Family pray for us!

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