The Complimentarity of Husband and Wife

[fbshare type=”button” float=”right” width=”100″] By Curtis and Michaelann Martin

Ephesians 5, wives be subject to your husbands, Church teaching on marriage
Photo Credit: Nathan Dumlao

Why is it so difficult for men and women to embrace the Church’s teaching on marital love? Our society often rejects these teachings as old fashioned and out of date. Others are frightened by the vulnerability they call for. In these days, after all, can we trust God and our spouse enough truly to love without thought of ourselves?

These teachings of the Church come into a new light when we understand and embrace our own masculinity and femininity. Adam and Eve were created “in God’s image and likeness” (Gen 1:26–27). Eve was to be a suitable partner, and the two were to complement each other. We need to realize that men and women are wonderfully different by design, yet equal in dignity and honor as sons and daughters of God.

The most challenging passage in Sacred Scripture concerning the complementarity and radical interdependence of husband and wife is Ephesians 5:21–24:

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 also be subject in everything to their husbands.

To many, this passage seems very outdated or even barbaric. At the very least, many argue that it has little to do with modern culture and family life. But the Scriptures continue:

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 (Eph 5:25–30).

The call for wives to submit to their husbands is challenging, but we must remember the teaching’s context: Marriage is to reflect the love of Christ and the Church. Submission means literally to order one’s mission to another’s. The wife’s mission is to follow her husband’s leadership as he lays his life down for her and for their children. Pope John Paul II stresses the importance of an authentically Christ-centered vision of marriage by pointing to the sacrifice of Jesus for His Bride, the Church.

In this sacrifice there is entirely revealed that plan which God has imprinted on the humanity of man and woman since their creation; the marriage of baptized persons thus becomes a real symbol of that new and eternal covenant sanctioned in the blood of Christ.

As Christians, we are subject to Christ, yet we do not lose our dignity. Rather, our dignity is infinitely greater because we are children of God. So, too, a wife’s submission to her husband ought to allow her husband to grant her honor through his Christlike love and concern.

The Church has given us practical wisdom for discovering God’s plan of blessings for us on this earth and then in heaven. As Jesus puts it, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Yet Satan tricks us, as he did Eve and Adam, into mistrusting God, our loving Father. We must realize that we can trust our heavenly Father because He really does have our best interests in mind when He offers us solutions for living joyful, holy marriages. It is a constant struggle to fight the Devil as he continuously works to undermine our trust in God (CCC 397).

Once we realize that the Devil’s basic temptation is to get us to mistrust God, it’s easier to see that we should work to trust Him and fight the temptations. This is particularly true when it comes to the Church’s teaching on masculinity and femininity. We need to trust in God’s plan.

We have a great role model in the Holy Family. Saint Joseph was called to care for and protect Mary, his wife, and Jesus, the Son of God. There may have been times when Joseph would have liked to have stayed home to be with Mary and Jesus, but he followed God’s plan for husbands and made sure their needs were met. His sacrifices were countless, as were Mary’s. And think of it: Joseph was called to be the head of the Holy Family, even though Jesus was God and Mary had been preserved from original sin.

In Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI describes beautifully how marriage and family life imitate the Trinity in life-giving love. He further explains our masculinity and femininity in light of our married roles. Just as men, through their masculinity, take primacy in the order of leadership, women through their femininity take primacy in the order of love.


Curtis and Michaelann Martin have been working with college students for over twenty years through the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), of which Curtis is the founder and CEO. Together they have written several Bible studies for personal and group use, including Family Matters: A Bible Study on Marriage and the Family.