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Time to edit St. Paul?

St. Paul’s writings about women’s role in the home and the Church have been the subject of scrutiny and criticism by modern readers. Mike Pothier describes the experience of proclaiming a particularly difficult text. He contemplates how we are to interpret such passages today, especially in the light of South Africa’s scourge of gender-based violence and our patriarchal society .

“Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.  For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the saviour of the body.  As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.”

Ephesians 5:31-32

I am a proclaimer in my parish. When it’s my turn I try to go through the readings at home in advance, checking for any tricky passages or strange names and working out where to place emphasis or how to deal with some of St Paul’s longer and more convoluted sentences.

One Sunday a few years ago I neglected to do this, and the first I saw of that day’s readings was when I opened the lectionary in the sacristy ten minutes before Mass. It was the 21st Sunday in ordinary time, cycle B; second reading – Ephesians 5:21-32. I knew the passage from the first line, and I had always cringed when hearing it. Somehow I had never had to proclaim it – luck of the draw.

My wife and daughter were there, which made it worse. I would have been uncomfortable with this reading anywhere, but I really could not see myself proclaiming it in front of them – a simple, straightforward piece of Pauline sexism. And so I said to my parish priest, “I can’t read this”. He replied that it was a beautiful passage, one that he often used at weddings, and that its true meaning needed to be brought out. So, against my better judgement, I proclaimed it.

My parish priest, who I think is an accomplished homilist, failed completely to provide the promised explanation. There is no surprise in that. I have looked at dozens of commentaries on this passage and the only ones that make any sense of it are those who are brave enough to say, “This is Paul, a man of his times, with the assumptions and attitudes of his times. No one is perfect”.

My parish priest … failed completely to provide the promised explanation.

Try it yourself if you like. A Google search will show up hundreds of people (including women) who can tie themselves in fabulous linguistic and semantic knots as they try to show how verse 22, “wives, be subject to your husbands”, does not actually mean “wives, be subject to your husbands”, but rather “let’s all love each other and get along like a house on fire”.

Many of these exegetes, amateur and professional, concentrate on the preceding verse, 21, which tells us to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”, as if that were the essence of the passage. But they turn a blind eye to verse 23, “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church”. They try to invent a reciprocity between what St Paul says about wives and what he says about husbands when, in my reading of it, the text simply does not support it.

Rooted in a particular time and culture

St Paul, like each of us, had his worldview. This passage is just one of a few that reveals a kind of blind spot when it came to women. He wasn’t alone – St Peter also thought “wives should be obedient to their husbands” and that the wife was “the weaker partner” (1 Peter 3:1;7).

What is the point of pretending? Paul and Peter lived in a particular era and were part of a particular culture. Thanks to their proximity to Christ, they were profoundly liberated people, but not entirely so (not that any one of us remotely is, of course). Our understanding of gender roles and the man/woman relationship has moved on and developed since the time that Paul and Peter wrote to their followers. Today, we emphasize marriage relationships in which wives and husbands enjoy equality, without one being subject to the other.

Surely no one can be disingenuous enough to think that there is not at least some link between passages like this one and the kind of violence against women that we face in our country at present. The prevailing social attitudes that subjugate women and elevate men, rendering one the servant of the other’s desires (“wives, be subordinate to your husbands…”) take their cue at least in part from these passages of scripture.

Surely no one can be disingenuous enough to think that there is not at least some link between passages like this one and the kind of violence against women that we face in our country.

It is no answer to say that this is not what St Paul and St Peter meant, or wrote or said; or that something has been lost in translation. These grating words, proclaimed in our churches on Sundays, give comfort and licence to men who like being the “head of their wives” and who proceed to act very much as if women are their “subordinates”.

And in many cases men justify their violence against women, especially in the family, as an exercise of love – “necessary chastisement”, “teaching her a lesson”, and so on. After all, he is the head of his wife.

Do these readings still have a place in the liturgy?

There are many ways that the Church can, and does, help in the struggle against gender-based violence; propagating Pauline and Petrine sexism is not one of them.

We readily recognize the anachronism of some Levitical strictures – the ‘uncleanliness’ of menstruation (Lev 15: 19-30); the command to stone to death those who blaspheme (Lev 24: 16), among many other examples. These commands were of their time and, arguably, served a purpose. But we have progressed since those days, as our scientific knowledge has grown and our appreciation of individual rights has matured.

Even if it were possible to reconcile Ephesians 5: 22 with our modern understanding of equality within marriage, the passage will still be (mis)used to justify patriarchal attitudes and behaviour. The risk, perhaps likelihood, that such behaviour will sometimes include violence against women is far too great to justify its continued inclusion in the cycle of Sunday readings.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


  1. This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. Agree wholeheartedly. There is no way that Christ would approve of modern day patriarchy.

  2. The “as Christ is the head of the Church” part directly implies that husbands ought to be for their wives what Christ is for the Church. Yes, Paul and Peter might have been sexist and, yes, their writings have been misused. But if men understand who Christ is and how he has loved and continues to love his Bride, I would have to concur with Christopher West who asks, “who’s at the short end of the stick here”? Or perhaps, who OUGHT to be? Men having failed to understand that they ought to love (even to the point of death) their wives in the image and likeness of Christ does not mean we need to edit and/omit the words of Paul. What we need to edit and/omit are bad homilies by, very possibly, sexist clergy who merely echo the sexist undertones of Paul and Peter without preaching the full truth.

  3. A majority of scholars, though not all, believe that Thessalonians (and several other so-called Pauline letters) were not written by Paul, but were written about a generation after his death. These scholars’ contention is that Paul would never have condoned patriarchy, but that, like Jesus, the radical views he held about women were watered down and distorted over time. See “The First Paul” by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan


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Mike Pothier
Mike Pothier is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, and Programme Manager of the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (CPLO) in Cape Town.

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