I was recently in a conversation with some brother seminarians who come from different cultures. They talked about many of the cultural norms that involve recognizing the father as the head of the household, and even how priests play a prominent role within the family. They found it almost shocking that at my family gatherings I do not lead the blessing of the food, but rather my sister-in-law is often the one who leads the prayer. This is in no way a slight against my family, but rather a kind of symbol of the new dynamics that have emerged in the United States.
When Americans read or hear Ephesians chapter 5 where St. Paul states, “Wives should be subordinate to the their husbands,” it raises all kind of mixed reactions. For some, it seems like a glaring condemnation of contemporary feminist and equality movements. For others, it is a sign of the sexism of both St. Paul and classical Christianity. Both sides are equally problematic because each fails to take into account the context within which Paul was writing.
In the Roman Empire, the idea of the man being the head of the household was the norm across the culture. Patriarchy was the norm of Ancient Mediterranean cultures probably due to the fact that the major way in which power was wielded was through physical strength and military accomplishments. Within this context, the Roman ideal was that the father wielded almost absolute power over his household. Within such a context, Paul presents a picture of authority that was radical for its time (and for ours as well).
In Christ, authority and power are no longer meant to serve the needs and wills of leaders, but rather are meant to be put at the service of self-donation and communion. Within a patriarchal society, the men were called to a new kind of leadership, one which shattered the molds that had come before. In this way, the authority of the father was put on a trajectory that would make possible greater equality and power sharing among men and women. The lesson we need to learn from St. Paul is not so much whether a man is the head of the household or not, but rather how anyone who wields power should undertake exercising their authority.
I do not want to say that questions about the family are insignificant. I recognize that many within the Church are doing great work to understand better the distinct roles of men and women within the family, and in no way do I think that such work is mistaken. Rather, such discussion is a powerful testimony to the renewal that has taken place within the laity. When it comes to the dynamics of family life, I believe that while the Church provides broad principles, ultimately the applications of such principles is up to the consciences of individuals. That being said, we all can learn a powerful lesson from St. Paul.
In one way or another, we all wield power. St. Paul calls us to recognize that our authority and power must be limited by the commands to love God and neighbor. Thus, any form of tyranny is a direct violation of the principles presented by the Gospel message. The question then becomes what do we do with the authority that we have been given.