Ephesians 5:21-33: 21Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30for we are members of his body. 31"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Answer these questions:
1. Why do you think this passage is such a incendiary one for women and men?
I don't think I've ever heard a man refer to this passage as incendiary (!) but I think the reason that a woman might glance over it and get all hot under the collar is that so many people equate "submission" with "abdication of free will". More on that in the answer to question 2. After all, much of what Paul is saying here should be inoffensive and common sense: love one another; Christ loves the Church; no one hates his own body; the two become one. The big hang-up for most people is "submission", and certainly there's been enough misapplication of the phrase over the years to make folks leery.
1 1/2. Was it ever that way for you? If so, how was your heart changed?
I've never had a problem with this passage myself, but I've also never seen it misused, and as a Catholic I've had plenty of exegesis on the four senses of scripture! I think my understanding of how it concretely applies to married life has deepened since I've been married -- maybe it's just the wisdom of getting older.
The first thing that Paul says, and the key (I think) to understanding the rest of the passage, is verse 21: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Every time submission is mentioned (verses 21,22,24), it's in reference to an overall submission to Christ. A wife's submission to her husband is a reflection of her submission to Christ, and not an end in itself. JPII in his Theology of the Body speaks of giving oneself as a gift. A wife submits herself as a gift to her husband -- who doesn't cherish and guard a gift from a loved one?
Frankly, though, it seems to me that most of this passage is directed to husbands. They have the harder job: loving their wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Paul spends most of his time describing the husband's role: to give himself up for his wife, to treat her as he would treat himself, to leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, to become one flesh with her, to love her. Wives get only two instructions: to submit to and respect their husbands.3. How does a misunderstanding or lack of understanding of God's plan for marriage as revealed through this scripture damage marriages?
The marriage described here is a selfless union built not upon pleasure, "compatibility", or lust, but a union based on a mutual submission to Christ. "If the Lord does not build a house, then in vain do the laborers labor" (Ps. ?). If submission is not understood in its proper context of being rooted in love of Christ and love of husband, then it becomes a bitter pill to swallow and eventually poisons a marriage. Or, taken to its literal extreme, it turns men and women away from from Christian marriage and the true understanding of gift of self. 4. How can men and women come to understand it better?
Well, a desire to understand might be the first step. If you start frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of the passage because “no damn man's gonna tell me what to do!” then you've missed Paul's whole point. If a wife sees Christ in her husband, then everything she does for him becomes an act of love (and vice versa). The husband is called to sacrifice his life for his wife, and the wife is called to accept his sacrifice – not always an easy thing! So what could bring men and women to a better understanding of this passage? Prayer, of course, but also seeing Christian spouses living out their submission to one another and to Christ in a cheerful fashion. (Quit complaining about yer spouse in public, friends! 'Cause I'm tired of hearing it, for one thing.) Then, try living it and see what happens.
There ya go, Kate! Hope this makes any sense.