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Be Subordinate to Your Husbands? Obey Your Parents? True Equality in the Face of Marxism

February is the Month Dedicated to the Holy Family| National Catholic  Register

By Will Deatherage, Executive Director

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, 
as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives, 
and avoid any bitterness toward them.
Children, obey your parents in everything, 
for this is pleasing to the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children, 
so they may not become discouraged.

Colossians 3:12-21.

What better way to commemorate the Feast of the Holy Family than by addressing one of the most controversial passages in the Bible? Many modern commentators have written off this excerpt as an archaic byproduct of St. Paul’s historical setting, but I will argue that it still carries theological significance beneath its unnerving exterior.

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, 
as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives, 
and avoid any bitterness toward them.

The submission of wives to husbands was nothing revolutionary in ancient Roman society. Men were unquestionably the dominant force in their households, and Christianity’s radical call for husbands to unequivocally love their wives challenged how men were expected to treat women. Women were hardly formally educated, and their designation as a submissive class was a reality that Christians had to work with. In fact, the burgeoning religion’s so-called “Love Feasts” which invited both men and women, citizens and slaves, Romans and foreigners, to dine together and share a cultic “kiss of peace” was considered scandalous. The reciprocation of submission with perfect Christian love was remarkable, but the contextualization of this passage does not mean that we should ignore the word “subordinate” altogether.

Modern Western ethics are largely based on self-determination and unfettered liberty. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, Church-endorsed theories of natural order and social structures were labeled as draconian, oppressive, and outdated (understandably so in many circumstances). Classically Liberal philosophies and political systems, which equated moral goodness with the preservation of individual liberties, replaced the Church’s common-good-based ethical systems. If something inhibited a person from making an independent decision, it was morally wrong, More recently, Existentialism accelerated this mindset by equating autonomy with human dignity; any institution that prevented individuals from making independent decisions, regardless of their consequences, was an impediment on man’s ethos to define himself. These fairly modern outlooks have shrouded the term “subordinate” with confusion and ire, but given Christianity’s call for universal subordination to God, His commandments, and His natural laws, this quality that St. Paul associates with women is not a negative one. Remember that Christ expressed ultimate subordination to His Father and asked us to do the same. Because of modern hyper individualism, though, we do not appreciate the value of authentic Christian subordination.

The harsh economic and political conditions of Biblical times may have necessitated the subordination of women to men. Remember that between brutal peasant labor, which often cost men their lives, and constant wars that sent men out to battle, women were reliant on their husbands for protection and safety. Even men were subordinate to their social overlords, a trend which continued into the Middle Ages for the sake of maintaining order. St. Paul clearly had womankind’s best interests in mind given their situation. However, we undeniably live in a different world than St. Paul’s. Within the last few centuries, especially since the Industrial Revolution, careers have become far less dangerous and the world has become far more peaceful. Modern society offers far women more opportunities than it did in ancient Rome, which is undoubtedly a wonderful thing. That said, while changing circumstances and opportunities means that women no longer must be subordinate to men for their safety, it does not suggest (as some philosophers have asserted) that men and women are similar beings. Data shows that women are still relational oriented and usually seek stability through their relationships with their husbands. Thus, despite changing circumstances, our evolutionary-biological urges still largely dictate how we are fulfilled. The overarching theological notion I abstract from these passages in light of such studies is that men and women are fulfilled by different activities, though both are called to equality. Neither is called to subordination to the other, though equality does not mean complete similarity.

In the late 1800s, Friedrich Engels, a contemporary of Karl Marx, accused Christianity of supporting a family model that was quite similar to its ancient Roman counterpart. While his critiques were warranted in communities that refused to adapt to changing times, his replacement model had a far worse impact on the family (it has often been said that Marxism offers great diagnoses but a poor prescriptions). In his The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, he writes “Monogamy, then, does by no means enter history as a reconciliation of man and wife and still less as the highest form of marriage. On the contrary, it enters as the subjugation of one sex by the other, as the proclamation of an antagonism between the sexes unknown in all preceding history,” (79-80). Marxism understands progress as a continuous struggle between slave and master, so a negative understanding of St. Paul’s “subordination” portrays Christian marriage as a fundamentally oppressive institution that must be destroyed. Engels sought to demolish traditional familial institutions by undermining monogamy, which was actualized by Vladimir Lenin, leader of the early Soviet Union. His infamous 1918 family codes abolished traditional marital structures, though such policies were so destructive that Joseph Stalin reversed course by reinstating them.

Children, obey your parents in everything, 
for this is pleasing to the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children, 
so they may not become discouraged.

While the notion of children obeying their parents might seem obvious within the Christian framework, Marxism and Existentialism aimed at destroying this relationship in two very different cultures. Chairman Mao Zedong’s China, another Marxist society, encouraged teens and young adults to rebel against their parents and traditional values in rather harsh manners. Children who suspected their parents, loved ones, and teachers of betraying values of the Communist Party were expected to denounce, publicly humiliate, and report their closest relatives to the police. Since the sustenance of the totalitarian state, not God’s natural order, was the end goal of this Communist society, the government’s authority superseded that of natural guardians. Mao’s project, The Cultural Revolution, was a disaster, as it led to more death from starvation, prison camps, and mass persecution than any event in human history. Of course, Mao’s program for children was just a small part of his revolution, but it undoubtedly scarred thousands, if not millions, of families throughout China for decades.

While the United States is (hopefully) light years away from Marxist China’s nightmare, the degradation of parental authority flows from a different mindset that was influenced by Marxism’s anti-authority mantra. Existentialism’s promotion of self-determination as the highest good and its demonization of obedience became embedded into modern psychology (thanks to works that blurred the lines between philosophy and hard sciences, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex). This was manifest as the disastrous self-esteem movements that many in my generation were raised with. According to such models, the affirmation of independent decision making, regardless of the outcome, should be the highest priority in raising healthy children. For children to retain their autonomy and self-determination, they must choose their own hobbies and behaviors, even sensitive ones such as sexual orientation, by experimenting, not through “oppressive obedience” to their parents. In my opinion, this lack of structure and direction has fed into the greatest youth mental health crisis our world has ever seen; too much choice provides hotbeds for anxiety. Young people need structure from their parents, and this guidance is undermined by ethics of self-determination.

Like women, children have far more resources to be independent today. But unlike women, children are still incapable of sustaining independence, both physiologically and mentally. However, the former reality should not be discarded; children should be encouraged to question their traditions, but critical thought does not mean blind experimentation. Just as we need not reinvent the wheel, our children need not relive the same mistakes we and our ancestors made. Any parent recognizes that children are incapable of taking care of their physical development, but this also applies to their emotional, intellectual, and sexual maturation as well. Again, the solution is not a mindless obedience to parental authority. Traditions must always be questioned, but their sources should never be abandoned, lest children spiral into a directionless mess of anxiety. For Christians, obedience, like subordination, is a virtue.

God sets a father in honor over his children;
a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.
Whoever honors his father atones for sins,
and preserves himself from them.
When he prays, he is heard;
he stores up riches who reveres his mother.
Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children,
and, when he prays, is heard.
Whoever reveres his father will live a long life;
he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.

Sirach 3:2-6

Today, troves of empirical data show how in almost every measure of success, from GPA to mental health, to income, the monogamous in-tact family that worships weekly fares best. In my opinion, perversions of this model are assaults against our biological needs. It is a human right for a child to have one mother and one father who give themselves fully to each other. Distinct roles between sexes are quite evident in child rearing, from different chemical responses each sex has when interacting with their infants, to the detrimental effects the absence of one sex can have on a child’s development. This is not to say that same-sex couples or single people should never adopt, but it is important to recognize the fundamentally different impacts mothers and fathers have on and receive from their children. While modern philosophies promote a model of self-worth based on self-determination, nature always wins out. One cannot “self-determine” they no longer need food, nor can they “self-determine” they no longer need a mother or father.

Because of Marxism, St. Paul’s equal but inequitable familial roles have become lost. Not only must men and women be made the same (a product of Soviet Marxism), but children are urged by the media and their educators to abandon the traditions of their families (a product of Maoist Marxism). The results have been disastrous; a society that turns its back on Christian social structures has led to vast confusion and unhappiness in the workforce and anxious children. This is not to say there were no problems with the traditional family. Technologies that made work less dangerous presented women and children with new opportunities that they should continue to take. Traditional family models that force women out of the workforce undermine Christianity’s fundamental call for all humans, regardless of sex, to live fulfilling lives. Furthermore, the American “nuclear family” (one man, one woman, two children as an independent unit) has disintegrated relationships with and healthy dependencies on extended relatives for support. The solution to modern familial crises should not be a nostalgic regression nor a naïve utopian progression, but must come from a third way that re-evaluates what it means to be a man, woman, and child in the context of the eternal family and the modern workplace.

Tradition starts at home, and it is not necessarily evil or oppressive. In fact, the only binder of progress is a narrative transmitted to us by our parents. In an age of globalization that gives us overwhelming choices, children need just as much wisdom as Christ received from his parents to discern what is best for them. Remember that Christ was just as human as He was divine, and His human intellect was fostered entirely by His holiest family. A diverse society encourages mothers and fathers to use their distinct, yet equal-in-worth abilities to raise their children well. A family is not simply a bundle of humans living together; it is a structure given to us by God for the sake of our education and betterment, and the Feast of the Holy Family reminds us of this.

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