Part 1: “Where did we get this insane idea and why?”
A family isn’t a prison, but something contrary to that: the Kingdom
A family isn’t a prison, but the opposite: the Kingdom. According to Christian teaching, in a legal marriage, the husband is king, priest, and prophet—all three-in-one. As a priest and a king, the husband possesses a special grace, his unique rank. It is not the reward for any special merit, nor the result of some special virtues—it’s simply a given.
The Holy Hierarch John Chrysostom says:
“Every one’s house is a city (Πόλις), and each man is a prince over his own house... as it were, a sort of king (βασιλεὺς), having so many authorities under his own authority... And thus the wife will be a second king in the house, lacking only the diadem.”1
This is not an accidental visualization; it is one of the essential thoughts in the teaching of the Holy Hierarch John Chrysostom on the family and one of the cornerstones of the Christian teaching on marriage:
“For so God from the beginning contrived ten thousand ways for implanting her [love] in us. Thus, first, He granted one head to all, Adam… Further, in order that the one might be subject, and the other rule; (for equality is wont oftentimes to bring in strife;) he suffered it not to be a democracy, but a monarchy… In the rank of monarch (βασιλέως), for instance, there is the husband; but in the rank of lieutenant (eparch, ὑπάρχου) and general (strategos, στρατηγοῦ), the wife and the children too are allotted a third station in command… And every where has God made governments at small distances and thick together, that all might abide in concord and much good order.”2
So, that’s how God has arranged life: It has the hierarchy of power with different ranks, and three ranks were assigned to the family.
Husband as the king.
The wife as her husband’s co-ruler, also a king, like her husband, but a king of the second rank, like the kings without diadems who existed in those days; another perspective of her role is an eparch and military commander affiliated to her husband the king.
Children here are subordinates of both parents.
Love, shared understanding, and profound harmony are the universally used meaning and measure in this arrangement. It suggests the coherence of actions and viewpoints, as well as the dispensation that contributes to a peaceful and harmonious life in this state-community or, in other words, the family.
It means the highest rank of the husband which implies respect and dutiful affection of the wife towards him.
The wife is never the slave of husband, but the co-ruler of her husband
But this model in no way implies the image of a tyrant and abuser! The wife here is never her husband’s slave, but his co-ruler. She is his subordinate, another king endowed with a high and honorable status. She’s never a soldier, but a commander, and on the whole, it’s exactly she who is the boss; and this is what that same Chrysostom highlighted on many occasions. Her position in relation to her husband is as “demeaning” as the position of the army commander-in-chief in relation to the reigning emperor, or as “degrading” as the position of Kutuzov in relation to Alexander I. If we take the high-ranking authority figures, then the position of a wife in this model will be equal to the “undignified status” of the company’s deputy director in relation to his first deputy, or as undignified as the status of a vice minister in relation to the minister.
Kings, presidents, directors, both men and women—all of them can, and in fact do, easily turn out to be despots. But the Christian teaching about the master in general, and the commanding family status in particular, invariably asserts that the master treats his subordinates with respect, love and care, and, even more so, his subordinate senior officials. St. John Chrysostom directly exhorts the husband not only to love his wife, but also to be friends with her—whereas a friendship implies equality. The holy hierarch also directly and repeatedly urges him to respect his wife and to “exalt her honor.” Therefore, the superiority of the husband in no way implies the humiliation of the wife, but it rather excludes humiliation, explicitly calling to respect her as a co-ruler.
The following idea of “a wife who submits to her husband makes her a pet dog and implies that she is tread upon, while her husband asserts himself at her expense,” along with the notion of a family as prison for women, is anti-Christian. Moreover, this particular idea of a “tyrant,” in its initial understanding, has been the fundamental antithesis of the idea of the “king.”
In Christian civilization, just like in classical antiquity, the tyrant seizes power and maintains it by violence; he is that same despot. On the other hand, the king is someone who is lovingly concerned about his people, who is ready to lay down his soul for them; he is involved in a special kind of service to his neighbor. And there is something else that’s important, original and sacred here, something that a number of the holy fathers of our Church wrote about, including St. Irenaeus of Lyon, the holy martyr of the second century: The legitimate king is Christ, while the Antichrist is the tyrant who illegitimately proclaims himself as king.3 To associate violence, humiliation, and tyranny with command, power, and kingship is a true perversion of the Orthodox teaching about power and kingship. Consequently, what we see in practice is the perversion of ideas about family hierarchy. It results in two equally terrifying outcomes: The first one is when, in the name of the struggle against tyranny, the fight is proclaimed against the idea of kingship, and the second one is when the “orthodox” supporter of “kingship” also equates the king with a tyrant and becomes the tyrant instead of the king by following the Antichrist instead of Christ in his own family.
Can hierarchy and obedience be equated with violence?
An oft-repeated interpretation: allegedly, obedience of a wife to her husband involves “a permission or even a command for the husband to beat his wife.”
It seems that the foregoing analogies of a husband-king and a wife-military commander preclude us from even imagining this crazy vision. On the other hand, why not? We can all understand things—each to the extent of our own depravity. So, in order to keep things simple, straightforward, and understandable by all—the Christian teaching on marriage also addresses this specific issue and discusses the psychological and physical violence of a husband against his wife.
The Holy Hierarch John Chrysostom more than once said that it was unacceptable for a Christian man to hit his wife:
“And to you husbands also this I say: ...there can be no such offense as to bring you under the necessity of striking a wife. And why say I a wife? Since not even upon his handmaiden could a free man endure to inflict blows and lay violent hands. But if the shame be great for a man to beat a maidservant, much more to stretch forth the right hand against her that is free. And this one might see even from heathen legislatures who no longer compel her that has been so treated to live with him that beat her, as being unworthy of her fellowship.
For surely it comes of extreme lawlessness when your partner of life, she who in the most intimate relations and in the highest degree, is united with you; when she, like a base slave, is dishonored by you. Wherefore also such a man, if indeed one must call him a man and not rather a wild beast, I should say, was like a parricide and a murderer of his mother… what but extreme frenzy can it be to insult her for whose sake God bade us leave even our parents?”4
Striking a wife is not about demonstrating your superiority or strength, but vileness and weakness
Chrysostom ends his appeal to the head of the family with the following statement: When you humiliate and dishonor your wife, your commander and subordinate, you humiliate and dishonor yourself. Hitting your wife is not about a demonstration of superiority and strength, but a demonstration of vileness and weakness. It is expressly forbidden for a Christian husband to beat his wife. Physical abuse of a wife doesn’t just follow from her subordinate position, but the husband’s superior dignity in and of itself denies the possibility of violence.
What if your wife “misbehaves”? Or what if she disobeys her husband? Then, perhaps, it’s a good idea to get tough and give her a good beating, isn’t it? In his sermons, one and the same great universal teacher and the holy hierarch spoke more than once about psychological and physical violence in the family. He would appeal to the husband:
“Would you have your wife obedient unto you, as the Church is to Christ? Take then yourself the same provident care for her, as Christ takes for the Church. But He (suffered for the sake of the Church) for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him. In the same way then as He laid at His feet her who turned her back on Him, who hated, and spurned, and disdained Him, not by menaces, nor by violence, nor by terror, nor by anything else of the kind, but by His unwearied affection; so also do thou behave yourself toward your wife.” 5
The Holy Hierarch not only compares the husband who raises his hand to his wife to the murderer of his mother, but he also urges the husband to win his wife’s respect “by your great thoughtfulness for her, by affection, by kindness… For there is nothing more powerful to sway than these bonds, and especially for husband and wife.”6
We can often hear that if you give a man “free rein,” or worse, accept a “subordinate position,” this will provoke him to violence. At first, he’ll simply act haughty, then, he’ll get a free ride, and finally, he’ll use his fists. It does happen this way, and I personally know such examples when the idea of “Christian obedience of the wife” as “beating of the wife” led to that very beating. Both the husband and the wife accepted this idea thinking that, if we are Orthodox, it should be this way, so the wife allowed the violence. She accepted the first signs of disrespect, the first blows and later violence as a way of life in her family, thus giving her husband the green light to use his fists. Or, it could be that the husband was wild and violent by nature, and the wife endorsed further development of her spouse’s sins and passions... It’s exactly that: they accepted that “the king is a tyrant” and, instead of building a home-kingdom, they built a home-tyranny.
It certainly wasn’t provoked by both spouses’ diligent study of the Orthodox teaching. Quite the opposite: they didn’t get anything out of the teaching on marriage or Christianity in general. The family is about service to one another; it means love, harmony, and like-mindedness. It even has no room for arguments and quarrels; even “shouting and backbiting” is deemed as inappropriate, let alone a blow or humiliation. Therefore, the problem is not in the teaching of Christ, but in the fact that we, as Orthodox people, are often not too interested in this teaching; we don’t live our life according to it. We neither look after our relationship with our spouses nor we work on them... I am talking about myself here, not about some hypothetical misbehaving strangers.
By the way, domestic violence is a very challenging subject and, as Lev Nikolaevich [Tolstoy] said, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way; every desperate family situation is unique. But still, domestic violence, along with family violence, is an extremely common problem in our country. At the same time, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it has nothing to do with the “Orthodox teaching on the family hierarchy” or with the “traditional family,” in general. It is so because only as little as five percent of the population of our great Orthodox country is known to simply “attend” church. So, there’s not much that can be done. Sadly, this is the reality of our life: Those who beat or even kill their wives are in majority of cases not the overzealous “Orthodox husbands.” Those who commit this crime are men and women far removed from the faith for several generations, and those previous generations didn’t have the slightest idea—what a simply normal, or a basic nuclear, family was like.
These men and women aren’t even legally married at times… So what kind of Christian teaching can we talk about in this case?! What we can talk about is the moral order of our society as a whole, whose life is far removed from faith and traditions. What kind of traditionalism can we talk about when our country still has one of the highest abortion rates in the world, and one of the highest rates of social orphans, children who have living parents? What kind of “overzealous patriarchal men” are we talking about when these men can’t even be “schlepped” into a legal marriage, or they live in fornication and cheat on their wives? Is it true that we are going to equate the “traditional orientation” with “Orthodox family traditions”? What kind of “patriarchy”, in a positive or negative way, can we discuss in a country that has a statistic of seventy-five divorces per a hundred marriages, or where the alimony debt of fathers to their biological children breaks new records every year? It’s rather tactless or, in fact, quite ridiculous, to mention even in passing the connection between the “traditional family” and the “Orthodox hierarchy” with the incidence of domestic violence in our country.
“Let the wife fear her husband”
In the apostle’s admonition let the wife fear (φοβῆται) her husband (Eph. 5:33), “fear” means the same as in the admonition, Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God (φοβεῖσθε) (1 Pet. 2:17). This fear is a supreme, lofty, and sublime degree of reverence and respect, touched with the reverence of God Himself. Nothing more, nothing less.
It’s a very strict admonition: Not only should you respect your husband, but you can’t treat your husband with disrespect. Don’t you dare to slander him! Don’t you dare to ridicule your husband, don’t you dare to humiliate him, or show him and the whole world his worthlessness; don’t you dare to discuss problems, clumsiness, or shortcomings of your husband with your friends, mother, or the entire world on social networks... Not simply, “you’d better not do that”, but “be fearful of doing that.” We are called to honor the special rank and status of our husband. He is my king and priest of my little Church. He isn’t that halfwit or a total simpleton.
The teaching of the Church says unequivocally: A husband should not require his wife to fear him. It’s her job to fear her husband
Another question: If it is among the wife’s duties to fear her husband, does that mean that it is also the husband’s duty to keep his wife in fear? The teaching of the Church says unequivocally: The husband should not require his wife to fear him. It is her duty to fear her husband. His job is to watch over himself and perform his duty to his wife. When a wife feels a healthy fear-respect for her husband—she reinforces the sanctity of marriage. When the husband intentionally or unintentionally provokes fear in his wife, he destroys the sanctity of marriage.
The Holy Hierarch John Chrysostom says:
“A servant, indeed, one will be able, perhaps, to bind down by fear; nay not even him, for he will soon start away and be gone. But the partner of one’s life, the mother of one’s children, the foundation of one’s every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and menaces, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband himself enjoy, if he dwells with his wife as with a slave, and not as with a free-woman? Yea, though you should suffer anything on her account, do not upbraid her; for neither did Christ do this.” 7
The above story gets the priorities right and gives the answers to the above “fear-inducing” questions: What fear shouldn’t be in the marital relationship and how a husband relates to the idea of a wife’s fear of the husband.
A family of a merchant in the 17th century. Andrey Ryabushkin. 1896.
* * *
More than once in my life I have wanted to sit down and write about this subject. Every time, I knew I wasn’t quite ready. Even now, I don’t feel ready. But if I don’t write about it now, then when will I? I have been lawfully married for twenty years, and for all those twenty years I have been trying—sadly, only trying—to get the hang of this difficult matter. It’s unlikely I will reveal the secret to what it’s all about in general and how it’s done. But what I offer here is the framework of a wife’s Christian obedience to her husband. In a separate article, I’ll try to talk about the practical side of the issue, the realm where a wife’s obedience to her husband is a part of a happy, bold, vibrant, and full life. Hence, there is more to come.