Marriage and widowhood–scriptural teachings

A while back, a friend of mine who is a widow pondered what the scriptures taught in regard to marriage. I had a rocky relationship with the scriptures when I first gave her the answer but I always wanted to re-explore the issue of course.

In marriage, woman is subject to the man voluntarily and conditionally.

Pope Leo XIII has written on this stating:

The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity. Since the husband represents Christ, and since the wife represents the Church, let there always be, both in him who commands and in her who obeys, a heaven-born love guiding both in their respective duties. For “the husband is the head of the wife; as Christ is the head of the Church. . . Therefore, as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let wives be to their husbands in all things.” (Arcanum Divinae, 11)

He is quoting Ephesians 5 here where St Paul compares the relationship of the marriage between husband and wife as that between Christ and the Church. Though there is also a sense of mutual subjection. The wife is not meant to be a servant doing only what the man tells her to do. This is not the form of mutual subjection St Paul was affirming. For rather, Christ “came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45) so this tells us that a man takes on the role of a servile leader. He looks out and tends for the woman’s needs. The woman therefore submits to him only because he has already laid down his life for her to look after her.

Further, the husband is addressed as “lord” in a scriptural marriage but we see in the full context of this that the title “lord”, while modernists cringe at this, is actually a bit more romantic.

Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight. It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you.

Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex,[a] since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life—so that nothing may hinder your prayers. (1 Pet. 3:1-7)

It’s not that wearing gold was bad but the women were not just simply to be satisfied adorning themselves in this. He is talking about spiritual adornment. Gold is not a substitute for spiritual adornment nor is any given hair-style. Women subjected themselves to their husbands. But also comes in verse 7 that men are meant to honor the woman for she is the weaker sex. The footnote in the NRSVCE indicates “vessel”. Modernists typically guffaw at the notion that women is the weaker sex because they lack appreciation for the ontological differences between women and men. The major problem is that ontological differences are in fact existent. Men do not give birth for instance while women do. A lack of appreciation for these ontological differences has convinced many that terms such as “weaker sex” are misogynist. We see though that women are co-heirs with men which means that when women are subjecting themselves to their spouses in their marital union and men are honoring the women, the men once again take on a servile role. Just as Christ is only “lord” because of his service to humanity (Phil. 2:5-11) so too is man only “lord” when he serves and honors his wife. The wife is to be called “lady” in my opinion just to indicate that she has been appointed as a co-ruler with her husband.

But what of widowhood? A widow is free to re-marry if her husband dies but there is more complication to it than this.

Do you not know, brothers and sisters[a]—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only during that person’s lifetime? Thus a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress. (Rom. 7:1-3)

There would seem to be certain conditions for whether a widow should remarry or not.

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. … The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. … A wife is bound as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies,[k] she is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:8-9, 32-34, 39)

From this perspective, it seems that widowhood is a calling. An unfortunate calling but a calling of God to be more devoted to the Lord. St John Chrysostom writes in his Letter to a Young Widow,

But lest the continual repetition of this name of widow should upset your soul, and disconcert your reason, having been inflicted on you in the very flower of your age, I wish first of all to discourse on this point, and to prove to you that this name of widow is not a title of calamity but of honour, aye the greatest honour. For do not quote the erroneous opinion of the world as a testimony, but the admonition of the blessed Paul, or rather of Christ. For in his utterances Christ was speaking through him as he himself said If you seek a proof of Christ who is speaking in me?2 Corinthians 13:3 What then does he say? Let not a widow be enrolled under threescore years of age and again but the younger widows refuse1 Timothy 5:9, 11intending by both these sayings to indicate to us the importance of the matter. And when he is making regulations about bishops he nowhere prescribes a standard of age, but in this case he is very particular on the point, and, pray, why so? Not because widowhood is greater than priesthood, but because widows have greater labour to undergo than priests, being encompassed on many sides by a variety of business public and private. (2)

And later on, he addresses,

And the younger widows he says refuse; and then he adds the reason: for when they have waxed wanton against Christ they will marry.1 Timothy 5:11 By this expression he gives us to understand that they who have lost their husbands are wedded to Christ in their stead. Observe how he asserts this by way of indicating the mild and easy nature of this union; I refer to the passage when they have waxed wanton against Christ they will marry, as if He were some gentle husband who did not exercise authority over them, but suffered them to live in freedom. Neither did Paul confine his discourse on the subject to these remarks, but also in another place again he has manifested great anxiety about it where he says Now she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives; but she who is a widow indeed and desolate has set her hope in God, and continues in prayers and supplications day and night.1 Timothy 5:6, 5 (2)

This is why the consecrated widows in 1 Tim. 5:3-16 only permits much older widows to be consecrated. Not because their age proves their faithfulness but because their age proves their experience and because the older widows are more aware of the life they are giving themselves up to. For a fertile woman to consecrate herself as a widow would be too much for her St Paul is concerned so there is no need for her to admit herself to such a life. This does not mean though that a younger widowed woman is unwed to Christ but rather, typically, to promise sole union to Christ without remarriage for a woman widowed much younger is more difficult.

And that appears to be what the scriptures teach about marriage and widowhood. A husband leads the wife but is her ever-servant even though the wife is subjected to his authority making them more like co-equals. Widowhood is a calling from God and a widow is recommended not to remarry for her marriage is to Christ but at the same time, it is advised for her to be remarried if she cannot help herself.

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About newenglandsun

A student. Male. Passionate. Easily offended. Child-like wonderer. Growing in faith, messing up daily.
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