One wonders if St. Paul really thought about what he was saying when he uttered these words in his letter to the Church of Ephesus. He spends only a few passing sentences on this teaching throughout his epistle. While some might remember his teachings on grace in the second chapter, people will normally remember Ephesians 5 when they think of St. Paul. The more modern mind uses this statement as an example of St. Paul's archaic and derogatory understanding of women. The traditional norm of "head of the household" and the male being a "leader" is derided as counter-productive, insulting, and misogynist. If there is ever a myth that needs debunking, it is this.
Yet I find the path people take in answering this objection lacking. Indeed, at times I followed this angle. We will typically talk about the nature of Christian leadership by citing such passages as the one in Luke's Gospel, where we hear the following:
And he said to them: The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and they that have power over them are called beneficent. But you not so: but he that is the greater among you, let him become as the younger: and he that is the leader, as he that serves. For which is greater, he that sits at table or he that serves? Is not he that sits at table? But I am in the midst of you, as he that serves.
If we leave the argument here, we are doing a disservice. This passage does much to describe the nature of service, and service is an essential element of authentic leadership. Yet we are presented with a far more interesting question if we ponder this further: Why should we be as a servant? How does this build effective leadership?
These words would have been rather foreign to the Apostles. As Christ rightly points out, in their world, the ruler is Dominus, Lord. He exists above the peasantry. Indeed, to approach him at the wrong time warranted death in many areas, no matter the request. (Esther, 4:11) Even in the Roman world, Caesar could never be seen negotiating with a foreign power on an equal level. He always had to be positioned above the other. The very person of Caesar was sacrosanct and (in theory at least) could not be maligned as tribune of the plebians. For Christ to say this is wrong is to fly in the face of all conventional wisdom.
Yet why is his way better? Why is a mentality of service superior to the mentality of being served? A simple understanding of human nature, and of other examples during the time could give us an example.
When one thinks of "service" in the ancient world, one thought of the military. Yet the most effective of ancient military leaders were never those who lorded their authority above their soldiers. Let us consider Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. The former built a unstoppable army that eventually turned Rome into a true empire. The latter conquered most of the known world. Both achieved this through the special relationship they had with their men whom they led. Alexander was known for his almost suicidal bravery in battle, leading charges and rallying his men by example. Caesar, despite his incredible wealth and connections, lived a life of relative austerity amongst his soldiers, eating the same food, sleeping in the same areas, and fighting alongside them in every battle. Both were known to take incredible care of their soldiers, frequently doing random acts of kindness. As a result, they built a loyalty between general and soldier that rarely existed, and allowed them to do great things.
They served by leading alongside their brethren. They were not leading from a distance. They would not submit their men to any situation they themselves would not also go through. This frequently inspires confidence in those being led. They see someone so invested in that cause, that they are willing to place themselves in danger to accomplish it. Far from relying on everyone else, they are willing to contribute to see that it is done. Common sense dictates that people will be more willing to work with someone when said person demonstrates they have a stake in that success.
The second reason is that a leader is made great by the greatness of others. While fortune and circumstance allow flashes of genius, one person cannot do everything. Think of a captain of a sports team. He is never chosen solely on "being the best." Championship teams are not made through pure athletic ability alone. Captains of championship teams must have others shine, and bring them towards the moment where they do what needs to be done for the benefit of all. When they do, not only is success achieved, but honor is given to that captain for leading individuals towards realizing their potential. For the triumphant leader, it is truly an honor to lead such skilled and talented individuals.
How does this apply to the cited passage from St. Paul? Let us consider first the example of Our Lord. He died for our salvation, but why? Some will answer love. Yet why does Christ love? I would say one reason is that He is supremely aware of the great virtue men are capable of when spurred by grace. When we present ourselves to the world, we are ultimately presenting Christ. We are the people that Christ is leading, calling us to walk with him. When we display great faith, hope, and charity, we ultimately bring glory to our Master, who has given us the resources to accomplish these things. Indeed, without these resources and His guidance in using them, such heroic striving towards virtue is impossible.
When He ascended to Heaven, He did not leave his Church alone. Instead he said, in the words of the great hymn Alleluia Sing to Jesus:
Though the cloud from sight received him
When the forty days were o'er
Shall our hearts forget his promise
I am with you evermore?
Christ is truly a Lord who does not leave or forsake his flock. Rather, He remains to this day alongside us. He sends the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. He calls on us to suffer with patience and endurance because he himself suffered and endured. He calls us to love because He has loved. As the writer of the Hebrews so eloquently states:
For which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: I will declare your name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I praise you. And again: I will put my trust in him. And again: Behold I and my children, whom God has given me. Therefore because the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself in like manner has been partaker of the same: that, through death, he might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil: And might deliver them, who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to servitude. For nowhere does he take hold of the angels: but of the seed of Abraham he takes hold. Wherefore, it behoved him in all things to be made like unto his brethren, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest before God, that he might be a propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that wherein he himself has suffered and been tempted he is able to succour them also that are tempted.
When we think of the husband as head of the household and a man as a leader, we must think of these principles. Far from one serving behind him or under him, he serves alongside his spouse. Far from waiting in front for her to catch up; he serves alongside her, as they help each other towards their journey. He demonstrates his commitment to his spouse by making her causes his own.
When he chooses to become head of the household, he does it as a testament to his wife’s great virtue and prowess. When she is renowned as something great, he wishes to always be identified with that greatness in love and virtue. He recognizes that even with his considerable talents, he cannot do much without her. As a result, he is always wanting everyone around him to know of the great contributions she has given him.
This is why we men lead.