Women and Submission in Ephesians 5 (Why Greek Matters Part 11)

One of the more contentious passages in the Bible is Ephesians 5:22, which in the NASB reads as follows: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” NASB puts “be subject” in italics because it is not actually in the Greek. All major English translations include “submit” or “be subject” by implication from the previous verse. This previous verse is grammatically dependent on the three preceding verses, which translated literally is (the indentation indicates that the indented lines are by the nature of Greek grammar and syntax, necessarily dependent on the previous ones):

(18) …You all be filled with the Spirit

(19) speaking to one another…

(20) giving thanks always…

(21) submitting to one another in the fear of Christ,

       (22) wives to their own husbands…

The main verb in this paragraph is “be filled,” to which there are three subordinate verbs which either express how the Church experiences this filling, or how the Church lives once it gets this filling: (1) speaking to one another in Psalms and hymns, (2) giving thanks, and (3) submitting to one another. What is critical to note is that this submission is mutual — all members of the Christian community prefer one another and submit to one another as a central component of their spirit-filled living. The old one-way street of authoritarian submission is being eradicated from the midst of the redeemed by the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and destroyed the age-old entrenchments of sin and death. In place of the death-producing cycles and structures of exploitation, domination, and violence, so common in Paul’s day, as well as our own, the Spirit of God is fashioning a community characterized by a gracious, loving, and radically counter-cultural mutuality. We all give and receive, sharing as together we sit around a common table. Imagine leaders submitting to followers, clergy submitting to lay persons, the old submitting to the young, parents submitting to children, veterans submitting to neophytes; and of course vice-versa. In such, the Church is caught up into the divine dance of Trinitarian love and delight—as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have eternally engaged in the joy of loving one another in mutual submission. Thus the Church becomes the image of the Divine Trinity, of Divine Love on earth, where “none is before, or after other; none is greater, or less than another” (Athanasian Creed).

In Ephesians 5:22, the text says, “wives to their own husbands.” The lack of a verb in the Greek text indicates that the verb is to be implied from somewhere else, in this case, from the previous verse. Therefore whatever it means for wives to “submit to their husbands” (and I am not arguing here for any particular view), it only functions as part of the larger mutual submission that is a mark of the Spirit-filled Christian community, and is merely one example of this mutual submission. As Paul goes on to talk about the relationships of wives and husbands, parents and children, slaves and masters—all of these relationships are re-understood in ways that significantly go against cultural convention. This all flows out of Paul’s understanding that whatever position one holds, as Christians we are all part of the larger loving mutual submission the Trinitarian community has impressed upon the life of the Church. Specifically regarding women, if somehow we manage to use verse 22 (wives be subject to their own husbands) to remove or relativize the radical call to mutual submission in verse 21, we must stand condemned as quenching the life the Spirit of the resurrection is desiring to bring into our communities as he overturns the power of sin and death with the love that makes all things new.


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2 Responses to Women and Submission in Ephesians 5 (Why Greek Matters Part 11)

  1. mary magdalena says:

    thank you! intelligent scholarship and discourse is always valued. there’s far too much of the other variety online. blessings at Easter.

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