By Heather Althoff, ThM (Dallas Seminary), LifeWay Church – Missions Pastor
This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.
Part 15B: What Does the Bible Say? The Disputed Passages, Eph 5 (continued)
A Second Look at Ephesians 5:21-33, continued
Last week we considered some difficulties around interpreting the meanings of ‘headship’ and marriage. Now we will continue into the issues around ‘submission’ as a term that seems to create some of the most confusion in understanding and application.
Submission is a tough term for our independent-minded American culture. Really, it is a tough idea for anyone who prefers the idea of choice or self-determination. However, there is no doubt that the Bible challenges Christ-followers to place the needs and desires of others above their own, and to submit themselves to one another in this way. The initial question in Ephesians 5 is whether wives are directed to submit to their husbands in a way that is distinct?
For some scholars, the grammar of the Greek sentence is telling. In Greek, verses 18-23 are all one, long sentence with the main verb being the imperative “Be filled with the Spirit” in verse 18. Verses 19-21 contain a string of modifying participles giving examples of what it looks like to be filled with the Spirit: speaking to one another in psalms, hymns…, singing and hymning to the Lord from the heart…, thanking our God and Father always…, and submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. Verse 22 does not contain a Greek verb, so it reads something like this: “and wives, to your husbands…” It would be common to use the force of the preceding verb, in this case, “submitting”. However, some scholars note that the verb should not mean something different in verse 22 than it does in verse 21, so they would argue that the wife’s submission is simply an example of the mutual submission described in the previous verse. These same scholars often note that authority is not explicitly mentioned in Ephesians 5, nor does the New Testament ever instruct a husband to lead or have authority.
Others argue that wives submit to husbands in a distinct way that is connected the God-ordained “roles” of men and women at Creation. They note that wives are told to submit to their husbands in everything, implying the husband’s authority and leadership in everything. They see this as further supported by the analogy between the husband’s sacrificial service and Christ’s sacrificial service for the sake of his Church (and Christ clearly has authority over the church as well).
The precise meaning of the Greek term, again, is a source of disagreement. The word that is usually translated “submit” is the Greek verb hupotasso. While it can certainly mean “obey” or “submit oneself to authority,” some scholars have noted that it generally takes this tone when used in situations of recognized hierarchical authority—usually in military settings. A second meaning is widely recognized in non-canonical writings of this period. When used in non-hierarchical settings, the term hupotasso is commonly translated as “support” or “uphold”. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon describes the non-military use of the word as “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.”[i] Practically, the actions of the wife may or may not look any different between these two renderings of hupotasso. However, the difference, in some cases, may be found in whether the actions resulted from a hierarchical obligation or from a voluntary attitude of cooperation. The problem is that each reader’s view of hierarchy within marriage is reinforced by the corresponding meaning of hupotasso. If a hierarchy is assumed, the meaning of hupotasso could support it. However, if hierarchy within marriage is not assumed, the meaning of hupotasso could also support that view. As with many of our disputed passages, a careful assessment of our own assumptions is crucial.
Though we’ve barely scratched the surface on the differing interpretive concerns around Ephesians 5, I hope you’ve gotten a taste for where the difficulties arise as you dive further into your own study. Here are a few places to start:
Burk, Denny. Does Ephesians 5 Teach Mutual Submission?, Center for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Blog Post, August 21, 2019
Knight III, George W. “Husbands and Wives as Analogues of Christ and the Church” pgs. 165-178 in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Crossway 1991
Fee, Gordon. The Cultural Context of Ephesians 5:18-6:9. Is there a divinely ordained hierarchy in the life of the church and home that is based on gender alone? Priscilla Papers, Publication Date: 2002-01-31. Journal Volume: 16. Issue: 1. Season: Winter.
Mowczko, Marg. Kephale and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters, Blog Post, September 18, 2011
Other short posts on Marg Mowczko’s blog:
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33, Blog Post, April 30, 2012 https://margmowczko.com/pauls-main-point-in-eph-5_22-33/
Wives, Mothers, and Female Masters in the NT Household Codes, Blog Post, March 31, 2015 https://margmowczko.com/the-household-codes-and-male-slaves-with-female-masters/
The Household Codes Are About Power, Not Gender, Blog Post, February 27, 2019 https://margmowczko.com/household-codes-power-not-gender/
For Discussion: How do you understand ‘submission’ and why? How have you understood its application in your own life?
This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track. Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member. Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.