by Ron Hessel | 4 April 2023 |
A friend told me, “Ephesians 5:22 in the original Greek doesn’t tell women they have to ‘submit.’ The word isn’t there.”
“That can’t be true,” I thought. “It’s right there in the text!” So I pulled my Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek Bible off the shelf (the edition that is the basis of most modern Bible translations) and looked it up.
He was right. The word “submit” isn’t in that verse.
You can look it up yourself. Google it. Or check it on the Greek versions on Biblegateway.com. The word for “submit” in Greek is “hupotassomenoi,” or in the Greek script, ‘uποτασσóμενοι.
You won’t see it there.
Yes, in English it says, “Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” But in the original Greek it simply says, “Wives to your own husbands as to the Lord.”
So how did it come to say “submit?” The translators felt a verb was needed in this clause, so they borrowed the verb from the previous sentence and repeated it.
I’m not making this up. Study it for yourself.
Unpacking the passage
Ephesians 5:21-32 is a passage of three parts, but it must be interpreted as a unit.
- The thesis of the passage is in vs. 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Here is where the Greek word for “submit” is used.
- Women are addressed in vss. 22-25: “Wives, here is how you are to submit.”
- Men are addressed in the remaining verses of the chapter, as in “Husbands, here is how you are to submit.”
The problem isn’t that the translators borrowed the word “submit” from verse 21 and supplied it in verse 22. But it would be illogical to give it more weight in vs 22, where it is only implied, than it has in vs 21, where it is stated as a matter of mutual submission. “Submit to one another” is, in context, a stronger statement than “Wives, submit to your husbands.”
But here’s the important point: If “submit” is implied for wives in vs. 22, it is also implied for husbands in vs. 26. There is a very weak basis (if any at all) to insert it into vs 22 unless you also insert it into verse 26. Why supply that verb for women, but not realize that the same action would be expected of husbands in vs 26? After all, context, based on the thesis statement at the beginning about mutual submission, indicates that that is what Paul intended.
So why isn’t it translated that way? Perhaps because most of the translators throughout history have been men, who conveniently added it in one place, and then left it out in another, at their discretion.
It is because of translators’ decisions that some believe we now have a mandate for women to submit, but not men.
Men as head of the church
Then there is vs 23. “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” This verse is used to say that men should be leaders of the church and not women.
Except that it doesn’t say that at all. Paul says that you are to lead as Christ did. How did Christ lead? He lived the life of a servant leader, and then he died for the church. You sacrifice—that is, submit yourself to—your wife.
It is saying nothing about who is or is not suitable to lead the church. It is saying how men are to submit to their wives: with the same kind of sacrifice that Christ did for the world.
As for church hierarchy, nothing else is suggested here. My being the senior pastor in my church doesn’t say that I’m the only person with capabilities for it, or that all other pastors would be incapable. If I lead as Christ does, I do it by being a capable teacher and sacrificing myself so those who work with me, like the apostles in the early church, can carry on after me and, if necessary, replace me.
Again, how can I so confidently say that this is the way to interpret this passage? Because vs 21 is the thesis of the passage, the first place the word “submit” is used. And there it says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Paul is not saying that women should only submit to men. The thesis text says that we submit to each other.
We have been guilty, I believe, of neglecting the context to suit our preconceived ideas.
Here is how I see Paul developing the argument. Throughout Ephesians he teaches unity. He emphasizes that hierarchical leadership has no place within the newly founded Christian church, culminating in Ephesians 4:1-6.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
He illustrates submitting to one another by showing how wives should submit to their godly husbands. And then—possibly with a twinkle in his eye—he says to the men, here is what submission means for a Christian man: you metaphorically die the death on the cross, the lowest of deaths, for your wives and for the church. (If this had been said to us the first time by somebody in English, I think we might have seen it as Paul’s humor.)
Dying on the cross was a disgraceful way to die. And that is the submission that we are to take to one another, according to verse 21. It is (contrary to what some say) the position we men are to take to our wives and our church: not the head, but the servant. There is, it seems to me, no evidence that we are to claim any right of leadership over our wives or over the church. This verse tells us the exact opposite. We protect and we love by our willingness to metaphorically die for one another.
I can see Paul smiling as he offers this outrageous paradox.
And what have we done with it? We have turned it on its head and made it say the exact opposite of what Paul intended. We have taken Paul’s statement that men take a submissive role—like Christ’s death on the cross—and made it say that men are to lord it over others in dominating women and the church. Seriously?
We wonder why the Jews thought Christ was going to come as a conquering king instead of a suffering servant. We can’t imagine how they could read the exact opposite from what is plainly stated in scripture.
And yet, on this subject at least, we do the very same thing. We read the exact opposite of what is intended.
This is how clever the devil is. Not only does he get us to turn biblical counsel on its head, but he convinces a majority of the church to believe that patriarchy is a matter of orthodoxy, and that by allowing women to be ordained and making men bosses over their wives, that we are opposing God—when, in fact, it is the evil one who has been leading us to misinterpret scripture and treat women unequally all along. And a majority of the church has convinced enough of us not to trust those who are reading this correctly.
I fear we make God cry.
Ron Hessel is a pastor working for Summit Northwest Ministries in the Upper Columbia Conference.