The Elephant in the Egalitarian Room “wives submit in everything” Ephesians 5:24

Egalitarians often promote “mutual submission” in marriage and use Ephesians 5:21 for support.  Marg Mowczko makes a compelling argument from Scripture in support of mutual submission here.  While equal, mutual, “vice-versa” submission sounds like a great way to run a marriage,  is it really what Paul/God are saying in Ephesians 5? Personally, I am not sure the text supports this interpretation?  Ephesians 5:21 has a context; Ephesians 5:24 is the elephant in the room.

21Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. 22Wives,  unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 24Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Eph 5:21-24 (KJV)

Contextually, Ephesians 5:24 is a continuation of the thought started in Ephesians 5:21 and clarifies the nature and extent of the hupotasso (submission) Paul has in mind.  Furthermore, Paul’s two uses of hupotasso in this context (21 and 24) are a sandwich around his introduction of the head/body metaphor (23).  This head/body metaphor is key to understanding Paul’s intent.  In the immediate context of Ephesians 5, Paul maps the husband to the head and the wife to the body and refers to the couple thus organically connected as “one flesh” which harks back to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:24).

Ephesians 5:24 as rendered in various English Bible versions (source):

  • “wives should submit” (NIV, NLT, ESV)
  • “wives ought to be [subject to]” (NASB
  • “wives must be submissive” (ISV)
  • “wives are under their husbands’ authority in everything.” (GW)
  • “Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so [let] the wives [be] to their own husbands in every thing. (KJV)
    “so let the wives be” (AKJV, WBT)
    “so let the wives also be” (ERV, ASV, WEB)
  • “married women should be entirely submissive to their husbands.” (WNT)
  • “And as the church is under Christ’s authority, so let wives be under the rule of their husbands in all things.” (Bible in Basic English)

Doesn’t that sound like God commands a wife to “submit to her husband in everything”?
Doesn’t that sound like a wife is obligated to submit to him in order to be obedient and pleasing to God?
What Christian wife does not want to be obedient and pleasing to GOD???
If she has to suck it up and suffer, well, God must have His reasons, right???

That is how I heard and practiced the teaching for some 20+ years of marriage. Attractive as “mutual submission” sounds, the fact is that there is no  verse anywhere directed  to husbands commanding them to submit to their wives in everything.

How do egalitarians address Ephesians 5:24?

How do egalitarians address Ephesians 5:24?  Sometimes it is just overlooked with all the emphasis placed on 5:21 and “mutual submission”.  Sometimes the author, Paul, is dismissed as “chauvinistic”.  Sometimes the apparent obligation of wives to “submit in everything” is considered a historical anachronism which we can discard like slavery, head coverings, and holy kisses.

When I was a quiver full complementarian, I rejected all of those egalitarian explanations as wanting. I reasoned that the authority and timelessness of Scripture as “alive and active” and relevant to me, today would be undermined if Paul is referring only to the particular state of marriage in his first-century world.  For an egalitarian understanding of  Ephesians 5 through such a historical lens, see Kristen Rosser’s series “Is Marriage Really a Picture of Christ and the Church?”  Her grammatical analysis unveiling Paul’s chiasm  is most enlightening!

Co-blogger Kristen Rosser and I both accept that “wives ARE subject to their husbands in everything” .  Kristen understands this as a particular feature of marriage in the first century world contemporary to Paul.  My analysis takes it as a timeless statement because of the nature of the organic one-flesh unity of marriage, combined with the unique nature and circumstances of women.   We both see that it becomes incumbent on Christian husbands not to take advantage of the existence of this situation (whether historical or timeless)– which is why Paul emphasizes “LOVE your wives” so strongly.  In short, women being “subject” points to feminine vulnerability (historic? or timeless?)  that men are warned against exploiting.

So there I was, some 20+ years into my nearly 30 year marriage, attempting to live “submit to him in everything“.  My “submissive wife” lifestyle was killing me by degrees so I began to dig deeply using online Bible Study tools.

All of the  translations of Ephesians 5:24 quoted above add words and grammar which are not there in the Greek! The KJV at least brackets the added words so we realize they are additions.  Removing “let” and “be”  from the 6 translations  where they have been added renders them more faithful to the Greek text.

The grammar of the Greek verb hupotasso, translated “to submit” or “to be subject” is not imperative: it is not a command! The grammar of the Greek verb is passive/middle indicative[1 ] . The following two translations reflect this accurately:

Young’s Literal Translation
“but even as the assembly is subject to Christ, so also are the wives to their own husbands in everything.”
Darby Bible Translation
“But even as the assembly is subjected to the Christ, so also wives to their own husbands in everything.”

What is the significance of passive/middle indicative grammar? [1 ]  The context introduces the head/body metaphor.  I believe that the passive sense of the hupotasso verb accurately reflects the message Paul/God are conveying here.  The nature and extent of the connection and independence is likened unto the organic connection between a head and body.   The body “is subject” to the head “in everything”.   To grasp the passive nature and pervasive extent of “subject in everything” think about the feedback between your head and your heart.  There is no volition nor even consciousness involved on the part of the heart, nor is there agency involved on the part of the head.   See 1 Corinthians 12:12-27  for a similar “one to another” passive interpersonal vulnerability in Paul’s description of body life.

“Wives are subject to their husband in everything” Ephesians 5:24 is a description of a wife’s state of vulnerability to her husband (echoing the description in Genesis 3:16), not a prescription for wifely behavior. I am subject to my husband in everything like I am subject to gravity, without choice or volition on my part.  This intimate vulnerability comes with marriage and I think Ephesians 5:24 acknowledges that the extent of vulnerability is greater for wives who “are subject in everything“.

I am a submissive woman; submitting daily to my husband, children, and others.  But I do not submit to my husband in everything!   I attempted to do so for over 20 years of my nearly 30 year marriage and it is physically impossible and emotionally deadening.

In my experience, the burden laid on the backs of Evangelical Christian wives that they must “submit in everything” is too heavy to bear, nearly destroyed our marriage, and robbed my husband of his ezer (meet/equal help).

~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1]You can verify the passive indicative parsing for yourself by looking above the hupotasso verb in Ephesians 5:24 at http://interlinearbible.org/ephesians/5.htm.  Guidelines for understanding the implications of voice and mood can be found at http://ntgreek.org/  and  Wallace and Mounce.  Greek Grammar. “Passive Voice”.  Web. 30 April 2012.

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12 Responses to The Elephant in the Egalitarian Room “wives submit in everything” Ephesians 5:24

  1. kmb says:

    Charis:
    I often read you comments on various blogs. They are always very thought provoking. I don’t support the comp view or the egalitarian. I think that both have valid points, and both have major flaws. Anyway, I do believe that a wife should submit, cooperate and yield to her own husband, but within reason. The “in everything” is where the major problem lies. I often hear teachings that admonish wives to submit to their husbands in sin, foolishness, or destructive behaviors. That is totally unbiblical and refutes a wife’s central purpose as Ezer.

    My former husband believed that a wife should submit to everything: psychological abuse, porn, the way he reared our son via poor role modeling, his willingness to commit adultery, etc. He didn’t believe that he should be held accountable at all and any disagreement was a sign of disrespect. He believed that everything meant everything. Sort like Phil 4:13, I can do everything through Christ that strengthens me. Common sense would suggest that the everything here doesn’t literally me everything. Christ never strengthens us to sin or act foolishly or destructively.

  2. Charis says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights, KMB, and I’m sorry that you were hurt by this passage being used as a club. 😦

    I looked up Phil 4:13 and the Greek pas=everything, all things is the same there as in Eph 5:24. You have a valid point about the extent of “everything”.

    Unfortunately for me, as a literalistic, fundamentalist Christian who believed that women are weak, easily deceived, and have no business attempting to understand Scriptures for ourselves, I accepted the translations at face value and presumed that GOD WANTED me to be submissive to my husband IN EVERYTHING. I have had many of the same experiences as you have with my husband and I failed to stand up to him as I should have.

    Once I came out from under “wife submit” doctrine, I have been able to be assertive about boundaries (I am not willing to live with him and subject myself and my household to the garbage truck ride anymore). My husband had a choice to make at that point and he decided to give up the addictions rather than the marriage. ALL credit goes to him for that and I’m sorry your husband chose to remain prodigal. 😦 If my husband had not repented (as in made a 180 turn away from his crapola) I would not have a blog about “marriage”, I would have one about a therapeutic “head” amputation (like Ida Mae)

    Warmly, Charis

  3. kmb says:

    Amen! As usual, you just tell it like it is and I continually appreciate that. The truth is truly healing and encouraging!

  4. Ida Mae says:

    Therapeutic head amputation– HA! That is stinkin’ hilarious!

    (and also way true 🙂 )

  5. Angela says:

    It’snt huptassomai in the middle voice making it a voluntary action.

  6. Charis says:

    If you look here: http://interlinearbible.org/ephesians/5.htm you will see hypotassomenoi in verse 21 is “present participle middle or passive“. I believe it is best understood in the passive sense.

  7. daishaversaw says:

    I linked over here from your comment at Ruby slippers, and this makes a lot of sense to me. It always seemed odd the way that passage is read considering it was addressed to a culture where women were treated more like property than people and were clearly already subject to their husbands. It seemed funny that Paul would go out of his way to tell them to submit. It’s like the equivalent of commanding a worm to crawl in the dirt. Why would you tell a creature to do something it was already doing – something it just had to do anyway. So, what you are saying is that it may more accurately be the equivalent of stating “worms crawl in the dirt”? Kind of? If so, it makes more sense.

    Another way I have looked at it (and I am not a theologian – just a person trying to understand) is in terms of external vs. internal submission. I think this applies in a very mutual sense (submitting to each other). It seems like a theme of scripture is that it is focused on our hearts as the source of our actions rather than our actions apart from our hearts. In my fundamentalist background this passage was expressed in so many external ways: women staying home with the kids, homeschooling, not preaching or teaching, etc. But, for me finding an attitude of true respect and love – and submission – toward my husband has meant shedding a lot of those external things and both of us focusing on shifting our hearts toward each other.

    Thanks for leaving that comment that lead me here. Lots to think about!

  8. Charis says:

    daisha,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful comment and for understanding so well why it just doesn’t sit right the way it has traditionally been taught…

    Your worm analogy is a good word picture. The character of God does not change with culture and the assumption that he COMMANDED the lowest of the low to bite the dirt even more, well, that assumption sorely misrepresents Him. It wasn’t until I became deeply in touch with His intense love for me that I understood that God’s heart toward wives is obscured by bad teaching on “submission”.

    Sharing the fundamentalist background, you would probably identify with another great blog I read recently: ex-good-christian-women

  9. kmb says:

    The idea of a wife submitting to her husband was not a new one. It had been taught from Genesis throughout the Bible. When Paul taught about a wife’s duty to submit to her husband, he was merely recapping an age old teaching. However, he had to spell it out for husbands. (Ephesians 5:25-32) This was a revolutionary concept for husbands. It had never been taught like that before. Some might say “love your neighbor as yourself” had been taught before (Luke 10:27). But that was the problem. Husbands were expressing love for their neighbors outside of the home, while regarding their wives as mere maids and sex objects.

    King Xerxes did this to Vashti. She refused to submit to his foolish, drunken request. Jewish tradition says that he instructed her to appear nude. We can’t be sure whether he requested her nude or not. Either way, asking her to flaunt her beauty in the presence of other drunken men was not modest or safe. She most likely feared for her safety and knew the value of modesty. She refused to promote lust. The king’s self serving friends were angered by her refusal and encouraged him to exile her, and he did.

    This is a prime example of how many husbands use their position of power to abuse defenseless wives. It’s also an example of how many husbands express love for their neighbors and friends outside the home, while treating their wives with utter cruelty. This is exactly why Paul needed to spell out (Ephesians 5:25-32) for husbands.

    Bathsheba – another woman who had been the victim of a king’s abuse of power – gave Solomon this wise advice:

    It is not for kings, O Lemuel, to guzzle wine. Rulers should not crave alcohol. For if they drink, they may forget the law
    and not give justice to the oppressed (Pro 31:4-5).

    That’s exactly what happened between Vashti and her husband. He got drunk and forgot his duty to love, honor, and protect his wife.

    I can personally identify with Vashti. In the latter years of my marriage, my former husband developed a very expensive porn addiction. He told me that his brother and his wife watched porn together all the time, and that he felt we should do the same. When I refused, he became angry. Long story short, that was one of the contributing factors that lead to the demise of the marriage. Our marriage was wounded by his willingness to listen to his brother rather showing love and respect for wife. Sound familiar? Isn’t that exactly what Vasthi experienced? When I read about Vashti, I realize that I’m not the first woman in the world to experience this. Unfortunately, I won’t be the last. Yet, I’m still standing, surviving, even thriving because of the loving kindness of Jesus Christ.

  10. kmb says:

    I guess my point with all that is the focus in Eph 5 is on a husband’s responsibility to love. The submission verses were merely a recap of an age teaching that was already in place.

  11. Charis says:

    kmb,
    Did your ex-husband profess to be a Christian?
    Just curious since my Christian husband struggled with that addiction as well.

    I agree, the passage focuses heavily on a husband’s responsibility to love. BTW, Paul does use “command” grammar (repeatedly) with the agape/”love” verb. (which observation IME is unpopular with egalitarians AND complementarians).

  12. kmb says:

    Charis,
    Yes, my ex did/does profess to be Christian. He attended church and read the Bible on regular basis. Yet, his behavior was not consistent with that of a growing Christian. His behavior got noticeably worse each passing year. Someone suggested to me that he was an unbeliever. That just didn’t have a ring of truth to me being that he attended church and read the Bible on a regular basis. Then, I read about fruitless Christians: 1 Cor 5:9-12, James 2:19-20 Living Translation. That made more sense for me.

    We were married for almost 15 very difficult years. That porn addiction turned into physical adultery. The straw that finally broke the camel’s back for me was when I stumbled upon my ex watching porn with our preteen son in the room. He never ever took responsibility for the incident and rather blamed it on our son.

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