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).
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.