I think a lot of people learn ancient Greek in order to read the New Testament for themselves. That wasn’t my primary motivation, but it was certainly on my mind. For the most part, I haven’t found any great insights into Scripture by reading it in the original. I suppose that’s to the credit of our translations. The other day, though, I did notice something that I found rather interesting.
Ephesians 5:22, as we all know, says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” That’s the New International Version. The New Revised Standard Version says, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” Both the English Standard Version and the New King James say, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Translation after translation carries the imperative: submit, submit, submit.
It’s the sort of thing that we often find embarrassing, and many a sermon has been preached on just what Biblical “submission” means, and how it really isn’t that bad. The exegete might grab onto the phrase “as to the Lord” to differentiate this submission from abject subjugation. Or the sermon might focus on the later verses, about how husbands are called to “give themselves up” for their wives. I’ve grown up with these sorts of sermons all my life, and while I think they are morally sound as far as they go and on firm textual footing, there’s something I noticed just recently that I don’t think I’ve ever quite heard before.
Ephesians 5:22 doesn’t say, “Submit.”
I don’t mean that in the original, “submit” isn’t in the imperative. I mean that the word “submit” isn’t in the verse at all. In point of fact, Ephesians 5:22 doesn’t even have a verb. What it actually says is, “the wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.” This is not a sentence in Greek any more than it is in English. This should give the reader pause, and perhaps put him in mind that Ephesians 5:22 is not an appropriate place to begin a citation.
So where is an appropriate place to begin the citation? I don’t actually think that’s very clear. This may be surprising, and lest we think poorly of our translators, I think a short digression is in order.
The issue of how to break up sentences is not quite so trivial as it might first appear. Ephesians was written prior to the adoption of punctuation, so we must infer punctuation from content. Oftentimes this is reasonably straightforward, but there are times when it isn’t. Ancient Greek is also fairly fond of embedded clauses and phrases and the like. For instance, you might encounter a sentence with a structure like this:
“Hesitating on the front stoop, holding each option in his mind and considering whether to knock or to leave, he entered the house.”
Even without the punctuation, this is fairly obviously a sentence. If you know enough English, you can identify that by the presence of the verb (“entered”), and you can infer that the preceding clauses and phrases relate to the main clause. But suppose you had a sentence like the following:
“hesitating on the front stoop holding each option in his mind and considering whether to knock or to leave he entered the house with trepeditation looking this way and that trying to make as little noise as possible he crept through the empty rooms”
Is that one sentence? Is it two? Is it two, with a fragment of a third? There are multiple ways that you could punctuate the passage above that are equally correct, even if the actual meaning of the passage is quite clear.
Now imagine that what I have written is not actually English but another language, one in which my stringing together so many gerund phrases is not bad style. If asked to translate that, you might actually take some of my gerunds and turn them into verbs. For instance, you might render it like this:
“He hesitated on the front stoop, holding each option in his mind. Considering whether to knock or to leave, he entered the house with trepidation. He looked this way and that, trying to make as little noise as possible, and crept through the empty rooms.”
And that might not be a bad translation at all, at least for general purposes. Even though it isn’t exactly “word for word,” it flows much better, and that’s not a quality to be despised in a translation when none of the meaning has been lost.
In the case of Ephesians 5:22, though, I submit that this practice has resulted (all inadvertently, I am sure) in some meaning being lost. So let us return to that passage. Let me back up to what I think is the clear start of a sentence and refuse to impose any punctuation after that. Keeping the verb forms as close to their original as possible, I would translate that block of text (Ephesians 5:15-30) like this:
“Look extremely closely how you walk not as unwise but rather as wise buying out the moment because the days are painful through this do not become foolish but rather understand this the will of the lord and do not become drunk with wine in which is wastefulness but rather be full in spirit saying to each other psalms and hymns and spiritual songs singing and strumming your hearts to the lord thanking always above all god the father in the name of our lord jesus christ submitting to each other in fear of christ the wives to their own husbands as to the lord because a husband is the head of his wife as christ is the head of the church himself the savior of the body but rather as the church submits to christ so also the wives to their husbands in all things husbands love your wives just as christ loved the church and himself gave for her in order that she be cleansed purified in a bath of water in the word so that he might stand her esteemed the church not having either spot or wrinkle or any such thing but rather so that sacred and blameless in this manner the husbands must love their own wives as their own bodies he loving his wife as himself for nobody ever hated his own flesh but rather rears and warms it just as christ the church that we are limbs of his body …”
And so it goes on. You can probably see several places where you might put punctuation in that block of text. One thing I don’t think you can get around, though, is this: “the wives to their husbands as to the lord” is grammatically tied up with “submitting to each other in fear of Christ.” That is where our translators feel they have license to insert the word “submit” into Ephesians 5:22, and you can see that for most general purposes it isn’t a bad translational choice at all. Moreover, all translations are careful to keep Ephesians 5:21 reading something like “… submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.”
What I think is particularly noteworthy, though, is that the omission of the verb from 5:22 makes it clear (to me, at least) that this whole notion of wives submitting to their own husbands is simply an illustration of the larger point about everybody submitting to one another. In other words, while it is true that wives are told to submit to their own husbands, it is equally true that husbands are told to submit to their wives, and in fact that all Christians are told to submit to each other.
I am hardly the first person to have noticed that, but seeing where the verbs are (and are not) casts the various teachings I have heard about submission in a new light. In light of this new, more nuanced reading, I think it is clear that when we exegete this passage by pointing out that the “submission” referred to cuts both ways between married persons, we aren’t just making frantic excuses for an inherently misogynist text. We are instead correctly pointing out that the thrust of the text is not on wives at all, but on the entire body of believers living in a state of submission. And that too makes clear that when we talk about “submission” in lofty spiritual terms and pooh-pooh the notion of a wife being subject to her husband’s reign as a mere strawman, we actually aren’t just whistling in the dark. If the entire church is supposed to be submitted one to another, then the “submission” being referred to really can’t be some misogynist subjugation. Everybody can’t be subjugated to everybody else. So if everybody is “submitted” to everybody else, then clearly something less literal than subjugation must be going on.
And although it’s been said many times by other people, I suppose at this point it might be appropriate for me to offer up my own short exegesis about what this “submission” is, if the context of the passage precludes it from being literal subjugation.
The main thing I get from this block of text vis a vis “submission” is that it is a desirable state for the entire church. But what else can we tell about it? It seems to be contrasted with the wastefulness (dissipation, if you like) of being an alcoholic. Rather than that, Paul says, we should be filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to each other, singing and making our hearts thrum (psallontes the heart, playing it like a stringed instrument), giving thanks and submitting to one another. To me, all these gerunds, with their musical imagery, sound like they are being arrayed to describe the same thing, a sort of spiritual harmony among persons. But what has submitting to do with music, or harmony? At this juncture we might safely observe that the word “submitting,” hupotassetai, means “arraying under,” as one might “array” things in an orderly fashion, such as a body of troops - we might observe this etymology without fear of being told we are simply making excuses for the obvious misogynist meaning of the text (we might also observe that another use of this verb is "to place in the shelter of"). This idea of arraying ourselves under one another strengthens my opinion that the concept Paul is trying to get across is not subjugation, one to another, but rather harmony and interleaving with each other.
Still, of course, Paul does say, “the wives to their husbands as to the Lord, because a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church, himself the savior of the body.” So very well, we might object - insofar as husbands and wives are a subset of everybody, clearly husbands are told to place themselves in harmony with their wives. And then wives are told to place themselves in harmony with their husbands, because a husband is the head of his wife. What are we to make of that? We might observe that the very next words (in the same sentence?) are, “But rather as the church submits to Christ, just so also the wives to their husbands in all things.”
We are starting to get far afield from the point of this post, which is that “modern” interpretations of submission as some sort of spiritual harmony rather than misogynist subjugation are in fact much more grounded in the text than they might first appear. But to carry things through to conclusion, at this point we really must confront the issue of just how the church submits to Christ. If we imagine that Christ is the head of the church in that he gets to tell the Church what to do and what not to do and sets punishments for the church when it contravenes his words, then I suppose we really are in trouble. But I don’t think that is either a textually or historically correct view of Christ’s relationship with the church. Paul does not define Christian morality in terms of obedience to Christ’s dictates (not that Christ had a great many moral dictates in the first place, so far as we know), but rather in terms of reaction to being. We are the church, and therefore we act in a certain way. I don’t want to further digress by backing up that assertion with other examples from the Pauline corpus, but even the text before us, which has a certain moralistic cast (talking about how best to live life in the moment), has nothing to do with what Christ tells the church to do. If the reader can accept this morality-from-status assertion for now (cf. Ephesians 5:1-14, the lead-in to this whole thing, which also ties direct exhortation towards specific moral behavior not to the command of Christ, but to the status of the believer), we may observe that this is a perfectly unobjectionable way for a married woman to model her life. She alters her behavior, to the extent that she alters it, not because her husband tells her to do anything, but simply because she is married to the man she chose to marry. We might object if he were ordering her about, but it would be quixotic if she chose to marry him and that choice meant nothing to the way she acted.
And yet, I think, the egalitarian (feminist, if you like) objection to this passage is not so much that it envisions a husband as his wife’s dictator so much as that it envisions the husband as superior to the wife at all (even if that superiority doesn’t involve subjugation). The response I am used to in sermons to this objection is essentially incredulity: a reader who seriously thinks that Christ, or even Paul, teaches that men are superior to women must simply not be very familiar with the whole body of our extant texts. And I do think there is something to that. It is difficult to imagine that the man who wrote that there is neither man nor woman in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28) believed that in the proper Godly order of things, men were superior to women.
Still, let us consider the text before us in light of this objection. It must be admitted, for one thing, that Paul uses different language towards husbands and wives. Even if we don’t believe those exhortations to set up an inherent superior-inferior relationship, they aren’t literally the same. Neither does Paul say, "... submitting to one another in fear of Christ, husbands and wives to each other ..." or something like that.
On the subject of sameness, however, we might observe that the principle relationship between Christ and the church in this passage is that the church is the same flesh as Christ: “That we are the limbs of his body,” it says; and earlier, “himself the savior of the body.” Paul is not here just trotting out his familiar turn of phrase for the church, “the body of Christ.” He spends some time discussing how, through Christ’s sacrifice of himself, the church becomes to Christ as Christ himself. “Loving his wife as himself,” he says, “for nobody ever hated his own flesh.” Again, the theme of spiritual harmony - and, significantly, of equality (indeed, identity).
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the church is Christ in all respects, indistinguishable from God himself. Rather, I want to point out what Paul is pointing out. Paul is plainly using Christ’s relationship with the church as a metaphor here, and I think it is an uncontroversial assertion that when one uses a metaphor, one intends only to highlight certain similarities and not others. When Lincoln used the metaphor of birth for the American War for Independence in the Gettysburg Address, he did not mean that the Revolution was like birth in all respects. Figuring out in what respects a metaphor applies and in what respects it does not (for instance, presumably Lincoln did intend his birth metaphor to express the idea that a new entity was created through a tumultuous, blood-soaked process, but did not intend to express the idea that the new entity was incapable of existing on its own and would in fact be dependent upon its mother for a very long time, or that the new entity was incapable of rational thought) is something we have to do from context.
Here, Paul spends all of his words highlighting one particular similarity: that Christ went through a great deal of personal trouble vis a vis humanity in order to bring about a state of such harmony between man and God that humanity could be, as it were, Christ’s own flesh. We might expound on other similarities between Christ-and-church and husband-and-wife, but this is the similarity that Paul is expounding, and I submit that if we take it farther than that we are simply riffing on our own. To bring the metaphor home, the text here is saying that husbands should love their wives in such a way that they expend great effort, and brave what hazards may be, in order to bring about such a state of harmony with their wives that they are as inseparable as a person from his own body. Is that something that only a husband can do, while the wife simply waits to be integrated? I don't think so. As every married person knows, after all, the process of altering your identity in light of your spouse - that which "the wives" are called to do - is not only an exceptionally active one, it is the very means by which two spouses harmonize with and become inseparable from each other. The metaphors used when talking about wives and husbands are different, but the actual activity described is the same: husband and wife achieving a state of profound harmony, a metaphorical oneness. So I am not really very comfortable saying that the text here is setting up some kind of second-class citizen status for wives.
So what are we left with? We begin with a depiction of “submission” as an example of the mystic sort of harmony that is supposed to hold sway among all believers, which should put us off the idea that “submission” means subjugation right away. Paul then goes on to give two more particular examples of what this sort of submission looks like, or perhaps applications of the principle. It is, he says, the sort of thing that causes wives to care that they are married to their own husbands (and here I think we perhaps see why the text bothers to say “their own husbands,” instead of simply “their husbands,” as some translations have it - implicit in this profound, life-shaping recognition of choice is the fact that this man, and not just any man, is the one that I married). It is, he says, the sort of thing that causes husbands to chance any consequences in the goal of achieving profound marital oneness.
As I said, these are far from original thoughts, and I hope that they are old hat to anybody who reads this. But I also hope that, having read this, the reader may feel more confident that these are not attempts to dodge the real thrust of the passage, motivated by a modernist or feminist desire to twist the words of Scripture away from their original antiquated misogyny. They are the real thrust of the passage, and it is those who have attempted (and attempt) to use the text to justify misogyny who do the twisting.