Paul’s alleged command in Ephesians 5:22, “Wives submit to your husbands,” forms the foundation of the complementarian view that husbands must exercise authority over their wives in Christian marriage.[i] This supposed command is often supplemented and reinforced by headings that have been added to the biblical text by translators. Immediately above Ephesians 5:22 in the Open Bible: New King James Version, for example, we read the heading, “Wives: Submit to Your Husbands.” The New American Standard Version adds yet another statement of obligation directed exclusively to wives in Ephesians 5:24: “But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.”
In the oldest available Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (Parchment 46 and Codex Vaticanus), Ephesians 5:22 does not say, “Wives submit to your husbands.”[ii] Neither the heading, “Wives Submit to Your Husbands,” nor the additional phrase in Ephesians 5:24 telling wives that they “ought to be” submissive can be found in any Greek manuscripts whatsoever.
In this passage, the apostle Paul introduces the idea of “submission” in Ephesians 5:21. After telling all Christians to “be filled with the Spirit” in Ephesians 5:18, he then explains what this will look like: “submitting one to another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). In other words, all Christians who are filled with the Holy Spirit are to relate to one another with Christ-like humility and a willingness to serve. Ephesians 5:22 then adds the phrase “wives to your husbands” as an example of what this mutual submission will look like.
In grammatical terms “be filled with the Spirit” is the imperative verb; “submitting one to another” is a participle phrase (that describes being filled with the Spirit); and “wives to your husbands” is yet another phrase that qualifies “submitting one to another” by providing an example. Simply put, “wives to your husbands” is not a complete sentence; it cannot stand on its own as a separate command. There is no new and separate command directed only to wives. Patriarchal translators create the illusion that there are two different kinds of commands–one in Ephesians 5:21 directed to all Christians, and another in Ephesians 5:22 directed exclusively to wives. The added command appears to reinforce a gender-based hierarchy in Christian homes. It is important to recognize that this is not grammatically possible in the Greek text of the oldest available manuscripts. It is only possible if a second imperative verb is inserted into verse 22.[iii] The submission that exists in marriage from wives to husbands is one example of the humility and loving service that all Christians who are filled with the Spirit are called upon to demonstrate.
In Ephesians 5:24 Paul does not tell wives that they “ought to be” submissive to their husbands. Rather, he makes an observation regarding “the way things were” in ancient Greek, Roman and Jewish cultures. The verb he uses in verse 24 in reference to wives is “hupotassetai” (are subject); it is a present, indicative, middle or passive verb. When understood in the passive voice, it is not a command; rather, it is used to describe something as it already is.[iv] The same verb, in the same tense, mood and voice is used in Luke 10:20: “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject (hupotassetai) to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (NASB). The disciples discovered that unclean spirits “were subject” to them, in Jesus’ name. This was not a command; it was an observation. The same verb, in the same tense, mood and voice is used again in 1 Corinthians 14:32: “and the spirits of prophets are subject (hupotassetai) to prophets” (NASB). Paul is explaining that a prophet’s spirit “is subject” to him or her. This means that people have control over when and how they might prophesy. Again, this is an observation, not a command.
When the biblical authors talk about what someone “should” or “ought” to do, they typically make use of the Greek words “opheilo” or “dei.”[v] One example of such a statement is found in Luke 13:14: “But the synagogue official, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, began saying to the crowd in response, ‘There are six days in which work should (dei) be done ; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day.’” The teachers of the Law are telling people how they “should” behave. They are talking about a legal obligation, expectation or command. They are telling people what to do. Another example is found in Luke 18:1: “Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought (dein) to pray and not to lose heart” (NASB). Jesus was telling his disciples what they “ought to” do. He is giving them instructions that they are meant to follow.
Paul’s use of hupotassetai (are subject) with regard to wives in Ephesians 5:24 is the same as Luke’s use of the same word regarding unclean spirits and the spirits of the prophets. In these texts, the Greek words opheilo and dei are absent. Translators of the NASB version of the Bible acknowledge that they have added the phrase “ought to be” to the text of Ephesians 5:24. [vi] This phrase is not found in any Greek manuscripts of this passage.[vii] Paul is not telling wives what they “ought to” do; rather he is describing a situation that already existed at the time he wrote his letter.
To understand the situation Paul is referring to, it is helpful to become familiar with the Greco-Roman and Jewish literature of the New Testament era, concerning the relationship between husbands and wives. According to Greek philosophy, which was embraced throughout the Roman Empire, a man was indeed the “lord” of his household, and women were “subject” to his authority. According to Aristotle, women were to be viewed as the slaves and possessions of a man.[viii] A similar view of women was proposed by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria.[ix] In the eyes of 1st century Greeks, Romans and Jews, men did indeed exercise lordship over women, children and slaves.
This is the culture Paul is addressing in his letter, and he correctly observes that wives “are subject” to husbands. Instead of affirming this role, however, Paul says something very different; he tells husbands to imitate the love of Jesus, who laid aside his divine authority to make himself a servant: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25, NIV). Unlike the passive verb Paul uses to describe the pre-existing submission of wives, the verb directed towards husbands is present, active and imperative. Simply put, it is a command. Paul is indeed telling husbands what they “ought to do.” In fact, he uses this exact language not with wives, but rather with husbands in Ephesians 5:28: “So ought [ophelousin] husbands to love their wives.” This is not a command that Greek, Roman or Jewish men would have been accustomed to hearing. Men filled with the Spirit, however, would “submit” themselves to other Christians–including women, including their wives: “submitting one to another out of reverence for Christ.”
In its original language and cultural context, how might we understand the apostle Paul’s overall message in Ephesians 5:18-28? Be filled with the Spirit, submitting one to another, just as wives do to husbands, and just as the church does to Christ. Husbands, you ought also to love and serve your wives, just as Christ loved and served the church, giving His life for her on the cross.
A patriarchal/complementarian reading of Ephesians 5:21-28 rejects the notion of mutual submission in Christian marriage. It insists that just as Jesus was the Lord and Master of the church, so too must a husband be lord and master of his wife. In other words, according to patriarchal theology, it is the “lordship” of Jesus that husbands are told to imitate in marriage.
Jesus fills many roles in his relationship to the church. He is our “Lord.” He is our High Priest. He is the Good Shepherd. He is our Teacher. He is the Chief Cornerstone of God’s living temple, the church. He made himself a servant and was obedient to the point of death on the cross to atone for our sins. Among all of these aspects of Christ’s ministry on earth, husbands are told to imitate only one:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind–yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27, NRSV)
Husbands, love your wives, make yourselves a servant, just as Christ loved and served the church, even to the point of death on a cross.
The apostle Paul teaches the same principle of mutual servanthood in his letter to the Philippians:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave [doulos],
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV)
Christians seeking to have “lordship” over others in the faith are firmly rebuked by our Saviour:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28, NIV)
Jesus reminds his followers that they have One Leader, and that is Christ alone. All of Jesus’ followers are “siblings” and “equals”:
Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Matthew 23:10-11, NASB)
Every Christian is called to love as Christ has loved us (John 13:35). In the body of Christ, and in Christian homes, husbands are called to love, not to be lords over their wives.
(From Chapter 5 of “The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ from the Oppression of Patriarchy”)
[i] In his online article entitled “The Myth of Mutual Submission,” Complementarian Wayne Grudem claims, “the Greek text clearly specifies a restriction, ‘Wives, be subject to your own husbands,’” http://gospeltranslations.org/wiki/The_Myth_of_Mutual_Submission.
[ii] “P46 is a papyrus manuscript which dates from about 200. It is one of the oldest manuscripts we have. B is Codex Vaticanus, which is one of the best manuscripts we have, dating from about the fourth century. Neither of these manuscripts has a verb in verse 22,” http://episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/the_living_church/TLCarticle.pl?volume=221&issue=15&article_id=10; Photograph of Parchment 46: http://earlybible.com/manuscripts/p46-Eph-10.html; Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges: “It is probable that the Gr. original has no verb here,” http://biblehub.com/commentaries/ephesians/5-22.htm; Nestle GNT “Αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν,” http://biblehub.com/nestle/ephesians/5.htm.
[iii] The first instance on record of a second command “submit” being inserted into the Greek text of Ephesians 5:22 occurs in the middle of the 4th century A.D.. This alteration of the Greek coincides with the shift in Bible translation and commentary that we find in the 4th century work of St. Augustine and St. Jerome.
[iv] Hart, https://godswordtowomen.org/subject_to_their_own_husbands.pdf, pp. 3-4.
[vi] New American Standard Bible: Text Edition with Illustrated Dictionary-Concordance (1977). New York, NY: The Lockman Foundation, Thomas Nelson Publishers, p. X & 819.
[vii] Parallel Greek texts of Ephesians 5:24, http://biblehub.com/texts/ephesians/5-24.htm.
[viii] Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Part II, translated by Benjamin Jowett, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html.
[ix] Philo, Questions and Answers on Genesis, http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book41.html.