Text Size: Zoom In

The Submission Riddle

When does the absence of submission double its meaning?

I learned something this week that has carried with me into the weekend. Let me see if I can put in words a thought that I find compelling.

In the ongoing debate about the role of husbands and wives, we’ve probably all heard both sides of the argument. One side says, “The Bible teaches that wives are to submit to their husbands”. The other side is likely to say, “What the Bible means is that both husbands and wives are to submit to one another.”

But how could mutual submission be the rule of marriage if the Bible says that wives are to submit to their husbands because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church? (Eph 5:22) I heard something this past week about this text that might make this statement into an important riddle, rather than a misleading question or a mere assumption.

What I learned is that the context and grammatical structure of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians ties the principle of mutual submission to what Paul wrote about husbands and wives.

Here’s what I’m still thinking about. In the Bible I’m using there is an editorial caption at the beginning of chapter 5 that says “Walk in Love“. Then just before verse 22 there is another caption indicating that what follows is about “Wives and Husbands“. Here’s what this section looks like in my Bible:

21 submitting to one another in the fear of God.

Wives and Husbands

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body.

24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.

Now, here’s where context comes in. The caption “Wives and Husbands” is an insertion into a running line of inspired text.

If we don’t make a point of this, it’s easy to assume that “submitting to one another” does not belong with the following section that gives inspired instructions to husbands and wives. Instead we may conclude that “submitting to one another” is a general summary statement that Paul makes about what it means to walk in the Spirit.

But here’s what I hadn’t seen. “Submitting to one another” is tied to husbands and wives not only by immediate context, but by grammar. In the Greek text there is no verb in verse 22. Instead it reads “The wives to their own husbands, as to the Lord”. The verb “submit” must be imported from the previous “submitting to one another in the fear of the Lord.” That’s where a missing “submission” doubles its meaning.

So what? The point of the missing verb may seem like a small matter. But, together with everything else the Bible teaches about husbands and wives, it has big implications.

On the surface “Love” sounds different than “submit”. But in the wisdom of God, the kind of love that Paul goes on to describe is a profound way for husbands to serve their wives. It’s just as true that the kind of submission Paul is writing about is a profound way for wives to show love for their husbands.

In this light Paul’s teaching is not about one-sided control and authority but about mutual loving and caring. When he talks about the fact that the husband is head of his wife, he is not giving a husband the right to throw his weight around or force his wife to submit. He is instead talking about the intimate way in which a head and body need to care for and submit to one another’s well being.

The word Paul used for our English word “submit” has about it a sense of voluntary action, not forced surrender.

Most convincing for me, however, is that “submitting to one another” seems to fit what Jesus said when he said to his disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors. “But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves.” For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).

So now, what are you thinking?

Do you disagree? Am I missing something?

Are you as impressed as I am with the tight connection between “submitting to one another in the fear of the Lord” and the instructions to husbands and wives that follow?

Could you also now make a case that the love husbands are to show their wives is actually a profound form of submission similar to what Paul describes in Philippians 2:1-10?

Note: As I’ve continued to think about this subject I remain convinced that a husbands love will cause him to use whatever strength God has given him to serve his wife. I also continue to believe that at the heart of such loving self-sacrifice, there is a kind of submission that Paul expresses when he says, “submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Eph 5:21).

But there is another point that deserves consideration. I’ve since read the comments of some who maintain that when Paul says, “Submitting to one another” he does not mean “all of you to all of you” but rather “some of you to some of you.” Their point is that Paul goes on to immediately talk about wives submitting to their husbands, children to their parents, and servants to their masters.

Because my approach in this article includes some debated points, I’ve since added another post on May 11, 2008 that takes a different path to a similar conclusion.

Vote on whether you think this post is something you'll be thinking about:
Vote This Post DownVote This Post Up (+9 rating, 10 votes)

12 Responses to “The Submission Riddle”

  1. martdehaan says:

    I agree with you Diana. If you’re interested we’ve written what we believe is a biblical treatment of abuse called God’s Protection of Women. You can find it from our RBC Discovery Series link:
    From that page you can either go to the index of booklets or use the search button for i.e. protection women

    You can also find an article on abuse in this blog in the October 2007 archive.

  2. g.p.wilms says:

    That topic was used often in my former church, but more on the woman submitting than man to lay down their lives for their wives, just as Jesus did. Who would mind submitting to Jesus, knowing that Jesus gave His life for us.
    So Jesus submitted for our sakes.
    What a big example Jesus gave to men, when you want to rule, you need to serve, just as you cited Luke 22.
    What a world upside down.
    Gods ways are higher then ours.
    Thanks for bringing in this topic.

  3. rkennedy02 says:

    I believe that Christians are to submit to one another as an act of obediance to Christ, in the same way that Christ COMMANDED us to love our enemies. So husbands and wives submit to one another, not because their spouse is worthy, but because when we do so in humble obediance to Christ, Christ is honored and we grow spiritually. (Also, as Paul wrote, an unbeliever may be drawn to Christ by this selfless behavior). It seems to me that this text is meant to encourage the virtue of humility. It simply doesn’t address other issues that come to mind when reading it–like spousal abuse. If I am correct that this text is simply not intended to address spousal abuse, then using it to justify allowing spousal abuse to continue unaddressed/unchecked is mistaken–perhaps with tragic consequences for victims of spousal abuse.

  4. firstthingsfirst says:

    The Submission Riddle: Eph 5:1-24, Luke 22:25-27, Philippians 2:1-10.

    Hi you all! , Mart De Haan, you asked: When does the absence of submission double its meaning? and So now, what are you thinking?

    Well! lets look at as you have said about: the very begining of what you have learned, until you said: So what? ! , ok?

    Gives me a chance to relate to what your question is about, as to what was on your mind at that time as to the context of your question. but I will make an attempt to answer that question first ok? , and I’am speaking of course of from expieriencing 1st. of all by my being married as an unbeliever to a believer in Jesus Christ our Lord, but before 1996 of having a 3rd. wife and she is a believer now! also in Christ but as the scriptures says in I Cor. 1:10, but why I’am saying this is that before 1996, in 1992 with my 2nd. wife, I had asked the Lord to help me to be delivered from wickedness, but I had really wanted to be delivered from my previous experiences of my unbelieving submissions to GOD and his Son My Lord/Yeshua HaMoshiach,

    Now and as I can see of:

    So now, what are you thinking? Do you disagree? Am I missing something? Are you as impressed as I am with the tight connection between “submitting to one another in the fear of the Lord” and the instructions to husbands and wives that follow? Could you also now make a case that the love husbands are to show their wives is actually a profound form of submission similar to what Paul describes in Philippians 2:1-10?

    I can relate to this question also because of my past, having to learn about becoming a true follower of My Lord before I would my own or anybody else, and that I did not make any sense to me esp. now! to give: “Submitting to one another” , but at first with my 1st. unto the 4th. wife I had to be saved unto righteousness all for the futherance of the gospel, I say this to you all out of for the love of the truth, that I have experience, from N.O. La. to Omak, Wa.

    Now! getting back to your original question, which is the subject matter at hand: When does the absence of submission double its meaning? When Any person willfully disobey the Love of the Truth esp. not submitting to the powers that are ordained of our precious Saviour Jesus Christ our Lord, to have their own way for their own power, but can anyone else here hear what this is sayings, for the believers/males and females that are seeking for that are in our Lord’s submissions?

    Love Always, Fr. firstthingsfirst/ Walter and Debbie.

  5. ladyjanet says:

    Our first priority in submission must always be to “submit to God”. Submission is a condition of the heart, coming into proper alignment with God’s will. We do not have to submit to the wishes of anyone who asks us to do something that is against the laws of God. I like the verse in James 4:7 where it says “therefore, submit to God, …

  6. martdehaan says:

    Regarding my riddle/question “when does the absence of submission double it’s meaning”, here’s the short answer I had in mind: When the verb for “submit” is not found in the Greek text of Ephesians 5:22 (regarding the submission of wives), it shows us that the inspired author intended for us to find the verb in the previous verse (5:21).That brings the idea of mutual submission forward into the application to husbands and wives. The kind of sacrificial love Paul goes on to describe then becomes a commentary on the way husbands are to submit to the needs of their wives who in turn are to lovingly and respectfully submit to the needs of their own husbands. In both cases the submission in view is a healthy and loving way to show our prior submission to God.

  7. thirstyfortruth says:

    The clearest explanation for the “submission riddle” that I have heard comes from Alistair Begg. After listening to these two podcasts/MP3’s, I believe you will agree. Alistair talks about submission found in I Peter 2 & 3. The programs are called “Being a Wife – God’s Way Part A & B. You can find them in the archives of Alistair Begg at oneplace.com

  8. Dr. Pierre J. Samaan says:

    Thank you Marti for this blog site.

    I am not a Hebrew or Greek scholar. I asked a messianic rabbi about jewish heritage regarding submission in reference to Ephesians 5. He smirked and said we gentiles have it all wrong. He pointed out the same example you have given regarding equal submission. But, he added that the next sentence of submitting to the husband in jewish tradition would be “submit more so to your husband than the other brethren.” I would like to know if there could be a translation error in how this passage is interpreted. As a counselor I wrestle with this subject daily.

    Also, I believe Christ died for all sins including divorce. But, for those who take advantage of God’s grace and do not make every effort before divorce demean Christ’s sacrifice.

  9. Mart De Haan says:

    I’m not aware of a mistranslation in the sense you describe.

  10. Lastinghope says:

    One simple question I haven’t seen asked here, WHY would husbands lobby so aggressively for this supposed “granted” authority?? Why not just lead in love as you were intending to anyway and not worry about the trump card you want for tie-breakers?? The reason wives keep revisiting the issue is that they watch their husbands leading their families into error that spills over in to other lives, and rather than being able to stand against it as they would be encouraged to with any other sin, they are told to be quiet, calm, peaceful, and accept it as God’s divine design and His will… Please! Men want this right because they want the final say – too bad, guys, Jesus gets that and He said not to assert your own rights. Women don’t want to rule exclusively, just don’t want to see you do it either. You weren’t built for it; Christ IS.

  11. Lastinghope says:

    I find it so interesting that those who propose that “hupotasso” used in Galatians 5 is somehow a super-hupotasso for the wife… it’s the same word in the verse which enjoins us all to submit to one another. It’s about sticking together, not quitting on each other, not about who gets to break ties or have the final word on every discussion. I love my husband dearly, always will, but I’m not going to bend scripture to stroke his ego to his own detriment.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.