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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.

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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.

  • 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.