Submit…what emotions and images does this word evoke for you?

Such a simple word…with such complex relational and emotional overtones…

Listening to an authoritarian or patriarchal pastor teaching on the topic, one gets the impression that submission is the very means to salvation…as though the salvation of a wife and the salvation of her husband are both dependent on the level of her willingness to cheerfully and unquestioningly obey her husband in all things, no matter what.

For a Christian abused wife raised under such teaching, submission may be hell on earth…an impossible, unachievable task designed to make life increasingly more unbearable. Both her husband and her pastor may have beat her down with Ephesians 5:22 so many times she is in danger of losing herself in a bottomless pit of submissiveness.

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. (Ephesians 5:22 KJV)

Ephesians 5:22-33 is the foundational text for those who hold a view that in all biblically based marriages the husband’s role is to make all the decisions and the wife’s role is to unquestioningly acquiesce to all of his decisions. But they are staking their entire doctrine on the word submit meaning what they believe it means.

What if submit doesn’t mean obey unquestioningly?  What if submit simply means to honor and respect?  The contextual evidence strongly supports such a position.

Verse 25 of this passage says, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it,” and verse 33 says, “Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself…”

There is nothing about these verses to suggest the husband is to be anything other than sacrificially loving toward his wife. There is nothing about this passage to suggest it is okay for a husband to lord over his wife in disregard for her feelings or opinions, nor that the wife should meekly submit to such authoritarian misbehavior.

So, what about this word submit in verse 22?  It is important to note that this same exact word also appears in verse 21:

Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.

Clearly, the word submit as used in verse 21 cannot mean to unquestioningly obey no matter what.  So why would anyone assign such a meaning in the following verse?

Many people view the end of verse 21 as being the end of a topical section…a chapter divider, of sorts. In the first twenty-one verses of the chapter, Paul is exhorting the church to walk in love and purity.  Verse 22 is seen by some as the beginning of a new topic discussing marital relations.

Viewed from this perspective, one could argue that the same word can have a different meaning when used in a different context. By this argument, the word submit in verse 21 could mean all Christians are to honor and respect each other, and the same word used in verse 22 could mean the wife is to unquestioningly obey her husband no matter what.  While I don’t find this to be a compelling argument, on the surface it does appear to be a potentially arguable point.

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) translation of verse 22 recently caught my attention:

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

The italicization of be subject is what caught my attention. In NASB, italicized text is used to denote words added by the translators, for clarity or easier reading.

I dug a little deeper, and discovered Ephesians 5:22 is one of the few verses with a substantive difference between Textus Receptus and the Morphological GNT, as shown in the BlueLetterBible.

The Textus Receptus used for King James Version (KJV) translation includes the word “hypotasso” (G5293 Strongs) which KJV translates as “submit.”

However, the Morphological GNT used in NASB translation (which is considered more reliable) does not include this word in verse 22.

Ephesians 5:22 entry in Blue Letter Bible

Blue Letter Bible entry for Ephesians 5:22 with Morphological GNT shown at top and Textus Receptus at bottom. ‘Hypatosso’ is not included in the Morphological GNT text.

Essentially, this means the first century Greek texts considered to be the oldest and most reliable do not include the word hypotasso in verse 22. These texts include no primary verb for verse 22, relying on the reader to understand that the verb hypotasso (submit) is carried over from the previous sentence (verse 21).  Presumably, some scribe added the verb hypotasso to verse 22, for clarity…to make sure the reader understands the verb hypotasso applies to both verse 21 and verse 22.

So, based on the oldest and most reliable texts, verses 21 and 22 would have read something like this:

…be subject to one another in the fear of Christ; wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord. (verses 21-22 NASB with italicized text removed)

From the perspective of translation, this is a seemingly unimportant detail. Whether or not the word hypotasso is specifically included in verse 22, it is clearly intended to be used as the primary verb in both 21 and 22.  In the end, NASB arrives at the same basic meaning as is conveyed in the KJV.

However, in trying to understand the intended usage of the word submit in the English translation, it is very important.  Verses 21 and 22 cannot have two differently nuanced meanings of the same word, because they actually share the exact same instance of the word.

…be subject to one another in the fear of Christ; wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

Not only is verse 22 not starting a new topic, it is not even starting a new sentence. It is an extrapolation of the same thought, sharing the same verb.  Whatever meaning Paul intended to convey with the word hypotasso (submit), he intended the exact same meaning for husbands as for wives, both toward each other and toward other believers.

So, submit, as used in this passage, cannot possibly mean to unquestioningly obey no matter what.

I believe submit, in this passage, is intended to mean love, honor and respect.

What do you think?


[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]


19 thoughts on “Submit?

  1. Great article! Wish I had read it 30 years ago. Better late than never. I think that the problem is “What if submit doesn’t mean obey unquestioningly? What if submit simply means to honor and respect?” Many in the church think that honoring and respecting MEANS to obey unquestioningly. If you question, you are “being disrespectful.” Call me crazy but I actually believed that for many years, not in my gut, mind you, but in my “beliefs” that were taught me. I am so grateful the veil has lifted and believe it or not, my husband, who was abusive for years, really does see this now. He agrees that this sets couples up for failure when the wife is taught that she has no voice and that the husband can essentially do “whatever he wants.” I am so glad there are people like you, Joe, who share their knowledge based on a lot of painful experience.
    debby recently posted…Submit?My Profile

    • “Many in the church think that honoring and respecting MEANS to obey unquestioningly.”

      Yeah…which is crazy since they don’t believe the same thing about men.

      I’ve long felt verses 21-22 of this chapter were linked…that submit for the husband means the same as it means for a wife. It was nice to discover that in the oldest and most reliable texts, it is actually one sentence with one instance of the word.

      I’m so glad for the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of you and your husband!
      joe recently posted…Submit?My Profile

  2. Interesting, Joe. I didn’t know that about the translation from the Morphological GNT–whatever that is! ha! But I’ll take your word for it and see that it makes more sense than the way Textus Receptus translates it anyway. I’ve always felt like these two distinct commands, one to the wife and one to the husband hinge upon each other–although can’t be abandoned when our mate’s don’t follow through. Furthermore, I’ve always felt like the husband has the harder role to complete than the wife. So any wife who complains about submitting (especially as unto the Lord) has to realize that’s a whole lot easier than “dying for the church” or for the “wife” as is the role of the husband. Thanks for sharing this new insight, my friend. Always a treat to visit.

    • Yes…my own personal struggles in my first marriage were actually from the other side…of feeling like as the husband I was responsible for being the spiritual leader and therefore it was up to me to fix anything that was wrong. No matter how abusive her behavior, I thought the godly response for me was to respond gently…to give the benefit of the doubt…to pray more devoutly…to believe more deeply…to hope more sincerely…to love more sacrificially.

      Thank you, Beth!
      joe recently posted…Submit?My Profile

  3. Very interesting insight into what is often a very touchy subject of submission.

    Although I’ve never dug as deep as you did to learn more about the original meaning of the word submit, I have always wondered why so many skip over verse 21 when in my mind it clearly speaks to both husband and wife submitting to the Lord and then melds perfectly into verse 22 and 23.
    But as usual, it’s often convenient to leave out parts of scripture so one can try to make their point of view appear valid. A lot like “God hates divorce”. Leave out the verses proceeding those 3 little words and it takes on a whole different meaning than originally intended.

  4. I’ve always felt that that sentence seemed out of place. It fits in the text much better as an add on to the previous sentence! Thanks

  5. Thank you for sharing, Joe. Going back to the oldest text is the smartest way to study. So much is lost in translation. Thus, misunderstanding can lead to incorrect teaching. When I was a young missionary wife and mother, my personal Bible study between English and Chinese lead me to a conclusion that angered my husband. My conclusion: Perhaps more study needs to be done in the area of God’s original intention in the ways in which husbands and wives relate to one another.

    • I agree. There are lots of assumptions and presumptions by Christians on God’s will for husbands and wives. It’s well worth the time for personal Bible study without relying on what others say.

      Thank you, Sharon!
      joe recently posted…Submit?My Profile

  6. First, I have long believed that ‘submit’ simply means to ‘give and take’, to not always insist on your way but give in sometimes. Especially since I don’t see men obeying without question their church leaders, as it says to submit to them as well. Mark Gungor explains it this way: Verse 21 says to submit to each other, then the rest of the chapter explains how that works out in practice, how wives are to submit to husbands, husbands to wives, children to parents, parents to children, servants to masters and masters to servants. Makes sense to me.

    • “give and take”

      I like that! It is a practical way of expressing what I mean by “love, honor and respect.”

      I really like your explanation of everything following verse 21 explaining how 21 is lived out on a daily basis. That makes a lot of sense!

      Thank you, Sunflower!
      joe recently posted…Submit?My Profile

  7. The teaching unit is Eph 5:15-6:9. Paul uses an imperative (command) for all believers to be filled with the Spirit, followed by 4 activities that form a chiasm. The inner 2 are to God and the outer 2 are to other believers, this is one way we know that mutual submission (submit to one another) is for all believers, just like “love one another” and a whole host of other “one another”s. What follows are 6 examples of what mutual submission looks like in a 1st century Ephesus household. As you point out, Eph 5:21 is tightly coupled to Eph 5:22, any Bible that separates these verses is not to be trusted.

    • Oh, I like your comment about ‘a whole host of other one anothers’!

      It reminds me of Christ’s words, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another.” It’s no exaggeration to say the rest flows out from this one command.

      Thank you, Don!
      joe recently posted…Submit?My Profile

  8. Joe, this is GREAT work. Reminds me of Parshall and Tully’s “Shattered Sword”, which set the accepted notions of the Battle of Midway on their collective ears.

    To wit – previous researchers (including the esteemed Walter Lord) had based their work on Fuchida’s mid-50s narrative, without

    a) checking secondary source material (hard, because it was in Japanese)

    b) looking at other documentary evidence, such as photos taken before the decisive 1025 dive-bombing of Kido Butai.

    They presented a compelling re-interpretation of both the facts AND the significance of Midway, that takes nothing from the courage of the participants, yet lends credence to the almost-preordained course of the Pacific War.

    And I bet you didn’t expect THAT digression!

    The point is, faith is cool but accurate and honest scholarship is vital.

    • Thank you, Andrew!

      Although I have not read “Shattered Sword” (I may have to, now), if I understand you correctly, the authors have substantially changed the American perspective of the Battle of Midway, by including first-hand accounts by the Japanese. Therefore, where previous authors on this subject matter made assumptions about Japanese motives and intentions, they were able to bring a more accurate perspective of the overall battle based on a more accurate perspective of the Japanese motives and intentions.

      And, yes, I agree. That is how I felt when I noticed the italicization of the NASB in verse 22. I was like, “What? Wait a minute. This changes everything!” Which a little more digging proved correct.

      Based on the texts considered the oldest and most reliable, we no longer have to guess at Paul’s intended use of ‘hypotasso’ in verse 22. We now know he meant exactly the same thing as in verse 21.

      Thank you, Andrew!
      joe recently posted…Submit?My Profile

  9. Dear Joseph

    Nice reading! Yes, I completely agree 🙂

    If there is a higher good (i.e. following Christ), wouldn’t submitting to the spouse include some kind of duty to (gently, respectfully, etc.) point it out to the spouse if we thought they were going against that higher good? (is that garbled?)

    David recently posted…Inspiration and guidanceMy Profile

    • Yes, I believe a relationship founded on mutual love and respect compels us to exhort our spouse toward godliness.

      However, in the instance of an abusive marriage, in many cases the abused spouse has spent years exhorting the abuser toward godliness…to no avail. Too often, the response from the local church is an exhortation to the abused spouse to simply continue meekly trying to keep the peace…which effectively means doing whatever is demanded…in order to ‘save the marriage.’

      At some point, God’s character is better represented by divorcing the unrepentant abuser while trusting God for strength and provision…for redemption from the abusive covenant and for deliverance from bondage.

      Thank you, David!
      joe recently posted…Submit?My Profile

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