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.
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?