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Ephesians 5, Part 1: vs. 21 & 22

When people talk about submission, Ephesians 5:22-24 comes up quite regularly as a proof text for the idea of the marriage relationship being primarily hierarchical in form. Because everyone covers vs. 22-24 and the standard interpretation of that colors the entire rest of the passage, I am not going to discuss that until the last post. Several other pieces of the passage give a much different but consistent view of what Paul is talking about. This post is just a short preface in which we are going to talk very briefly about Greek.

You know how English has that handy punctuation and capitalization to tell you where thoughts and sentences begin and end? Greek doesn’t have that. It has one option for writing letters (not two, uppercase and lowercase, like we do) and no punctuation at all, so everything runs together and you have to figure out where the thoughts start and end based on the tenses and cases of the words themselves. For the most part, this seems to work ok. Sometimes thought, not so much. Here is the full passage in the NIV. In a minute we’ll look at the first two verses in other translations.

Ephesians 5:21-33 (NIV)

[highlight]21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.[/highlight]

[highlight]22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.[/highlight]

23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.

24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her

26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,

27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—

30 for we are members of his body.

31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”

32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

See how that looked like two separate commands? 1) Submit to one another. 2) Wives, submit to your husbands. Now look at the ESV:

Ephesians 5:21-22 (ESV)

21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

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

While the NIV puts verse 21 as its own sentence, the ESV places it as the end of the sentence begun in verse 18 like this:

18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit,

19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,

20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

The KJV puts it back as its own sentence like this:

Ephesians 5:21-22 (KJV)

21 Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.

22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.

But by the time we get to NKJV, it is back as part of the previous sentence (Ephesians 5:18-21 NKJV)

Ephesians 5:21-22 (NKJV)

21 submitting to one another in the fear of God.

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

The NASB does the same.

Ephesians 5:21-22 (NASB)

21 and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.

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

But the RSV has it back as its own sentence again.

Ephesians 5:21-22 (RSV)

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

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

Is that enough redundancy for today? Who cares which way it is translated and why does it matter? Well, I need to show you one more thing, and then you’ll be able to see very clearly why it matters. If you translate verse 21 as its own sentence, it looks very much like Christians are all to be subject to one another (with no gender distinctions) and that however you translate that as applying to everyone what it also must mean regarding what is required of wives. Since it’s a little on the fuzzy side even between the various English translations, here it is in the Greek interlinear. Remember that Biblical (koine) Greek didn’t use capitalization or punctuation, so wherever you see that, it has been added in.

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So, the direct translation of those two verses looks like this:

21 submitting yourselves to one another in reverence of Christ

22 wives to the own husbands as to the lord

Do you notice anything weird about verse 22? Such as… no verb? Where did “submit” go? Well, it’s not there. It’s in verse 21.

Verse 22 about wives is a subordinate clause to verse 21 (which doesn’t really come out in any of the translations) and actually borrows the verb from there. Whatever submit means for Christians submitting to each other is what it means for wives. So, what does it mean? Ahhh, that’s the million dollar question and the one I’m going to get to last (sorry).

Next up: The Head and the Body

Rachel Shubin

Critical thinker, obsessive reader and writer (not just on this blog), Bible-studier, church-goer, Jesus woman.

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