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Problem Passages: Ephesians 5:22

May 22, 2013

This post is a part of the series comparing the teaching on various gender passages in the Bible. Read more about the series here.

Ephesians 5:22 says,

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


This verse introduces what is often called the “Household Code of Conduct” for Christians. Paul, who is writing to 1st century Christians in Ephesus, spends the first part of chapter 5 describing how a Christian should live a life of love. In verse 18, he begins to define how a person filled with the Spirit behaves. This description segues into commentary on wives and husbands, children and parents, masters and slaves.

Summary of Differing Opinions

Who should submit in a Christian marriage? Complemetarians believe wives should submit. Egalitarians, as well, believe wives should submit, but so should husbands.


Complementarian Interpretation

This verse is the mother of complementarianism. (The father comes a verse later.) It establishes their core belief that God wants marriage to follow a pattern based on gender. The wife’s role is to submit to her husband. The husband’s role is to lead his wife. They believe this verse proves that godly marriages must be based on a structure of authority. Unless the wife is following her husband’s leadership, they have become like the world (following the feminist influence) and are not pleasing God in their marriage.

Mark Driscoll, a vocal complementarian, recently questioned the motivation of some Christians who wanted to understand the original language of the Bible. He said that only “rebellious” Christians do word studies. I’m sure he said this tongue in cheek. The verse he wants Christians to accept the English-translation without question? This one. Wives submit to your husbands.

And this is the complementarian argument on its simplistic level. Many comps don’t need to interpret this verse, or understand its cultural significance. They are willing to take it at face value. Even though verse 21 states that all Christians are in submission to each other, wives have a gendered duty to submit to their own husbands. There is no reason to question the plain, English words of this verse.

God made women to submit to men in each marriage. (This understanding comes from the following verses in this chapter, which I’ll cover in time.)

…biblical submission for the wife is the divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. – John Piper

Comps teach that this wifely submission comes with two caveats. “To your own husband” and “As unto the Lord.” Most comps do not believe all women are to submit to all men. They also admit that gender-based authority in marriage can lead to abuse, and so they caution husbands to lead in a servant-like manner. They also caution wives that they do not need to submit to a husband who is disobeying God’s will because of the phrase, “as unto the Lord.” (Well- sort of. Some well known Comp advocates have been known to say some outlandish things regarding women staying in an abusive relationship.) Comps teach that a wife should not follow her husband into sin. What this practically looks like varies by teacher.

Further Reading

50 Crucial Questions Chapter 2 by John Piper and Wayne Grudem

Egalitarian Interpretation

Submission is the state of living by the Spirit. The Egalitarian believes it is how all Christians, regardless of gender, should behave, wives and husbands.

“How desperately we need to see  that mutual submission in marriage and the family is not subtraction of wifely  submission, but the addition of husbandly submission. Only that is the  perfect biblical equation. In decision making within marriage, the ‘one’ who  makes the decisions should be the ‘two become one.’” Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Equal to Serve, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1998), p. 200

A commonly used Egalitarian argument for non-gender based submission is based on the earliest Greek manuscripts of Ephesians. The verb submit (hupotasso) is not found in verse 22. Instead, it is implied from verse 21, like this:

(21)…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ ; (22) wives to your husbands, as to the Lord.

Egalitarians argue that inserting the word submit into verse 22 and separating the two verses (which were written as one sentence) into distinct thoughts, is inadequate and incorrect. Hupatasso, the verb in verse 21-22,  is written in the middle voice which implies passivity, not activity. Submission is a state a Christian is already in because of the Spirit inside (vs 18). Even more so – especially in a Roman patriarchy setting- submission is a state a wife is already in. (On the passive voice of Hupatasso by Charis R. Hart) Many times, a wife naturally looks to please her husband, even in a sinful way, as a result of the fall. (Genesis 3:16)

Culture plays a large part in an Egalitarian’s understanding of Ephesians 5:22. Some argue Paul was enforcing the Roman law of marriage. Others argue for understanding the influence of the Ephesian cult religion of Artemis, which demands the superiority of women over men, into Paul’s instructions for Christian marriages. Regardless of which historical perspective the Egalitarians believes, they agree that historical perspective is key to understanding Paul’s teaching of gender in marriage.

Egalitarians are wary of separating Christians into authoritative categories based on gender, race or social positions.  Egalitarians believe the question of gender-based hierarchy has no place in a marriage whose goal is a unified partnership. “Who has authority?” is never the question a Christian should ask. The disciples asked that question of Jesus, and he told them, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” A Christian marriage should be marked by service to each other. In decision making times, gifting and talents are a better factor than gender.

Further Reading:

Submission in Marriage by Marg Mowczko

Authority vs submission – a biblical view of Ephesians 5:22 by Cheryl Schatz

Ephesians 5:22

Comps Believe… Egals Believe…
Wives Wives alone must submit because she is woman. Husband and wives submit to each other.
submit Submit means to arrange yourself under an authority. Submit means yeilding to another.
to your own husbands Husbands are the authority in marriage. Paul is exemplifying a cultural phenomenon of patriarchy.
as to the Lord. God is the ultimate authority, and a wife should never submit to doing evil. Christian wives are now “in the Lord,” living by the Spirit. This position will influence their marriage.
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7 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    May 22, 2013 12:51 pm

    The thing that annoys me the most about the chapter is that when the headers were added to English translations some idiot thought 5:21 should be grouped with the previous section rather than the part about husbands and wives. And those headers have been copied into lots of other modern printings.

    As a result, we get tons of sermons, articles and Bible studies that start with “Wives, submit to your husbands…”, with no mention of the previous verse which says that it goes both ways: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”

    • John permalink
      May 22, 2013 1:04 pm

      Now I feel a little silly. I commented before I noticed you reposted your comments on Ephesians 5:21 and I did the same rant on that post over a year ago…

  2. Linda Teekell permalink
    May 23, 2013 2:06 pm

    Question: If the church today believed and practiced what you are teaching (egalitarianism or whatever), what will women (and men, if need be) have achieved or gained that they don’t have today in our practice of Scripture?

    • May 27, 2013 10:15 pm

      There are so many answers to this question.

      Women who feel called to minister to both men and women will be able to do so.
      Women who feel called to lead a church will be able to obey the call and the God Who calls.
      Men who feel inadequate to be the sole leaders of their households will have a co-leader, a true partner in every sense.
      Women who know their expertise is greater than their husbands’ in certain areas will be able to confidently take the lead in those areas without shame or guilt. Men who wisely let them do so will no longer feel they are being unmanly.
      Men who want to help in the nursery will feel no stigma or shame.
      Married couples will work through decisions without the deck being stacked by knowledge that the husband has a “final say” trump card that could ultimately render the wife’s input moot.
      Little boys will grow up understanding that their mother is just as much a leader and just as worthy of respect as their dad. Little girls will stop wondering if maybe God just likes boys better.

      I could probably go on, but that seems like plenty.

    • May 28, 2013 6:53 am

      Thanks Kristen for answering. Linda, I’ve been suffering from low back pain and I hate to sit down so I’ve procrastinated answering! But I’ve been thinking about my answer and I think I’ll make a post on it. Stay tuned. :)

  3. July 31, 2013 5:32 pm

    Just read your more recent post, and thought I’d come here to read before tossing in my two cents… I have to admit, this makes me laugh as much as it would make Mike cringe! I have told him before that we have an “egal marraige,” but when he hears “egal” he thinks “woman pastor” so automatically he has to deny it. Yet HE is the one who from studying the greek pointed out to me (and since then to others when submission comes up) that the verb in the Eph context is one and the same for both thoughts – not a separate “wives submit!!” as it is separated and preached today. So much of what you quoted egals as saying, he has said. It made me smile.
    Darn that curse for making marraige roles so complicated. One flesh would have been so much easier, then we would have had more time to argue about modesty or the abstinence of all the unholy world-like things.

    btw- do you have any posts on the pastoral role(in this context) specifically? would love to hear your break down on that issue…

    • July 31, 2013 10:03 pm

      Good for Mike! Are you asking about women as pastors or elders? I hope to complete the problem passages series eventually, and that will touch on of few of the negating passages. I think this issue is wrapped up in a misunderstanding of authority in the church. When you realize that pastors and elders have no special God-given authority over their flock, then much of what is taught about women “in authority” dissolves away.

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