Women in the Text: Sarah’s Submissive Reputation

Women in the Text: Sarah’s Submissive Reputation

Thousands of years after Sarah lived, we learn she was a well-admired woman by those who studied the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter describes her as submissive to Abraham and full of courage (1 Peter 3:5-6). The author of Hebrews extols her faith in God’s promise (Hebrews 11:11). At face value, these may seem like different aspects of her character, but I’d argue they are both referring to the same episode in Sarah’s life: the time Isaac was conceived.

Sarah did not submit to Abraham’s sin.

In 1 Peter 3, the author uses Sarah’s submissiveness to Abraham as an example for women who are married to unbelieving husbands. Sarah herself was not married to an unbeliever, so what aspect of her life is to serve as an example? What was Sarah known for in the time Peter was written? It has been proposed by many preachers, theologians and women’s studies that Sarah submitted to Abraham’s lie and endured the sexual attentions of Pharaoh and Abimalech for his protection. But as I wrote in a previous article, The Sister Story was not a lie, but the truth that Abraham and Sarah publicized in order to survive the culture of licentiousness surrounding their family in Canaan. Abimalech and Pharaoh’s gifts of honor support the facts that they had abused and dishonored Sarah through no fault of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah did not submit to Abraham’s sin because Abraham did not sin in these circumstances of bride theft. Wives married to unbelieving husbands should not use a misunderstanding of The Sister Story as the example to submit to their husbands, even in some twisted way for their husband’s protection.

My lord is old.

So what part of Sarah’s reputation is Peter referring to? Verse  6 says Sarah called Abraham, “lord.” Glancing back at Sarah’s story, this title for her husband was only recorded once. Doesn’t that simplify the context Peter is referring to for us?

So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” Genesis 18:12

Sarah was 89-years-old. She was infertile. This verse records her reaction to God telling her the time had come for God’s promise to materialize as a baby. It was a sensible reaction, yes? She was not a virgin. She understood that to have a baby, she and Abraham were first going to have to make the baby.  Yada-yada-yada, if you understand my Yiddish. Hence her first concern was that her lady parts were worn out and that her “sire” was decrepit. At 99, Abraham would have difficulty fulfilling his job as well. Hebrews even says “he was good as dead.” Even in her cynicism, Sarah’s faith shines bright, and she submits in faith to try once more to make a baby. She believed God.

If you have ever struggled with infertility or walked alongside of someone who has, I’m sure you understand the enormity of Sarah’s submissiveness to the promise of a baby. The fear of failure is overwhelming, yet the hope of success urges you on again and again until your optimism is exhausted. You are wrung out and your heart can only survive with callouses. You learn to quarantine your desire for a child… so you can stay alive. Sarah knew all this for 7 1/2 decades. She probably thought she was over it. Until God’s Word sparked her amusement and re-kindled the dreaded desire to try. just. one. more. time.

She believed God and submitted to Abraham again.

Submissive Sarah cooperated with God (and Abraham).

In the recorded stories of the Bible, God seeks human participation in God’s work in the world. I was recently reminded of this as I discussed baptism with my daughter. Baptism is a person’s action of faith. It is a submissive response that proves to witnesses that we’ve formed a heavenly alliance. My favorite prophet, Elisha, was the master at getting others involved in God’s work. Sure, we could look at this participatory involvement as a “test of faith.” But, I’ve never liked that perspective. Instead, I believe these are acts of grace designed to attract our affections through our cooperation with the Divine. And that is my personal definition of submission.

Sarah cooperated with Abraham to procure their tiny bundle of grace, who she named “Laughter (Isaac)” after the pivotal moment in her life when she faced her fears and hopes with action and courage.

The [women of old] submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. 1 Peter 3:5-6

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. Hebrews 11:11

Sarah believed God’s promise.

Sarah’s submissive reputation was the result of her faith in God’s Word that she would birth a royal family. She cooperated with God’s plan for her and joined Abraham to participate in the act of grace required to conceive a child. Against all the odds, Sarah birthed the promised child.

Women in the Text: Sarah’s Abductions

Women in the Text: Sarah’s Abductions

The capture of wives  in the ancient world

Within a generation after the fall of humanity in Eden, we read that Lamech “took” two women. He became the first polygamist, thereby rebelling against God’s decree that two people become one, and that the man should leave his family and cleave to his wife. Lamech “took” and brought them to himself. The violence of this act is indicated by the subsequent brawl, self-rationalized murder and implied threats to his women (Genesis 4:22-23). The need to guard his female conquests led to the invention of weapons by Lamech’s son, who learned to whet metal into sharp instruments. All the better to kill you with, my dear!

Brutal violence ensued and stealing women became necessary for each clan to procreate, since  men were taking more than their alotted one wife. Women quickly became a desired commodity, with the strongest men claiming monopolies through harems and multiple marriages.

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them,  the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took women – any they chose. Genesis 6:1-2

The sad prophecy of Genesis 3:16 is exemplified in those verses with the heinous actions of rape and bride theft prevalent throughout the ancient world, resulting in the separation of young women from the protection of their familial home and kin. This is the setting of ancient Canaan that Abram and Sarai embarked through.

The Sister Story

“We are brother and sister.” This was the public story Abraham and Sarah told for decades. The Bible does not tell us their motive for this, except through Abraham’s words we learn that he thought it was the way to save lives. In a discussion he had with Sarah upon entering the wild lands of Canaan, Abraham said:

“Sarai, this is a dangerous land where no one knows God. I’m afraid they will kill me so they can have you. Let’s tell everyone you are my sister only. It would be a mercy for you to call me your brother.” (Gen. 20:11-13)

And Sarah agreed with him.

Traditionally, theologians have guessed that this “lie” was a character flaw in Abraham and Sarah, but Dr. Gordon Hugenberger disagrees. (The following theory is based on his sermon to Park Street Church in Boston, found here.) Sarah and Abraham did not lie, but used the truth -Abraham and Sarah were siblings – to survive the culture of licentiousness surrounding their family in Canaan. They both wished to avoid inciting a violent situation in a land known for lawlessness.

Did Abraham use Sarah to protect himself at her expense?

Consider the ramifications of the traditional understanding that Abraham used this “lie” to protect himself at Sarah’s expense. By telling the world she was his sister, was he advertising she was available for marriage or something worse? Did he want her to consort with a pagan? Did he want to “sell” her off? No. Of course not. No normal husband wants his wife to sleep with another man. So, claiming she was a sister was not to put her on the marriage/sex market to save his own skin.

Did Abraham want to get rich off Sarah’s eligibility?

There is also the bride-price to consider. Some claim that Abraham wanted to get rich off the gifts given by the two kings for Sarah. But, this is a misunderstanding of ancient bridal customs. A maiden girl owned nothing. But when she was married, her husband’s family paid a bride-price which was hers to keep as insurance in case of widowhood. The bride-price was hers alone, often worn directly on her person. (The parable of the lost coin is about a woman losing a part of her bride-price.) So, if Pharaoh gave bridal gifts, they would go to Sarah, not Abraham. This cultural understanding erases a motive of greed on Abraham’s part.

Not only does a cultural understanding of bridal customs expunge Abraham’s motives, it actually validates the reason for The Sister Story. As a sister, she had no inheritance at Abraham’s death. It all went to a male heir. A man who stole her and forced marriage on her would get nothing. But, as a wife, she had a sizable fortune that did belong to her alone and would go to her husband upon her death.  As a wife, Sarah  was a titled –remember her name is her title – and loaded target. As a wife, Abraham also becomes a target for any unscrupulous, greedy bride thief, especially considering her advanced age.

The Sister Story acted as insurance for both of them. And it worked.

Except when it didn’t.

Sarah was abducted.

Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s house (Gen 12:15).

No marriage contract was negotiated between Pharaoh and Abraham. Sarah was kidnapped and forced to the will of this powerful man, and her “brother” was placated with gifts of honor to offset the shame of having a sister stolen out from under him. In a foreign land, at the mercy of Pharaoh, facing starvation for the hundreds of people under his care, Abraham’s hands were tied.

Pharaoh is to blame.

But God’s were not. God protected Sarah with a plague on Pharaoh’s house. She had God’s promise, and God proved faithful. God punished Pharaoh. God did not punish Sarah nor Abraham. This reveals God’s appraisal of the situation. Pharaoh was the one who sinned. Pharaoh reacted in anger when he learned the full truth, but neither did he punish or harm Abraham for his deception. He did not demand his gifts back. This indicates Pharaoh knew he was the one to blame. Of course he tries to shift  responsibility to The Sister Story with his words, but he does not require anything of Abraham or Sarah except to leave the country – and take your God with you! –  because they had done nothing wrong.

Why didn’t Abraham and Sarah learn from their mistakes the first time?

After the story failed to protect Sarah in Egypt, why did they continue to tell The Sister Story for another twenty years? Were they too stubborn to repent? Or does the fact that they continued to publish their sibling relationship indicate it was a successful cover? After all, Isaac and Rebekah used it as well throughout their life. Because The Sister Story acted as insurance for both of them. And it worked.

Except when it didn’t.

Sarah was abducted, again.

Abimalech …took Sarah (Gen 20:2).

Again, no marriage contract was negotiated with Abraham. Sarah was stolen, and a forced marriage was planned. God, once again, intervened to protect Sarah, not in spite of her lies, but because of the outrageous wickedness of this king toward those God promised to bless. Abimalech, like Pharaoh, responded to God’s curses and revelations with anger. His abundant, blame-shifting words tempt us to be distracted from the truth of the situation, but  Abimalech’s guilt is exposed by his extravagant gifts served to placate the anger of Sarah’s God.  If Abraham and Sarah had been to blame, the tale would have ended much differently. And again, we get no sense of God’s judgement on The Sister Story, but on the greedy, licentious behavior of Abimalech.

Sarah’s “beauty”

The Sister Story was used during Abraham and Sarah’s entire lives in Canaan. Why did it fail with Pharaoh and Abimalech? My English Bible says it was because of Sarah’s irresistible beauty.  I find that hard to believe. She was an old woman at 65 in Egypt and 89 with Abimalech. But, I also recognize it is hard to believe she birthed Isaac at age 90. God could supernaturally have kept her looking gorgeous in her old age. Nevertheless, I think it more likely that the Hebrew words describing her fair countenance should be interpreted less literally, indicating the attractiveness of her person as a whole, considering her status as a foreign princess and sister to the esteemed and important Abraham. Kings marry foreign women with the purpose of making alliances and trade agreements. Sarah was royalty with family connection to Ur, and the “sister” of a man with 350+ men under his command. She had the blessing of a most powerful new god. Most likely these were the reasons why Sarah was desired by these kings, who did not need wealth, but connections.  And they were used to taking what they wanted.

Sarah’s Abductions foreshadow Israel’s story

Generations after Sarah is abducted in Egypt, her grandchildren suffer a similar fate. Like Sarah, they were mistreated even though they had done nothing to deserve it. Again, “Pharaoh tried to kill the boys and keep the girls alive.” – Dr. Gordon Hugenberger. And again, God cursed those who cursed Sarah’s children.



Women in the Text: The Name of Sarah

Women in the Text: The Name of Sarah

Exploring the family descent from Eve is an uncommon way to work through the ancient stories of the Hebrew Scriptures since its pages are male-dominated. I believe this androcentrism is a result of the way the world works, not the way God works. Woman has always been a pivotal part of God’s plan, and we can see how God uses her in the pages of the Bible. My reasoning for following female lineage is based on Genesis 3:15. God prophesies that Eve, as yet unnamed and called woman, and Eve’s descendants will defeat the serpent with whom she is at war. The promised one is the seed of Woman.

After Eve, the next woman who is detailed in Scripture is Sarah. It was to Sarah and her children that God promised His unique blessing (Genesis 17:19).

Sarah’s Lineage

Sarai was the daughter of Terah, like Abram, but from a different mother. Having a different mother was a crucial point for her marriage to Abram (Gen 20:12), and this distinction gives us some hints about how ancient peoples figured lineage. Society frowned on intermarriage between siblings from the same womb, perhaps because family relations were determined through the mother, not the father. Think of the Egyptian line of royalty which intermarried sons and daughters of Pharoah. We may have a similar case with Terah’s family especially considering Sarai’s name, which I will address further down. Either way, Abram and Sarai left these pagan relations and idolatry behind as “God caused them to wander” to a new land and began to reveal God’s friendship to them (Josh 24:2; Gen 20:13).

Sarah’s Name From שרי to שרה

Sarah began her life as Sarai, a pagan in Ur. Her name is her title. Princess. Sar in Hebrew means prince, chief, ruler. A tiny vowel mark at the end of Sar feminizes the title. She was royal, a legendary beauty and wealthy. Her titled name is not a reflection of Abram’s status, but it is her own, most likely handed down by her mother.*

In Genesis 17:15, God tells Abraham to stop calling his wife Sarai, princess, and call her Sarah. The subtle shift – God changed the final letter- is significant. God alters Abram’s name in the exact way by adding a Hebrew ה (H) to the middle. Joel Hoffman, who wrote ln the Beginning: A short history of the Hebrew language, makes a convincing case for what he calls “the Magic H” which is how the Hebrews  set themselves apart from other people groups. He argues the Hebrews transformed written language by re-using three consonants as vowels, and the premier vowel “H” was used to identify all things Hebraic. God’s name is also transformed with the “H” from Elym, the common name for gods, to Elhym, the Hebrew “gods” characterized by being One. Replacing the final vowel in Sarah’s name changes the feminizing letter to one that marks her not as female, but as God’s. A Hebrew.

Sarah’s Nation

As God marks Sarah and Abraham with “the Magic H,” God applies their name-meanings to each other. What a unifying moment! God defined what their new names signified, and God also declared the new meaning as prophetic. The prophetic meaning of Abraham, meaning exalted father, is that he and Sarah will parent many nations (Genesis 17:5, 16). The prophetic meaning of Sarah, which we detailed above as ruler, is that she and Abraham will produce royalty  (Genesis 17:6, 16). It is through Abraham that children will come, but it is through Sarah that kings will come.*

Consider the source of the name of the great nation Israel? The promised nation carries the name of their matriarch Sarah. God renames Sarah’s grandson from Jacob to  I(sar)el, because he “sarah” with God (Genesis 32:24). The verb “sarah” is only used in this story. Hebrew is a very rich language and one word rarely has a single meaning, and this is the case with “sarah”. It carries the idea of struggling, wrestling, control, negotiation, and craft. From this it is easy to understand the interpretation of royalty, government and rule that in English we interpret as “Prince.” Israel means Prince of Elohim. Jacob, in struggling with God was not doing battle in enmity, but to guarantee an heaven-earth alliance as a form of statecraft – the role of a prince.

Sarah’s grandson Israel is the first ruler of her line, but he is not the last. Many more would rule over Israel, but only one more would carry her name. Sar Shalom -the prince of peace.

*Credit to Katharine Bushnell paragraph 277, God’s Word to Women.



ταλιθα – Darling Baby Girl!

ταλιθα – Darling Baby Girl!

For an assignment this week, I had to pull a Spiritual Insight from the passage I was assigned to translate. This is what is on my mind.

In Mark 5:21-24; 35-43, Jesus raises the daughter of Jarius from death. Consider, she is one of three people Jesus raised during his earthly ministry. I have a daughter who is twelve, like this girl was, and so her story jumped out of the page at me. Mark used five different words for this pre-teen young woman.

“My little daughter is at her end.”

  • θυγατριον thugatrion: diminutive of daughter; term of endearment; little daughter (BDAG 365) This is the term the father used toward his daughter when he begged for Jesus’ help.

“Your daughter died.”

  • θυγατηρthugater: in this case, literally daughter (BDAG 365) This is what those from Jarius’s house called her.

“The child did not die, but sleeps.”

  • παιδιονpaidion: generic for child, used of both genders (BDAG 609) This is what Jesus called her before waking her up.

Little girl, get up!”

  • ταλιθαtalitha: Aramaic for little girl (BDAG 811) This is how Jesus addressed the girl when he told her to get up. Perhaps Jesus chose this because this was the language she would understand.

“ταλιθα means darling baby girl.”

  • κορασιον – korasion: diminutive of κορη, which is literally girl, but can be pupil (eye) or “apple” as in apple of the eye (BDAG 445) This is from a Hebrew idiom found a few times in the Hebrew Bible. It comes from the image of the tiny person you can see reflected in the eye of a person you are standing near to. This term eventually evolves into our English term for schoolchild -pupil-from the Latin pupa. This is how Mark translates ταλιθα for his readers, and what he calls the girl after she came back to life.

Five different terms for the  12-year-old girl who received a second life at the touch of Jesus’ hand. To Jarius, she was his little girl. To the servants, she was the daughter of the master. Until Jesus met her personally, she was a generic child. But, when they met, he understood enough of her to know how to call her so that she could understand. He used her heart language to call her to life. After she was cured, she becomes the “baby darling girl.”

At once, they marveled with great amazement. But, he ordered them that no one should know this…

Jesus orders everyone who saw the miracle to silence. Why? Not for a show of humility, but to spare the child’s life. Consider the threat to Lazarus after Jesus raised him. He had a warrant on his head (John 12:10-11). We can hope the family understood and kept her story quiet to spare her life as witness to the threat that  Jesus’ immense power posed to the authorities. Theologians love to dissect the ministry of Jesus into a planned and purposeful strategy with every moment loaded with eternal meaning. In this story, I don’t see premeditation, but pathos. Jesus cares for little girls.

…and he said to give her (something) to eat.

Navel Gazing: Kenya

Navel Gazing: Kenya

I had a farm in Africa.

No, not really.

But, I visited a farm in Africa. In the seventh grade, my dad and mom spelled a missionary couple in Kenya, Africa who were overdue for furlough, and I got  to spend a few months in fairyland, as I remember it. Let me begin with the tea trees. Green. Fragrant. Sunny. Hilly. A perfect playground for a not-yet-young-adult  to romp and play Maid Marian and Robin. My flawed remembrance tells me a young Christian owned this plantation and all the American missionary families were invited to a day in the country. I remember fancy tents. And elegant royalty-types in jewel-tone outfits. And talk of a local dish with blood and stomach parts that my father was lucky enough to claim “allergies” and avoid without insult. I was a kid. I ran without shoes and had blonde hair.

(If that ending confused you, you have never visited a developing country with blonde hair.)

I taught Kindergarten while in Africa. To one student. Joy. That was her name. It was like playing school with dolls, but immensely more satisfying. My mother taught me how to plan a lesson. I was bossy.

Our apartment had a claw foot tub that I spent hours in. And a round washing machine from the 1930’s that had a mechanical wringer attached. I don’t remember anything else. The laundry was simply done.

Our apartment complex smelled like Indian food. That was what my mom said.

I rounded up all the missionary kids and directed a play, with costumes, and held tea parties. But I don’t actually remember drinking it. I think the pot was filled with Coke. I remember baking for the parties. And I demanded ice cream, but I don’t think the country had ice cream. My mom made a freezer ice cream with chocolate cake and chocolate sauce. Like Shoney’s  Hot Fudge Ice Cream Cake. The cake was a victory because of the altitude.

I made crayons. I melted old crayons and filled little pans with the wax and made an army of crayons. These all went into a trunk-like suitcase my dad said I could fill and take back home with me.

I was the world’s best haggler. Dickerer. Bargainer. Huckster? Open air markets filled with colors and odors and black skin. And everything cheap! Laughter at my audacious price propositions. It was all a game. My favorite items were plastic and metal. Dishes. Enameled dishes painted in bright flowers. And a rainbow of plastic plates. A whole set over time. Into my trunk suitcase for home. And carvings from wood and sand stone.  Gorgeous wood. My dad had an eye for the true artist. I just loved the haggle game – undercut, laugh, offer a bit more, laugh, walk away, return at the call, think about it, agree, deal. Laugh. Pay. Price tags are depressing.

Banana and tomato sandwiches. That is truth. But I asked, “please no bananas.” What kind of weird missionary mother passes off banana and tomato sandwiches for a snack?! Not mine. I stayed with the other missionary family at times. The family of my little student, Joy. We built a fortress in their compound in the three-foot-space between the buildings and the outer fence. We had shelves and barricades, and my dishes, and bits of rubbish, and wars. Our compound verses there’s. I don’t remember who they were.

I took walks with my dad through the town. I saw houses of tin… the patchwork of metal from coffee containers and oil cans. Red mud. Green trees. Bare feet. Bald heads. Huge grins. “Would you like some tea? Or biscuits?” We didn’t visit often. It came at too dear a price for the family we visited.

childrenBabies were scrumptious. Rolls of plumpness and dimples and bright eyes and ready smiles. Mothers looked for little helpers, blonde or shaved, no matter. “Give me that baby!”

Warthogs. I loved those little critters. I own a little warthog carving to this day, cut in a little hut in Africa. I recently found a card kept as a keepsake from a single missionary -Karen?- with whom I must have chummed with. It had a batik warthog on the front and a packet of grape powder candy tucked inside. A token of my obsession? I’ve lost that memory. Sorry, Karen?

masiamadaentranceVisiting Mt. Kenya  and Masai Mara Game Park. All the white people with us. I climbed farther than anyone. With dad. We reached 15,000 feet elevation. I was told that was amazing. I was told it was amazing I didn’t get altitude sickness. I was the amazing kid who climbed Mt. Kenya. And I saw herds of wildebeests migrating in the distance. And drank from snow streams. And argued with baboons over picnic scraps. And gazed at miles of jungle from the mattress laid in the back of a white pick-up truck. And learned the true terror of Africa are hippopotomusses (I wanted you to see my spelling effort with that one.) and bull elephants. When I see a sparse, grassy hill with small trees and rocks scattered here and there, it reminds me of Kenya. From the back of that white pickup.

The tea plantation owner must have took a liking to my father. We stayed at the Treetops-affiliate hotel (I googled it – Outspan?) on his dime. Luxury. Swans made of meringue. Chocolate fountains. Crisp rooms. Open verandas. Tile floors. Green lawns. The daughter of this wealthy family (perhaps her name was Agnes?) bought me a cat’s eye bracelet in the gift shop. My mother was not happy. I remember all the stones fell out over time. Kinda like my childish memory. Which I also blame this wealthy family for losing. That truck suitcase packed with my memories and purchases in Kenya? It got bumped for a large, brass clock decorated with a lion killing gazelles gifted to my father at the last minute before boarding our flight to the US. My father did not ever pay for over-baggage. So, my trunk got left in exchange for that stupid, gigantic clock. (It was two feet by four feet – huge!) I resent that clock, and all my lost memories.

Why were we there? My father held Bible institutes for the national Christians and helped in the local church. I have many memories of our dining table full of people with open Bibles, tablets (the paper kind) and loud conversation. Meals shared. Happy talk and Kenyan humor. My mother and I taught missionary kids. All I remember of the church was concrete walls, no windows and vibrant singing.

Who knows if my memories are right. But if not, the wrong ones are lovely.



Problem Passages: Christian Submission in Ephesians 5

Problem Passages: Christian Submission in Ephesians 5

In 1998, The New York Times reported that the Southern Baptist Convention had voted to amend its statement of beliefs to include a declaration that wives should submit.

…”that a woman should ‘submit herself graciously’ to her husband’s leadership and that a husband should ‘provide for, protect, and lead his family.’ …The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the amendment, and an effort to soften the language was soundly turned back…The amendment relies on biblical passages like Ephesians 5:22-33, which compares the husband-wife relationship to that of Christ ruling the church…” The New York Times by Gustav Neibuhr, June 10, 1998

Gibraltar June 10, 1998

The same day the Southern Baptists (SBC) were making a stand on women, I was honeymooning in Spain. Little did we know the impact this pronouncement would make on our lives. Because of the specific attention on gender roles being taught in seminaries and churches, our early years of marriage were not focused on love or unity, but on making sure the other spouse was doing the proper “role.” His was to lead, mine was to submit, and never the two should cross. Sadly, the Southern Baptists and the Bonikowskys got Ephesians 5:21-33 all wrong.

A submissive, unified and loving church of men and women is the nuance of Ephesians 5:21-33  that we missed and that the SBC  obscured because commands were thrown into verses where they do not belong.

Back to the Greek

In Ephesians 5, Paul uses a few imperative verbs. Imperatives are verbal commands.  He tells them to carefully watch or to “Take heed! (NIV)” to live wisely;  and to “Understand!” God’s will. “Do not get drunk!” Instead, “Be filled” with the Spirit! Then, he lists a few things after his command to “be filled” using verbal nouns, or participles. Participles are tricky in Greek because they are nuanced and used extensively as nouns, adjectives, adverbs or verbs. When used adverbially, the participle is reliant on the main verb to explain its usage. It can explain when the verb occurred; how it happened and why; and it can even describe the result of the main verb. Its purpose is usually evident in the context, but there are ambiguous examples. Naturally, Ephesians 5, specifically verse 21-22, falls into the ambiguous category.

Commands and Results in Ephesians 5:18-24

Here are the verbs. Imperatives with a ! Participles with a  __ing.

18 Do not get drunk! Be filled with the Spirit!

19 Speaking in psalms… singingmaking melodies

20 Giving thanks…

21 Submitting yourselves to one another…

22 (no verb)

23 is

24 is submissive

25 Love!

First, you’ll note that there is no verb in verse 22. Open your Bible and you’ll see that your English translators supplied one for you. Note as well, that the added verb is most likely an imperative. Now understand that translators add verbs all the time to clarify meaning, but does this addition clarify what Paul intended? Does Paul command wives to submit to their husbands in verse 22?

Submitting is the result of being filled with the Spirit.

To get an idea of Paul’s intention, let us look at the role these participles play in regard to their main verb, which is “be filled” in verse 18. Are these actions the indicators of when a Christian is filled with the Spirit? Is Paul stressing the time a believer is filled? We are filled only when we are speaking, singing, giving and submitting? Or is he giving us a list of how to be filled with the Spirit. We are filled with the Spirit by means of speaking, singing, giving and submitting? My 1984 NIV’s translators thought this was Paul’s point, and they wrote all these participles as commands, stretching the manner of action into a command/imperative. But doesn’t this contradict Paul’s teaching elsewhere that all Christians already have the Spirit? Can we get more of the Spirit by means of doing these actions? More likely, these actions are the result of being filled with the Spirit. Daniel B. Wallace, the author of Greek Grammar, agrees on page 639.

…it would be almost inconceivable to see this text suggesting that the way in which one is to be Spirit-filled is by a five-step, partially mechanical formula! … the idea of result here would suggest that the way in which one measures his/her success in fulfilling the command of 5:18 is by the participles that follow. Wallace, p. 639 [underlining mine]

Speaking, singing, giving thanks and submitting to each other will follow being filled with the Spirit. The ESV does a good job of retaining this inflection in 5:18-21.  Paul does not command Christians to submit to each other (vs 21), he is explaining what will be the result of Christians being filled with the spirit. There is no command to submit in verse 21.

To view any of these participles as imperatival is to view the passage from the English point of view only, ignoring the Greek. Wallace, p 651

There is no command to submit in verse 22 either. Verse 22 does not have a verb, it simply says “wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.” We must look backward to supply the verb from the previous section. English Bibles put a header break between 21 and 22, but this is not consistent to the Greek sentences. Verse 22 is a continuation of 21 and a bridge to 23. It is a  result participle of submitting from being filled with the Spirit.

A more correct translation is:

From verse 18: Be filled with the Spirit…

(21) With the result of submitting yourselves to one another in fear of Christ, (22) wives (submitting) to their own husbands as to Christ, (23) because…

The context of wives submitting to husbands is from the larger result of Christians everywhere submitting to each other as they are filled with the Spirit of Christ.

As the church, so the wives

But even as the church is submissive to Christ, so also wives (are submissive) to their husbands in everything. 5:24

The church is marked with submissive men and women, because it is this submissive spirit that enabled our inclusion into Christ’s inheritance. Christ did the redeeming work and we have accepted; submitting to his washing and cleansing as the means of our unification with Him. The church (both men and women) is submissive to Christ, because an unsubmissive church would be no church at all. The refusal to join with Christ in faith, to deny his spiritual work through unbelief, and to separate from all things “christian” is the mark of an unbeliever. We all submit because we are all one body, joined by Christ who is the reason we are united.

The submission of wives is compared to the submission of the church. Some English versions take the middle/passive verb Paul uses (is submissive) and make it imperative. Like this:

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

Sadly, this rendering takes the focus off the submissive church who is joining together into Christ who is our head, and puts it on the actions of an obedient wife. Submission no longer marks the church, but women. A submissive church of men and women is the nuance of the context that is missed when we throw imperatives into verses where they do not belong. It is easy to tell people what to do with commands, but Paul doesn’t do that here. Neither should the English translators.


An unsubmissive church is no church at all, likewise the wives. The Bonikowskys survived the role-war. Because of submission. Not mine, but ours.

Be filled with the Spirit, submitting yourselves to one another.