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
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… singing… making melodies
20 Giving thanks…
21 Submitting yourselves to one another…
22 (no verb)
24 is submissive
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.