ὑποτάσσω in Ephesians 5.21

I’m posting this in light of the discussion over at The Better Bible Blog (clickable) which is one of my favorite blogs to read…so here we go…some of you will recognize much of this because I had posted part of it and pulled it off later for reasons I cannot say currently…anyway…here’s a brief exegesis of Ephesians 5.18ff.

Ephesians 5:18-33

The Greco-Roman world revolved around the household, a concept originating with Aristotle and continuing into the Hellenistic world by others writing in his name. The family household was the smallest unit of society, which provided a model for the government. The state is formed of smaller units, such as cities, made up of extended families; then individual families.[1] Numerous writers adopted Aristotle’s structure, speaking of master/slave, father/child and husband/wife in terms of rank. All of life stemmed from family. The Greco-Roman family was patriarchal led by the paterfamilias. In accordance with Aristotle’s concept of family and government, his authority was to the family what the Imperium was to the Roman consul.

When the paterfamilias died, the men would gain such a status over their own homes. But the woman stayed under the authority of her father, a male relative, or her husband[2]. Marriage was arranged by the father, whose priority was to uphold social balance. “The goal was not to find a rich young groom … that might make the bride’s family subject to that of the groom…. the desire … was to bring about a marriage between those roughly equal in economic status.”[3]

The purpose of marriage in Greece and Asia Minor was mainly procreation. An official formula for betrothal and marriage stated, “[marriage is] for the procreation of legitimate offspring.”[4] From then on, the wife stayed at home. Public appearance was rare without an older, trusted male chaperone. Education was generally limited to weaving, cooking and managing the home. A few high, upper-class women were a rare exception to that rule.

The wife did not own property and her dowry belonged to her husband. deSilva shows the relationship between the husband and wife in two ways. She was sort of sub-ruler over the household. This rule was seen in the wife’s authority over children and servants. But the wife was far from equal since this ideal served the husband’s interests. “It combined submission to the authority of the [husband] … a love for remaining in the private sphere of the household, silence in public places, speaking ‘through her husband’, modesty and chastity.”[5]

Klyne Snodgrass paints an extreme picture of male/female relationships with illuminating quotes that describe women in the ancient world, such as, “The two best days in a woman’s life are when someone marries her and when he carries her dead body to the grave.”[6] Such statements were fairly common in the first century with an essentially negative perspective toward women. They were minimally educated, unable to testify in court, completely inferior to man.[7] They were seen as less intelligent and moral, the source of sin, and a continual temptation. Respectable women were kept in private, separated from men, often living in different rooms.[8]

In this setting, Paul wrote Ephesians. “The household codes in the New Testament (Eph 5:21-6:9 being the fullest example) reflect precisely this set [master / slave, etc.] of household relationships.”[9] Paul used the relationship sets from secular culture and was likely influenced by his rabbinic and Jewish background. This is seen particularly in the expectations not only for the wives, children and slaves, but also the husbands in which Paul more closely parallels Philo and the Torah. But even beyond this relationship, Paul Christianized the codes.

“In Hellenism the model was political, the Christian model is Christ himself and he is also the motivating force…. while a Hellenistic writer would propose that if slaves were treated well they would be more productive, Paul states that slaves should not be mistreated because the Lord is master of both parties and both are answerable to him (6.9)”[10]

While Paul uses the same categories of his contemporaries, his purpose is distinctly Christian.

Ephesians 5.21-33 must be understood through Eph. 5.18, “Be filled with the Spirit.” This command is trailed by four participles of result. Thus, flowing from the command are the results of “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music … always giving thanks … and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”[11] That last clause is crucial to grasp the passage. It connects both to the previous three participles and verse 22. The central issue for interpretation deals with two words: “υποτάσσω” (submit) and “αλλήλων” (one another). Peter O’Brien gives a balanced survey of the possibilities of meaning for this clause.[12] His decisions, while fair and judicial, lead to negative conclusions about the mutuality of submission. His view of verse 21 is essentially representative of a complimentarian perspective on Ephesians 5.

In O’Brien’s commentary, Gilbert Bilezikian becomes his dialoging partner for perspectives on verse 21. Bilezikian argues for a modified view of “υποτάσσω,” which is consistently used in structured or hierarchical relationships in the New Testament.[13] But because of the occurrence of the word “αλλήλων,” he says that since this term of mutuality appears after “υποτάσσω,” Paul must not have had such hierarchical relationships in mind in verse 21.[14] But O’Brien points out in response that since υποτάσσω is always used in light of orderly and structured relationships such a meaning is unlikely. He argues that Paul did not use “αλλήλων” in a mutual manner, pointing out several instances where αλλήλων is not mutual.[15] O’Brien suggests that this is the more likely interpretation since it does not violate the semantic ranges of either “υποτάσσω” or “αλλήλων.”

Yet, an alternative proposal can be made between the understandings of these two scholars. St. John Chrysostom emphasizes both mutuality and ordered relationships. The fact that he does not see O’Brien’s suggested understanding of αλλήλων as even possible in verse 21 must be seriously noted. “If … [Chrysostom] fails to address a linguistic problem because he does not appear to perceive a possible ambiguity, his silence is of the greatest value in helping us determine how Paul’s first readers were likely to have interpreted the text.”[16] Instead Chrysostom attempts to explain a complex idea. He does not recognize an impossibility in the mutuality of αλλήλων and the orderly structure of υποτάσσω and validates O’Brien that “υποτάσσω” must be understood within structured, orderly relationships. But on the other hand, Chrysostom quite clearly views “αλλήλων” with the sense of mutuality. He sees Paul’s words as leveling the playing field, so to speak. To explain, Chrysostom appeals to the analogy of the master/slave relationship.

“Let there be an interchange of service and submission. For then will there be no such thing as slavish service. Let not one sit down in the rank of a freeman, and the other in the rank of a slave; rather it were better that both masters and slaves be servants to one another;—far better to be a slave in this way than free in any other.”[17]

Continuing on, Ephesians 5.22 does not begin a new section as most English Bibles show. Rather, the verse is dependent upon verse 21. The verse reads, “Wives to your own husbands as to the Lord, Jesus Christ.” While all commentators at the very least note the ellipsis of the verb, they consistently find the need to insert υποτάσσω back into the text with a condensed version of the word study previously done in verse 21. Such an act results in repeating the same error the scribes of past centuries made.[18] A better approach would be to first ask how the original audience would have read verses 21-22 together. “…submitting to one another in reverence to Christ: wives to your own husbands as to the Lord, Jesus Christ…”[19]

A similar ellipsis occurs in verse 24, where Paul writes, “But as the church submits to Christ, in the same way wives should also to husbands in everything.” Paul avoided directly using υποτάσσω for the wives, but why? The logical reason for this is simply that the wife was not Paul’s focus. Rather, Paul desires to direct his energy to the husband. Such an explanation is validated by the fact that he uses only forty words addressing the wives, while using one hundred sixteen words for the husbands.[20] Thus to learn how the original audience would understand verse 22, one must specifically ask, “How would the husbands respond to verses 21 and 22 read together, considering their cultural understanding of marriage?” Likely, husbands would be shocked, or perhaps even angered by Paul’s words.[21]

In verses 23-24, intense debates have circled around whether the word κεφαλή (trans. head) had the same connotations of authority and power as “head” does in English. Much of what has been written on both sides seems to say more about the writers. The two argued understandings of the word are authority and preeminence. Neither is necessarily clear in these verses.

What is clear is the distinct relationship between head and savior. Christ being the savior flows from his love for the body, which is exactly the command to the husbands in verses 25-29. Being the head of one’s wife is directly related to sacrificially loving one’s wife. “Interestingly enough, just as Paul’s implicit exhortation to submission for the wives is not new or limited to the wife, being a repetition of verse 21, Paul’s explicit command for husbands to love is also not new or limited to the husband. A virtually identical command is given to all believers in Ephesians 5.2, “Continually walk in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself up on our behalf…”

In light of Chrysostom’s perspective on verse 21, a better understanding of Ephesians 5.21-33 is as a picture of mutual submission. Some commentators argue that the husband is never told to submit to the wife.[22] But one would be hard pressed to say that Chrysostom’s analogy of slaves and masters does not result in mutual submission. In fact, his analogy could even help to understand the structure of the passage. Verses 21 should be seen as closely connected with verses 20 and the previous participles and the following verses 22-33 then become Paul’s example of how the mutuality of structured submission should play out in life. And more importantly, Paul gives no expectations or requirements for the husband and wife that he would not also give to the entire church community, the members of which are to both love each other and submit to each other as to the Lord.

The result of such an understanding acts both to affirm and correct O’Brien and Bilezikian in their respective understandings of verse 21, without going beyond the semantic ranges of either word. Paul uses the hierarchical language of the household codes, but puts them into the context of submission and sacrificial love. This perspective also fits within the context of the following verses. “In the final analysis, submission and agape love are synonymous. If anything, stronger language is used of the husband’s responsibility.”[23]

Simply put, Paul exhorts the husbands and wives of Ephesus to live humbly with equity in their culture, while continuing in the systems already set up. This is key to an accurate application for the twenty-first century. The question of application for Ephesians 5.21-33 for husbands and wives is not how to structure their relationship, but how to live in a Godly manner within their own culture, each submitting and loving the other.

[1] Aristotle, Politics 1.2.1, 1253bff.

[2] On occasion, the father’s authority would persist even through marriage in Greece and Rome.

[3] Howard Frederic Vos Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Manners & Customs: How the People of the Bible Really Lived (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999): 572.

[4] Hans Lecht, Sexual Life in Ancient Greece (New York: Dorset, 1993): 33.

[5] David A. DeSilva. Introduction to the New Testament: Context, Methods and Ministry Formation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004): 141.

[6] Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996): 302.

[7] Cf. Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15.

[8] For an exhaustive examination of the position of women in the first century world, both in a Jewish or Greco-Roman context see Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives, 139-164.

[9] deSilva, Introduction, 139.

[10] Harold Hoehner, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002): 725. Cf. Walter Liefeld, Ephesians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997): 141.

[11] Eph 5:19-21 (NET), Cf. Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996): 639.

[12] Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999): 398-404.

[13] “The key verb used here [υποτάσσω] means ‘to arrange under.’” Ibid., 399. Cf. BDAG, 1042; LN, 1:475; EDNT, 3:408. Υποτάσσω occurs 38 times in the New Testament.

[14] Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985): 154.

[15] Rev. 6.4 describes men killing each other (αλλήλων), “The natural meaning is ‘so that some would kill others.’ To suggest that αλλήλους is fully reciprocal does not make sense.” O’Brien, Ephesians, 403, n. 171. Other such usages are found in Gal 6.2; 1 Cor. 11.33; Lk. 2.15; 21.1; 24.32.

[16] Moisés Silva, Philippians, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005): 27.

[17]Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. XIII, First Series (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997): 142.

[18] A textual issue exists in this verse where most manuscripts insert either “ὑποτάσσεσθε” or “ὑποτάσσεσθε” either before “γυναῖκες” or “γυναῖκες.” Metzger writes, “A majority of the Committee preferred the shorter reading, which accords with the succinct style of the author’s admonitions, and explained the other readings as expansions introduced for the sake of clarity, the main verb being required especially when the words Αἱ γυναῖκες stood at the beginning of a scripture lesson.” Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1994): 541. Cf. Hoehner, Ephesians, 730-731.

[19] The typical approach separates the comments for the Haustafeln from the previous at vs. 21 or 22. Unless noted the translation is my own.

[20] Cf. Hoehner, Ephesians, 746, O’Brien, Ephesians, 418.

[21] There are 222 occurrences of finite verbal ellipsis with a similar subject/compliment construction to Ephesians 5.22 in Paul’s letters. Of these occurrences, 202 are filled in by a copula, leaving 22 non-equative verbs none of which begin a new paragraph or thought (Rom. 5.4; 8.5; 11.18; 1 Cor. 6.8;7.3; 9.25; 12.8; 12.9; 12.10; 12.21; 2 Cor. 12.14; Gal. 6.14; Eph. 5.24, 29; 1 Thess. 3.6). It seems unlikely that Eph. 5.22 is any different or even that the readers would recognize the so-called, “Household Code” only eight words into it considering what had gone before.

[22] Cf. Hoehner, 733.

[23] Snodgrass, Ephesians, 296 (Italics his).

12 thoughts on “ὑποτάσσω in Ephesians 5.21

Add yours

  1. Hi,
    Thanks for spending time clarifying this passage. Could I request you to do the same for Colossians 3:18?
    Thank you once again for this enlightening explanation of the passage. 🙂

  2. I could do the same for Col 3.18, though I can’t make any promises regarding any sort of time-frame. This particular essay is the result of about a year of reading and study, beginning back in May of 2006…

    One thing I would say initially, is that perhaps Colossians 3.18 ought to be read in light Ephesians 5…though the question of which was written first and what not is far from closed…

    For an egalitarian understanding of this passage and Colossians 3.18, I would suggest reading I. Howard Marshall’s discussion of these verses in Discovering Biblical Equality edited by Pierce, Groothius & Fee.

  3. Thanks for this good post, Mike. It says much of what I have come to understand over the years about this passage and others having to do with headship. It has been a long journey for me, but one where I believe I am paying closer attention to what the biblical text actually says. I completely agree that the focus in headship is on sacrificial love. As far as I know, the concept of subordination does not exist in the Bible. Rather the concept of submission does. “Subordinate” is a verb addressing what a superior requires of an inferior. Submission is a verb addressing how one person defers to another. There is a focus on on loving godliness in biblical submission, ISTM. Too much focus on rules and regulations, IMO, misses the point and can bring us close to the issue Jesus had to chastise the Pharisees about so many times, following the letter of the law while missing its spirit.

  4. I completely agree.
    My own journey through this passage began as I began to think about preparing for my marriage. The thinking started May, 2006 and our wedding was the in August. My studies in Ephesians 5 led me to gain so much interest in Ephesians.
    I also have had the blessing of parents who strive to model such a relationship.
    (by the way, I fixed that typo…)

  5. Hey Mike, thanks for the link here from the Better Bibles blog. I have never seen yours before, and I’m really impressed with your exegetical seriousness, especially for an undergraduate (or recent graduate now?).

    I hate to say that I still differ with you on the heart of your argument here about αλληλων. The truth is, there really isn’t a problem that requires evidence from Chrysostom in order to resolve. It is abundantly clear that αλληλων does not always involve full reciprocity, especially when it is being used of a group. The examples in the NT alone extend far beyond those O’Brien lists.

    I appreciate the evidence you have brought in from Chrysostom’s homilies on Ephesians. However, now that I have checked them, they confirmed what I expected. He addressed v. 21 altogether separately from vv. 22ff. His Greek text included the extra υποτασσεσθε that you mention in v. 22. So he wasn’t even working from a text where the syntactical argument for making vv. 22ff epexegetical to the participle in v. 21 would be possible.

    What Chrysostom is doing with 5:21 is exactly what most people do when they read it as a stand-alone verse. They make it into a command for mutual submission to all people. And, frankly, as Chrysostom’s homily shows, that interpretation preaches well. This is exactly why I find Silva’s dictum about using Chrysostom generally lacking. It may well work sometimes. But you have to approach using Chrysostom with an understanding of his style. His reputation as a literal-minded exegete is only partially true. He frequently picked out details from the context and ran with them. To be sure, he read them literally, but often not in a way that comports with a grammatical historical method that considers the context of a passage of premier importance.

    Moreover, regardless of what he said about mutual submission for v. 21, his subsequent homily on vv. 22ff. very clearly stick to a hierarchical household arrangement, Chrysostom advocates wives submitting to husbands and not vice versa. And this relates to something that was (for me) a wee bit deceptive in your post here. The words you copy from Chrysostom about masters and slaves are not from his comments on Eph 6:5ff, where he is very clear to maintain the obligation of slaves to submit to masters and not vice versa. Rather the words you copied are from the homily on v. 21 where he uses the words “slave” and “master” as stereotypical terms of the kinds of relationships any two Christians could wrongly have with one another. Chrysostom did not read v. 21 as in any way mitigating against the nature of the genuine master-slave relationship or as a command that would overturn its existence.

  6. Eric, thank you for the compliment, this post was actually part of my senior seminar paper. Greek was my focus of study and Ephesians has become one of my chief interests along side hermeneutics, both philosophical and practical.

    While I do respect you opinion, I still disagree and anticipated your explanation. For one Chrysostom’s separation of verse 21 from verse 22 has less to do with his understanding of the flow of Paul’s argument and more to do with his texts which for one is thoroughly of the majority tradition and secondly, it is well documented that lectionaries consistently split the text at verse 22, which skews the entire passage toward an inadequate reading that is challenged by p46 and others. So to appeal to Chrysostom’s dividing of the text is quite inconclusive. We do definitely for sure that his text had a verb in verse 22 and it is entirely possible (if not likely) that his writing is based on a lectionary that had already separated these verses.

    It also must be noted that Chrysostom likely did not write his homilies straight through so that he wrote on marriage and then slaves and children directly after his looked at verses 18-21.

    But regardless of all of that, the question regarding the reliability of Chrysostom for this verse has nothing to do with his exegetical/literal reliability. Silva’s point is what Chrysostom does not say in his exegesis, so how he divided the text or what he said later doesn’t matter. What is important is that there isn’t any debate in his mind. The point I’m trying to make has nothing to do with what Chrysostom thinks about this particular problem because in his mind there is no problem. The full quote from Silva is this:

    Strange as it may sound, Chrysostom, along with other Greek fathers, can be particularly helpful when he does not offer an opinion on an exegetical problem. As a native Greek speaker, his innate sense of the language—but not necessarily his conscious reflection on it—provides an important bridge between the modern commentator and the Pauline writings (with the qualification that Paul’s Greek was of course not identical to Chrysostom’s). Educated speakers are notoriously unreliable in analyzing their own language. If Chrysostom weighs two competing interpretations, his conclusion should be valued as an important opinion and no more. If, on the other hand, he fails to address a linguistic problem because he does not appear to perceive a possible ambiguity, his silence is of the greatest value in helping us determine how Paul’s first readers were likely to have interpreted the text.
    Moisés Silva, Philippians (2nd ed.; BECNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 27.

    So regardless of his exposition, thoughts about slavery later in other homilies has nothing to do with the fact that he doesn’t see any question about the mutuality of αλληλων.

    I also do not see αλληλων as fully reciprocal. It does not need to be in order to maintain a mutual relationship. And since I’ve already given my own exposition and exegesis above, I’ll just drop one more quote from Marshall:

    Admittedly, the pronoun is regularly used of people’s doing things to others who are also doing the same things to them, but without specifying that literally everybody does it to literally everybody else. “We talked to each other” clearly means “I said something to you and you said something to me”. “They said to one another” suggests more loosely that an unspecified number of people in the group said something to others in the group, with the result that at least some people were both speakers and hearers. But there is nothing in the usage to suggest that the people can be divided into distinct groups of those who spoke and heard. Similarly, it is highly unlikely that on hearing “Be subject to one another”, some members of the congregation said, “But of course that doesn’t apply to me, since I am a husband/father/master/church leader”.
    Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

    It also seems unhelpful to appeal to the later section of the passage as well. When the audience would have heard verse 21, they would not being thinking to themselves, “oh well, Paul will being talking about slaves later, just wait for that.”

    For the record, I’m incredibly impressed with Peter O’Brien’s commentary on Ephesians (I’ll be reviewing it in the next month or two). I prefer it to Hoehner’s, for readability though not for detail (by the way Hoehner views verse 21 as describing mutual submission, but then goes on and prefers a variant reading for verse 22 in order to maintain his hierarchical perspective on marriage [which was very surprising, very few scholars have done that in the past 150 years]). Not even Alford accepted such a reading and his commentary was written before most of the manuscripts with an ellipsis were found.

    But again, Eric, I deeply respect you and your view. When I read Peter O’Brien’s discussion of this verse back in late August, his argument, which is for the most part identical to yours, had thoroughly convinced me and I spent a good month considering the implications for my very recent marriage. That I read Silva was only by “chance” (Calvinist) since my wife and I were working through Philippians that summer together (she has a year of formal Greek study and four years of Latin under her belt). All this to say that I understand your view and respect it. The arguments are strong, just, in my opinion, not strong enough.

  7. Hi Mike,
    A very good post, and timely for me. I was just about to ask you how long it took you to write that 🙂 it would take an awful long time!

    This particular essay is the result of about a year of reading and study, beginning back in May of 2006.

    Wonderful.

    I did a module on The Exegesis of Ephesians 2 years ago. It is an amazing book. Anyway, I was just relooking into these very verses the last weekend and thought whether I can look at them in this application and practical way:

    1. Wives, submit to your husbands whether or not he loves you as he loves the Church.
    2. Husbands, love your wives whether or not she submits to you.

    I don’t know if I can go that far. Any thoughts?

    BTW, I left you a note in your librarything profile. Hope you’ll take a look.

    God bless!

  8. I think that’s a good start…

    But I also think that the thrust of the passage places the husband’s love in parallel with the wife’s submission, loving in such a way that the husband seeks to put her first and to bring her up onto the same level. I also do not think that the husband should expect/demand submission. In this passage, submission is something given voluntarily not forced. In that context, loving sacrificially might mean sacrificing the an expectation to receive submission from the wife.

    For the husband, its a matter of loving someone so much that you would sacrifice your life and well-being for her.

  9. From the historical and cultural background you gave, it may be not be as far as what we have now, speaking from the wife’s perspective. Men are still men and in a world of neglect, let’s not tread on abuse, the wife is still exhorted to submit, not easy but a command nonetheless. (is “submit” an imperative?) And on the other side of the coin, like Christ, the husband is still called to love even if the wife do not submit, in particular to this modern world of individuality and independence.

  10. technically, “submit” isn’t even in the text when it is directed to women.

    In verses 22 and 24 there is an ellipsis of the verb.

    In verse 21, upon which 22 depends for the verb, submit is a participle. In verse 24, the clause with the verb is in the indicative.

    Whether an imperative is assumed is a moot question (moot as in needless, not as in debatable) because that is not how ellipsis functions.

  11. Greetings from Puebla, Mexico. I’ve just read you analysis from this text which im teaching on tomorrow at Church. At first instance studying the text my only doubt was if the “one another” was absolutely reciprocal. I believe it is, understanding it is a responsibility fort every single christian depending its role, isn’t it? Blessings and thanks for sharing such a detailed study, The best ive ever read on this text.

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