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).