In the last post I tried to define an issue of interpretation concerning Ephesians 5:21, whether it should be seen as the end of a section on ethical behavior or as the beginning of a new section on relationships within the Christian household. Because our modern translations of the Bible feel it is necessary to provide editorial headings for each section of Scripture, this has become a significant issue, for these artificial divisions require the translation’s editorial committees to divide the text either before or after Ephesians 5:21. Remember that these headings are not part of the inspired text. They are composed and inserted by scholars like me who are doing their best to help readers understand the flow of the book. My example was the NIV, which included this verse at the end of the section on ethical behavior in the 1984 edition, and moved it to begin the section on household relationships in the 2011 edition.
Initially, in this post, let me say that the actual translation and meaning of this verse are not in dispute. The verb here is a form of the Greek verb υποτάσσω (hupotassδ). This word had old military roots, perhaps used to “line up” the troops under the authority of a centurion or other army chief. You were putting yourself at ready to follow the orders of your commander. In Ephesians 5:21, the verb uses a Greek form we call the “middle voice,” something we don’t have in English as far as our forms go. The effect of the middle voice is to indicate that the action of the verb is done both by and to the subject, therefore, “submit yourselves.” We are not being called to “be submissive” or to “force others to submit.” We are called to an action that can only be done on a personal level, “submit yourselves.” How do we do this? This is qualified in two ways in the verse.
First, Paul is asking the Ephesians to submit themselves “to one another.” The Greek word here, ’αλλήλοις (allēlois) is what we call a “reciprocal pronoun,” referring to a community ethic. This is something we all do if we are part of the community. It precludes the idea of some ruling and others submitting. All are called to submit to each another.
Second, Paul asks the Ephesians to do this “out of reverence for Christ.” This aspect of the verse is often overlooked. The word translated “reverence” here is a form of φόβος (phobos), the common Greek word for fear (and the root word for any English term that includes “phobia”). In the ancient world, submission was usually based on fear. A Roman soldier submitted to his superior officer because if he didn’t, he would be punished harshly. Likewise, the citizens of a city submitted to the civil authorities because they would otherwise be punished. Fear is a great motivator for submission. Here is the paradox in the verse, though. We are not being asked to submit to the one we fear or respect (Christ). That is assumed. Our fear/respect of Christ and submission to his authority is the basis for submitting to others within the congregation, people whom we need not fear. Our relationship with our Lord, Jesus Christ, the head of the church, is the starting point for an attitude of mutual submission within the church. We mutually submit because we are part of a community where everyone has submitted to Christ as Lord.
In the next post, I will attempt to explain how this verse (and its call to mutual submission) fits into the larger argument that Paul is making in Ephesians 5 and 6.