Theological Disagreements #1: Mutual Submission and Ephesians 5:21 (continued a second time)

In the last two posts, I tried to explain the actual translation issues in Ephesians 5:21. Although not very elegant, I suggest this translation:

Submit yourselves to one another by means of [your] reverent fear for Christ

I pointed out that Paul stands the idea of submission on its head, because we do not submit to others because we fear them (the usual pattern) but because we have a reverent fear (respect) for Christ, to whom we have submitted when we acknowledge him as Lord.

The tougher issue here is the question of context. How does this verse fit into the larger pattern of argument that Paul is laying out in Ephesians? Let me say at the outset that Ephesians does not seem to me to be randomly organized. It was not dictated by Paul in a “stream of consciousness” fashion. Instead, it contains tight arguments and points that build on each other, and these lead to and end with his discussion of spiritual warfare in chapter 6.

The main verbal idea of 5:21, “submit yourselves,” is a participle in Greek. Participles are dependent verbal forms and rarely have true independence in a sentence. In this case, the main verbal idea is all the way back in 5:18, “Be filled (with the Spirit).” This is an imperative in Greek, a verb that functions as a command. This “be filled” is followed by four participle phrases, each expressing an aspect of what Paul means by being filled with the Spirit. If we translated these as participles (“-ing” words), we come up with this construction:

Be filled with the Spirit
– Singing psalms …
Singing and Making Psalms in your hearts …
Giving thanks for everything …
– Submitting yourselves to one another …

Here is the problem. The translation of Greek participles is not that simple. In general, they take cues from the controlling verb of the sentence. In this construction, that controlling verb is “Be filled,” an imperative/command. Therefore, a consistent translation would see all of these particles as having “imperatival force,” meaning they are commands, too. If we plug this aspect into our translation, we get this:

Be filled with the Spirit
Sing psalms …
Sing and Make Psalms in your hearts …
Give thanks for everything …
– Submit yourselves to one another ..

If you do some comparing, you will notice that most translations do not do this consistently, translating some of these participles as “-ing” words and some as commands. Why? I don’t know.

Summary: the idea of mutual submission is in the context of “being filled with the Spirit” and has the sense of the final command in a series.

More to come, please be patient with me. I have to go to a Scholarship Committee meeting.

Mark Krause

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One thought on “Theological Disagreements #1: Mutual Submission and Ephesians 5:21 (continued a second time)

  1. Thanks for the insight on this passage. It’s really interesting to see how the grammatical forms and structure shed some light on the meaning of a passage (I’ve especially seen this in Hebrew).

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