Theological Disagreements #1: Mutual Submission (continued a third time)

In the previous posts on this topic, I have tried to show how Ephesians 5:21 should be translated and how it fits into the immediate context of verbs that Paul is using. We might summarize this way:

Paul commands that we be filled with the Spirit and describes this in several ways. The fourth element of instruction to the Spirit-filled community is to be subject to one another as a manifestation of our reverence/respect for Christ our Lord.

Ephesians 5:22 begins a discussion that has been labelled the “household tables” or “household codes.” This is Paul’s instruction on relationships within the households of the believers in Ephesus. Paul does this in three parts. First, he addresses the foundational relationship of the household, that between husband and wife (5:22-33). Second, he addresses the relationship between parents and children with an emphasis upon the role of the father (6:1-4). Finally, he addresses the relationship between masters and slaves (6:5-9). In all three of these pairings, Paul has some words for both parties.

Why does Paul do this? From my perspective, he has nothing radical to say here. For example, he doesn’t say, “Masters, free your slaves for slavery is a great evil.” That sort of voice for social justice is not on the agenda here. Paul is not seeking to change the dynamics of the Christian household in any significant way.

Or is he? Before I answer that, I want to point out one more technical item having to do with the Greek text in 5:22. Most English translations will have something like the NIV 2011:

 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.

Here’s the item worth noticing. The verb “submit” is not there in the Greek text. In fact, there is no primary verb in this sentence. This is a type of “elliptical” construction in Greek, where something is missing and must be supplied. Let me give you an example of how this works from English.

Let’s imagine a parent having a discussion with a child about doing homework. After the exchange of several sentences, the child says, “OK, I’ll do my homework before dinner.” The exasperated parent finishes the conversation by saying, “You’d better!”

Without out any context, “You’d better” is an incomplete thought. “You’d better” what? No problem though, because both the parent and the child can fill in the unsaid words, “You’d better finish your homework or there will be consequences.”

In the case of Ephesians 5:22, the verb must be understood by the reader from the context. It will be one of the preceding verbal ideas. In theory, I guess, this could be the verbal ideas from 5:20. In that case, we would fill in the missing verb from 5:22 and come up with something like, “Wives, sing and make music in your hearts to your husbands as you do to the Lord.” But that is silly nonsense. The natural reading is to continue the most recent verbal idea to fill in the ellipsis, and that is the idea of “submit yourselves.” This is why we get the translation in 5:22, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”

Notice something here. The “yourselves” part of this assumes the middle voice idea of the verb in 5:21. There is no word in Greek here for “yourselves,” this is part of the ellipsis we must supply. If we reuse a verbal idea in this way, we are not free to pick and choose what parts of it we will retain (unless there are things in the text that tell us to do this). The idea of “submit yourselves” has a sense of voluntary surrender, not of grudging acceptance of an assigned role. The tone here is not of Paul demanding or dictating, but asking.

We will explore the impact of 5:22 more fully in the next post, but let me point this out: it does not make grammatical or contextual sense to make a break between 5:20 and 5:21 or 5:21 and 5:22. So, for me, even the question of where 5:21 belongs is misplaced. It is neither the end of the section that started at 5:1 (talking about what it means to live as children of light), nor is it the beginning of a section that begins with 5:22 (talking about household roles). At best, we might see it as a bridge between the two, but I think that is inadequate, too. I think the idea that we need to make a break before or after 5:21 is misguided and unwise. This section begins with the “therefore” of 5:1 and a new section begins with the “finally” of 6:10.

Please hang in there with me. I think I can finish this in the next post on Wednesday.

BTW: you might enjoy a blog post with similar discussion at Internet Monk Blog.

Mark Krause


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