Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.

Ephesians 5:22-23 (NIV)

I cannot think of another verse in the Bible which causes as much of an uproar among Christians and non-Christians alike as this one. It reads like a textbook throwback to Biblical literalism, a classic case of the New Testament as a product of its times and proof that the entire thing is hopelessly out-of-date. A lot of Christians read it that way, too, and cast the entire chapter aside as irrelevant.

The clincher, of course, is that nasty word submit. When you punch that word up on Webster 1913, you see the following at the top of the list: "To yield, resign, or surrender to power, will, or authority." The immediate response, of course, is something like: "Yield? Resign? Surrender? How could you suggest such a thing as the will of God? Turning women into mindless slaves for their husbands is exactly the sort of thing modern society is supposed to etc. etc...."

When I hear this, I try to nudge people down the list of definitions to the following: "To yield one's opinion to the opinion of authority of another; to be subject; to acquiesce." This would mean that the wife should, according to Paul's letter, recognize her husband as the authority figure of the household, acknowledge his leadership, and not oppose it. "Mindless servitude" is neither implied nor intended.

Women, after all, had a surprisingly significant role in the New Testament despite the male-dominated culture they lived in. The twelve Apostles were all men mainly, I imagine, because male religious leaders were not just the norm, they were the law. But Jesus' mother Mary and Mary Magdalene were both significant in the story of the resurrection. Early churches in Rome placed women in roles of significant responsibility, according to Romans 16. Even the sometimes-famous Proverbs 31 wife is described as being independently capable with finances, wisdom, and providing for her family.

So why are women being told to "submit" to male authority without any other consideration? Well, the existing traditions of society may have been a factor. But I (and most modern theologians) believe that Paul was trying to maintain a structure in the home, placing husbands in authority over wives in the same way he places parents in authority over children and masters over slaves/servants in Ephesians 6. Earlier, in Ephesians 4:15-16, he placed Christ in authority over the whole church, which is to work together as a unified body with Jesus as the head. How could this be possible if there is no order, no structure, of instruction and obedience?

What Paul is advocating here is a hierarchy of authority and responsibility in the home. According to him, the husband is to lead the family, and the wife and children should all acknowledge his authority. Not mindlessly, but respectfully, the same way you would acknowledge the authority of your teachers in school or supervisors at work.

Some people have certain arguments as to why men are more suited to this role than women, and others let it rest by saying "this is what we're told to do, period." But nowhere does Paul argue that men are somehow naturally superior to women, or that women are inherently unsuited to authority roles. His intent is to put one person in charge of the family, and his position is that this job is reserved by God for the husband. Paul's implied message in 5:23 is that a body can only have one head, a government one leader, and army one commander, and a family one leader.

But lest you think that men have the easy part of the job, consider Paul's very next command to the husbands in Ephesians 5:25: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her". After all, as he reminded another church in Romans 5:8, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

Yep, the wife should submit to the husband. But the husband, in turn, should be willing to sacrifice everything in love for her, up to and including his own life.

You still want that authority, guys?

However much I try to step back out of my own modern preconceptions and look at this issue from a religious/historical point of view, I can't help but come up the same obstacle from every angle: this argument is completely irrational.

Say we accept the proposed definition of "submit" as a kind of respect for authority. Surely one must agree that authority doesn't grow on trees? Parents have authority over their children by virtue of their superior experience and the financial and physical responsibility they bear for their offspring. Teachers have authority over pupils by virtue of their superior knowledge (one cannot be a teacher unless one has something to teach, after all). And authority and the power to wield it in the workplace is very much a result of skills, experience and understanding.

What, then, is the proposed basis for the authority of males over females? If it is nothing but the written commandment, then the aforementioned definition of "submit" loses its meaning - after all, if one submits for no rational reason one is in a state of psychological and intellectual servitude, whomsoever might be the signatory on the family chequebook.

Of the unelaborated arguments in favour of the natural superiority of the male sex I know but little, and much of what I have in the past been confronted with has no existense outside of the religious context - the story of Adam's rib and so forth. Biologically, anthropologically, psychologically, I have never encountered a serious theory that promotes the opinion that men are somehow better equipped to shoulder the burdens of responsibility for the decisions and dilemmas of family life than women are.

As for the closing question of the above writeup, with all of its snide irony, the answer is of course that one cannot expect to be treated with more of the respect one deserves. Quite apart from that, I would and do embrace the full responsibility for my personal and family life, if for no other reason than the sense of control, direction and fulfillment that it leaves me with.

I cannot imagine a fate worse than that of my grandmother, dependant as she is on her children and grandchildren for the simplest task of drawing her pension or writing a letter, because she was convenienty sheltered from those responsibilities until the death of my grandfather. Hers is a dark, alien, frightening world run by people and ideas she does not understand. Not for any imagined relief would I bring any simulacrum of that on myself.

From this standpoint, the above argument bears no relevance to my life outside the ethnological and theological field of intellectual exploration, and so I see no point in trying to force the text outside the boundaries of literalism and into a contrived relevance to a life two thousand years removed.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-- for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Ephesians5:25-33 (NIV)

People like to dwell on the submission part that precedes this, but this passage requires the husband to love his wife. This may not sound too hard, but loving and faking love are 2 different things. I know a few husbands who cannot say they love their wives. It is all too hard to force yourself to love a person; but if you have to force yourself, then it’s not really love now, is it? This chapter calls on both the husband and the wife to perform near impossible feats. I think this plays toward the fact that a marriage needs attention and work to be successful.

Like mblase pointed out, "Mindless servitude" is neither implied nor intended. Also I think it is the husband’s responsibility to conduct himself in such a way as to deserve the respect of his wife.

Again like mblase pointed out, I believe a structure for the home was intended. I think it illustrates the required partnership of a marriage beautifully.

Yes, a “structure” for the home was intended, but it's a military metaphor, not a statement about dominance and submission or about gender.

The verb used in Ephesians 5:22 is also used in the preceding verse (5:21), which is not about husbands and wives or men and women but rather states a general rule for all Christians. He says either: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (NRSV) or “...submitting yourselves to one another in the fear of God”. (KJV).

I don’t think Paul means a “partnership”, like a business. What does he mean? It’s hard to say from any translation I have. King James Version (KJV) has “submit”. New International Version (NIV) has “submit”. No surprise there. New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) has “be subject to”.

In Greek, however, the verb which appears in verse 21 and then is implied in verse 22:


(The first letter is supposed to have a diacritical mark indicating an aspirated u, "hu", as in hypo, hyper, etc. If anyone knows how to make that appear with HTML, do tell)

Now, I’m not fluent in ancient Greek, but I do have a dictionary. Specifically, a Liddell & Scott Intermediate Greek Lexicon (Oxford, 1889, 1975 Ed.). Unlike “New Testament” Greek dictionaries --which often give for a definition whatever word the Authorized Translation (KJV) gives-- Liddell & Scott is a dictionary for classical Greek. The Unabridged Liddell & Scott (amusingly referred to as the “Great Scott” by students who have encountered the massive tome in person) is now available online. Ancient Greek is a dead language. There are only so many texts left for us to read, and a finite number of words were used in those texts. The “Great Scott” has entries for all of them. That’s right, every word ever used (in the texts that have survived down to the present).

Here’s a c&p of the abridged Liddell & Scott entry, from the Perseus online edition at Tufts University (www.perseus.tufts.edu):

hupotassô attic -ttô fut. xô

  • I. to place or arrange under, ti tini Plut.
  • II. to post under, to subject, heauton tini id=Plut.; heautôi ta panta NTest.:--Pass. to be obedient, tini id=NTest.

The incomprehensible parts of these definitions are transliterations of Greek words, putting the words in the context of a phrase. Note that the KJV meaning of “submit” or “be obedient to” is listed as a special “New Testament” definition, implying that only the New Testament “koine” (pidgin) Greek used the term this way. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I usually consider this a sign that King James’ translators fudged the Greek.

To me, the most evocative classical use of this word, documented in the "Great Scott", is to “line up behind”, used to describe soldiers assuming formation behind a standard. Paul frequently uses a military metaphors. In this letter to the Ephesians, just a little after the verse in question, Paul exhorts the faithful to put on the "whole armor of God" (Eph 6:11 and 13), which he then describes in detail:

14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of Spirit, which is the word of God. (NRSV)
Here he is saying: wives line up behind your husbands, children behind your parents. Christians are arrayed as an army against the forces of evil, tallest to shortest. All the Christians, male and female, young and old, are to line up behind the banner of Christ.

My conclusion: Paul was not as patriarchal as King James’ translators. Rather, he experienced Christian communities as a persecuted minority cult that had to stand together or be wiped out. Making mommie kow-tow to daddy wasn't the point. Building a united front with a militant, aggressive stance towards the World was Paul's objective, and history suggests he was extremely good at it.

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