What’s Wrong with Bible Interpretations of the Role of Women in Ephesians 5:22?
The Role of Women in Marriage
The role of women in biblical marriage and church is often defined by a handful of Bible verses and Bible interpretation that restrict human beings to the social practices of ancient societies. As a prime example of this kind of Bible interpretation, many Christians confidently point to their Bibles and claim that Ephesians 5:22 commands wives to submit to the authority of their husbands.
Mike Huckabee: A Wife Is to Submit Graciously
This idea is particularly relevant right now because of Mike Huckabee’s campaign for the Republican nomination for President.
In June 1998, The Southern Baptist Convention made an official statement to declare that “a wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” At that time, Mike Huckabee was the Governor of Arkansas. He was also a former Southern Baptist minister. Huckabee joined 129 other evangelical leaders to support this statement in a full-page ad in USA Today.
Huckabee, who was not taken seriously as a possible presidential candidate at the beginning of his campaign, won the Iowa caucuses. This means that we are faced with the possibility that the Republican presidential nominee could be someone who insists that wives are to submit to their husbands.
When Bible Interpretation Becomes Political
Although religion and politics are ostensibly separate, this religious idea that wives must submit to their husbands raises important political questions about equality and the legal rights of women. When politicians make political statements based on the Bible, the claim that “a wife is to graciously submit to the servant leadership of her husband” is not simply a religious idea, but a deeply political one.
The Mistranslation of Ephesians 5:22 in English Bibles
However anyone chooses to understand what “submission” and “servant leadership” might mean, the most basic problem with interpretation of this verse concerns translation of the original Greek into English.
Every English translation I have ever seen translates Ephesians 5:22 as a complete sentence, with an imperative verb addressed to women. Here are a few samples:
- Wives, submit yourself to your own husbands as unto the Lord (King James Version).
- Wives be subject to your husbands as to the Lord (Modern Language Version).
- You wives must submit to your husbands’ leadership in the same way you submit to the Lord (Living Bible).
- Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord (Revised Standard Version).
- Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord (New Revised Standard Version).
- Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord (New International Version).
This is clear enough, isn’t it? Whether it is “submit” or “be subject,” in English translations, Ephesians 5:22 is a separate sentence with an imperative verb. Many English Bibles also treat Ephesians 5:22 as the start of a new paragraph.
A Phrase without a Verb
Ephesians was not written in English. It was written in Greek, sometime in the first century AD. If you consult an interlinear Greek version of Ephesians, you will notice something remarkable. Ephesians 5:22 doesn’t have a verb. (An interlinear puts translations into another language on alternate lines. My Greek interlinear includes English translation of the Greek on alternate lines.)
This is how the interlinear translates the Greek in Ephesisns 5:22 into English:
Wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.
This isn’t a complete sentence, because there is no verb. So, where does the idea of submission come from? It comes from the verb of the previous verse, Ephesians 5:21.
In 5:21, the verb is not an imperative addressed only to wives. Instead, it is what Greek grammar calls a “reflexive” verb, in which submission is “to one another other.”
Here are some translations of 5:21:
- Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God (King James Version).
- Be submissive to one another out of reverence for Christ (Modern Language version).
- Honor Christ by submitting to one another (Living Bible).
- Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (Revised Standard Version).
- Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (New Revised Standard).
- Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (New International Version).
Two Misleading Translation Decisions
When it comes to Ephesians 5:21 and 5:22, we have two distinct translation decisions at work in most English Bibles:
- The first is that English translations take the idea of submission from the verb in 5:21 and create an imperative form of a verb in 5:22, although the Greek has no verb at that point.
- The second is that English translations tend to treat 5:21 and 5:22 as separate units, with no real connection to each other.
The separation of 5:21 and 5:22 into separate units demonstrates the sometimes misleading consequences of dividing Biblical books into chapters and verses.
No Spaces, No Paragraphs, and No Punctuation in Greek
In the earliest Greek manuscripts, there were no spaces between words and no punctuation at all. This means that there were no separate sentences and paragraphs. All of the punctuation and the divisions in sentences, verses, and chapters were added over time. Sometimes, the divisions into sentences, chapters, and verses make logical sense. Other times, these divisions separate what were clearly intended to be whole units.
The division of Ephesians 5:21 and 5:22 is one of the most dramatic examples of dividing what was clearly intended to be a whole thought. 5:22 is a phrase without a verb. The idea of submission comes from 5:21, in which submission is “to one another.”
It is simply irresponsible and misleading to take the idea of submission “to one another” from 5:21, turn it into an imperative addressed only to women in 5:22, and then disconnect the idea from 5:21. Yet, this is exactly what many English translations do.
The King James Version of the Bible treated every verse as a new paragraph. Many of the newer translations separate chapters and verses into topical paragraphs. Some even add topic headings to the paragraphs.
If you investigate a series of English translations, you will find that some versions treat 5:21 as the closing sentence of a paragraph. Some treat is as a paragraph on its own. Some treat is as the opening sentence of a paragraph which includes 5:22.
The most misleading versions treat 5:22 as the first sentence of a new paragraph, under a heading. For example, the New International Version starts a new paragraph with 5:22, under the heading, “Wives and Husbands.”
How a Radical Idea Was Replaced by Traditional Power Roles
What is the effect of these translation and publication decisions? In the time and place in which Ephesians was written, the idea of submission to one another in marriage was a radically new idea. In contrast, there was nothing new in the idea that wives were to submit to their husbands.
As with so many radical ideas coming out of the New Testament, the original idea was soon lost, and replaced by traditional ideas. The radical vision of mutual submission reverted into a traditional power structure within marriage.
The translators, who really do know better, reinforce the traditional ideas by adding a verb that is not there, and treating 5:22 as a new paragraph, completely separate from 5:21.
The Effect of Mistranslations
Whether or not Mike Huckabee succeeds in his quest for the presidency, my point is that the Bible is a potent force in our political and social life, for believers and non-believers alike. The real problem is that claims about the Bible are based on mistranslations and misinterpretations, which tend to reinforce traditional ideas about social status and roles, particularly the role of women. Ephesians 5:22 is a powerful example of such a mistranslation.
The relevant question is:
Why is the role of women in marriage so often defined by a handful of Bible verses and Bible interpretation that restrict women to the social practices of ancient societies rather than by the radical vision of mutual relationships in Ephesians?
Every English translation I know has imposed a meaning that is inconsistent with the Greek text. This is why Ephesians 5:22 does not command wives to submit to their husbands as something that only she must do. The radical notion of treating relationships with others — including the relationship between husband and wife — as “submission to one another out of reverence to Christ,” reverted to the dominant social hierarchy of male power and female submission to power. This new vision of mutual submission was lost. The traditional role of women was reinforced. And…life went on as usual.
Find out more about the Bible and money in Gospel of Wealth or Poverty? How Do Bible Verses about Jesus, Wealth, Poverty, and Heaven Affect Your Income?
You might also be interested in Your True Self Identity: How Familiar Translations of Bible Verses in the Gospel of Matthew Hide Your True Identity from You
[Original Post January 4, 2008]
I agree with your opinion concerning textual criticism in it’s original language and translations. I think it is of the utmost importance to understand the context and use only the literal words and their precise meanings without our own traditions and subjective opinions interpreting it. However, in this case, I think you are incorrect in your assumption that Paul was not speaking about women’s submission to their husbands. Even if you assume that the verse has been incorrectly spaced, punctuated, etc. leading to an improper interpretation, you would be ignoring the next few verses which complete the context and explicitly illustrate how men are the head of women just as Christ is of the church. This is not an excuse to boss women around but rather to lead in an appropriate, loving, and Godly manner with Christ as the example. In that regard, I suppose men are to submit to their wives, just as Jesus gave himself for the church and humbled himself on several occasions to his disciples.
Ian, thanks for your thoughtful response. I apologize for the delay. I have been immersed in a business project, which as taken most of my time and attention.
Your comment only raises another question. What exactly does it mean to be “the head?”
We are dealing with a metaphor here. For contemporary Americans, “head” refers to thinking and leading and making decisions. Therefore, the “head” is the decision maker and the husband is therefore “the boss.” With this understanding of “head,” people go on to make the case that you make, that being “the boss” is not an excuse to be “bossy.”
However, this is a highly questionable assumption about the appropriate metaphorical meaning for “head” in Ephesians.
At this point, I am not going to take the time necessary to offer a complete argument, but I will point in the direction my explanation would take.
There is almost no textual evidence that ancient Greeks and Romans used the word “head” as a metaphor for the leader, decision maker, or boss.
In Greek thought, the location of decision-making was not the head, but the heart. And this brings up another distinction. We use the “heart” as a metaphor for emotion and the “head” as a metaphor for logic, and so we tend to miss the real point of all of the references to the “heart” as the site of the decision-making will.
So, here is another point where we assume that our metaphors are the same as their metaphors, and then assume that we know what was being said.
From a metaphorical perspective, the word “head” in Ephesians does not refer to decision but to origin. Even in English, we use “head” to refer to source, as “the head of the Misssippi River is located in Minnesota.
Ephesians is going back to Genesis and the idea of the man being the “source” of the woman. And this brings up another whole discussion about Genesis, and what that means, and how much traditional reading has imposed meaning on the Hebrew narrative.
So,we have the metaphorical meaning of head, Greek and Roman understanding about the true source of decision as the heart, and a whole history of misreading the creation story in Genesis 2-3.
But the critical point is that your comment assumes that “head” refers to leadership. This is a meaning that we have imposed on the text, but no Ephesian would have assumed.
All the best,
Kalinda Rose Stevenson
http://www.MinistrytoMarriage.com points out this exact thing in their ministry and books The Man of Her Dreams / The Woman of His written by Joel and Kathy Davisson
Men are to focus on agape-loving their wives — submit means “to adapt to”
head means “kephale” or “source of life, source of strength”
and does NOT mean boss or leader or commander
Mutual submission, mutual respect, mutual honor — this makes for a happy and godly marriage.
Please check out http://www.SaveOurChristianMarriage.com
I whole-heartedly agree with the miscontextualization of this verse, when one looks at the entire New Testament’s treatment of women and women’s value.
I don’t have a problem with the term “head” because it is clearly intended as “source” or “origin.”
My issue is with the translation of the word “submit.” If I were ignoring verse 21, I might be inclined to just go with the traditional view of submission. But as I read verse 21 that ALL Christians are to “hupotassó” to one another, I must pause. Is Paul using this verb, in this context, to indicate “having an authority over” or “obedience to?” Surely it is translated this way elsewhere in the NT. But I cannot conceive it having only this meaning here.
Otherwise we must assume that Paul is telling us to obey the other believers in our community of believers. I must read this as “to voluntarily defer” because of verse 21. And as we know, if an act is voluntary, it cannot be a requirement.
In addition, it is not a stretch to say that the church is voluntarily subject to Christ (verse 24). We certainly have the choice to submit to him or not and often choose “not.” So, unless there is some spiritual Jedi mind-trickery going on, I am going to have to question how this word is translated in EVERY other NT verse.
I wonder how this would change my view of theology and scripture. It is worth looking into. I cannot conceive that Greek scholars would have no answer for this as we are often told that Greek is a very precise language.
You have raised an important question. I can’t do justice to it at this point, but I do have a few thoughts.
You make the comment, “I am going to have to question how this word is translated in EVERY other NT verse.”
This is a profoundly valid question to ask about any translation. The critical point is that every word in every translation is a translation from an ancient language to another language.
When it comes to Biblical translations, it is all so familiar that it is easy to assume that we know what words mean, without even considering that we are dealing with traditional interpretations. When it comes to something like the idea of submission, it takes a determined effort to step back and ask what the verb meant in ancient Greek and what it was intended to mean in any particular writing.
The problem is further compounded because people consult the same dictionaries to determine the meaning of the Greek words, which only raises questions about the biases, knowledge, and worldviews of the scholars who compiled the dictionaries.
So, simply looking up a word in a Greek-English dictionary doesn’t mean you are going to know what any word “really” meant. It will tell you what particular scholars thought it meant. Maybe they were doing nothing more than perpetuating traditional readings. Maybe they missed the point too.
I say this as one who was trained in Biblical scholarship. Just because scholars share a common consensus on anything doesn’t necessarily mean they are right. The history of any kind of scholarship is a process of examining and evaluating widely held assumptions.
At this point, I encourage you to engage in your own quest to answer your own question.
The best way to find out how this questioning would change your view of theology and scripture is to do your own looking into this question, with an open mind and open heart. Let your goal be to discover if there is a more liberating meaning behind these words than most of us have ever seen before.
I am going to leave it at this. I encourage you to do a study of every place this word is used, in any form. Consult as many serious scholars as you can find, and see what you can discover as a result.
a reply I received from the authors of The Man of Her Dreams/The Woman of His (red book) and book 2, Livin’ It and Lovin’ It (Joel and Kathy Davisson) http://www.BestMarriage.com
For Ephesians 5:22, the question is not “what does ‘hupotasso’ mean. It is the fact that “hupotasso” does not appear in the original greek. The English word “submit” was added by the translators.
The word ‘hupotasso” does appear in a number of places in the New Testament, beginning with Ephesians 5:21 (submit to one another) – and a number of other locations in the New Testament that we isolate in the red book in chapter 14 or 15. It is a pleasant word.
Joel and Kathy”
“For Ephesians 5:22, the question is not “what does ‘hupotasso’ mean. It is the fact that “hupotasso” does not appear in the original greek. The English word “submit” was added by the translators.
I agree completely. This was the point I intended to make in my post.
I have just made another post about the effect of bible verses on translation
“Ephesians 5:22 and The Tyranny Of Bible Verses”
Kalinda Rose Stevenson.
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I’ve always felt that “commit” and “cooperate” were better terms that struck closer to the heart of what was being described, instead of the common assertion of “submit.” Something more about teamwork and building a real relationship in a marriage. Which was pretty radical then.
And as far as the word “head,” that instead “advocate” was a better description according to the time.
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