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.
[Original Post January 4, 2008]