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10 Quick Takes on Ephesians 5:21/22-33

A couple of days ago I began a post about the controversial section of Ephesians regarding the submission of wives to husbands. I was working on the post during breaks at work and somehow nothing was saved. So, now a few days later I want to try to recall some of the things I had written earlier. The original was written the day after we had discussed the passage in the Ephesians class. It was much fresher on my mind then than it is now.

  1. The first question is where to place v. 21. Is it the closing sentence of the preceding paragraph (vv. 15-20) or the opening sentence for the paragraph in question (vv. 22-33)? Those who see it as a summarizing end to the preceding verses notice the hypotassomenoi as the last of a string of participles modifying the imperative to “be filled with the spirit” in v. 18. Against this it must be noted how anti-climactic this sentences would be following the much more climactic v. 20, “Giving thanks always for everything in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, to (our) God and Father.” Also, we must consider the lack of a verb in v. 22. Though the external evidence for the lack of a verb is not terribly strong (p46 and Vaticanus are the only major MSS) when compared to other readings, it is weighty enough. Typically the shorter reading is to be preferred. I think this holds true for this case. The variant readings essentially come to two alternates: a) the inclusion of the 2nd person imperative, hypotassesthe, or b) the inclusion of the 3rd person imperative hypotassesthosan. It seems more likely to me that the original would have lacked a verb and scribes, looking to make the text read more smoothly, inserted imperatives. The fact that we have MSS with both 2nd and 3rd person imperatives in various locations in the sentence only supports the idea that scribes were doing their best to create an easier reading sentence. If we accept the lack of a verb, we must then see a closer connection to vv. 21 & 22, almost an inseparable connection, grammatically speaking. The anti-climactic tone of v. 21 and the need for it to stay connected to v. 22 lead me to conclude that the pericope’s opening line is “Submitting to one another with reverence for Christ, wives [submit] to your husbands as to the Lord…” We must read the whole section in light of the exhortation to submit to one another.
  2. The opening words of v. 21 and the words to husbands in vv. 25, 28 & 33 would be the bits that would have been most jarring to the Ephesians. It is not saying much to exhort wives to submit to their husbands. Similarly, stating that the husband is the “head” of the wife is nothing new. The Ephesians would surely have heard something like this before. Similar household codes had been around for several centuries. To tell husbands to love wives, however, would have been a bit more counter-cultural. It’s surprising then that the history of Christian teaching on this passage (and indeed all of the Household Codes in Ephesians [5:21-6:9]) focuses more on the part that would not have been all that startling to the Ephesians.
  3. On the subject of modern interpretations, I have always been perplexed by something. Wives are told to submit to husbands. That’s in the text. No way around it. Husbands are told to love wives. Fine. Rarely any problem for we modern folks on this. Here’s the thing though: I imagine most people would agree that wives ought to love their husbands as well. Right? We understand the ideal marriage as one where both partners love each other. But, the Ephesians text only calls on the husband to love. We easily understand a reciprocation of this love from the wife’s end. Why do we not also just as easily understand a reciprocation of the submission from the husband’s end? Indeed, v. 21 is quite explicit about it. Yet I would imagine if we were to ask a “traditionalist” to describe a good marriage, he (purposefully exclusive language!) would say something about love between the husband and wife and the submission of the wife to the husband. Why no submission between the husband and wife? I’m perplexed.
  4. OK, I’m going to speed up a bit. From here on out (actual) quick takes.

  5. As is typical to Ephesians, the author says something that sets him off on a related tangent. In this case, the exhortation to love wives as Christ loves the church sets him off on a digression about Christ’s love for the church. We ought not draw direct analogs. Husbands do not sanctify wives just because Christ sanctifies the church (vv. 26-27).
  6. Ephesians has been keen to note the way Christ has rid the church of dividing walls. Should we expect any less here? At the very least the hierarchy has been flattened considerably.
  7. The kephale question (“authority” or “source”?) will likely never be answered conclusively no matter how hard one argues.
  8. As we might expect from Ephesians, the author seems more interested to speak about the church/Christ relationship than the wife/husband relationship. We should be more concerned about that as well.
  9. When the author does speak to the husband/wife relationship the husband gets more space devoted to him. Indeed, the author does not even take the time to state the imperative to the wife (vv. 22 & 24); setting the wife straight is just not that big of a concern.
  10. This whole discussion is a hermeneutical issue. What of the Christians’ sacred text is timeless truth? How do we decide? I would argue from the text itself that wives submitting to husbands is not on its own a timeless command. It is not the focus of the passage. It would not have been that startling to the Ephesians. It ought to be understood as reciprocally as we understand the command to love. And, we ought to understand all of it under the heading of hypotassomenoi allelois.
  11. My wife told me to write all of this! 🙂

[Update: This nonsense is the kind of stuff that results from poor readings of texts like Ephesians 5:21-33.]

[Another update:  Check out the conversation in the comments thread on Tyler’s blog.  It all got started with Tyler kindly giving me a shout out.]

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10 Comments»

  Tyler Watson wrote @

Thanks for this great post, Chris. And I’d like to say that point #3 hits it out of the park.

[…] Spinks has a wonderful post in which he offers ten points about one of the most controversial passages in the New Testament: Ephesians 5.21/22-33. The post […]

  Chase wrote @

Bad exegesis leads to crotchless pantaloons?! In that case, I’m glad I learned from a master. Imagine the chafing …

(Actually, don’t.)

  SmartChristian.com » Blog Archive » wrote @

[…] Taking another look at Ephesians 5:21-33. […]

  Jeff wrote @

I think it may stem from the Genesis 3:16b. There is a strange friction that can come between a husband and a wife; I believe Paul is merely telling how to counter this. The unconditional love husbands are called to will look past any rebellion that may arise and draw submission out of the wife — the wife’s submission is an expression of her unconditional love. My wife makes me appear to be a much better leader than I actually am with her expert followership. I don’t lord over her, I love her and in response she brings her strengths and adds them to mine. Both partners are crucial to the success of the dance but only one may lead.

  Laura wrote @

Great summary of the issues. Thank you for looking to the text and the emphases there. (btw, #3 and #6 are much needed in this conversation)

  Chris wrote @

Jeff, thanks for the comment. I am not sure you’ve really spoken to the issues of Ephesians as much as you have to the general issue of wives and husbands. On that I find much in your comment to disagree with. But since this post is about Ephesians, I’ll save those comments for another day. I would point you and others to an excellent article on Gen. 3:16 by Steve Parker. You can find it in the online journal Quodlibet. A link directly to the article is here.

  Lincoln wrote @

That’s an awful lot of nitpicking over a handful of verses. Seems the apostle Peter makes it more abundantly clear:

1 Peter 3:5-6 For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.

I’m not sure I’d be comfortable having a wife call me “lord” though.

“Master of the Universe” though has a much better ring to it.

  10 Quick takes on Ephesians 1:3-14 wrote @

[…] the spirit of an earlier post on Ephesians 5:21-33, I offer some quick comments on […]

  West on Eph 5:21ff. wrote @

[…] West has a couple of posts that resonate with what I’ve also written about the controversial “submissive wife” bit in […]


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