Submission Is a Two-Way Street

If you’ve never had a look at the oldest copies that we have of the Bible in its original languages, it may surprise you to learn that they lack something that we take for granted in modern reading: punctuation. In fact, the oldest Greek manuscripts are written entirely in capital letters with no spaces between them. While this doesn’t pose as great of a problem as you might think (obviously, it worked for the first readers of the text!), it does occasionally leave modern Bible students wondering where thoughts begin and end.

For example, if you open up a copy of a modern Greek text like the Nestle-Aland 28 which seeks to present a composite picture of the many ancient Greek manuscripts and to restore things like paragraphs and punctuation, you’ll see something interesting in Ephesians 5:21. In most English translations, there’s a period at the end of the verse, but in the NA28 it’s actually the start of a new sentence and a new paragraph. There’s a practical reason for this: in Ephesians 5:22, the NA28 has chosen to follow certain Greek manuscripts that don’t record a verb or verb form.[1] A rough translation of Ephesians 5:21-22 from the NA28 would be: “Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ, the wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.”

This reading of the text calls us to think about something that we probably should be thinking about anyway. No matter how the Greek text reads, Ephesians 5:21 is linked to Ephesians 5:22 via the thought of submission. Most translations either honor those Greek manuscripts that do feature the verb “submit” or simply supply the word “submit” in v. 22 for understanding. Yet an ongoing discussion of submission in the text presents a problem that some have not considered. You see, the verb “submit” is actually found nowhere else in the remainder of the book of Ephesians, but the Greek word translated “one another” in v. 21 describes reciprocity. To put it another way, if a Christian wife is “one” who is submitting, who is “another,” i.e., the one submitting to her? Though it might sound surprising, the logical answer is her husband.

Let me explain. Ephesians 5:22-24 makes it very clear that wives are to submit to the leadership of their husbands just like the church is to submit to Jesus. The idea that submission is “to one another” doesn’t mean that a husband is also to submit to the leadership of his wife. This would create a vicious cycle of submission and leave the family leaderless. However, a husband is still to submit. Listen to Paul:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Can you see submission in these words? Jesus did not submit Himself to the leadership of the church, but He did submit Himself to the needs of the church. He sacrificed everything, even His own life, to secure the church’s sanctification and cleansing. Likewise, husbands are called to follow the example of Jesus and to submit to the needs of their wives, sacrificing everything, even their lives, to benefit their wives eternally.

In a healthy marriage, submission is a two-way street. A wife submits to her husband’s leadership and guidance. He has the final say on the big issues that affect the home, and he plots the course the family will take. However, a husband also submits, not to the leadership but to the needs of his wife. He ensures that she has everything that she truly needs, first spiritually but also emotionally and physically, and he sacrifices to make this happen. It is Jesus’ sacrifice for us that paves the way for the church’s submission to Him; likewise, it is a husband’s sacrifice for his wife that paves the way for her submission to him.

So, husbands, next time you are tempted to think that Ephesians 5:22-24 gives you the right simply to have your way and do what you want, think again. Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life” (Matthew 20:28). You are called to follow His example. As you sacrifice for your wife, you will inspire her to love and serve you, just as the church loves and serves Jesus. And wives, if your husband isn’t putting your needs above his own and loving you like Jesus loves you, what better way could there be to inspire him to be more Christlike than your own loving submission to his leadership? He may decide to “obey the word” because of “your chaste conduct” and your “being submissive” (1 Peter 3:1-6).
by Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org
[1] Some Greek texts do feature the verb “submit” in v. 22, and it’s clear that whether it’s present or not, it’s implied. While v. 21 may indeed be tied to the thought of Ephesians 5:18-20 as it reads in most translations, the thought of submission carries over into Paul’s discussion of marriage as we’ll discuss.

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