Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Mystery of Submission - Ephesians 5 (part 3 of 16)

Continued from here.

Locating submission

In Bibles with topical headings before each passage, this verse is often excluded from the context that follows. We must note two things: 1) topical headings in Bibles are put there by translators to help the average reader—not part of the inspired text, and 2) the author of the letter (Paul) expected the reader to read the whole letter, top to bottom, in one sitting as one large context, 3) it is important to note that the Greek word “submit” is only found once in the entire passage: verse 21.

Glancing down to verse 22, the word “submit” is in our translations to aid us in our reading. But in the Greek, the word “submit” is not there. Rather, verse 22 borrows the word “submit” from verse 21. It literally reads, “Wives, to your own husbands…” “Submit” is borrowed from the previous verse and is understood in verse 22. That’s why translators rightly include it in verse 22. The New American Standard Bible, which attempts to translate word for word, italicizes the understood words added to the verse. For instance, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands…” The Darby Translation, which is even more literal, uses brackets for the implied meaning, “Wives, [submit yourselves] to your own husbands…”

This isn’t weird sentence structure. We do this too. Imagine you are working in the yard and say to your sons, “Joey, use the shovel; Jon, the spade.” Jon knows what you are asking him to do. The word “use” in the second phrase is implied and clear. This is the same thing Paul does with verse 21 and 22. “Submit” is implied and clear.

This observation should give us pause. Whatever the word “submit” means for the wife is no more than what it means for “one another” in verse 21. This is like our example of Jon and the spade: Jon is not asked to do anything more with the spade than what Joey is to do with the shovel—use it. Paul’s idea of submission for a wife isn’t a special submission otherwise he would have said it another way. He could have said, “Wives, especially you submit to your husband” or “Wives, let your husbands rule.” But he doesn’t say “especially you” or “rule” he only implies “submit” from verse 21.

Paul expects all followers of Jesus to submit to one another, wives included, no matter where you are—church, home, school, marketplace, soccer field, funeral, wedding, picnic, or at the movies.
But what does it mean to “submit”? It means “to order under.” When we think of “ordering under” today we think of military commanders and their ranks. We think of CEOs and the employees under them. Paul often thinks of this too when he talks about being subject to powers. But in non-military uses, it generally means, “giving in, placing oneself in cooperation, and even carrying a burden”[1] or even to “associate oneself with.”[2] But Paul uses an ironic context with “submit” in verse 21. We are to “order under,” yes. But Paul says we are to “order under one another.” I once heard a respected and seasoned theologian argue that “submit” only means “to order under” and concluded a wife is to be “ordered under” her husband. But for all the respect I have for this theologian, I was surprised he missed the paradox. When I read the verse for what it is, it seems straightforward. The paradox is that Paul says to “submit one to another.” I order under you. You order under me. This is what associating with one another looks like, mutual burden bearing, willing to cooperate. It fits Paul’s other writings telling us to consider others more important than ourselves and warnings that the last shall be first (verses that involve both genders). This is humility and love in the lives of Kingdom citizenry.

In the next post, we will continue into details for wives...

[1] offers handy resources to see what words mean. Of course, words only have their real meanings in context with other words and phrases. But it’s a start. Look up Ephesians 5:21 and see how “submit” is used. It will also note how it is used in military and non-military contexts.
[2] Discovery of extra-Biblical Greek sources suggest this.