Wives Submit? Grammar, Culture, and the Outlining of Ephesians 5:21

Ephesians 5:21 often is significant in evangelical discussions about gender roles. One key is how the passage is structured. In general terms, those who understand a paragraph break after 5:21 tend to emphasize the submission of wives to husbands. Those who understand a break before 5:21 tend to emphasize mutual submission between husbands and wives. A minority position understands 5:21 to function as a hinge between instructions for churches and the household code, but this has not significantly influenced discussions about submission.

The proposed presentation will demonstrate that wives are instructed to submit within a relationship of mutual submission that mirrors instruction for mutual submission within the church.

After a brief introduction with an overview of the structure of Ephesians, a description of the relevant grammar will be the focus of the first part of the presentation. The description will include the imperative to be filled with the Spirit in 5:18 and the participles which follow, with attention to “submitting” in 5:21, the implied “submit” in 5:22, and the verb for “submit” in 5:24. This section will demonstrate by the grammar of the text that the church section flows into the household code.

The second section of the presentation will be a consideration of the historical setting and authorial intent. Features which have been added to the text through the years tend to influence interpretation. These features include chapter and verse divisions, paragraph divisions, section headings, and contemporary Western-style outlines. While these features may be useful in a number of ways, they could not have been a part of the author’s intended meaning. Any interpretation based on the presence of a paragraph division is anachronistic. The first century was characterized by an oral culture, as opposed to a print culture or a digital culture. The vast majority of people would have heard the text being read to them rather than seeing the words on a page. The author would have assumed this, and did not include any words like “then,” “therefore,” or even “and” or “but” to signal a change of subject. Without added features like verse divisions, to the ears of people in an oral culture, Ephesians 5:21 flows into 5:22 without a pause.

The third section of the presentation will describe how the church section and the household code both upend the assumptions of their society in the same ways. Submission to Christ, submission to one another, and masters and slaves being evaluated in the same way by the Lord rejects the social stratification of the time. The hierarchy here is a hierarchy of Christ on top and everyone else on the same level. This redefines Roman assumptions about society. The church section and the household code flow together, both accomplishing the same goal against the same social structure.

The presentation will conclude that “flow” is an accurate description of how the text originally functioned. Since the text flows together, the submission of the wife occurs within a marriage relationship characterized by mutual submission.

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