Marriage at work (4) “Wives submit”

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3.1. Two Views

We now get into the body of Paul’s instruction to wives and husbands.  So what does he mean by “wives submit” and why does he require it?  As we have seen already, Egalitarians treat any requirement for wives to be subordinate and husbands to lead as a temporary cultural requirement. 

They argue this on the basis that, firstly, there is a similarity between the instruction to wives and that to slaves.  Slaves are told to obey their masters.  This was the cultural norm at the time but is now recognised as unjust.  Whilst marriage itself is good, so not abolished like the institution of slavery, some of its cultural forms are now considered unjust and may be abolished too.

Secondly, there is difference in “vocabulary”.  Wives are told to “submit” (hupotasso), slaves to “obey” (hupakouo).  So even at that time, Paul makes a qualitative difference between wives and slaves.  Thus submission is not about obedience in this context and should rather be understood in terms of respect (v32) and mutual regard for each other (v21).[1]

Thirdly, Paul sets a restriction on submission.  Wives submit because their husband is “head” – but he is only head in the sense that Christ is head of the Church.  The word kephale should mean “source,” not “authority” in this context.  

Complementarians disagree, insisting that this is a timeless requirement for husbands to take the lead in marriage with wives taking the subordinate role. This argument rests on three key responses to the Egalitarian argument.

Firstly, the similarities between “wives” and “slaves” are overplayed. There are distinctions so that we cannot directly compare the abolition of slavery with the question of wifely submission.[2]

Secondly, the distinction between u`potassw and u`pacou,w is overplayed.  Submission is a genuine response to order and authority in the relationship; it is not merely ‘respect’ or ‘mutual regard.’[3]

Thirdly, Paul is not introducing a restriction in verse 23.  The phrase w`j kai o` Cristo.j is comparative, not restrictive. Wives are to submit “in everything.”  Headship carries the idea of authority.[4]

3.2. Another look at the text

In this section, we will revisit the passage in order to address the arguments more fully and reach our own conclusion about what the text is saying.

3.2.1. “Wives to husbands”

Thisis the first of three pairings which appear to follow the Aristotelian pattern which says that, “of household management there are three parts – one is the rule of a master over slaves, another of a father, and the third of a husband.”[5]

The Egalitarian argument, then, is that this is part of a cultural approach.  Keener argues that the household code must be understood in the light of the status of women at that time.[6] Greco-Roman culture respected modesty in women.  Traditionally, fathers and husbands had extensive powers over children and spouses including the power of life and death.[7]  There were honour killings for adultery, but men could get away with a greater level of sexual promiscuity.  However, around the time that Paul was writing, substantial changes were underway among a class of “new women.”  Many of them were able to establish greater social, legal and financial freedom for themselves.  Often, this new-found freedom went hand in hand with sexual liberation.[8]

Keener takes the view that:

“Members of the Roman elite suspected Christians like several other non-Roman religions of subverting Roman family values.  By upholding what was honorable in Roman values, the Christians could try to protect themselves from undue persecution and from misunderstandings of the gospel.”[9]

This was cultural advice, however, and other factors such as the concept of mutual submission, limitation of the husband’s headship and the command to love acted as an Egalitarian subversion of the traditional order in marriage just as in slavery.[10]

However, there are two problems with this.  First, it begs the question that if there was at least some movement towards Egalitarianism, then why did Paul not side more clearly with the radicals?  After all, he could have clarified the distinction between social equality and sexual licentiousness to the satisfaction of social conservatives. Furthermore, elsewhere, Paul is prepared to face controversy over the social implications of the Gospel.[11]

Secondly, there are significant differences between how Paul approaches the case of women and that of slaves.  For wives and children, their willing submission is treated as good in itself, pleasing to the Lord and bringing its own reward.[12]  For slaves, it is less the case that the act itself is pleasing to the Lord; more that by submitting, even in hostile situations, they are able to please and serve God.[13]  It is not that there is a direct reward or promise; rather, it is that God will ensure a reward.[14]  Therefore, I am not convinced by the redemptive movement argument.

3.2.2. “Submit”

On Paul’s shift of vocabulary from “submit” (5:22) to “obey “6:1, 5), Marcus Barth comments,

“In the teaching of Aristotle and his pagan and Christian followers, as also in 1 Peter 3:6, the subordination expected of the wife is called (or equated with) obedience.  This is not the case in Eph 5.  While for many authors, perhaps at times even for Paul, the verbs ‘subordinate oneself’ and ‘obey’ were synonyms, this cannot be demonstrated for the Haustafel in Eph 5-6.  Only children and slaves are told to ‘obey’ “(6:1, 5).[15]

So Barth thinks that what is in view is the willingness of someone of “high standing” in their own right to forgo their own rights in order to help an equal.[16]  Barth may have a point here.  His concern is to show that submission is not about “blind obedience” by an inferior.  He is also right to ask why Paul varies his vocabulary.  However, we should be cautious about making too much of the distinction between the words.  Whilst they do not have exactly the same semantic range, “obedience” is included within the definition of hupotasso.  Furthermore, as Hoehner observes,

First the term hupotasso historically has the idea of a subordinate role of one individual to that of another… Second, Paul and Peter also use the term hupotasso ‘be subject for the slaves in their household codes… Furthermore, when Peter… instructs wives to be ‘subject’…he illustrates this subordination by Sarah’s obeying.[17] 

However, even if the lexical distinction is not as marked as suggested, as Best argues,

“hupotasso … is the more inclusive, covering a great many situations in each of which its precise meaning needs to be gathered from the context. Subordination within a chain of command in the army is different from a similar concern in the civil service.”[18]

So then there is a difference between how a wife submits and how a slave or child submits.  Whilst that difference may not be seen specifically in the lexicon definitions of the two verbs, the switch in vocabulary does slow the reader down, inviting them to observe the different nature of the parties involved.  How a wife relates to her husband is different to how a slave relates to his master.[19]

3.2.3. “As to the Lord”

There is general agreement among commentators that this means that a wife’s submission to her husband is one of the ways that she submits to Christ.[20]

3.2.4. “Because the husband is head”

The next major issue is the meaning of the word kephale.  Complementarians assume that the word contains the idea of authority.  Egalitarians disagree, arguing that this is to impose a modern usage of the English word onto the koine Greek. 

The argument against “authority” is that in the main Lexicon on classical and koine Greek, Liddle-Scott, “authority” is not listed as a possible meaning.  In normal Greek usage, the word might be in the sense of the literal body part or metaphorically to refer to the source of something or its extremity.[21]  In Greek thought, it was the heart, not the head that was seen as the seat of the intellect and thus the controlling organ of the body. 

Therefore, scholars have argued that kephale.  in Ephesians is referring to Christ (and thus the husband) either in terms of him being pre-eminent or the source of life.  So, for example, Bilezekian prefers the translation “fountainhead.”[22] So one is encouraged to think in terms of wives in that context as poorly educated, often much younger than their husband, socially and economically dependent upon him.  Submission made sense in terms of placing yourself in such a way as to receive the benefits of the marriage.[23]

However, Grudem disagrees with this interpretation.  He has carried out an extensive survey and concluded, first that the singular form of the word never refers to a “source.”[24] So for example, he notes that,

“All  the articles and commentators depend on only two examples of kephalē in ancient literature: Herodotus 4.91 and Orphic Fragments  21a, both of which come from more than four hundred years before the time of the New Testament and both of which fail to be convincing examples: Herodutus 4.91 simply shows that kephalē can refer to the ‘end points’ of a river – in this case the source of a river, but elsewhere, the mouth of a river –and since ‘end point’ is a commonly recognized and well attested sense of kephalē, we do not have convincing evidence that ‘source’ is the required sense here.  The other text, Orphic Fragments 21a, calls Zeus the ‘head’ of all things but in a context where it is impossible to tell whether it means ‘first one, beginning’ (an acknowledged meaning for kephalē) or ‘source’ (a meaning not otherwise attested).”[25]

Secondly, he provides examples from Greek literature where the head is regarded as the controlling organ within the body.[26]  Thirdly, he suggests that it is a mistake to rely only on Liddell-Scott.  Whilst the lexicon does cover koine Greek in the New Testament period, its focus is on classical literature.[27]  Grudem argues that it is right to look to a specialist lexicon such as Bauer to discover the New Testament usage.[28] He argues that a study of the word’s usage in its context within the LXX and the New Testament does point to the meaning “authority over.”[29]

In response, it has been argued that although Grudem does identify some examples of kefalh meaning “head,” these form a minority of the references even within the LXX.[30]  Those cases relate to the translation of the Hebrew “rosh” and even then, it is not always translated with kefalh when it has the sense of authority.[31]  If this is the case, then that raises the question as to whether Paul’s readers as Gentiles would have recognised its usage here.

I would argue that he does intend that meaning.  My reasoning is as follows.  Firstly, Paul himself moved between Jewish and Greek circles.  His own use of the LXX would have made him aware that such a metaphor was possible.  Secondly, NT writers were happy to take other Greek words and develop their meaning within the context of Christian theology.[32]  Thirdly, readers would have had to think carefully about what a non-literal meaning of the word meant.  To do this, they would have had to use the clues available to them within the letter.

The key point of reference, then, is Ephesians 1:22-24, where Christ’s headship over everything is set in the context of his exaltation and rule over all other authorities and powers.  Whilst Cervin prefers to relate this to pre-eminence rather than authority,[33] I would argue that submission to someone who has pre-eminence means recognising that with that exalted position comes power and authority.[34]

3.2.5. “As Christ is head of the Church”

Barth sees this as having restrictive force so that

“the ‘husband’s’ function as ‘head’ is modeled after (and limited by) the measure of Christ’s headship. Thus not an absolute, but only a very qualified role as ‘head’ is attributed to man.”[35]

There are two problems with his interpretation.  Firstly, his interpretation of w`j kai as “only in so far as” is a minority report.  The majority of commentators take its natural meaning to be “as also” so that it sets up a comparison.[36]  Secondly, Barth assumes that the word kephale here excludes the sense of “having authority over” which, as we have already discovered, is not the case.

So Christ’s relationship to the church provides a pattern for the relationship between husbands and wives.  A wife then can willingly submit to her husband.  However, there is a difference.

3.2.6. “Even so…”

Verse 24 is slightly unusual in that it starts with an adversative conjunction.  Avlla, can have an emphatic usage[37] and translations such as the NIV take it that way.[38]  However, the consensus view is that it is adversative.  In that case, it relates only to v23b; Christ the head is also the saviour of the body.[39]  Paul is not suggesting that a wife’s submission comes in response to her husband acting as her saviour.  However, she is still to submit.  This would seem to further counter the suggestion that headship and submission is to do with life source and mutual dependence.

Additionally, the conjunction reminds us that as with u`potassw, the idea of headship will be qualified by its referents.  As John Chrysostom observed in the 4th Century,

we must not try all things by like measure in respect of ourselves and of God, though the language used concerning them be similar; but we must assign to God a certain appropriate excellency.[40]

This means that the way the husband exercises headship is different to how Christ exercises headship.  We will explore this further in chapter 4. 

3.2.7. “In Everything”

The wife’s submission is evn panti (‘everything).  Does this mean that she is there to serve her husband’s every whim or that he has a right to interfere in all aspects of her life? Must she seek his approval before making any decision?  Is this a command liable to lead even to physical and emotional abuse?  This is such an important question that we have dedicated a whole section to Control, Protection and Abuse in our chapter on application.

3.3. Putting things together and in context

We have argued previously that there is a transcultural aspect to the household codes – this is seen here in that the wife’s submission to her husband is modelled on the Church’s relationship to Christ.  There is something timeless about this.

This sits within the context of Ephesian eschatology, Christ is bringing all things together in submission to himself.  The Church is his declaration to hostile authorities that this is happening.  So, the wife, in micro, displays in the marriage what the Church declares in macro to the spiritual powers and authorities.

This is not to say that the wife’s submission equates to Christ’s subjection of others.  At no point is the husband instructed to subjugate his wife.  Her submission is voluntary, self willed.  In other words, whilst there is, as we have argued, a leadership order within the marriage, the wife’s submission is primarily a demonstration of the unity that God brings as she seeks to be of one mind with her husband.  That is why it is to be “in every sphere”[41] because, as we shall see in chapter 5, her submission is for the purpose of becoming “one flesh.”[42]


[1] Markus Barth,  Ephesians 4-6 (The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday. 1979), 714.

[2] See discussion below.

[3] Harold W Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2002), 734-735.  See further discussion below.

[4] Peter T O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary.  Leicester: Apollos: 1999), 412. See discussion below.

[5] Aristotle, Politics.  Cited in Don Browning, “The Problem of Men,” in Does Christianity Teach Male Headship? The Equal-Regard Marriage and its Critics (Ed. David Blankenhorn, Don Browning & Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004), 5.

[6] Craig S Keener, Paul, Women & Wives:  Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1992), 134.

[7] So the Father was referred to as “paterfamilias.” As Grubbs notes, “If a woman’s paterfamilias died or emancipated her, she became legally independent…but she could never have legal power (potestas) over anyone other than herself.” Judith Evan Grubbs, Women and the Law in the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook on Marriage, Divorce and Widowhood (London: Routledge, 2002), 18. Note the power of “life and death” was held specifically by the father, not the husband.  “Grubbs, Women and the Law in the Roman Empire, 21.  See also, Jane F Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (Indianapolis: Indianapolis University Press, 1991), 5.

[8] Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 133. 

[9] Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 133.  Keener’s view fits with Balsdon’s comment that, “In the last fifty years of the Republic, when we have plenty of contemporary evidence – for good or ill – in the smart, corrupt society of Rome itself, the New Woman has arrived.  Her interests lie outside the four walls of her home.  In politics, she is a power in her own right.  She is perhaps the centre of notorious scandal.” JPVD Balsdon, Roman Women: Their History and Habits (Rpr. London: The Bodley Head, 1963), 48.

[10] See my comments on William Webb and the Redemptive Movement Hermeneutical Approach, in the Introduction, page 11 n19.

[11] In particular, consider the discussion in Galatians about sharing table fellowship between circumcised and uncircumcised. See especially Galatians 2:11-21.

[12] Eph 5:22; 6:1, 3; Col 3:18, 20.

[13] Eph 6:8; Col 3:23-25.  In the case of the slave, the act in itself is not “fitting in the Lord”.  This particularly stands out in Colossians.  Instead, the slave acts knowing that the Lord sees and rewards even though the master does not. See Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 205.

[14] Indeed, I am tempted to suggest that Paul goes further in his opposition to slavery in Ephesians 6 than is first assumed.  The normal framework for understanding this seems to go something along the lines of: Slavery is a bad thing and it’s a sad thing that Paul wasn’t able to announce its abolition, so in the meantime he asks slaves to obey until slavery is abolished.  This means that we try to make a link between this relationship and the employer/employee relationship. However, if God is showing no partiality between slave and master and if he will repay the one who does good work, then hasn’t that had a major effect on the relationship?  Isn’t Paul coming close to telling Christian slaves and masters to act as though the relationship is between free men?  The slave willingly serves his master, knowing that even if his master treats him unfairly, then God will make sure he gets his pay (see Eph 6:8 and Col 3:24).  If I am right, then one might be able to say that God has already abolished slavery.  Some masters will not recognise this, but God will ensure that you receive your proper pay.  If that is right, then Eph 6 is timeless, because it is about the way we relate to those who are in authority over us, whether just or unjust, not just about the now abolished institution of slavery.

[15] Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 714.  

[16] Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 714.  See also Keener who comments “To ‘submit oneself’ could mean to ‘give in’ or ‘cooperate’ and need not mean obey; the closest thing Paul gives to  a definition of the term in this context, in fact is the word ‘respect’ in 5:33 where he plainly summarizes his whole exhortation to wives.” Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 168. 

[17] Hoehner, Ephesians,734 – 735.

[18] Ernest Best, Ephesians (ICC. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 533.

[19] It is important to recognise here that even where the same word is used, there is still a distinction between the relationship of son to father and slave to master (c.f. Romans 8:15).  It might be helpful here to think about the way in which the tone of a Hebrew imperative can change depending upon the parties involved from a harsh command through to a polite request.

[20] See e.g. O’Brien, Ephesians, 412, Lincoln, Ephesians, 368, Snodgrass, Ephesians, 294.

[21] Berkley Mickelsen &Alvera Mickelsen, “What Does Kephalē Mean in the New Testament?” in Woman, Authority and the Bible (Ed. Alvera Mickelsen, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 99.  See, George Henry Liddell and Robert Scott: A Greek-English Lexicon (Repr. Revised and Augmented by Henry Stuart Jones and Robert McKenzie. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 45. 

[22] Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, 162. 

[23] See e.g. I.H. Marshall, “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage: Colossians 3:18-19 and Ephesians 5:21-33,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (Ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordan D. Fee. Leicester: Apollos, 2004), 199.

[24] See his original study.  Wayne Grudem, “Does kefalh,, mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,836 Examples.” Trinity Journal 6 (1985): 38-59.  This was a response to Stephen Bedale, “The Meaning of kefalh, in the Pauline Epistles.” Journal of Theological  Studies 5 (1954):211-215. He argues that Bedale fails to provide examples, from the Septuagint of kefalh, meaning “source” and that Bedale has misapplied the category of “things” to people in his article.  Grudem, “Does kefalh,, mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature?” 43.  He develops the argument further in his appendix to Biblical Manhood and Womanhood where he responds to criticisms of his earlier articles.  Wayne Grudem, “Appendix 1: The Meaning of Kephalē (‘Head’): A Response to Recent Studies,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.  A Response to Evangelical Feminism.  (Ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 1991). (see below).

[25] Grudem “The Meaning of Kephalē,” 425-426.

[26] “Plato (5th – 4th C BC), describing the parts of the human body, wrote of the head which is the most divine part and which reigns (despote,w) over all parts within us.”  Timaeus 44.D. Cited in Wayne Grudem, “Does kefalh,, mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature?” 42.  Also “Plutarch (AD 46-120)…explained why the words soul (yuch,) and head (kefalh,) can be used to speak of the whole person: ‘We affectionately call a person ‘soul’ or ‘head’ from his ruling parts.’” Plutarch, Table Talk, 692.D4.  Cited in Wayne Grudem, “Does kefalh,, mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature?” 42.

[27] Wayne Grudem, “Does kefalh,, mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature?” 47.

[28] This has been referred to as the “battle of the lexicons.” (A “Christianity Today” news heading, cited in Tucker, Women in the Maze, 127).

[29] Grudem “The Meaning of Kephalē,” 426.

[30] Richard S.  Cervin, “Does Kefalh, mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature? A Rebuttal.”  Trinity Journal 10 (1989): 96.

[31] So for example, arcw,n appears to be the preferred translation when rosh clearly refers to leadership.  Cervin, “Does Kefalh, mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature?”: 96.

[32] E.g. logos and mystery.

[33] Cervin, Richard S. “Does Kefalh, mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature? A Rebuttal..” Trinity Journal 10 (1989): 112.

[34] So in Eph 1, Paul links Christ’s headship with his rule over creation and suppression of his enemies.

[35] Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 614.

[36] See e.g. Lincoln, Ephesians, 368.

[37] BDAG, 45b.

[38] So that the translation reads “Now…”

[39] See e.g. Andrew T Lincoln, Ephesians (WBC42. Dallas, Texas: Word, 1990), 372.  See also, O’Brien, Ephesians, 416.

[40] John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians (Trans.  Talbort W. Chambers, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1969), XXVI (Chambers: 150). He was referring to 1 Cor 11:3 and his concern was with how we respond to the heretics who treat “the head of Christ is God” to mean that the son is “under subjection.” Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians, XXVI (Chambers: 150). Of particular pertinence to our study is his observation that, “had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection, as thou sayest, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and master.  For what if the wife be under subjection to us?  It is as a wife, as free, as equal in honor.  And the Son also, though he did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God, it was as God.  For as the obedience of the Son to the Father is greater than we find in men towards the authors of their being, so also His liberty is greater.” Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians, XXVI (Chambers: 150).

[41] O’Brien, Ephesians, 417. 

[42] Eph 5:31.