The question of submission in marriage is a thorny one, and one that is always likely to cause a certain rise in blood pressure. Recently I read an argument regarding the use of the verb ύποτάσσω in Ephesians 5:21-22. You can read the relevant articles here and here.
The argument, at least as I understand it, is really twofold:
- Since the participle phrases are modifying the implied subject of the verb πληροῦσθε (a second person plural imperative), Paul is not singling out wives for instruction in submission.
- Since the verb found in Ephesians 5:21 is in the passive voice, (ύποτασσόμενοι) it cannot be an command, as that would require the use of the imperative voice.
Both arguments intrigued me, as they aren’t arguments against the so-called “traditional” interpretation of this passage that I’m familiar with. So I decided to get out my Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 27th edition and work through the passage myself to see what I might find.
Here’s the passage in Greek, as it appears in the NA-27:
Ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ ⸀Χριστοῦ, αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ⸆ ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ, ὅτι ἀνήρ ⸉ἐστιν κεφαλὴ τῆς γυναικὸς ὡς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς κεφαλὴ τῆς ἐκκλησίας, ⸀αὐτὸς σωτὴρ τοῦ σώματος·
…and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church—he himself being the savior of the body. – Ephesians 5:21-23, author’s translation.
There are some grammatical features that are worth noting in the text, and one of which the author of our aforementioned blog post points out. There is no verb in v. 22, which isn’t an uncommon feature in Koine Greek. The verb must be supplied from v. 21. This is where the “participle argument” comes in. The author of this post has argued that since ύποτάσσόμενοι is modifying the implied subject of the verb πληροῦσθε in v. 18, then Paul is not specifically singling out wives for instruction on submission. Thus far I would agree – Paul’s focus from v. 18-21 is specifically on what it means to be filled with the spirit, which filling we show in
- speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,
- always giving thanks to God the Father for one another,
- and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
But then v. 22 supplies and explanation of what, specifically, Paul means by “submitting to one another” (ὑποτάσσομενοι ἀλλήλοις), namely, that wives submit to their husbands as they would to the Lord, and husbands love their wives like Christ loved the Church.
Where the participle form ὑποτάσσομενοι is concerned, I think we are making a mountain out of a molehill. It categorically is not all that uncommon for a participle to have an imperatival force in Koine Greek; as a matter of fact, Romans 12 is shot through with just such participles, as is 1 Peter.
What is most intriguing, at least to me, is the presence of a significant textual variant (marked by the symbol ⸆ in the NA-27 and in the Greek text above, representing that there are manuscripts that contain an additional word or words at this point), that provides us with some help.
The witnesses for the shorter reading (in which the verb “submit” is only implied) are minimal (P46 B Cl Hiermss), but significant and early. The rest of the witnesses add one of two verb forms as required by the sense of the passage (picking up the verb from v. 21). Several of these witnesses have ὑποτασσέσθωσαν (hupotassesthōsan), the third person imperative (so ℵ A I P Ψ 0278 33 81 1175 1739 1881 al lat co), while other witnesses, especially the later Byzantine cursives, read ὑποτάσσεσθε (hupotassesthe), the second person imperative (D F G M sy). The text virtually begs for one of these two verb forms, but the often cryptic style of Paul’s letters argues for the shorter reading. The chronology of development seems to have been no verb — third person imperative — second person imperative. It is not insignificant that early lectionaries began a new day’s reading with v. 22; these most likely caused copyists to add the verb at this juncture.
What these variants do is give us a clue as to how the text was being interpreted. Given that a verb is practically grammatically required after αἱ γυναῖκες, the insertion of a imperative verb is significant, because it clues us in to the fact that the early interpreters of this passage understood the preceding participle ὑποτάσσομενοι to have the force of an imperative verb.