Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Question of Marital Submission: Who Does It and What does it Mean

Quote: from http://www.biblestudyproject.org/local-church-messianic.htm#Its_eldership_is_open_to_men_who_fulfill_the_qualifications

“As a wife must lovingly submit to her husband's leadership in the marriage, so must women lovingly submit to exclusive male eldership in the congregation”.


Yes, a wife is to lovingly submit and be of a submissive heart to her husband ( as he must be to her). However, the submission that a believer gives to the church leaders is not the same as a wife gives to her husband. Church leaders whether elders, pastors, teachers, deacons, etc. are not to think of themselves in a one flesh relationship with the congregants. Neither are church leaders to think of themselves as Fathers or Masters. Rather, following Christ’s exhortations in Matt. 20: 20-28, leaders are to consider themselves servants who did not come to be served but to serve and give their lives.

The Question of Submission

The Grk. Word (hupotassoMENOI) translated ‘submission’ ( sometimes ‘subject’) in the NT is most often in the passive, thus it is not primarily about responding to requests from others, though it can be. The difference between obey (hupakou) and submit (hupotassomenoi) is that obey is always responding to another, while submit in the passive, is self instigated. We must be submissive to one another regardless of whether or not they ask for it. And our submission must be to their betterment. In this way kings, bosses, parents, and husbands also submit without having to wait for a request. They submit by giving something of themselves to support, assist, honor and improve the other. It is a way of placing oneself beneath another in order to lift them up. It may not always look so honorable. Sometimes, its just keeping the peace.

One of the first things we need to acknowledge about submission is that everyone is to be of a submissive heart. No one is excused from participation.

The following list was taken from Listening to the Spirit in the Text, written by Gordon Fee.

In the early church everything was done allelon ("one another").

They were members of one another (Rom 12:5;Eph 4:25),

who were to build up one another (1Thess 5:11;Rom 14:19),

care for one another (1Cor 12:25),

love one another (1Thess 3:12; 4:9; Rom 13:8; 1John passim),

bear with one another in love (Eph 4:2),

bear one another's burdens (Gal 6:2),

be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another (Eph 4:32),

submit to one another (Eph 5:21),

consider one another better than themselves (Phil 2:3),

be devoted to one another in love(Rom 12:10),

and live in harmony with one another (Rom12:16).

Looking briefly at the gist of these Scriptures, we can see that they all entail a humble submissive attitude of mentally (at least) getting ‘under’ someone in order to lift them up. These are attitudes that everyone is to give toward others in the body of Christ; no one is to be left out.

A question was made in this discussion, about the uses of hupotage, hupakou, and hupotasso. So let’s take a look at where these are used regarding women in the NT epistles and in what forms. In the course of this discussion we will be viewing all of these verses, though not all in this article.

Hupotasso (submit) : Col. 3:18 (pres. Pl. Middle voice),

Huptassomenoi (submit - passive): 1 Cor. 14:34, Epe. 5:21, 24; Titus 2:5; 1 Pe. 3:1,5

Hupotage (subject) : 1 Tim. 2:11 (n.)

Hupakouo (obey/hear/heed): 1 Pe. 3:6

SUBMIT meanings in English:

English...... RandomHouse 1967 (fr. Latin submitt[ere])

7 definitions given:

1. to yield in surrender, compliance, obedience

2. to subject (esp. oneself) to imposed conditions, treatment

3. to refer or present for the approval or decision of another

4. to state or urge with deference;suggest or propose

5. to yield in surrender, compliance, obedience; to yeild to a conquerer

6. to allow oneself to be subjected to something imposed or to be undergone

7. to defer to another’s judgment, opinion, decision

English ...... Websters 1915 ( fr. L., submittere; sub/under = mittere/to send)

1. to put or place under (obsolete)

2. to let down; to lower (obs.)

3. to yield, resign, or surrender to power, will, or authority (often with the reflexive

Greek is not English and has different ways of expressing things. But even in English we can see that submitting is not only about an inferior yielding to authority. One can yield, surrender, give in to another’s judgment or opinion without them being an authority over us. Submitting to someone does not confirm that they have authority over us. Therefore, any supposed authority must come from someplace else other than one’s choice to submit to them. However, submission can have an element of obedience in it depending on the context. Every word has a range of meanings that are determined by context. Context is always the determining factor.

OBEY meanings in Greek:

The word used to mean “obey” throughout the N.T. is (h)upakouo. It is also used to mean “listen, heed”. It’s a fairly precise word for those meanings: listen, obey, obedience, obedient. The verb is derived from akouo, was commonly used in secular Gr. from Homer on. The adj. hupekoos, obedient, is in the Greek O.T., in Deut. 20:11 of subject peoples and in Prov. 4:3, 13:1 of a son’s obedience to his father.

In Acts 12:13 hupakouo means to open in the sense of “answering the door”. Elsewhere the verb group is used extensively and predominantly by Paul denoting obedience. And sometimes this obedience includes submission to earthly authorities. As a side note some might find it interesting, that in the Greek translation of the O.T. this was the word used when Adam listened to Sarah and did what she asked of him. He listened and obeyed.

The conclusion one cannot help but reach is that if Paul had meant obey or obedience in the places he used (h)upotasso or more specifically (h)upotassoMAI, then Paul would have used hupakouo instead. Fact is he did not.

SUBMIT meanings in Greek:

The Greek words (h)upotasso and (h)upotassoMENOI are more complicated. Vines Bible Dictionary made the mistake of saying that hupotasso is primarily a military term, which is truly inaccurate. It's usage in a military setting was about arranging oneself in the team to do their job. Military terms are such that are peculiar to the military and are somewhat out of place when used elsewhere. But submissive attitudes really permeate all of life including the military. And it’s good to remember that neither church relationships nor marital relationships are military in nature.

The base word hupotasso means to arrange oneself under more similar to our word subject perhaps. It is usually used of one commanding another to “submit”, yield, come under them in some manner. Most hierarchalists interpret submission as always to be compliance to another's commands/demands/requests. Their idea of voluntary and the voluntary inherent in hupotassoMENOI are entirely different. The voluntary in hupotassoMENOI means that a person is not in sin if she does not volunteer herself in the instances she doesn't believe appropriate. It is her decision, her "offering" to give.

In the N.T. Paul uses submit primarily in the form of hupotassomenoi , in the sense of a humble attitude, and arranging oneself in unity, conformity, and respect (summarized in Ephe. 5:33). Ephesians 5:21 and 1 Pe. 5:5 show it best.

Epe. 5: 21 Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.

1 Pe. 5:5 Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble.

Inserting the error of upotassomai meaning obey would make these two verses read that in Ephesians we are all to obey one another, and in Peter we are to first obey our elders and then obey everyone. Just doesn’t work does it. That is because upotassomai does not mean obey.

The way Paul uses the word most often throughout the N.T. is in the middle passive voice form. This way he is requesting that we all voluntarily, willingly, actively arrange ourselves to yield, fit in to one another at our own instigation. When Paul uses the verb in verse 21 and then omits the verb in verse 22 to the wives he is effectively carrying over this attitude and saying of a sort, “wives you too”.

In addition, those who think hupotassomenoi means submit to authority of another, there are much better and more precise words available that say exactly that, which Paul did NOT use. That would have been a form of archo (ruler, one in front, primary one, etc.) or despotes (master ).


Ephe. 5: 21 submitting to one another in the fear of God.

In order to understand this excerpt from Ephesians it is important for us to do at least two things: 1) search for some info on the Greek words used, which we just did 2) read the excerpt in the full context of chapter 5.

One of Paul's purposes in writing to the Ephesians was to admonish them to live in unity. Ephesians 4 starts with:

1As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Chapter 4 through 6 tells us how we should live as coheirs of the grace of God, that we should be at peace with one another understanding that we are all equal under Christ.

Chapter five, vs. 1-2, admonishes all to love sacrificially. This is sandwiched with vs. 21 where Paul admonishes all to submit one to another. These are the same two points that Paul pointedly reminds first wives and then husbands in vv. 22-33.

In between these sandwiched verses are more “unity in the Spirit“ verses. We are to live spiritually clean lives and walk in the light. We are to live wisely, redeeming the days , and be filled with the Spirit. The thought structure is such that walking in love as pure children, being filled with the Spirit, will naturally enable us to be submissive toward one another. And that is what husbands and wives are to carry into ALL their marital and family relationships.

but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, 20 giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another in the fear of God.


In Ephesians 5 Paul pictures the marital relationship as two becoming as one flesh. He shows this by picturing the husband as ‘head of’ (not over) the wife and the wife as ‘body of’ (not under) the husband. If each views the other as necessary in a similar way that a body must stay connected to the head, and the head must stay connected to the body in order to maintain life, then there is hope that they together may attain what Adam exulted about in Genesis: two becoming as one flesh. It is important that we stick to the metaphor that Paul provides instead of modernizing it. Paul was speaking to the first century Christians in terminology that they understood.

The wife’s submission is to be patterned after the conceptual sandwich that Paul spoke of in the preceding verses 1-21. She is to carry all of that into her attitude toward her husband in everything, in the same way all Christians are to express that tenderness and respect toward one another. The added thing for the wife is the intimacy of living as if one flesh and possibly trusting the husband as believers trust the Lord. We submit to the Lord because we trust his intentions for us.

Paul actually has more to say to the husbands than the wives: ten verses versus two. Husbands are reminded of the point of sacrificial love (fr. verses 1-2). We are all to emulate Christ in that respect. Husbands are reminded that admonition applies to their wives as well. The husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. Christ did this (washed and cleansed believers) so that He could have a bride. This is a likely a reference to a story in Eze. 16 in which God finds Israel as an abandoned infant laying in her own blood (sin). He washes her and makes her His own. This is a redemptive story about removing the shame of uncleanness and dishonor. The early Christians would have recognized Paul was making an appeal to the men to confront the system of shame that surrounded women, where the presence of women were considered a defilement. Christ gave His Life to remove our shame. Husbands should give their lives so that the one who is now part of their life could live in honor, nurtured, protected and loved.

Ephesians is probably the fullest description of marital relationships of the NT Scriptures . It is built on the mutual authority in 1 Cor. 7 (written in 56 AD) and Galatians magna carte of Christian liberty and freedom from bondage to the law (written in 49 AD). Colossians was written about the same time as Ephesians, but likely shortly afterward (60-62 AD) since the reference to interpersonal relationships in 3:18-23 is a brief summarization of Ephesians 5:21-6:9. Titus and 1 Peter were both written afterwards, 63AD and 64AD respectively. So understanding Ephesians helps tremendously to clarify what Paul thought a Christian marriage should look like.

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