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Ephesians 5 submit submission

Ephesians 5:18-24 in Papyrus 46.
Papyrus 46 is the earliest surviving Greek manuscript of Ephesians (circa 175–225).
There is no “submit” word in verse 22 of this document. (More on this in part 2)

The Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22: Participles

I‘ve read many discussions about the Greek grammar of Paul’s words to wives in Ephesians 5:22. Some think it is significant that, in a few of the oldest Greek manuscripts of Ephesians, there isn’t a word that means “submit” in verse 22. Others comment on the grammatical “voice” of the participle for “submit” in verse 21. And there’s some debate about whether verse 22 is the start of a sentence and even the start of a new section.

In the next three posts, I look at some of the Greek grammar and textual evidence of Ephesians 5:21 and 22. These posts are not easy reads, and some of the words and ideas are technical. There is even more technical stuff, including the etymology of the Greek word for “submit,” in footnotes. But I hope the overall meaning will be understood and that these articles will be of some use. (Here is an easier article on Ephesians 5.)

In this first article, I look at the Greek participles in Ephesians 5:18-21, especially the “submit” participle in verse 21. Here is an English translation of Ephesians 5:18-24 with the five participles in italics.

18 And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled with/by the Spirit: 19 speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to the Lord, 20 giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. 22 Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, he himself is the Savior of the body. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives to their husbands in everything.

The Participle of “Submit” in Ephesians 5:21

The Greek verb used in the New Testament that is usually translated as “submit” is hypotassō.[1] The form in Ephesians 5:21 is hypotassomenoi, a present plural participle of hypotassō. Participles are frequently used in ancient Greek, much more so than in English. (In English, participles are often “–ing” words such as “teaching” and “breathing.”)

I take the participle in Ephesians 5:21 to be in the middle voice with a reflexive sense.[2] So, I understand it as meaning “submit yourselves” or “submitting yourselves.” Others believe the participle is in the passive voice with the meaning of “be submissive” or “being submissive.”[3]

With some Greek words, there can be a difference in meaning depending on its grammatical voice, but I see no significant difference whether we understand hypotassomenoi as being middle or passive in Ephesians 5:21. What is more important is taking note of the place of hypotassomenoi in its sentence, a long sentence.

A Long Sentence: Ephesians 5:18-21

There is no punctuation in the oldest Greek manuscripts. There were no full stops, for example. But in some manuscripts, there were ways of marking new sections or paragraphs. (I look at this in the third article.) However, the Greek grammar gives us clues as to how we might punctuate the sentences.

Ephesians 5:21 is at the end of a long sentence which begins at Ephesians 5:18. Verse 18 has three finite verbs: two imperative verbs, methuskeshe (“be drunk”) and plērousthe (“be filled”), plus the verb estin (“is”). (The general rule is that a sentence needs at least one finite verb, either stated or implied.)

After verse 18, and following on from the verb “be filled,” there is a chain of plural participles but no verbs: lalountes (“speaking”), adontes kai psallontes (“singing and making music”), eucharistountes (“giving thanks”) and hypotassomenoi (“submitting yourselves”).

The sense of the finite verb “be filled” carries through the entire sentence and is the main action. Being filled with, or by, the Spirit is Paul’s main point here and it governs the five participles.

Steve Runge on Participles in Greek

In his book Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, Steven Runge writes about the use of participles, including the kind we have in Ephesians 5:18ff.[4]

Participles that follow the main verb … elaborate the action of the main verb, often providing more specific explanation of what is meant by the main action. In most cases, they practically spell out what the main action looks like. … By using a participle rather than a finite verb, the writer places its action under the umbrella of the main verb, typically adding more detail …[5]

And this:

Greek writers quite regularly use participles in extended chains, either to establish states of affairs or to elaborate upon what is practically meant by the main action of the clause. In practical terms, Greek writers could accomplish in a single sentence what would take us in English a paragraph or more.[6]

Furthermore, Runge brings up Ephesians 5:21 and quotes G.B. Viner who states, “ὑποτασσόμενοι [the participle in verse 21] is certainly attached to the principal verb πληροῦσθε ἐν πνεύματι [“Be filled in the Spirit” in verse 18] like the other participles in verses 19, 20, and must not be taken [unlike what some other scholars suggest] for an imperative.”[7]


For Paul, being filled with the Spirit is the imperative, both grammatically and in real life,[8] and submitting to one another is one outworking of this infilling. After mentioning mutual submission and other Spirit-filled behaviours—behaviours that don’t receive as much attention as submission—Paul moves on to more specific relationships, beginning with the wife-husband relationship, and he uses very few participles.

In the next article, I look at Paul’s words to wives. I look at the fact that there is no “submit” word in 5:22 in a few early Greek manuscripts and what this means.


[1] The etymology of hypotassō: hypo often means “under” and is equivalent to the Latin prefix “sub”; tassō can mean “place in a certain order or relative position.” (LSJ: Perseus website) This etymology of hypo + tassō suggests the sense of “place or arrange under” or “subject, subordinate.” This can be the meaning in some sentences where the verb is in the active voice. However, etymology is an unreliable, and sometimes misleading, indicator of meaning in actual usage.
Hypotassō is used in a variety of contexts and with a variety of forces in ancient Greek texts, including the Greek New Testament. I doubt that Paul used the word with the strongest and most literal sense when speaking about relations within the body of Christ and within the intimate relationship of marriage where unity and love are key. Hypotassō in 1 Corinthians 16:16, for example, may mean “be cooperative” rather than “be subordinate” or “be subject.” (More on submission in 1 Cor. 16:16 here and here.)

[2] A few people claim that hypotassomenoi, the “submit” participle in Ephesians 5:21, has a reciprocal sense. It doesn’t. This word occurs twice in the New Testament. As well as Ephesians 5:21, hypotassomenoi occurs in 1 Peter 2:18 which is about slaves submitting to their masters.
It is the word allēlois (“to one another”) in Ephesians 5:21 that has a reciprocal sense. In fact, allēlois (lexical form: allēlōn) is referred to as a reciprocal pronoun. There is a reciprocal sense in Ephesians 5:21 but not in Ephesians 5:22 (or 1 Peter 2:18). (The following screenshot is taken from Bible Hub, here.)

hypotasso hypotassomenoi Eph 5:21

[3] The present participle has the same form (it looks the same) whether middle or passive, so context is what determines if hypotassomenoi has a middle or passive sense.

[4] That is, “anarthrous participles (those that lack the article) that are functioning as predicating verbs in a dependent clause.” Steven E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament (12.3.4 Adverbial Participles Following the Main Verb) (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), 243.

[5] Runge, Discourse Grammar, 262.

[6] Runge, Discourse Grammar, 243

[7] Runge, Discourse Grammar, 246

[8] Note, however, that Greek sentences with imperative verbs are not necessarily commands. For example, epithes (“lay on [your hand]”) in Matthew 9:18, pempson (“send”) in Mark 5:12, and menete (“stay, abide”) in Acts 16:15 are imperative verbs and are part of polite requests, not commands. Conversely, indicative verbs are sometimes used when giving directives and commands.

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Postscript: September 19, 2022

I saw today that Craig Keener has written about the problem of separating Ephesians 5:21 from previous verses.

Sometimes 5:21 is translated as if it begins a new section only incidentally related to the preceding section: “Submit to one another.” But it is more likely that the Greek phrase “submitting to one another” retains here its usual force in the context of the parallel phrases that precede it: a subordinate participial clause dependent on the preceding imperative. In other words, the submission of 5:21, like the worship of 5:19–20, flows from being filled with God’s Spirit (v. 18).
Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009), 158.

» Part 2: The Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22: A missing verb? 
» Part 3: The Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22: 1 sentence or 2?

Explore more

Ephesians 5:22-33 in a Nutshell
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33
The Household Codes are about Power, not Gender
Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
Mutual Submission is not a Myth
Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5:21 and 1 Peter 5:5

10 thoughts on “1. The Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22: Participles

  1. I’m glad for the scholarly approach.
    I’m sad that the idea “You have to do everything I tell you to do” ever enters a marriage. My greatest asset ALWAYS has been brokenness; I just didn’t recognize that until about 40 years ago.
    It’s a process; but I think embracing brokenness takes the sting out of a lot of theologically sticky issues, especially this one.
    I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

    1. Hi Pat, The idea that some husbands insist that wives do everything they tell their wives is the opposite of the attitude Paul describes in Ephesians 5:22-33 and in several other passages where husbands and wives are not singled out.

      ~ In humility consider other better than yourselves. Each should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:3b-4

      ~ Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. Romans 12:10

      ~ Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. 1 Corinthians 10:24

      ~ Be kind and tender-hearted to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ, God forgave you. Ephesians 4:32

      ~ As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Colossians 3:12

      ~ … Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:5 NKJV

  2. Hi Marg, Can’t wait for the sequels. I have one question about the participles. Are they an outworking of the infilling or is the infilling an outworking of the participles? And I can’t shrug the notion that that the participle “Eucharist-ountes” is way more than giving thanks?

    1. Hi Reg, The participles are outworkings of being filled with/by the Spirit. Paul uses the verb eucharisteō many times. In the New Testament and in other Greek texts, Christian and non-Christian, it typically means “give thanks.”

      Here is LSJ’s entry on eucharisteō

      Here are all the New Testament verses where the verb and particle occur.

  3. I was having this very conversation with my husband the other day. I said, we need to know the context of the verses that get thrown at us. Also, I write about how church culture robs women’s self-worth. I will certainly be referencing your work. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Kara. 🙂

  4. “I doubt that Paul used the word with the strongest and most literal sense” — if the strongest sense involves hierarchy, then Paul *cannot* be using this sense: because a hierarchy cannot be reflexive (“Be subject to one another”)

    1. Indeed. 🙂

  5. Hi Ms. Mowczko, your posts are incredibly helpful thank you! I took Greek in seminary but have not kept up. I am now writing a DMin project and find I really need to brush up! Would you be willing to help me identify which of the eight categories each of the participles in Ephesians 5:18-21 fit? (temporal, manner, means, cause, condition, concession, purpose, or result) My presumption (please tell me if I’m wrong) is that they are adverbial bc of the nominative case.

    1. Hello Ann Maree, the participles in Ephesians 5:18-21 are verbal and probably fit in the sub-category of adverbial. The nominative case, however, does not necessarily tell us that a participle is verbal or adverbial; adjectival participles can also be nominative.

      If I had to pick one from the options you’ve given, I’d say “result.” The participles show results or outcomes, or better still, outworkings of being filled with the spirit. But don’t quote me on this.

      I’m not comfortable with classifying these participles in any of the categories given. I think their meaning is fairly obvious and their function can be explained without the need to label what kind of participles they are. Labelling and pidgeon-holing them can limit, rather than enhance, our understanding of what the participles are doing.

      Steve Runge does a great job in explaining their function.

      If you do want to label them, see pages 639 and 651 in Daniel Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. (The page numbers many be different in newer editions than the copy I have.)

      All the best with your doctorate!

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