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)

I‘ve read lots of discussions about the Greek grammar of Paul’s words to wives in Ephesians 5:22. Some think it’s 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 of Ephesians 5:21 and 22. These posts are not easy reads, and some of the words and ideas are technical. There’s even more technical stuff, including the etymology of the Greek word for “submit,” in the 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. If so, it has 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 sentences may be punctuated.

I believe Ephesians 5:21 is at the end of a long sentence that 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.)

After verse 18, and following on from the verb “be filled,” 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]

Conclusion

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 some early Greek manuscripts and what this means.


Footnotes

[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.” This etymology gives 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 the “submit” participle in Ephesians 5:21 has a reciprocal sense. The participle, whether middle or passive, doesn’t have a reciprocal sense but the word allēlois (“to one another”), which also occurs in verse 21, does. In fact, allēlois (lexical form: allēlōn) is referred to as a reciprocal pronoun. There is no reciprocal sense in Ephesians 5:22.

[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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» 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?

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