Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Search
Close this search box.

PAUL’S PARADOXICAL USE OF HYPOTASSŌ

In part 1, I looked at how Paul and a few other ancient authors used the word hypotassō (often translated as “submit”) and I showed that this verb is not necessarily the complement of “authority.”  In part 2, I continue to look at how Paul used the word hypotassō, but I especially look at what he meant in Ephesians 5:23 when he used the phrase “Saviour of the body” to describe Christ. How we understand Christ’s role as the “Saviour of the body” can influence how we understand Paul’s words to wives in Ephesians 5:22-24 and to husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff.

I begin, however, by looking at Philippians 3:20-21 which also contains the word “saviour.” These verses have long been one of my favourite scripture passages and I like how the NASB translates it.

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our lowly condition into conformity with His glorious body, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20-21 NASB, italics added).

Philippians 3:20-21 and Ephesians 5:22-24 both contain the word “saviour,” and they both contain the verb hypotassō[1] and the word “body.” These two short passages have three keywords in common.

Moreover, Philippians 3:21 is another example where translating hypotassō as “to subject” (or the equivalent) does not adequately capture Paul’s intention. We usually associate being made “subject” as a lowering of status or a restriction of freedom, but Philippians 3:20-21 is about us being transformed and elevated.

Paul’s main point here is that Christ as our Saviour elevates us and he will make us like him. The idea that we will become like Jesus, physically as well as spiritually, is an idea expressed in several of Paul’s letters (e.g., 2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:29-30), and I suggest it is implicit in Ephesians 5 too.[2]

Furthermore, the concept of becoming like Jesus is used with the word hypotassō in other verses besides Philippians 3:20-21 and Ephesians 5:22ff. Paul uses hypotassō 6 times in 1 Corinthians 15:27-28! Paul’s message to the Corinthians is that God may be all in all, and that our bodies will be raised in glory and power! So we get this seemingly paradoxical combination of thought, of being glorified and raised combined with hypotassō.

If we only understand hypotassō as being about having a lower status and limited freedom, of only being subjected, we will miss Paul’s phenomenal meaning in Philippians 3:20-21, in 1 Corinthians 15:27-28, and in his words on marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33.

Since we are already subordinate to Jesus, Paul seems to have been drawing on another sense when he used the word hypotassō in these three passages.

“HEAD” IN EPHESIANS (RE: “SAVIOUR” IN PHIL. 3:20-21)

Before I move on with this discussion on the word hypotassō, I need to say a few words on Paul’s use of the word “head” in Ephesians. This ties in with Paul’s theology of salvation and his understanding of “Saviour.” (I have a broader discussion on Paul’s use of “head” here.)

“Head-Body” in Ephesians 1

At the end of Ephesians chapter 1, Paul uses head-body language, and also head-feet language which conveys a different sense than “head-body.” (“Head” and “feet” are at the extremities, the highest and lowest positions, of the body.) The word hypotassō is also used.

“[God] exercised this power in Christ by raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens—far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, and every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he subjected everything under his feet and appointed him as head over everything for [the sake of] the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:20-23).

In this passage, the church is not under Christ’s feet. Rather, we are his body and are, or should be, the fullness of Christ. We are not only joined to the “head,” we are to embody his “fullness.”[3]

“Head-Body” in Ephesians 4

In Ephesians chapter 4, Paul uses “head-body” language and speaks about the church “growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness” (Eph. 4:13).

Paul urges the Ephesians,

“…  let us grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ. From him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building itself up in love by the proper working of each individual part” (Eph. 4:15-16 CSB cf. Col. 2:19).

In these verses there is a picture of inseparable and life-giving connections with the Head and with each other in the body which edify and lead to maturity. Written around the same time as his letter to the Ephesians, Paul also links maturity with salvation in his letter to the Colossians (Col. 1:18; 4:12). “In Ephesians and Colossians, individual and ecclesial maturity are significant outcomes of salvation.”[4]

“Head-Body” in Ephesians 5

In Ephesians 5, after writing that Christ is the head of the Church; he is the Saviour of the body,” Paul goes on to describe Christ’s activities as Head and Saviour. Jesus’s sacrificial death is often brought up in discussions on this passage. But Jesus didn’t just lower himself for our sakes by becoming human and by dying on the cross (cf. Phil. 2:6-8). As Head and Saviour of the body, Jesus does much more. Christ also sanctifies the church in order “to present the church to himself in splendour” (Eph. 5:27). Christ as Saviour raises the church and brings her closer to himself and closer to his “level.”

There is a consistent theme in how “head-body” imagery is used in Ephesians 1, Ephesians 4, and Ephesians 5. It’s about the elevation of the “body,” closer to the fullness, maturity, and status of the “head,” which produces a strong bond and achieves unity.

In Ephesians, salvation involves not just being rescued from sin and death, it also involves elevation and glorification. It is in this context that Paul calls Jesus the Head and the Saviour of the body. Paul’s concept of salvation is wonderful!

“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith …” (Eph. 2:4-8 CSB)

“HEAD” AND STATUS

I’ve looked long and hard at the Greek word for “head” in Paul’s letters as well as in other ancient texts where it is used to describe a person (or God), and there is one sense or nuance that all these occurrences have in common: a person who is a “head” has a higher status and usually a higher level of honour than the other person(s) or group(s) mentioned in the passage. “Head” is about status more so than authority.

The “head,” just like our real heads on top of our necks, has a higher position than the body. So, even though Paul uses a head-body metaphor that signifies unity, the position of the head is not interchangeable with the body.

Christ has a higher status and more power than the church, so he is the “head.” First-century society gave husbands a higher status and more power than their wives, so they are the “head” in Paul’s analogy in Ephesians 5. Christ is more important than the church, and first-century husbands were typically considered as more important than their wives. But, and it’s a big but, we are to become like the “head”!

The message in Ephesians and in Philippians 3:20-21 is that we are to become like the “head,” we are to become like Jesus our Saviour. It’s about the elevation, even the glorification, of the body. It’s not about suppressing or limiting or subordinating the body. And Paul chose to use the word hypotassō in this context.

HYPOTASSŌ AND CONNECTION

I suggest the ideas of a close connection, an inseparable bond, and a profound unity, even a melding, is Christ’s aim in Philippians 3:20-21, rather than “subjection” in the way this word is usually understood. I haven’t come up with a word or phrase that I think adequately captures Paul’s sense of hypotassō in Philippians 3:21, but here is my suggestion for now.

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our lowly condition into conformity with His glorious body, by the exertion of the power that He has even to fasten (to subject) all things to Himself.”

I propose that Paul’s vision of Jesus as Saviour in Philippians 3:21 helps us to understand Jesus as the “Saviour of the body” in Ephesians 5:23 which in turn helps us to understand Paul’s use of the church and Christ as the model for marriage.

I’ve spent a bit of time looking at Christ as Saviour in Philippians 3 and that’s because Paul doesn’t use the word “Saviour” much in his letters. Apart from the Pastoral Epistles which were written later, Paul uses the word “saviour” only in Philippians 3:21 and Ephesians 5:23, only in these two verses.

HYPOTASSŌ IN EPHESIANS 5

~ In part 1, we saw that hypotassō in 1 Corinthians 14:32 and 34 refers to self-control. But this doesn’t help us to understand Ephesians 5.
~ In the two Jewish texts about kings and in the two secular texts about wives, we saw that hypotassō refers to humble and deferential behaviour which builds and maintains harmonious relationships.
~ Regarding 1 Corinthians 16:16, I suggested that hypotassō refers to commitment and loyalty as well as cooperation.
~ In Philippians 3:20-21 and other texts where Christ “fastens,” or “subjects,” the church to himself, we saw that there is a profound elevation of status for the church and a glorification of the body.

Hypotassō can be used with various senses. So what did Paul mean when he told wives to hypotassō themselves to their husbands in Ephesians 5:22-24? What English words best capture his meaning here? Let’s look at the broader passage to try and work out what was in Paul’s mind.

In Ephesians 5, and also in Colossians 3, immediately before saying wives should hypotassō (“submit”) to their husbands, Paul speaks about loving behaviour as well as mutuality and participation in ministry. And notably, Paul’s words to wives in Ephesians 5 are prefaced with an instruction for all believers to mutually “submit” to one another.[5]

“… be filled by the Spirit: speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting (hypotassō) to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:18-21).

There is no hint of a hierarchy or unequal status among believers in these verses.

Paul’s aim in his instructions in Ephesians 5:22-33 is unity in marriage, and he uses the relationship between Christ and the Church as an example, and he employs a head-body metaphor. Since Christ has a higher status and more power than the church, and first-century husbands usually had a higher status and more power than their wives, what Paul says to husbands is extraordinary.

Paul wanted husbands to follow Jesus’s example and lower themselves, and not selfishly cling to their status. Jesus came down to our level when he became human to become our Saviour, and he gave himself for his church. But that’s only half of the story.

As already mentioned, Jesus also elevates his church, and Paul wanted husbands to elevate their wives. Jesus and husbands do this in different ways, however. Christian husbands cannot cleanse and sanctify their Christian wives (cf. Eph. 5:26-27). Sanctification is the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, not husbands.

Rather, Paul wanted the husbands to treat their wives as their own bodies. And in the first century, male bodies had a higher status than female bodies. Paul wanted the Ephesian husbands to effectively elevate their wives by loving them, caring for them, and by treating them as though they had the same importance as themselves (Eph. 5:28-29).

BUT WHAT ABOUT “SUBMISSION” FROM WIVES?

After thinking long and hard about what Paul wants in Christian relationships and the verses where he uses hypotassō, I broadly define “submission” in Christian relationships as “humble, loyal, and loving deference and cooperation.” I include the word “loving” in my definition because all Christian behaviours should include, and be motivated by, love. Bauer and Danker’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) states that hypotassō in Ephesians 5:21 has the sense of a “voluntary yielding in love.”[6]

Paul’s words to wives flow on from his instructions to his whole audience to love sacrificially as Christ loved (Eph. 5:1-2) and they flow on from his instruction for mutual submission (Eph. 5:21). But what does hypotassō mean in Ephesians 5:24?: “Now as the church _______ (hypotassō) to Christ, so also wives to their husbands in everything.” (My article on “everything” in Eph. 5:24 is here.)

I’ve thought about the sense of humble deference and acquiescence as a meaning of hypotassō in Paul’s words to wives. While this sense likely applies, I believe Paul was asking wives for more than this. I’ve also thought about “cooperation” as a definition of hypotassō.[7] But this also doesn’t seem adequate. I’ve further considered the idea of loyalty and commitment, and this may well be some of what Paul was asking for from wives. However, just as Christ as Saviour “fastens” the church to himself, I think Paul was asking wives to “fasten themselves” to their husbands. I propose that the verb “fasten,” without ignoring the other senses, may capture Paul’s intention better than just the word “submit.”

We know from Paul’s first letter to Timothy that, towards the end of the first century, some Ephesian women were not committed to their husbands. They were refusing sex and rejecting marriage altogether for the sake of piety (1 Tim. 4:3 cf. 1 Cor. 7). Perhaps for this reason, Paul puts a strong “religious spin” on his instruction in Ephesians 5:22-24 by making it about the Lord. Using the example of Christ and the church would have helped to relieve the concerns of the Ephesian wives who saw marriage and sex as a threat to Christian holiness and a hindrance to following Jesus.[8] He wanted Christian wives to stay married and committed to their husbands if possible.[9]

So, with Paul’s teaching of Christ as the Head and Saviour of the body in mind, as well as his use of hypotassō in other verses where Christ, as Head and Saviour, does the action of hypotassō-ing the church, here is my current understanding of Ephesians 5:22-24.

“Wives, fasten yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Saviour of the body. Now as the church fastens herself to Christ, so also wives are to do likewise to their husbands completely.”

I will continue to think about Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:22-24, words which have too often been used carelessly and heartlessly to subordinate women which was never Paul’s intention.

Paul wanted unity in marriage, and he believed this could be achieved if wives remained loyal and connected to their husbands[10] and if husbands loved their wives sacrificially and treated them as equally important as themselves.


Footnotes

[1] ὑποτάξαι: aorist active infinitive Philippians 3:21

[2] I list these verses, and other NT verses with a similar message, in a footnote here.

[3] With the idea in mind that “Christ himself is the one who has the full measure of God, who fills everything (see 1 Cor. 15:28),” David Lim explains the concept of “fullness” in Ephesians 1:23 (cf. Eph 4:10).

It seems probable that the passive sense of the church being dwelt in and “completed by Christ” may be meant. … [This makes sense] since the usage of the imagery of the church as Christ’s body focuses on the importance of Christ to the church and not vice versa (Eph. 4:13). The church is the receptacle being filled with the grace and gifts of Christ (see Eph. 4:7-11).
David S. Lim, “Fullness” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Second Edition, Scot McKnight (general editor) (InterVarsity, 2023), 343.

[4] Nicholas Perrin, “Salvation” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Second Edition, 950.

[5] In my article Does Ephesians 5:21 teach mutual submission? on Patreon here, I discuss the flawed idea, taught by some, that the submission in Ephesians 5:21 was” to appropriate authorities.” This idea is stated in a note of the editors in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Piper and Grudem (eds) (Wheaton IL: Crossway, 1991, 2006), 599. See also note 8 on page 607.
I discuss the verses cited by Piper and Grudem, and conclude, “The killing in Revelation 6:4, the bearing of burdens in Galatians 6:2, and the waiting in Corinthians 11:33, in fact, potentially applies to everyone. There is no distinction between the people who are killing, bearing burdens, and waiting and those being killed, being relieved of burdens, and being waited for.” I also discuss “one another” verses brought up by Denny Burk.

[6] Klyne Snodgrass writes that “What Paul has in mind is that Christians reject self-centeredness and work for the good of others. Submission is nothing more than a decision about the relative worth of others.”
Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians (The NIV Application Commentary Book 10) (p. 311). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. This is certainly at least part of what it means for Christians to submit to one another.

[7] Craig Keener uses the word “cooperate” in a comment about wives and hypotassō in Ephesians 5:22-24. He writes, “’To submit oneself’ could mean to ‘give in’ or ‘cooperate’ and need not mean ‘obey’ …”
Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992, 2009), 168.

[8] I have a few articles that address the issue of celibacy in the early church, here.

[9] Paul has an ideal marriage in mind, and applying his instructions in less-than-ideal marriages requires kindness, wisdom, and common sense.

[10] Paul also asks wives to respect their husbands (Eph. 5:33 cf. 1 Pet. 3:7). The focus of this article however, is understanding ” in Ephesians 5:22-24.

Margaret Mowczko 2024
All Rights Reserved

Thank you to those who help me to write articles such as this one.
You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month at Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Image Credit

Photo by Allan Mas via Pexels.


Explore more

Submission and the Saviour in Ephesians 5 (Part 1)
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33
A Note on the Mystery in Ephesians 5:31-32
What does submission “in everything” mean? (Accessible on my Patreon account.)
Does Ephesians 5:21 teach mutual submission?
The Greek Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22
More articles on Ephesians 5 are here.
An Overview of Paul’s Use of “Head”
More articles on “head” are here. 
The Power of God’s Grace
Submission in 1 Corinthians 15:28 and in Marriage

6 thoughts on “(2) Submission & the Saviour in Ephesians 5

  1. “a person who is a “head” has a higher status”: it is really difficult to get away from this, so when Paul says “the husband is the head of the wife” he is stating that “the husband (currently, in our society as is stands) is the head of the wife”. But just as Christ, as head of the Church, works to raise the Church up to the fullness of His glory, so the husband is to raise up the wife to be of equal status. So the husband’s “submission” (fastening) is to raise up (in the eyes of the world) his wife, and the wife’s “submission” (fastening) is to co-operate with this raising up. So in the end, the world will see, not the hierarchy imposed by the society that Paul’s readers live in, but the unity and equality that is the reality of relationships in Christ.

    Have I got your meaning here?

    1. Hi Martin, I don’t really speak about “submission” or “fastening” from husbands. Rather, I highlight “loving” in part 1 and “lifting” in part 2. It could be argued that loving and lifting are expressions of a husband’s submission to his wife. I don’t want to push this point, however.

      What I’m trying to say is that Paul was referring to a pre-existing hierarchy, pervasive in the ancient world, when he used the word “head.” But he wanted to close the gap between the perceived difference of status and importance between husband and wife.

  2. To start, I thoroughly enjoy your articles. They continue to be refreshingly…thorough. When you offered the word “fastened”, I was immediately drawn to the imagery of grafting tree branches. A branch can be successfully grafted when secured (fastened) to the tree. As it remains securely attached to the tree, it will draw nourishment from the tree. Husband and wife are grafted together as they are grafted into Christ. The health, life, and unity of both husband and wife come from their secure and healthy attachment to Jesus. “Wives be healthily attached (grafted) to your husbands, as to the Lord.”

  3. […] I’ve written about Paul’s paradoxical use of the “submit/subject” verb in this article, and I mention 1 Cor. 15:27-28. […]

  4. This is a bit tangential to this particular article but I would like your thoughts on 1 Cor 16:15-18 where Paul praises Stephanas and the others and tells the church to submit to those such as him and everyone who joins the work and labours at it. So question is whether this is an example of mutual submission of all in the church who work for the gospel, including both women and men.

    1. Hi Linda, 1 Corinthians 16:16 is one of the verses I discuss in part 1:
      https://margmowczko.com/submission-saviour-ephesians-5/
      I suggest hypotassō can be translated here as “to cooperate with” or “to commit to”:

      And I’ve previously looked at this verse here:
      https://margmowczko.com/1-corinthians-16_16-submission-women/

      Paul wanted the Corinthians to serve those who were serving them! So I believe there was some kind of mutual give and take, mutual submission, happening here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Marg's Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Loading

Join Marg's Patreon

Would you like to support my ministry of encouraging mutuality and equality between men and women in the church and in marriage?

Archives