Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Close this search box.


22 Wives, [submit] yourselves to your own husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of his wife as also Christ is the head of his church; he is the saviour of the body24 Rather, as the church submits herself to Christ, in this way also wives [submit] to your husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:22-24[1] 

I have a Facebook page where I post comments and links about women and men in Christian marriage and ministry. When I post something about women in ministry, perhaps something about Priscilla or something about 1 Timothy 2:12, there is usually a nice response. But when I post something about Ephesians 5 and, in particular, the word “submission,” I sometimes get hundreds of “likes” and more than a few comments in response. “Submission” in Ephesians 5 hits a nerve with many of my Facebook followers.[2] Why is that?

It’s because Ephesians 5:22-24, more than any other passage of scripture has been used to define femininity or womanhood, even for women who are not married. These three verses have been understood by many Christians, especially Evangelical Christians, as promoting the leadership of pretty much all men over pretty much all women.

I do not think this understanding was Paul’s intention when he wrote Ephesians 5. I propose that Paul had the opposite aim, that he wanted to reduce the inequality that was a reality in many first-century marriages. This becomes clearer when we look at what he says to husbands.

Paul never tells husbands to lead or have authority over their wives; he tells them to love their wives. He uses the word “love” 6 times when addressing husbands in Ephesians 5. Leadership is not mentioned, and I think we’ve poorly understood the verses that mention submission.

In this two-part article, I present what I’ve been learning about the Greek “submit” word, and I look at what it meant to Paul that Jesus is the “saviour of the body” (Eph. 5:23). Our understanding of the word “submit” and our understanding of Jesus as the “saviour of the body” may be too narrow.

(This article is adapted from a talk I gave at a conference in London on March 23, 2024. It covers some material posted elsewhere on my website, especially my article Mutual Submission in Early Christian Texts.)


I begin with a few comments on the etymology of the Greek word behind “submit.” I’m doing this for one reason, because this is where others often start the discussion on submission and some of these people place too much significance on its etymology.

I hope to show, when we look at examples of Paul’s use, as well as the use of other ancient authors, that knowing the etymology of hypotassō isn’t especially helpful. But here it is. Here’s the etymological breakdown of the verb hypotassō.

hypo often means “under” and is equivalent to the Latin prefix “sub.” (Think “submarine,” submerge,” “subcutaneous,” “sub-Saharan,” and “hypothermic,” “hypodermic,” etc.)
tassō can mean “place in a certain order or relative position.”[3] 
hypo + tassō suggests the sense of “to place or arrange under” or “to subordinate.”

“To subordinate” can be the meaning in some sentences in some Greek texts where the verb is in the active voice.[4] (Hypotassō is not in the active voice in Ephesians 5.) However, etymology can be an unreliable and misleading indication of the word’s meaning in actual usage. Moreover, relying on the etymology of hypotassō can throw people off understanding Paul’s use of the word.

Hypotassō is not a common word in ancient Greek literature.[5] But here are some meanings ascertained by usage that I’ve come across.

In the active voice: subordinate, subject, subdue, place under, assign to …
In the middle and/ or passive voices: exercise self-control, acquiesce, yield, submit to, defer to, be compliant with, cooperate with, commit or be loyal to, join or connect or associate with …

Philip Towner notes, “This broad semantic range suggests that care be taken to avoid assigning the basic meaning of “order under” indiscriminately to every occurrence of the term in the NT.”[6]

Hypotassō has a range of meanings or nuances and a range of forces. It’s a worry when Christians understand the word as having a relatively severe sense with a relatively strong force in the context of Christian marriage. I don’t think the words “subordinate” or “subject” should ever be used in the context of Christian relationships among capable adults, among mature brothers and sisters in Christ.

Subordinating or subjecting people is the opposite of what Jesus taught about relationships that are “in Christ.” And permanently putting up with one-sided subjection to a fellow believer is not the ideal that Paul wanted for Jesus-followers.

Let’s look at a few texts where hypotassō occurs.[7]

HYPOTASSŌ IN 1 COR. 14:32-34 & HYPOTAGĒ IN 1 TIM. 2:11-12

Regulated, Quiet, and Controlled Behaviour

Hypotassō and the related noun occur in two passages that have unnecessarily plagued Christian women, 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. I’ve chosen to start with these examples because it’s reasonably clear that hypotassō does not mean to be submissive or subject to another person here.

Hypotassō occurs twice in 1 Corinthians 14. First, it is used in verse 32 about prophets. Paul states here that “the spirits of prophets are under the prophets’ control” (1 Cor. 14:32 NAB).[8] In other words, the prophets needed to control themselves. They were not to get carried away with ecstatic utterances and selfishly monopolise meetings.

If we skip a verse, we come to verse 34 where the verb is used again: “The wives should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but are to control themselves (hypotassō), as the law (or, cultural norm) also says” (1 Cor. 14:34 my translation).[9]

In both these verses, Paul is asking for self-control. All of 1 Corinthians 14 is about unruly speaking in gatherings of the Corinthian Church, especially unruly speech from prophetic speakers and tongues speakers, and Paul wanted them, and the disorderly wives, to regulate their behaviour and control themselves.

There is a similar sense in 1 Timothy 2:11. Here Paul uses the related noun of hypotassō and tells Timothy that a woman must learn in all “submissiveness” (hypotagē).

Here is 1 Timothy 2:11-12 in the Christian Standard Bible compared with how I propose it should be translated.

A woman is to learn quietly with full submission … she is to remain quiet (CSB).
A woman is to learn quietly with complete self-control … she is to be quiet (my translation).

Bill Mounce, an American New Testament scholar who is well known for writing Greek textbooks and who has written a commentary on the Pastoral Epistles,[10] admitted on his blog last year that he is rethinking his understanding of hypotagē in 1 Timothy 2:11.[11]

In his commentary, which he wrote in the year 2000, he had focused on who the woman in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 was meant to be submissive to, but he now admits that the verse isn’t really saying she must be submissive to someone else. So he has been thinking that maybe hypotagē refers here to a submissive character.

There is an emphasis on “quietness” (hesychia) in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Hesychia is used twice here. In this context, I propose that hypotagē refers to a quiet and controlled behaviour.

This information may help us to understand 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, but it doesn’t help us with the marriage verses in Ephesians 5. So let’s move on.


Hypotassō is not Necessarily the Complement of “Authority”

Wayne Grudem, an American author who has written a number of books and articles on “gender roles,” has stated several times that submission is always to a person in authority. For example, he has said that hypotassō in the New Testament “always indicates one-directional submission to an authority …”[12]

As we saw in the previous examples (in 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2), this statement is not entirely accurate. Ephesians 5:21 also shows that hypotassō isn’t always to a person in authority. This is the case in other ancient Greek texts also, including texts written by Jewish authors.

Hypotassō in the Letter of Aristeas

The letter to Aristeas is a work of Jewish propaganda written in Greek in roughly around 200 BC. In the letter, the king (Ptolemy II) asks questions to his Jewish dinner guests, including how he can receive acceptance and favour when travelling abroad. The king is given this advice.

By being fair to all men and by appearing to be lowly rather than superior to those amongst whom he was travelling. For it is a recognized principle that God by His very nature accepts the humble. And the human race loves those who are willing to be submissive (hypotassō) to them.
The Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates 257.[13]

Being fair, appearing lowly, and being willing to be submissive are seen as virtues that will invite acceptance, but there is no hint that the king should give up his royal authority or that he is submitting to people with a higher level of authority. Rather, being submissive is an attitude that will foster good relations.

I want to keep in mind that being submissive is about building and maintaining good relationships and that it involves humility.

Hypotassō in 2 Maccabees

Second Maccabees is a Jewish work originally written in Greek around 150–120 BC. This book recounts the story of the Jewish revolt against the Greek king Antiochus IV. It also recounts the Jewish conflict with his son Antiochus V.

In 2 Maccabees 13, the Jews are fighting back against the powerful forces of Antiochus V. During the conflict, however, Antiochus hears that one of his generals has rebelled against him. Antiochus, or rather his regent, knows he needs to act quickly. He needs to stop fighting with the Jews, placate them, and go and quell the revolt.  So,

… [he] called in the Jews, yielded (hypotassō) and swore to observe all their rights, settled with them and offered sacrifice, honored the sanctuary and showed generosity to the holy place (2 Macc. 13:23b NRSV).[14]

This was a strategic move, and while it would have involved a degree of humility, Antiochus was not submitting to a higher authority. The submitting was done to mend relationships. And the NRSV translates hypotassō as “yielded” here.

In both these Jewish texts, kings were submitting, and kings in the ancient world had the highest level of human authority. The aim of this submission was to foster harmonious relationships. The apostle Paul was himself a Jewish author and may have known these two texts.


Apart from the New Testament, and apart from later Christian texts that were influenced by Paul’s and Peter’s letters, hypotassō occurs only twice in surviving texts in the context of marriage. This fact still surprises me: there are only two secular Greek texts where hypotassō is used in the context of marriage. This may indicate that this word was not ordinarily used to describe a wife’s behaviour.

The authority of husbands is implied in one text and stated in the other―Greco-Roman society gave husbands more authority and a higher status than wives―but the authority of husbands is not the focus of the statements where hypotassō appears.

The Alexander Romance

The Alexander Romance is a work of fiction probably written in the late 200s or early 300s AD. In the story, Alexander the Great asks his mother to make up with her husband King Philip of Macedonia after the king had behaved badly towards her. As plainly stated in the text, Alexander’s aim was to reconcile and unite his mother and father.

Then Alexander, on leaving Philip, went to his mother and said to her: “Do not be angry, mother, over Philip’s treatment of you. For if he does not sense his guilt, all the same I shall be your avenger. So do you first go to him. For it is fitting for a wife to hypotassō to her husband.” With these words, he roused his mother and led her to Philip. Then he said, “Father, now I will call you father, for you were won over by your son, here is my mother, who has been persuaded to forget your sins. Now embrace each other in my presence. It is no disgrace. For I am your offspring.” With these words, Alexander reconciled his parents so that all the Macedonians marvelled at him.[15]
Alexander Romance (“Pseudo-Callisthenes”) Book 1, chapter 22

Alexander asks his mother to take the initiative and humbly acquiesce to her husband for the sake of the relationship.

Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom

The other example of hypotassō in the context of marriage is in Plutarch’s Advice to the Bride and Groom. Plutarch, writing in around AD 90–100, contrasts submission, or compliance, with force and control. Submitting to someone is the opposite of controlling them.

… if [wives] hypotassō themselves to their husbands, they are commended, but if they want ‘to have strong control’ (kratein), they cut a sorrier figure than ‘the husbands being strongly controlled’ (tōn kratoumenōn).[16]
Plutarch, Conjugalia Praecepta (“Advice to the Bride and Groom”)

Before we turn to Ephesians 5:22ff where Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands, I want to look at a few other verses where Paul uses hypotassō.


“Cooperate With” Or “Commit To”?

At the end of his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul speaks warmly about the household of Stephanas, and he tells the Corinthians, “… Be subject (hypotassō) to such as these, and to every fellow worker and labourer” (1 Cor. 16:16 ESV).

The ESV has translated hypotassō here as “be subject.” Was Paul telling the Corinthians to “be subject” to fellow believers? How does the idea of “being subject” square with Paul’s teaching in previous chapters where he encourages all the Corinthians to exercise their gifts in the body?

How does the idea of “being subject” square with Paul’s instructions that the Corinthians should give extra honour to those who lack it, and not give extra honour to those who already have it because they don’t need it? (cf. 1 Cor. 12:23-26).[17]

“Be subject” doesn’t seem the best way to translate hypotassō here. Moreover, there may be a play on words in 1 Corinthians 16 with the verbs tassō and hypotassō.

Paul wrote about the household of Stephanas saying,

They are the firstfruits of Achaia and ‘have committed themselves’ (tassō) to serving the saints. I urge you also to hypotassō to such people, and to everyone who co-works (synergeō) and labours (kopiaō) with them (1 Cor. 16:15-16).[18]

I suggest Paul was telling the Corinthians to humbly join in and cooperate with those who were working for the gospel. Moreover, since tassō has a sense of commitment in verse 15, there may also be a sense of commitment and loyalty in hypotassō in verse 16. There is a sense of commitment and loyalty in other verses where hypotassō or the related noun is used.[19]

The NRSV translates 1 Corinthians 16:16 as, “put yourselves in the service (hypotassō) of such people.” Paul wanted the Corinthians to serve those who were serving them!

Compare these translations.

I urge you also to submit to such people, and to everyone who works and labors with them. (CSB)
I urge you also to cooperate with (or, commit to) such people … (my suggested translations)
I urge you to put yourselves at the service of such people … (NRSV)

As an aside, Paul used the words “coworker” and “labourer/ labour” for his male and female ministry colleagues.[20] He used these words for women such as Priscilla and Persis. Paul wanted the Corinthians to submit to, or cooperate with, people such as these.

The next passage I want to look at has, I believe, profound relevance for understanding Paul’s instructions to wives and husbands in Ephesians 5. We look at this verse in Part 2.


[1] I have a discussion on the Greek grammar of the “submit” word in Ephesians 5, and why I have “submit” in square brackets twice, here.

[2] In the past decade, I’ve received several hundreds of personal messages from women who anguish in various ways about their role as submissive wives. Hundreds. By contrast, I’ve only had one conversation with someone who anguished over his obligation to Ephesians 5:21 and the instruction to submit one to another. This huge disparity in numbers is telling!

[3] See hypotassō in LSJ’s Greek-English lexicon here: Perseus website.

[4] These verses in Paul’s letters use hypotassō in the active voice:
~ Romans 8:20: διὰ τὸν ὑποτάξαντα ἐφ’ ἑλπίδι διότι καὶ αὐτὴ ἡ κτίσις ἐλευθερωθήσεται …
~ 1 Corinthians 15:27: πάντα γὰρ ὑπέταξεν ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ.
~ 1 Corinthians 15:27: δῆλον ὅτι ἐκτὸς τοῦ ὑποτάξαντος αὐτῷ τὰ πάντα.
~ 1 Corinthians 15:28: τότε καὶ αὐτὸς ὁ Υἱὸς ὑποταγήσεται τῷ ὑποτάξαντι αὐτῷ τὰ πάντα
~ Ephesians 1:22: καὶ πάντα ὑπέταξεν ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ
~ Philippians 3:21: κατὰ τὴν ἐνέργειαν τοῦ δύνασθαι αὐτὸν καὶ ὑποτάξαι αὑτῷ τὰ πάντα.
In each of these verses, the one doing the hypotassō-ing is Jesus or God, not an ordinary person. I look at 1 Corinthians 15:26-28 and Philippians 3:20-21 in part 2 of this article.

[5] And before Paul, the word doesn’t occur often in surviving papyrus documents where it refers to the action of a person. Paul’s letters were originally papyrus documents.

[6] Philip H. Towner, The Goal of Our Instruction: The Structure of Theology and Ethics in the Pastoral Epistles (1989), 213.

[7] Paul uses hypotassō 23 times in his letters, but most Christians focus just on the few verses where wives are instructed to submit to their own husbands. The word occurs:
~ 6 times in Romans in various contexts;
~ 9 times in 1 Corinthians in various contexts;
~ 3 times in Ephesians, including Ephesians 5:21 which is about mutual submission (to one another) and 5:24a which is about the church submitting to Christ. Twice the sense of “submission” is implied, but not stated in the oldest surviving Greek manuscripts, for a wife’s submission to her husband. This is in Eph 5:22 and 24b.
~ Once in Philippians, Phil. 3:21;
~ Once in Colossians, Col. 3:18  which is about a wife’s submission to her husband;
~ 3 times in Titus, one of these three times is about a wife’s submission to her husband.
Of the 23 times Paul uses hypotassō, only twice is it directly applied to marriage and twice it is implied, but these few verses are the ones that are often repeated and emphasised.

[8] ὑποτάσσεται: present middle-passive indicative 3rd person plural verb

[9] ὑποτασσέσθωσαν: present M/P 3rd person plural imperative verb, or the variant, ὑποτάσσεται” present M/P indicative 3rd person plural verb.

[10] William (Bill) Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (Word Biblical Commentary; HarperCollins, 2000)

[11] Bill Mounce, “Submissive to Whom? (1 Tim 2:11),” Mondays with Mounce (website), April 10, 2023.

[12] Wayne Grudem, “The Myth of Mutual Submission,” Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 1.4 (October 1996).

[13] τοὺς ὑποτασσομένους: present M/P accusative masculine (articular) participle

[14] ὑπετάγη: aorist passive indicative 3rd person singular verb

[15] ὑποτάσσεσθαι: present M/P infinitive

[16] ὑποτάττουσαι: nominative active plural feminine participle + ἑαυτὰς (“themselves”) reflexive pronoun

[17] I discuss these verses in 1 Corinthians 12 here.

[18] ὑποτάσσησθε: M/P present subjunctive 2 plural verb

[19] For example, I suggest the noun hypotagē in 2 Corinthians 9:13 is better understood as referring to “commitment” or “loyalty” rather than “submission.” This is how the ESV translates 2 Corinthians 2:9:13 (italics added): “By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ …”
A couple of translations, however, translate hypotagē as “commitment” in this verse: The Names of God Bible published in 2011 by Baker and GOD’S WORD translation first published in 1995. (The translation team of GOD’S WORD was composed of members of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.)
The Good News Translation (AKA Today’s English Version, Second Edition), published in 1992 by the American Bible Society, uses the word “loyalty” in this verse.

[20] Paul uses the noun “coworker” for several of his male and female ministry colleagues, for women such as Priscilla, Evodia and Syntyche. And he uses “labour” and “labourer” words for male and female ministers in a few of his letters. He uses it for himself and for women such as Mary of Rome, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis in Romans 16. The “such people” in 1 Corinthians 16:16 include people such as these women, and it would have included Phoebe who ministered in Cenchrea, a port of Corinth.

© Margaret Mowczko 2024
All Rights Reserved

You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month at Patreon.
Become a Patron!

Explore more

Submission & the Saviour in Ephesians 5 (Part 2)
Jesus on Leadership & Community in Matthew’s Gospel
Mutual Submission in Early Christian Texts
Does Ephesians 5:21 Teach Mutual Submission? (Accessible on my Patreon account.)
Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Cor. 12:12-31) 
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-23
The Greek Grammar of Ephesians 5:21-22
My articles on Ephesians 5 are here.
My articles in “submission” are here.
My articles on “mutual submission” are here.
My articles on 1 Corinthians 14 are here.
My articles on 1 Timothy 2 are here.
Paul’s Female Coworkers
A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16
한국어 기사는 여기에 있습니다

12 thoughts on “(1) Submission & the Saviour in Ephesians 5

  1. I’m studying and teaching my Bible study group from a book What Paul Really Said About Women: An Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love by John Temple Bristow.
    He explores the Greek culture of the influence of philosophers and their views on women. One section is entitled “It All Began in Athens: The Greek Legacy of Disdain for Women.”

    1. Hi Connie, I have that book on my shelves. I see a few things slightly different from John Temple Bristow, in particular, what he says about “head.”

      If you’re interested, here’s my stuff on Paul’s use of “head”: https://margmowczko.com/category/kephale-head/

  2. Wow. Really enjoyed this! Especially when you say, “ Subordinating or subjecting people is the opposite of what Jesus taught about relationships that are “in Christ.” ”
    I shared your post on 1 Corinthians and now will do the same here. Good work! Thank you.

    1. Thanks, James!

  3. Another well-researched article, Marg. Thank you. Are you considering writing a book regarding these controversial scriptures? It would be valuable for us to have your findings in one book. Blessings to you!

    1. I’ve started writing two books, and I have an idea for a third, but I find it very difficult to find the motivation to write a book. On the other hand, I’m very motivated to write for my blog and interact act with my readers in various spaces on the net. Almost of my blog articles began as an online conversation with a reader, including this one, which I then tidy up and expand on before posting.

  4. Thank you for addressing this. In my studying, I’ve long believed that submission is mutual as Christ followers, and meant in the context you have described in your article. In addition, leadership and headship are two different things. Ephesians 5 never uses the word leadership that I am aware of, but headship (I believe from the Greek it was intended to mean “lead servant” as in service to others, which is what Christ modeled). Since I work with couples of faith in marriage counseling, this passage so often is used as a way to “Lord over” or oppress women, which was never the intent. In fact, the exact opposite.

    1. Hi Sheri, Paul uses “head” with diffing senses, but there is one nuance that, I believe, is present in all his uses, that of “higher status.” I discuss this here: https://margmowczko.com/overview-pauls-use-of-head/

  5. Where is part 2 accessible?
    Thank you. Quite helpful!
    Melinda L

    1. Hi Melinda, I plan on posting part 2 towards the end of this week, at the earliest.

  6. I often thought that when Titus 2 tells older women to teach younger women to “be submissive to their OWN husbands” it has something to do with the religious environment. In Titus, it speaks of false teachers “subverting entire households” and in 1 Timothy it speaks about “foolish women always learning but never coming to the truth”. A Greek historian, can’t remember his name, said the religious environment of Crete believed that Zeus would fool women into having affairs with his against their own husbands. False teachers invading households and seducing young women into having affairs sounds like some modern day cult phenomena that we often hear about where a charasmatic cult leaders teaches his female followers to sleep with him because he is the messiah or something. Just a thought.

    1. Hi Shoshana, The Greek adjective for “own” is used in similar verses such as Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 3:1, and 1 Peter 3:5. These three verses, as well as Titus 2:5, contain the identical Greek phrase τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν (“to their own men/ husbands).

      A husband is a woman’s “own man.” Though we are to submit to one another, we owe our own spouse a greater degree of loyalty, deference, cooperation, and attachment. A woman does not owe this level of submission to any or all men, but to her own man.

      All the instructions to the various groups of Christians in Titus 2 have something to do with the religious environment, in that some local Jewish-Christian teachers were teaching circumcision and celibacy, and this was upsetting entire households (Tit. 1:14-15). It was especially upsetting, it seems, that these Judaising teachers were making money from their ministry.

      Sexual asceticism among the Christians was giving the church a bad name because some young (freeborn) women were not complying with respectable social norms by getting married and running a household, etc. Instead, they were idle. Paul, however, wanted all the Christians on Crete to be model citizens (Tit. 3:1-2).

      Zeus was a prominent god on Crete. He was part of the Cretan identity and was known as a seducer of women. But I doubt the Jewish-Christian teachers (literally, “those of the circumcision”) were bringing Zeus into their teaching in significant ways. Rather, we are told that they were teaching Jewish myths and man-made commands (Tit. 1:13-14; 3:9 cf. Col. 2:21-23; Matt. 15:8-9).

      I’ve written about Paul’s instruction to women in Titus here:

      I’ve written about the Ephesian “little women” in 2 Timothy 3:6–7 who were “always learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” here:

      Paul seems to have been was more optimistic about the learning capacity of the young women in Crete and the learning capacity of a woman (or group of wives) in Ephesus (1 Tim. 2:11) than that of the “little women” in 2 Timothy.

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.


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?