As the church submits to Christ, so also wives to their husbands in everything (Ephesians 5:24).
Someone recently told me that the instructions in Ephesians 5:22–24 for wives to submit to their husbands is “an emphatic command.” He followed this up by saying, “The emphasis lies in ‘in everything‘ (5:24). It’s a total submission that’s expected.”
Paul’s instructions to wives, however, are not worded as “an emphatic command” in the Greek. Paul did want the Ephesian wives to be submissive to their own husbands, but his words to the women are somewhat circumspect rather than emphatic: in the oldest surviving manuscripts, there is no Greek word for “submit” in Ephesians 5:22 or 24b (or any other verb) in the phrases where wives are given instructions. (I’ve written about the wording and Greek grammar of these verses here.)
But what did Paul mean when he wrote, “in everything”? Does “total submission” convey his intention? Are there limits to wifely submission?
Paul’s Use of “In Everything”
The Greek adjective pas (“every, all”), in its various forms, occurs over 1200 times in the Greek New Testament. It’s used a lot! Often, the context shows that it doesn’t mean “every, all” in the way English speakers understand these words. That is, pas doesn’t always mean “everything without exceptions.”
In Ephesians 5:24, Paul uses the dative neuter of pas with a preposition: en panti (“in everything”). This phrase occurs 26 times in Paul’s letters, and he typically uses it relatively and generally.
For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul urges his audience to give thanks “in everything” (en panti). He would have expected the Thessalonians to apply this instruction sensibly. He did not want them to mindlessly give thanks for things that were unworthy of gratitude (cf. Eph. 5:20).
In 1 Corinthians 1:5, Paul tells the Corinthians that they have been enriched “in everything” or “in every way” (en panti). But he then narrows the scope of “in everything” and specifies that they have become rich “in every word and in all knowledge.”
Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 8:7, Paul says that the Corinthians excel “in everything” (en panti). But he goes on to clarify that “in everything” encompasses faith, speech, knowledge, diligence, and their love for Paul and his associates. The Corinthian’s excellence did not extend to everything without exception; it was limited to specific attributes.
For further comparison, here are the other verses in Paul’s letters that contain en panti where, like Ephesians 5:24, en panti is not followed by a noun in the same phrase: 2 Cor. 4:8; 6:4ff, 7:5, 7:11; 7:16 NASB; 2 Cor. 9:8, 9:11, 11:6, 11:9 NKJV; Phil. 4:6, 4:12. From these verses, we can see that Paul did not use the phrase with a sense of absoluteness or totality without exceptions.
The Ideal in Marriage is Ongoing Oneness
Paul doesn’t clarify or specify what he means by “in everything” in Ephesians 5:24. We need to use our own wisdom and common sense to understand his meaning. We can do this by taking in mind how he uses en panti elsewhere in his letters and by understanding his overall aim in Ephesians 5:22–33. (I take it as a given that Christians are to be led by the Holy Spirit when reading the Bible.)
I propose that “in everything” in Ephesians 5:24 has a general, broad, and also a continuing sense of “in all spheres or areas of life.” Paul was not speaking about an occasional action, but an ongoing general disposition that fosters unity. Married women are not to be submissive in just one or two aspects of their lives but, ideally, are to be submissive with their whole lives, as we are to Jesus.
Husbands, likewise, are to wholly and continually give themselves for their wives in a way that fosters genuine unity: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph. 5:25 cf. 5:1–2). Paul wanted this submitting and giving of our lives to our spouse to be mutual and reciprocated (cf. Eph. 5:31). The head-body metaphor that he uses in Ephesians 5:23, 28–30 is primarily about unity.
Note that Paul had an ideal husband and wife relationship in mind when he wrote Ephesians 5:22–33; he was not suggesting, let alone mandating, that either husbands or wives put up with foolishness or abuse.
Parameters and Limitations to Submission
Paul’s instructions about submission are usually qualified in some way to do with Christ or God; there are parameters and limits to it. Paul wanted a kind of submission that was “out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21), “as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22), “as the church submits to Christ” (Eph. 5:24), “as is fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18), and “so that the word of God will not be maligned” by non-Christians in Crete (Tit. 2:5).
But what does it mean to be submissive?
Being submissive is normal Christian behaviour that is mentioned several times in Paul’s and Peter’s letters in the context of various relationships (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:16; Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5 NKJV). Being submissive isn’t just for wives or women, and it’s not just for marriage. It is unjust that many Christians and churches have emphasised, exaggerated, and embellished wifely submission and neglected other New Testament instructions for submission.
I propose that submission in Christian relationships means “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.
Some say that a wife’s submission is primarily about agreeing with her husband’s decisions. This is a contrived idea that is not hinted at in Ephesians 5. The only time Paul mentions couples making decisions, he says that decisions should be made mutually (1 Cor. 7:5). A wife acquiescing to her husband as the supposed tie-breaker, on the infrequent occasions when a significant decision needs to be made, is not what Paul meant by wives submitting to their husbands “in everything.” Furthermore, the idea that the husband, but not the wife, has final-decision-making power is dangerous in abusive relationships and not needed in healthy ones.
Wifely Submission and Christian Relationships
Whichever way we understand the three passages in Paul’s letters that mention wifely submission (Eph. 5:22–24; Col. 3:18, Tit. 2:4–5), they do not override or outweigh the numerous “one another” verses about Christian relationships.
Here’s a sample of these “one another” verses in Paul’s letters: Rom. 12:10, 16; 13:8; 14:19; 15:14; 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; Gal. 5:13; 6:2; Eph. 4:1–2; Eph. 5:19–21; Col. 3:12–17. And let’s not forget that Paul’s words to wives and husbands in Ephesians 5 are prefaced with an instruction for mutual submission: “submitting to one another in reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).
We mustn’t take a few verses in the New Testament, such as Colossians 3:18 (“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord”), and not also take into account other New Testament verses about Christian relationships.
Furthermore, we mustn’t apply biblical instructions mindlessly but with kindness and common sense, and with attention to the purpose and broader context of these instructions. Considering his words to husbands, as well as his overall aim of unity in marriage, Paul did not have in mind wives submitting to selfishness, foolishness, or abuse. Wisdom and love should be part of our hermeneutic.
When Paul used the phrase “in everything” he was speaking broadly and generally. Too many Christians, however, have applied “in everything” in Ephesians 5:24 in an oppressive and domineering manner that does not fit with Paul’s tone throughout Ephesians 5 and does not foster genuine unity in marriage. Oppressing and stifling others is not what Paul wanted and it’s the opposite of what Jesus wants for his people.
After Peter had addressed wives and men, he rounded off his instructions with this exhortation. Paul would have approved.
Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing (1 Pet. 3:8–9a).
 Even though Paul did not mean it this way, the example of the church submitting to Christ has proven to be a low bar. The church has done plenty of things that are not in line with what Jesus, who is perfect and loving, wants. It has got a lot of things wrong and done numerous heartless, wicked and violent acts. And yet some parts of the church expect wives to be completely compliant to imperfect, flawed husbands.
 Paul may have tempered his words because some elite women who outranked him were in his original audience. We know there were elite wealthy people, including women, associated with the church in Ephesus (Acts 19:31; 1 Tim. 2:9-20; 1 Tim. 6:17–19). I acknowledge, however, that the letter to the Ephesians was a circular letter and meant for several congregations in Asia Minor.
 “Thing” is often implicit in the meaning of the neuter of pas.
 In Ephesians 5:24 and the 14 examples above, en panti isn’t followed by a noun in the same phrase. Here are the other 11 occurrences of en panti in Paul’s letters that are followed by a noun: “in every place” which Paul uses idiomatically (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 2:14; 1 Thess. 1:8; 1 Tim 2:8), “in every word” (1 Cor. 1:5b), “in every good work” (2 Thess. 2:17; Col. 1:10), “in every way” (2 Thess. 3:16), “in every season” (Eph. 6:18), “in all the world (Col. 1:6), “in all the will [of God]” (Col. 4:12). In most, if not all, of these verses, en panti is used with a general and relative sense.
 “In everything,” with the same meaning as in Ephesians 5:24 but with slightly different language in Greek, also occurs in Colossians 3:20 (kata panta), which is about children obeying their parents in everything, and in Colossians 3:22 (kata panta), which is about slaves obeying their (male and female) masters in everything. Titus 2:9, which is also addressed to slaves has en pasin which is the plural of en panti. (Here are most of the other verses where Paul uses the neuter plural en pasin: 2 Cor. 11:6; Eph. 6:16; Phil. 4:12; Col. 1:18; 1 Tim. 3:11 NIV; 2 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 4:5; Tit. 2:10.)
Again, Paul is speaking broadly and generally. Even though “obey” is a stronger verb than “submit” and children and slaves had less agency than many wives, Paul would have expected children, especially grown children, and slaves to use wisdom when obeying their parents and masters where possible.
 Today we sometimes use English words such as “everything” and “always” in an expansive but imprecise and general sense that doesn’t come close to “everything” and “always” in their strict senses. The same was true in first-century Greek, as shown in Paul’s “in everything” verses in the article above.
 Rarely a week goes by that I do not see someone on social media or in an email asking what submission means in Ephesians 5:22–24, or what the parameters are of submission. My observation is that many Christian women are deeply concerned about how to be obedient to Paul’s instructions for wifely submission.
In contrast, I’ve only ever had one person ask me about the nature and the parameters or limits of Paul’s instruction for mutual submission given in Ephesians 5:21. One person in a decade in comparison with several people each and every month. Why this disparity in numbers? Why are people concerned with understanding and obeying (and enforcing!) Ephesians 5:22–24, but less concerned about understanding and obeying Ephesians 5:21? There is something awry here.
 This faulty idea would mean that in some marriages, where there is no need for a tie-breaking decision, women would never have to submit to their husbands. My husband and I, for example, have always made decisions mutually, but I am submissive to him, and he to me.
 Neither, Jesus, Paul, Peter, nor any New Testament author tells husbands to lead or to have authority over their wives. Rather, Paul told husbands to love their wives (Eph. 5:25ff; Col. 3:19). And Peter told men to honour womenfolk (1 Pet. 3:7).
© Margaret Mowczko 2022
All Rights Reserved
Photo by Maria Orlova (cropped) via Pexels.
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22–33
The Greek Grammar of Ephesians 5:21–22
Mutual Submission in Early Christian Writings
Jesus on Leadership and Community
Wifely Submission and Holy Kisses
Abigail: A Bible Woman with Beauty and Brains (who didn’t submit to her husband’s foolish and dangerous behaviour.)
A Note on “Everything I Ever Did” (John 4:29)
All my articles on Ephesians 5:22–33 are here.
All my articles about Paul’s use of kephalē (“head”) are here.
All my articles looking at Greek words in the NT are here.
James Pruch and I talk about Ephesians 5 and submission in a one-hour podcast here.