Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Introduction

As the church submits to Christ, so also wives to their husbands in everything (Ephesians 5:24).[1]

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 them are somewhat circumspect. In the oldest 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 directly.[2] (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 it. That is, it 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”).[3] This phrase occurs 26 times in Paul’s letters,[4] and he typically uses it relatively and generally.[5]

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 but was limited to specific attributes.

For 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. So we need to use our own wisdom and common sense in understanding his meaning, taking in mind how he uses en panti elsewhere in his letters and Paul’s aim in Ephesians 5:22-33.

I take “in everything” in Ephesians 5:24 to have a general, broad, and also a continuing sense of “in all spheres or areas of life.”[6] Paul was not speaking about an occasional action, but an ongoing general disposition that fosters unity. Wives 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 give themselves for their wives: “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).

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 a 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).[7] 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 on wifely submission and neglected other New Testament instructions for submission.

I suggest 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 say 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.”[8]

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.[9] Wisdom and love should be part of our hermeneutic.

Conclusion

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).

Footnotes

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] “Thing” is often implicit in the meaning of the neuter of pas.

[4] 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.

[5] “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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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?

[8] 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.

[9] 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).

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Explore more

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.)
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.

14 thoughts on “What does submission “in everything” mean?

  1. Having endured decades in a destructive marriage which all but destroyed me, it’s great to read solid sound advice on Scripture which was twisted in my past.
    Now, after being single for 23 years, Father has called me to marry again! and I know His plan is healing. I will keep this insight and remain centered on Truth.
    Thank you Marg for sharing your Wisdom .

    1. Hi Belle. I honestly wish there wasn’t a need to write the kind of articles I write. I don’t understand why the church has complicated things and failed the simple mandate from Jesus that we love one another (John 13:34-35).

      I wish you all the best in your new marriage.

  2. Patriarchy is a controlling beast with a hunger that cannot be satisfied. From a few mistranslated verses in the Bible it has morphed into hundreds of rules for women to follow on how to be that perfect godly biblical wife that now endorses in some christian groups that men have the right and should discipline their “disobedient ” wives with spanking and other punishments. Whereas men have only 2 rules to follow, lead and breed. Religion suffers from something I call MALE PATRIARCHY BLINDNESS

  3. Thank You for writing this! I find that to often when im researching things related to submission, marriage and being a biblical woman i get told things like “submitting to him means that when he asks you to do something it is as if God himself is standing before you and you are to treat him like he is God. You will be held accountable for obeying him. He will be accountable for leading”. This was in reference to Ephesians 5:22. Or “submitting means not resisting him”. I cannot believe the garbage i’ve been fed and your work brings refreshing clarity.

    1. Susie, I can’t believe some of the garbage we’ve been fed either, especially as much of it (in regard to wifely submission) is the opposite of what Jesus taught and demonstrated about what he wanted from his followers.

  4. Thank you for sharing your scholarship and knowledge, especially with this passage which has been misused in the larger context of entire church bodies, and in the smaller, but sometimes just as painful context, as the individual Christian home.

  5. For me, another aspect of Ephesians is that it is a prison letter, I think this means it had to get past a Roman censor to be allowed to send it to Ephesus. It was not legal to write in ways that were considered against Roman ideas of law and order, one aspect of that simplified was a strict hierarchy of a wife obeys her husband, a child obeys their father and mother, and a slave obeys their master. I think to a censor “submit in everything” sounds close enough to “obey” to pass scrutiny. But when one mediates on the whole teaching unit (as believers would do), a deeper meaning is possible to discern along the lines of mutualism.

    1. Assuming Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians when he was under house arrest in Rome, I’m not sure the Romans were that worried about his mail, or were closely scrutinising every letter.

      According to Acts, he had the freedom to accept visitors and speak freely. He also had the freedom, and access to resources, to write expensive long letters.

      “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30-31 NIV italics added; cf. Acts 28:16f, 23).

      His accommodation and relative freedom may imply that high-status and, therefore, powerful friends were looking out for him and offering him protection from mistreatment and interference from Roman officials and officers.

      Also, if Romans were suspicious of Paul’s ideas, I imagine they would have been more concerned with his words about the power and authority of Jesus the Messiah (Eph. 1:19ff; cf. Eph. 6:12ff).

      And what Paul says to husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff is extraordinary.

  6. I’m so grateful for finding your work. I have long felt called to marry but have struggled terribly with relationships. I have recently started praying for the Lord to heal me from “whatever I need to be healed from” in order to be ready to marry and the Lord immediately led me to find your work. I am so relieved and refreshed and feel that, finally, the last shackles of growing up in a toxic patriarchal misogynistic religious system are coming off! I see now that I’ve felt unable to trust men enough to get into relationships because I thought I had to choose between giving away my sense of self to become a puppet-servant, or staying single. Praise God it’s not so! Thank you so much, your work has helped to heal the part of me that was stopping me from believing I could have a healthy Christian marriage!

    1. Hi Emily, God doesn’t even want us to be puppet-servants in our relationship with him, and he’s God. He gave us a brain and abilities for a reason. I wish you well. God bless!

      1. God has been so good, patiently leading me into a healthier relationship with Him, and helping me see it’s ok to trust my own brain and abilities. The more I know how much He values me the more I see how wrong (and toxic) my upbringing was. Thank again Marg, I truly appreciate it.

  7. Hi Marg,

    First, I just found your blog and am really appreciating your alternative thought. I have felt alone and alienated by modern Christian conservative culture and have always been hesitant to get involved in a church and feel that I can’t relate to other women or even be truly equally regarded by the men. I don’t feel that I can honestly question or express my opinion at most churches without judgment or be heard with openmindness. Christians love to fit people into nice black and white boxes, and do not like to deal with grey areas. People and reality are complex!

    But anyways, I have a question that I am stuck on. Ephesians 5:23 makes it clear who should be the head of a household according to God’s design for the family: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” You don’t think this verse clearly states that the men should lead?

    1. Hi Amanda, I’m really sorry that you’re feeling alone. I hear this a lot from women who feel they don’t fit in with the culture of their congregation.

      Ephesians 5:23 doesn’t address the idea of who is in charge of a household. This verse is about marriage. Paul uses a head-body metaphor in Ephesians 5 to illustrate unity between husband and wife. It’s got nothing to do with who runs the home or family.

      Also, the Greek word for “head” doesn’t have all the same meanings as the English word for “head” does. It didn’t usually mean “leader.”
      https://margmowczko.com/overview-pauls-use-of-head/

      As I often say, neither, Jesus, Paul, or Peter ever tell husbands to lead. Paul uses the word “love” six times in his word to husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33! Paul wanted husbands to love. He says nothing about husbands leading.

      Here’s a short article you might be interested in:
      https://margmowczko.com/ephesians-522-33-in-a-nutshell/

      And here’s a longer one:
      https://margmowczko.com/pauls-main-point-in-eph-5_22-33/

  8. Helpful, considerate and lovingly put together, Marg. I’m certain the range and detail of your work on this site has been and is being profoundly beneficial to many.

    So many of these verses and extracts make such life-giving sense when read in the context of a chapter or indeed whole book. It appears to me that Paul’s tendency on these few occasions he addresses spousal attitudes is to affirm each’s male or femaleness, whilst cultivating in each the same attitude of love, humility, and commitment. A husband should feel affirmed to channel the essence of his daily work into the love, health and flourishing of his wife, and a wife should feel affirmed to respect her husband, loving and submitting to him in a faithful way that affirms the good desires in him, as they continue to work together as one flesh (v.31), in the same respect as Christ and His bride.

    My provisional thought for a few years now has also been that the distinction of the instructions has behind it the intent to defeat the specific sins each way between husbands and wives. I know some have connected 5:22-33 with the second curse in Genesis 3:16, and it’s certainly something I see merit in. Regardless of that link, the particular sinful tendencies of men to be selfish, pay insufficient interest to the needs of their wives, and seek their own glory using their wives as mere pawns for this (in various destructive ways) must be rejected by them laying down their lives and treating their wives as their own flesh; for women, the outworking of a lack of respect for their husbands, overly critical/negative words (which often tends to be the main complaint husbands have of their wives according to counsellors) and manipulation, must be equally rejected in respect and submission. Whether or not Paul was here addressing particular sins he’d had report of, I don’t know, but from v.17 of the previous chapter, even continuing into the next, he was clearly confronting different sins and their incompatibility with the new self in ‘God’s likeness’ (4:24). Incidentally, I wonder here if there was a hint of the potential for unfaithfulness on either spouse’s part, although I doubt Paul would be hesitant to say this if it was particularly prominent on his mind.

    The fact that these verses have been used to justify sinful actions and attitudes speaks broadly to a lack of faith that ends up worshipping the letter above the spirit, ironically whilst adding things into the passage(s) that aren’t actually there. I think the most subtle of which now is the idea of wives submitting to “spiritual headship”, which is just eisegesis. There’s arguably an element of encouragement for the husbands to tie in the spiritual aspect with their love for their wives, but if there really is, it cannot be taken as a law with constituent observances. There are many, many cases of wives, especially in current times but definitely in Ephesus too, having more faith and true wisdom than their husbands. Such an emphasis on that kind of submission seems bizarre and obviously unhelpful. How often must such a lack of faith create a new law to be obeyed, instead of just every day seeking to turn our wills away from sin and towards the love of God?

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