Friday, October 7, 2011

Ephesians 5 Contains No Command for Wives to Submit - Or, Why Things are Often More Interesting in the Original Greek

With all of my Greek studies, I've gotten to the point where I don't really like translations all that much any more (although it has increased my appreciation of the KJV somewhat, ironically). While I still primarily use the NIV for personal reading, for instance, I would never use it for more in-depth study. It's translations of Romans and Galatians, for instance, are particularly horrid and completely distort the sense of the Greek, reading into it things that either are not there or even completely changing the meaning in an unwarranted fashion. More literal translations tend to be better but not necessarily - the NASB's version of Song of Songs, for instance, misreads crucial sections of the Hebrew so that the Wisdom sub-genre of the Song is nearly lost, resulting in a very inferior version.
In any case, looking at the (in)famous "wives and husbands" passage in Ephesians 5, a favorite at weddings (well, more conservative ones at least), one finds something somewhat different from what winds up in most English translations. Most treat verse 21 as a command for everyone to submit to one another and then move on in 22 to a command for wives to submit to husbands, and then a rule to the effect that this is how things ought to be in verse 24. The thing is, in the Greek none of these commands, "should"s or "ought"s show up in the Greek. Sure, "submit" words show up, but none are in the Imperative mood - which is what is used in Greek to make commands (there are no modal or "ought" words either).
What is found instead is a full complex sentence in verse 18, ending with a command to be filled with the Spirit. What follows in 19-21 are a string of phrases built around a series of participles (think "-ing" words like "singing" or "submitting"). The ESV has a fairly decent literal translation of 19-21:

19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Verse 21, then, contains a participle, not an imperative. All these phrases are attached to a clause with an imperative, yes ("be filled with the Spirit" in verse 18), but the participles here are probably best seen as describing the results of what is said in that clause rather than, say, what it consists in. 19-21, then, are telling us what happens as a result of the Ephesians being filled with the Spirit. They are not commanded to submit to each other in 21, then, but the submission is portrayed as a natural byproduct of being Spirit-filled.
Now we turn to verse 22, which normally gets stated in English as "Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord". In Greek, however, what it literally says is "Wives to your husbands as to the Lord". It is common in Greek to leave out a word from a sentence or phrase if it has already been used in the previous one and this is what is happening here - this apparently verb-less expression is actually picking up its verbal element from the previous verse. And the verbal element from the previous verse, while a form of the verb for "submit", is not in the imperative form. So it's not a command. Instead, it is a participle - one that was explaining the result of being filled with the Spirit. So this is saying how things are or will be, not how they ought to be let alone commanding them to be that way.
In verse 24 we have something similar - another verse usually translated as a command in English (e.g., "Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands"). But in fact, the Greek has literally "but as the church submits to Christ so also wives to husbands in everything". The second half of that sentence "so also wives to husbands in everything" lacks a verbal element but again picks it up from the previous bit. But the previous verbal element, though again a form of "submit", is not in the Imperative. It is not a command, but a statement of what is in fact happening - the church is submitting to Christ. So again, we have a case of explaining what is going on rather than a command that wives are required to follow.
All in all, then, the Greek syntax seems to bar this passage from being used straightforwardly for any view of women's roles in life. There are, of course, other passages in the Bible that could be used by either side in that debate, but I don't think a very good case could be made for whatever side you take based on this particular one.