Who Gets to Decide?

huge_90_451227Yesterday I preached on submission.

I’m sure there are churches where that’s not a controversial subject, where the pastor simply tells women they have to submit and they all nod their heads dutifully.  But Richmond’s First Baptist Church is not like that.  If you put us all on one pew you would find the full spectrum of theological views represented, from very conservative to not very conservative at all.   To preach on something like submission is to risk half the church getting up and walking out. 

But it’s in the Bible, and I’m a biblical preacher.  I wouldn’t want to ignore something like submission just because it’s controversial.  In fact I find that those kinds of subjects force me to study harder, to dig deeper, and when I did that with this subject I turned up some interesting results.

In the New International Version (the one in the pew racks at First Baptist Church), Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”  That seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?  And a lot of preachers preach it just that way.  But when I’m dealing with a controversial subject I want to get as close to the source as possible, and so I looked this one up in the Greek New Testament.  There Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives to their husbands as to the Lord.”  The word submit  isn’t even in that verse, it’s in the verse above—Ephesians 5:21—which says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” 

And here’s where it gets interesting:

In my Greek New Testament there is an English subtitle just before verse 21 that says, “Wives and Husbands.”  If the Greek were translated into English it would look like this:

Wives and Husbands
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ

In the New International Version that same subtitle comes just before verse 22, like this:

Wives and Husbands
22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.

In the NIV that verse about submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ comes above the subtitle, as if it were unrelated to a discussion of husbands and wives.  So, if I were only reading the NIV I might assume that the teaching on mutual submission belonged to the previous passage, that Christians in general should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ but when it comes to husbands and wives, wives should submit to their husbands.  I think a lot of people have made that assumption, and I can’t blame them for it.

But I can blame whoever decided that the subtitle—“Wives and Husbands”—should go below verse 21 instead of above it.  Look it up for yourself.  It’s not in the original manuscript.  It’s supposed to be a helpful way of identifying the subject matter that follows.  But whoever put that subtitle in the Greek New Testament thought it should go before verse 21 and whoever put it in the NIV thought it should go after it, and it makes a difference—an enormous difference—in how you understand the passage.  In one version you end up thinking that husbands and wives should submit to one another while in another version you end up thinking that only wives have to submit.

So I wonder: was it a group of men who made that decision?  Was the placement of that subtitle related in any way to the idea of “keeping women in their place”?  Where would the subtitle have gone if it had been a group of women making the decision?  And how much difference does it make who gets to decide?

8 thoughts on “Who Gets to Decide?

  1. Well, my personal favorite translation of this passage comes from The Message by Eugene Peterson. As to your question of who gets to decide, I’d like to think that if it was a group of all men (as I’m guessing is likely), that they were simply making decisions based on their existence in a strong paternalistic society without any real pre-meditated malice.

  2. The phrase that came to mind after I wrote this post was: “The sermons of young women from Nigeria are not the same as the sermons of old men from New Jersey. It’s not that they read a different Bible; it’s that they read the Bible differently, through the lens of gender, culture, language, and ethnicity.”

    I don’t think we are ever fully aware of how much our experience influences our reading of Scripture, but I love it that Baptists are encouraged to read and interpret Scripture for themselves. We don’t have to rely on a committee!

  3. Jim,
    That’s interesting. We were just talking about this in Bible Study yesterday. When it comes to sumission of whom, I don’t think it matters, male or female, husband or wife. Of course this is my own opinion. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love others as yourself. IF we follow this command, are we not submitting to God’s will and thus, submitting to others also? The leader of the class yesterday said the husband is called to a higher command. He said the husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. How much did Christ love the church? He died for the church. He gave everything he had. If a husband truly loves his wife as Jesus loved the church, submission by the wife would be very easy to do. If the husband is a Godly man and loves his wife that much, he’s submitting to God and his wife. My own opinion, of course. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Dr. Somerville,
    We have never met, but my wife is a former parishioner of yours. She speaks very highly of you, and she brought your blog to my attention.

    Upon reading your blog, and calling another minister to consult with him about the translation of the Greek, and checking four other translations, I have a few issues with the conclusion with which you leave the reader – rhetorical though it may be.

    If your understanding of the text leads you to want to remove the subtitle from the passage, I would wholeheartedly agree with you. However, to assert that the solution to rightly understanding this passage is to move the subtitle above verse 21 neglects the fact that verse 21 also serves as a concluding thought for the first part of the chapter.

    As you explained, verse 22 works in Greek as a sort of dependent clause, relying on verse 21 for its verb. However, moving a subtitle does not change the meaning of the passage when verse 24 is taken into consideration.

    I would propose that St. Paul is saying that wives and husbands should submit to one another (verse 21), but what that submission means is different for each respective gender. For St. Paul, equality does not mean interchangeability. And no matter where one puts a subtitle – or whether or not one uses a subtitle at all – does not change that message within the broader scope of this pericope.

    I’m an Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, and we ordain more women than any other denomination. Needless to say, I am not from a tradition that seeks to impede womens’ progress. However, the Scriptures must be dealt with openly and in the totality of their context, and even though we Americans are very self assured in our moral understandings, the Scriptures say what they say.

    If one wants to speak more to the fact that women and men should submit (be subject) to one another, the strength of the argument might better be made by further explanation of the man’s role in this dynamic – as outlined in the latter portions of this passage. However, disputting the placement of a subtitle does not adequately deal with the possible misreading of verse 22, or the overemphasis of verse 24.

    Thank you for your time. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    Kindest Regards,
    Rev. Oliver J. Box

  5. Great subject, Jim. Especially since Justin & I are 55 days and counting from holy matrimony. In this time I’m reflecting more on what it means to be a wife….to be married.

    This passage has always…um…terrified me. It was preached to me as a child in that exact context…women are silent in the church and at home. What the man says goes….period. This passage was enforced by prohibiting women to hold any “higher” position in the church than the lead Sunday school teacher. Obviously, I no longer go to that church. 🙂

    I absolutely LOVE Proverbs 31:10-31 and the description it gives of a wife and mother figure. However in my recent research I’ve found an even more fitting description on the bond of a Christian man and woman through marriage. We’ve actually decided to incorporate it into our wedding, because both Justin and I believe THIS is what marriage is about:

    How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. Both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. They are, in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God’s church and partake of God’s Banquet; side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other’s company; they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts. Unembarrassed they visit the sick and assist the needy. They give alms without anxiety; they attend the Sacrifice without difficulty; they perform their daily exercises of piety without hindrance. They need not be furtive about making the Sign of the Cross, nor timorous in greeting the brethren, nor silent in asking a blessing of God. Psalms and hymns they sing to one another, striving to see which one of them will chant more beautifully the praises of their Lord. Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present; and where He is, there evil is not.

  6. Thank you, Jim, for digging out that “treasure in the field.”
    Your comments show us just how parochial we English
    speaking evangelicals can be. Like the dear lady in Texas said when confronted with two legal languages for her state:

  7. Since 1978, when we were married, I’ve always found that, if I know what’s good for me, I should say “Yes, dear! Whatever you say, honey!” to my beloved wife! And that was kind of how I became a Baptist back then! ;>

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