Toward a More Comprehensive Understanding of Wifely Submission


A divorcee lamented, “If only I had spoken to my husband about his abuse of me in the first five years of our marriage, we’d still be together. I didn’t know that I was allowed to speak up. He would have listened back then.” A dedicated Christian, she had been taught that she must “submit in silence” to her husband, no matter what the circumstances.  A sexually abused woman was devastated by the behavior that her husband demanded of her. He took her to strip a clubs and demanded that she copulate with other men in the parking lot. There were other perversions as well. A Christian, who had consulted Christian therapists, said she was told to “submit” to her husband’s demands—whatever they might be—as this was her scriptural duty. A wrong understanding can lend itself to abuse and wreak terrible havoc in the human soul.  Richard Langley and Robert Levy declared that a marriage based upon an extreme form of male dominance and unqualified female submission,constantly teeters on the edge of God’s boundary.

It operates too close to where temptation is difficult to resist.”1 Uncomplaining submission can lead to even greater levels of abuse, and the abuser thereby inflicts harm to his spiritual life (Isaiah 58:4; 1 Peter 3:7). In point of fact, the New Testament calls upon us to denounce wrongful conduct on the part of fellow believers and to hold offenders responsible (Matthew 18:15-17; I Corinthians 5:1-7:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15; 1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 3:10- 11; James 5:19-20).  The apostle Paul vehemently speaks against “submitting” to another person’s wrongdoing (Galatians 2:5-6). To submit does not mean knuckling under to abuse. This is an important concept for abused women to understand. Often we fail to note that each biblical call for wifely submission is set within a context of mutuality and is coupled with a directive aimed at eliminating abuse on the part of the husband (Ephesians 5:22, 28-29; Colossians 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1, 5-7).

Some well-meaning folks have advanced the theory that proper submission entails a servant-master relationship, but this does not encourage intimacy. Jesus said, “From henceforth I do not call you servants. Because the servant does not know what the master does. I have called you friends, because everything that I have learned from the Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). A successful marriage is an intimate friendship, one with good communication and a depth of knowledge of one another that exists in no other relationship.   Assessing the Greek Values  Submission is most certainly a biblical concept, but often there is a failure to look carefully at the biblical texts and contexts. The Greek word for “submit” is hupotasso, and can mean to subordinate or to place in an inferior position. But the term also has other values, such as to support, join with, identify or associate with, behave responsibly toward or relate in such a way as to make meaning. Most standard translations of the Bible do not take into consideration the vastly wider knowledge of meanings that is now available.

In 1863 Bishop Lightfoot wrote: _“You are not to suppose that a word [some New Testament word which had its only classical authority in Herodotus] had fallen out of use in the interval, only that it had not been used in the books which remain to us: probably it had been part of the common speech all along. I will go further and say that, if we could only recover letters that ordinary people wrote to each other without any thought of being literary, we should have the greatest possible help for the understanding of the language of the New Testament generally_.” 2  This was written before the remarkable finds of Greek papyri in the dry sands of Egypt. Each year thousands more documents are recovered—personal letters, business communications, legal briefs, bills of sale, marriage contracts, and so forth. A myriad of Greek inscriptions have been published as well, particularly those from the area around Ephesus. With the use of these materials, it is now possible to develop broader lexical values for many terms that were previously known only in the writings of the Greek New Testament.3 This brings us to examine the meaning not only of the verb itself, but of its related cognates as well.    Consistency and commitment.  We find the cognate noun form (hupotage)in 2 Corinthians 9:13.

The Apostle Paul praises the Corinthians for their generosity and observes that their actions are consistent with their profession. The actual translation would be, “Your submission to your confession is known to all the world.” This is indeed an awkward rendering: how does one submit to a confession? “Whole hearted commitment to your confession” or “adherence to your confession” gives a far better understanding of Paul’s statement to the Corinthians. The issue is one of consistency with one’s professed values. In ancient Jewish thought, “The ultimate test is the conformity of one’s deeds to one’s profession.” 4 Ann Nyland, a classicist with particular expertise in the value of Greek words as they occur in papyri, writes of hupotage, “The semantic range is ‘support,’ ‘uphold,’ ‘append.’”5 It can also imply deep attachment.    Influence and association  Hupotasso can indeed denote submitting or subordinating, but it also has far wider meanings. The participial form of the verb is applied to denote those who are supporters, allies, adherents or associates. 6 The Analytical Greek Lexicon, noting this width of range, offers “bring under the influence of” as it occurs in Romans 8:20.7 The world was tainted or “brought under the influence” (hupotasso) of human folly.  To translate this verse as “the world was made subject to vanity” contradicts the oft-expressed biblical concept of God, rather than vanity, as the one who rules the world. We might better render this, “The world became associated with or came under the influence of human folly.”

The text of Romans 8:7 declares, “The mind of the flesh is not subject (hupotasso) to the law of God. Neither can it be.” Far better to translate, “The unregenerate mind is not aligned, associated, or in conformity with the law of God.”  The 12-year-old Jesus, having just made his bar mitzvah, felt that his place should be in the temple with the learned teachers rather than at home with his parents. In a period of brilliant intellectual activity, the young boy interacted with the finest minds of Judaism. Theirs was a world of sophisticated thought patterns, elegant discussion, and intense argumentation and hair-splitting debate—decidedly not the province of ordinary people.

Discovered by his parents in this heady atmosphere, Jesus returned and “was subject” (hupotasso) to Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:51).  This does not seem to mean simply obedience, for Jesus sought on more than one occasion to stretch his mother’s mind (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:21, 31-34; Luke 8:19-21; John 2:4). Rather it appears that he entered again the world of Nazareth where there were carpenters and farmers, shopkeepers and artisans, housewives and boisterous children— those to whom he would later direct his ministry. In his return to Nazareth, he joined, identified with, was accountable to and supported his parents rather than the elitist savants of the temple.

Responsible conduct.  Although Christians are told to “be subject” (hupotasso) to the authorities (Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13), it clearly does not imply obedience in matters of conscience. Only think of the persecution they endured for refusing to comply with certain mandates of the state! Saint Peter declared, “We ought to obey God rather than man”(Acts 4:19; 5:29). Rather in this context, hupotasso appears to be a call to behave in an orderly and responsible fashion as citizens of the state. Atakteo, the opposite of hupotasso, was meant to be lawless, irresponsible or remiss in discharging a responsibility8 (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:7). We also do well to look at the adjectival cognates hupotaktes (submissive, but more commonly behaving in an orderly, responsible or proper fashion). The negative of this adjective, anupotatkos, implies a direct opposite—disorderly, irresponsible, confused or lacking meaning. Ptolemy, an ancient scientist, used this antonym to mean a person who is independent, detached from others, not integrated into a group.9 The term is applied in the New Testament to those who behave irresponsibly or lack accountability (1 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:6, 10).    Making a relationship meaningful.

At several points, Polybius, a military writer of the second century BC, used hupotasso and its cognates when he wished to talk about ways of making meaning. He used the aforementioned adjectival antonym, anupotaktos, to designate individuals who were not integrated into the group, dissociated from others, confused or difficult to comprehend.10 By contrast, he sometimes used hupotasso to indicate associations or relationships that led to greater understanding. At one point in his writings, he wished to give his readers grids for the comprehension of geographic locations. He proposed dividing the earth into four quadrants: north, south, east and west, and relating (hupotasso) specific areas with the four cardinal directions.11 In a world with very faulty maps, the association could prove very helpful indeed. Otherwise, he said, the mind would have nothing with which to associate the concept. He did not want his account to be dissociated (anupotasso—opposite of hupotasso) from something already known. Sometimes Polybius used the passive form of hupotasso in the sense of implied meaning.  At another point, he wished to provide a general pattern for analyzing the conduct of a group of human beings. This can be done by relating or associating (hupotasso) them into a broad general category of those displaying certain common characteristics. Then it is easier to understand each individual within the group.12 Surely the emphasis upon developing meaningful relationships is an important one, especially in terms of Christian marriage.   Responsiveness.   We may profitably examine the ways in which the ancient translators used the term as they labored to render the Hebrew text into Greek.

The famous version known as Septuagint was used extensively in both the synagogues scattered throughout the Greek-speaking world and in early Christian gatherings. The New Testament contains numerous quotes from the Septuagint, and this was the text read by most believing communities. At three points in the Psalms (Psalm 37:7; Psalm 62:1,5), hupotasso is employed to translate a Hebrew verb that signifies listening responsively in an attitude of expectancy. In line with this understanding, The Message renders hupotasso in 1 Peter 3:1, “Be good wives to your husbands, responsive to their needs.”13    Differentiating between Obedience and Submission  The Greek verb hupotasso has within it many values that could do much to enrich a marriage: to join, associate, identify, support, attach oneself to, or relate in such a way as to make meaning.

We must first realize that this is not the word for obedience (hupakouo), something enjoined on slaves and children. Only once is hupakouo used for wives, and then it is used in the context of Sarah who obeyed her husband Abraham (1 Peter 3:6). This must be balanced against the biblical record that God bade Abraham to listen to what his wife said and to comply with her dictum (Genesis 21:12). Saint Paul calls upon Christians to live together as cohesive and dedicated families. From what we can gather, the family in the Roman Empire frequently fell victim to severe disintegration. The plays of Plautus and Terrence, still extant, replace the earlier plays of Menander and give a picture of family life, which is nothing short of appalling. The standard plot portrays the son, the clever slave, and the mother, all conspiring to outwit the father and subvert the incredible authority wielded by the Roman father (patria potestas).

These plays were said to “hold a mirror up to real life,” and many other pieces of evidence point as well to the fundamental disunity of the Roman family.  By contrast, harmony in the Christian family held a very high priority, for the first Christians met in private homes and became part of the family life within them. The call for household solidarity instructs children and slaves to “obey” (hupakouo), while wives were asked to “be subject” (hupotasso), to demonstrate loyalty and support rather than subterfuge. In a similar vein, Eugene Peterson renders hupotasso thus in key passages: Ephesians 5:22—“Understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support of Christ” and Colossians 3:18—“Understand and support your husbands by submitting to them in ways that honor the Master” and in 1 Peter 3:5—“The holy women of old… were good, loyal wives to their husbands.”14, 15

Wifely Submission  What of the famous passage in the fifth chapter of Ephesians? We must first note that the main verb occurs in the eighteenth verse, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Dependent on that verb are a number of participles: singing, making melody, giving thanks, and “submitting” (hupotasso) to one another (v. 21). Here is a directive that speaks of mutual submission, the attitude that each must have toward another. Then follows verse 22, in which there is no verbal form at all. The Greek literally reads, “Wives to their own husbands.” Since no verb is available, the participle must be brought down from the preceding verse, where it commanded that each should be subject to the other. In such a circumstance, it is difficult to imagine that the reader is intended to here a one-sided subservience rather than the mutuality indicated in the previous verse.

The strongest demonstration of proper wifely conduct is found in the last chapter of the book of Proverbs. The passage is a great favorite for Mother’s Day sermons, but how often do we look carefully at what the text is telling us? Here is a woman who is diligent in her household duties, astute in real estate and importexport affairs, able to organize her staff and conduct a home cottage industry. A businesswoman who can earn her own money (v. 16), she is known in the community for her compassion, her wisdom and her judicious speech. Furthermore, she is supportive of her husband in his role of civic leader as he sits at the city gate in the seat of a magistrate (Proverbs 31:23; cf. Ruth 4:11; Job 29:7). She appears to be able to make independent decisions, but is committed to her husband who safely trusts in her (v. 11). “She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life” (v. 12).  Here the model wife is portrayed as a full partner—strong, willing to take on new ventures, and possessed of good judgment in her own right. Her industry and initiative bring great enrichment to her marriage and her home, and elicit the praise of her husband and children (v. 28). In what, then, does her submission consist? Not in subservience, but in commitment, loyalty, prudent and responsible conduct, and the creation of meaningful relationships.

But if wives are not being told to obey (hupakouo) their husbands, what is the force of the biblical command to “submit”(hupotasso)? How can today’s Christian women understand the values of hupotasso that she may bring, as a full and responsible partner, to her marriage? They are commitment, loyalty, support, adherence, responsibility, and a desire to create a meaningful relationship. What an antidote to abuse in the Church! What a gift to any marriage!  _Catherine Clark Kroeger, Ph.D. in classical area studies, is an adjunct associate professor of classical and ministry studies at Gordon- Conwell Theological Seminary. She has coauthored and edited four books on domestic abuse: Women, Abuse and the Bible; Healing the Hurting; No Place for Abuse; and Refuge from Abuse.Take help from telephone therapist.

Endnotes  1 Richard Langley and Robert Levy, Wife Beating: The Silent Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983, p. 105. 2 In George Milligan, Selections from the Greek Papyri, p. xx: 3 A leader in the application of the broader lexical values to the New Testament is Ann Nyland, an Australian classicist. Her translation of the New Testament offers many new insights into ways the original language was used in antiquity.

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Source by Anthony