Does Ephesians Five Really Tell Wives to Submit to their Husbands? Responding to DTS Professor, Darrell Bock and Sandra Gahn

With all the rage over feminist issues going on as a result of the #MeToo movement, it isn’t shocking that pastors and professors holding to a more culturally friendly position on the issue of male-female roles in the family and the church should start to come out of the shadows into the light. After all, it seems a bit safer these days to do so. In an article over at The Christian Post, Michael Gryboski reports that Darrell Bock and Sandra Gahn are two professors who are inching their way out of the shadows. Gryboski reports the following:

Sandra Glahn, associate professor in Media Arts and Worship at Dallas Theological Seminary who teaches a gender studies course, and Darrell Bock, senior research professor of New Testament at DTS, disagree with those who interpret the passage as meaning that wives must be subservient to their husbands.

The text does not mean that wives are to be “subservient to their husbands.” Bock says that the countercultural text has been misused. Bock says that it’s the word submission that is the problem. To some people, the idea of submission is a four-letter word. Gahn chimes in to tell us that people reading this passage need to pay attention to the verbs used in Scripture, especially for the husband. I wonder why we only have to pay attention to the verbs used “especially for the husband.” That seems a bit out of place to me. “Often, when we look at the verbs, the wife gets to submit, and it gets taught that the husband gets to lead. But that’s not his verb. That verb is not there. His verb is love, and it’s not phileo love, it’s agape love, which looks a whole lot like submission,” said Glahn. Glahn goes on to say that submission is not a woman word, it’s a human word. And then she brings out the old argument that husbands and wives are to submit to one another. And now we get to the idea of mutual submission which really isn’t submission at all. Think about that for a second. If two people are supposed to submit to one another, then no one is really submitting to anyone. There is no leader to whom the other person must submit.

Now, let’s take a quick look at the passage in question and see if we can ascertain the meaning of the passage so that we can apply it to how we live as Christians in the current environment. Let’s begin with the first verb in this pericope: Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. The verb is actually in the previous verse and it is a participle. Verse 21 is a transitional verse and the participle likely carries an imperatival sense being supplied by the imperative “be filled” with the Spirit. The wife’s submission hearkens back to Gen. 3:16 where God recognizes that Eve will desire to rule her husband but he shall rule over her. The hoti clause points clearly in this direction. This subordinate clause is a causal clause. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. In other words, because the husband is the head of the wife, the wife should submit to the husband. What does being the head of something mean? Well, look into the next clause, “as Christ is the head of the church.” Just as Christ is the head of the church, the husband is the head of his wife. Because of this, wives are to submit to their husbands.

Now, if this isn’t clear enough, it gets even clearer: Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Just as the church is subordinate to Christ, the wife is to be subordinate to her husband. So far, it seems farfetched that one could read this text without understanding it to simply mean that wives are to submit to their husbands just as the church submits to Christ. This clearly places the husband in a leadership position. How could it not? I do not have to say to the husband, now, you must lead. If I have said to the wife, you must submit to your husband, implicit in that statement is a corresponding statement to the husband to lead those who are submitting to him. That goes without saying. For a professor at DTS to miss that strikes me as odd. I am having a hard time deciding if these professors are as inept as they seem sometimes or if they are just trying to save their necks from a culture that is increasingly calling for their heads.

So far, the only significant verb at this point occurs in v. 24 and it is, hypotassō. It is the word translated “submit.” Paul now turns his attention to the husbands. The wife has her instructions: submit, be subordinate to your husband. Paul issues the command: Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. The Greek imperative is used for love and it means in this context, to have a warm regard for someone, to cherish and have affection for another. Paul repeats this command in v. 28 and 33. As Christ loves the church, each husband is to love his own wife.

There is nothing in the meaning or use of the word agape here that should lead any reasonable exegete to see submission in its meaning. It just isn’t there. But Gahn says clearly that agape love looks a lot like submission. Maybe this is the problem. Those who work with the languages as a matter of routine have come to realize that there isn’t a neat category for phileo love and then another one for agape love, etc. The fact is that these words are used with overlapping meaning on numerous occasions. The best way to determine the meaning of a word is to read it in its context. Gahn is apparently ignoring that exegetical principle.

Not only does agape love in this case not carry any hint of the notion of submission, the model for the husband-wife relationship is parallel to Christ and the church. Christ loves the church. That is agape love as well. Does that mean that Christ submits to the church? We are in the immediate context of this pericope. If not, why not? How can we say that this kind of love that the husband owes to the wife sounds a lot like submission but not so with Christ and the church especially when they are within spitting distance of one another?

So, are Sandra Gahn and Darrell Bock correct when they say that this pericope has been widely misused? Is it the case that this text is pointing us to the concept of mutual submission between the husband and the wife? I cannot see how such an interpretation could be considered feasible for even a second. The word translated submit is pretty straightforward. The model for that submission is Christ and the church. That seems pretty easy to understand to me. Moreover, there isn’t a hint of submission in the word “agape.” And if there is, then this would mean that Christ should love (submit to) the church the same way that Gahn and Bock say that a husband should submit to his wife. Mutual submission is nothing more than a concept invented by scholars are who either inept in their ability to handle the text or dishonest and motivated by the fear of losing their credibility among a pagan culture who, as the professors themselves put it, think of wifely submission to their husbands as if it were a four-letter-word. Well, it’s not a four-letter-word. What it is, is the commandment of our sovereign Lord whom we are obligated to fear and obey and acknowledge in all we say and do. That is what it is.

So the answer to the question is, yes, it does. Ephesians 5 really does tell wives that they must submit to their husbands. And if you are telling them something different, then you are contradicting God. That is an undesirable position to be in for certain.

 

 

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