Be Subject To One Another: Ephesians 5:21-33

post5In approaching this very important passage, there are a number of paths upon which we might walk.  One is to become more fully aware of what marriage and gender and family relationships were like in the Roman Empire during the time in which the Apostle Paul wrote.  I will have two very good handouts to distribute to those who join us on the third Wednesday of this month concerning this historical background:  one is a portion of the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (PSW); the other is a free download from Franciscan University Presents, an excellent presentation by Mike Aquilina.  I will copy part of this download and you can obtain the entire teaching at

Another path is like an on-ramp leading to the broad way of understanding:  it is a word-study which helps us to distinguish, right at the beginning, what the various meanings of  “be subject to” or “submit” are, and shows us which Greek word is used in the Ephesians 5 passage.  This is important, because it will lead us away from roadblocks of relational misunderstandings that tend to bring readers to a standstill before a definitive teaching can actually be given.

The third path is the path of definitive teaching itself, about the Bible passage we are embarking upon.  I will give you portions of a great treasure of the Church, John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter of 1988 entitled, Mulieris Dignitatem, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.  This Letter unpacks Ephesians 5:21-33 in a remarkable way, enabling us to grasp not only the personal and communal meanings of marriage (with an understanding of virginity, as well), but also offers us the incomparable gift of beginning to understand the mystery of the Church.  In this post, I’ll attempt to give clarity to the first path with an approach to the Greek words;  and then I’ll give you a vital portion of John Paul II’s teaching in respect to men and women and marriage.

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There are several words which are not used in the Ephesians 5 passage concerning wives’ subjection/submission to husbands (verse 22), and all Christians’  subjection/submission to one another (verse 21).  These are enochos, meaning bound or held in, carrying an implication of guilt or deserving bondage;  enecho, or ensnared, implying some kind of hostility or grudgebearing;  and the words doulos or douloo, meaning held under subjection, as a slave would be.

The Greek word used in Ephesians 5 is hupotasso, which means to place oneself under, obey, or submit in an implied situation involving rank or hierarchy, various positions, or roles in relationship with one another.  To understand better the use and implications of this word, look at Luke 2:51; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5; Galatians 2:4,5; I Corinthians 15:27,28; and Romans 13:1,5.

It might also be helpful to look at yet another word not used by St. Paul in Ephesians 5, the word deo, meaning bound, implying imprisonment of some kind, or in context, a legal tie.  Look at Luke 13:16; John 11:44; Romans 7:2; I Corinthians 7:27, 39; John 18:12; Acts 21:13; Revelation 20:2.  Comparing and contrasting in a careful study of all of the words not used gives a strong impression of the fitting or voluntary implications of subjection or submission when hupotasso is used in the Scriptures.  One begins to see that the spiritual gifts of humility and love underlie our understanding of the reasonableness of the commandment to submit to one another in the circumstances in which we interact and relate, especially when those circumstances are the community of the people of God, one body nourished and transformed by His one, holy and powerful Holy Spirit (see last week’s post).

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“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” (Isaiah 54:4-8, 10)

The above Scripture is used by John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, section 23, as he begins to center specifically on the great passage in Ephesians which we are now considering.  He continues…..

“Since the human being–man and woman–has been created in God’s image and likeness [see Genesis 1:27,28], God can speak about himself through the lips of the Prophet using language which is essentially human….On the part of God the Covenant is a lasting ‘commitment’;  he remains faithful to his spousal love even if the bride often shows herself to be unfaithful.

“This image of spousal love, together with the figure of the divine Bridegroom–a very clear image in the texts of the Prophets–finds crowning confirmation in the Letter to the Ephesians (5:23-32)….The text is addressed to the spouses as real women and men.  It reminds them of the ‘ethos’ of spousal love which goes back to the divine institution of marriage from the ‘beginning’ [again, see Genesis 1].  Corresponding to the truth of this institution is the exhortation, Husbands, love your wives, love them because of that special and unique bond whereby in marriage a man and a woman become ‘one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:31).  In this love there is a fundamental affirmation of the woman as a person.  This affirmation makes it possible for the female personality to develop fully and be enriched.  This is precisely the way Christ acts as the bridegroom of the Church; he desires that she be ‘in splendor, without spot or blemish’ (Ephesians 5:27).  One can say that this fully captures the whole ‘style’ of Christ in dealing with women.  Husbands should make their own the elements of this style in regard to their wives…(and) in regard to women in every situation….

“The author of the Letter to the Ephesians sees no contradiction between an exhortation formulated in this way and the words: ‘Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife’ (5:22,23).  The author knows that this way of speaking, so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time, is to be understood and carried out in a new way:  as a mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ (cf Ephesians 5:21).  This is especially true because the husband is called the ‘head’ of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to ‘give himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life.  However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the ‘subjection’ is not one-sided but mutual.

“In relation to the ‘old’ this is evidently something ‘new’:  it is an innovation of the Gospel.  We find various passages in which the apostolic writings express this innovation, even though they also communicate what is ‘old’:  what is rooted in the religious tradition of Israel, in its way of understanding and explaining the sacred texts, as for example the second chapter of the Book of Genesis.

“The apostolic letters are addressed to people living in an environment marked by that same traditional way of thinking and acting.  The ‘innovation’ of Christ is a fact:  it constitutes the unambiguous content of the evangelical message and is a result of the Redemption.  However, the awareness that in marriage there is mutual ‘subjection of the spouses out of reverence for Christ’, and not just that of the wife to the husband, must gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behavior and customs.  This is a call which from that time onwards, does not cease to challenge succeeding generations; it is a call which people have to accept ever anew.  Saint Paul not only wrote: ‘In Christ Jesus…there is no more man or woman’, but also wrote: ‘There is no more slave or freeman’.  Yet how many generations were needed for such a principle to be realized in the history of humanity through the abolition of slavery!  And what is one to say of the many forms of slavery to which individuals and peoples are subjected, which have not yet disappeared from history?

“But the challenge presented by the ‘ethos’ of the Redemption is clear and definitive.  All the reasons in favor of the ‘subjection’ of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a ‘mutual subjection’ of both ‘out of reverence for Christ’.  The measure of true spousal love finds its deepest source in Christ, who is the Bridegroom of the Church, his Bride.”

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This exceptionally important Apostolic Letter contains much more, and is very rich in things to ponder together.  Because it is, I intend to assign portions of it for your reading during the remainder of April, along with questions to ponder.  Please consider this a rare opportunity for you as a Christian to gain and make your own a truly important aspect of the knowledge of the Faith in our generation.  -JC