This is part of a series on partriarchy, headship, and submission. See this index.
In English we have many linguistic structures that help us remember the content of a piece of writing, especially when it is read out loud. These mnemonic devices are literary devices include acronyms, rhyming, and various other forms of grouping. There are at least nine types.
When the books contained in the Bible were first written, most were intended to be read out loud to an audience. Consequently, many formal linguistic structures were used to aide in memory retention. One of the more obvious is repetition, which is quite common especially in the poetry sections of the Old Testament.
These devices allowed for illiterate ancient listeners to accurately memorize Scripture and transmit it orally without significant corruption, much like most Christians can quote John 3:16 without error throughout their entire lives.
The Structure of Ephesians 5
The book of Ephesians is not a simple, unstructured letter, but shows linguistic structure typical of ancient writings that would be read out-loud to the illiterate. These structures serve the same purpose as the mnemonic devices described above. This is especially important when one approaches the section on submission in Ephesians 5.
The entire chapter of Ephesians 5 is part of the same large “paragraph.” Paul is speaking to the church about the proper (and improper) ways of living and giving advice and commands. While there is a lot that can be said, let’s begin our discussion at verse 18. Why verse 18? Because verse 18 is the beginning of the sentence that doesn’t end—in the English language sense—until at least verse 23, perhaps later.
(v18) And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled with the Spirit:
(v19) speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
(v19) singing and be making music with your heart to the Lord
(v20) giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
(v21ff) submitting …
[v21 through v33]
The first thing to note is there is only pure verb in this sentence—”be filled”—followed by a successive list of participles—speaking, singing, making, giving, submitting—that fall under the umbrella of the original verb. A participle is a word that functions partially as an adjective and a verb. Formally it is
A word derived from a verb and used as an adjective
This language in Ephesians is used so that the listener understands that these acts (the participle acting like a verb)—speaking, singing, making, giving, submitting—all describe (the participle acting like an adjective) ways to be filled with the Spirit. These acts do not stand in a vacuum by are related under that common verb.
But the structure of the passage changes abruptly after verse 20. The series of participles ends (in verse 21), and a discussion about husbands and wives takes place.
This new section utilizes a different, but very common, literary device known as a chiastic pattern. In a chiasmus, words and phrases are repeated in a specific pattern—usually pairs, in the ancient style—to group related thoughts and to emphasize the most important themes.
In this example, the more indented the chiasmus is, the more emphasized the content, so A/A’ (instructions to wives) is less important than E/E’ (instructions to husbands), with the whole thing culminating in importance with F/F’ (making the church holy), and finally G (Christ presenting his bride to himself), the central theme (which isn’t repeated!).
The addition of a chiastic structure—establishing a self-contained section—is why some translators add a paragraph break (a new section heading) between verse 20 and 21 (e.g. the NIV), even though the “sentence” continues. However, other translators put a break between verses 21 and 22. When I wrote “Chiastic Structure of Ephesians 5:22-33“, I made that same mistake.
First, notice that “A” is the beginning of verse 22, not verse 21. Breaking this up is a problem, because the underlined word respect in A’ is the same word as fear in verse 21 (not shown here). It is clear that A and A’ are matched in the chiastic structure by their use of that single word, not submit as I seem to indicate above. Thus the A in the chiastic structure is both verse 21 and verse 22.
Second, the word submit only exists in the original Greek in verse 21 as part of a single sentence which continues in verse 22. Breaking them up is a translation error.
Third, the entire chiastic structure is framed around the word fear in what is known as an inclusio, another literary device. This is why v21 through v33 are indented in the structure above that starts with v18. They are still part of the series of participles, a detailed discussion within it. The chiastic structure and the inclusio tell the listener that he should treat this as a single expansion of the topic within the context of the wider discussion.
All of these literary devices serve as mnemonic devices to allow listeners to understand and remember what Paul wanted to say.
The Meaning of Ephesians 5
So what does this all mean? Let’s read what Ephesians 5:21-22 says…
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”
…and then consider this explanation.:
“If this inclusio is followed then it makes sense that the mutual submission of verse 21 applies only to the husband and wife relationship.” — Mike Aubrey, “A Criticism of Talbert”, Koine-Greek: Studies in Greek Language & Linguistics. January 22, 2008.
When we factor that the submission Paul is talking about in v21 only applies to the husband/wife relationship, the passage reads more like this:
“Husbands and wives, be filled it the spirit, submitting to one another out of fear of Christ, Wives to your own husbands as to the Lord…
…Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church…”
Paul tells husbands and wives to submit to each other: mutual submission. Paul then expounds upon what he means by submission, giving individual examples for husbands and wives. The discussion continues, and its emphasis is highlighted in the chiastic form shown above, but you get the point: in light of the literary structure, husbands and wives, that they be filled with the Spirit and out of respect for Christ, submit to one another in various ways.
“Mutual submission” has nothing to do with the husband-wife relationship. It has to do with the body of believers’ relationships to each other individually and corporately. Feminists, complementarians, and others like to lump “mutual submission” in with the husband wife relationship because they just don’t like wife submission to imperfect men. [..] There is no clearer evidence of the “curse of Eve” than women’s seething, spitting hatred for submission to a man
— comment by thedeti @ SigmaFrame, “The Tennant Authority Structure”
Far from mutual submission having nothing to do with husbands and wives, the literary structure implies that this mutual submission is specifically for husbands and wives. Yes, Paul clearly does view the way a wife submits as different from the way a husband submits, but his use of submission—in the passive voice—necessarily excludes the interpretation that Paul is speaking of a submission characterized by a strict, uni-directional hierarchy of authority and subordination. It is simply not possible for a husband to be the authoritarian ruler of his marriage if he is submitting—subordinating himself—to his wife by his sacrificial love. That explanation is irrational.
While my previous word, passage, topical, and historical studies of headship and submission show that this explanation cannot be sustained, it is further confirmed by how the literary structure of the passage excludes that explanation.