Is Male Authority “Implied” in the Bible?

Bob Edwards


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Is Male Authority IMPLIED in the Bible_

In the book “Desiring God” complementarian John Piper claims that male leadership is “implied” by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (1996, p. 353).

Some Christians would agree with him. For complementarians, the notion that wives everywhere should be subject to male authority is viewed as “biblical.” Two Bible passages are often used to support this belief :

  •  “Wives be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22, NASB).
  •  “But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything (Ephesians 5:24, NASB).

I’ve quoted these passages as they appear in the New American Standard Bible (NASB).  In both instances, the verses contain certain phrases in italics.

According to the notes for the NASB, however, the phrases are written in italics because they cannot be found in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. They have been added by the translators, who thought they needed clarification.

The Greek manuscripts used to translate the Bible into English contain neither of these commands.

Ephesians 5:22 is simply an extension of verse 21, which reads, “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (NASB).

Subjection, or submission as the word here is translated in many English Bibles, is not meant to go from wives to husbands only. Rather it is meant to go in two directions; it is an attitude of love and humility that we show one another. Similarly, in Ephesians 5:24, Greek manuscripts of the New Testament frame the submission of wives to husbands not as a command, but as a description.

In the New Testament time period, wives were indeed “subject” to their husbands in all things. This notion was supported by household codes found in the writings of Greek philosophers and Jewish teachers alike. These popular codes, however, never dared to suggest that husbands should also submit to wives. The biblical concept of mutual submission was revolutionary.

The submissive service Paul calls husbands to demonstrate was modeled by Jesus himself.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25, NASB).

Here Paul acknowledges that wives submitted to husbands in the culture of his day; he then requires that husbands also take upon themselves “the form of a servant,” just as Jesus did for the church (Philippians 2:7).

John Piper disagrees. In “Desiring God” he states, “Even while he was on his knees washing their feet, no one doubted who the leader was” (1996, p. 184). While this statement may sound logical, Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ act of foot-washing paints a different picture:

“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand’. ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet’.” (John 13:6-8a, NIV)

Peter knew that washing the grime from a traveler’s feet was a task performed by slaves. He was so staggered by what Jesus was planning to do that he initially refused. He permitted Jesus to perform this act of service only when Jesus explained, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8b, NIV).

Jesus prophesied that he would save humanity by becoming a slave.

“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’.” (Mark 10:42-45, NIV)

In John 19:11, Jesus acknowledges Pontius Pilate’s authority over him: “You would have no authority over Me unless it had been given you from above” (NASB). He truly took upon himself the form of a servant, and was obedient to the point of death, to deliver us from sin:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV)

In this passage, all Christians are called upon by the Apostle Paul to have “the same mindset as Christ Jesus” with “one another.” This is the same command that we find in Ephesians chapter 5, directed towards both husbands and wives if the text is not altered by English translators.

In stating that the Bible “implies” male authority, Piper is making a common error in thinking.

He is confusing the act of “implying” (something done by the sender of a message) with the act of “inferring” (something done by the receiver of a message). An inference is a conclusion drawn by a reader that is not explicitly stated by an author. Inferences can be incorrect. They may be formed on the basis of assumptions or prejudices that we unknowingly hold to be true (see References).

Is male authority implied by the Bible? No.  However, it can be wrongly inferred by some readers.



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  • I have been raised under this authority/submission teaching. And have struggled for a long time about it. I’m just delighted to find others who think there’s a problem with this. Thanks so much for speaking out!

    I mentioned to a close friend/mentor–that I don’t think I really buy this dogma anymore. This morning she texted me that I should really seek the Lord and ask Him what submission is. I said, yeah thanks–you should too.

    • Kim, welcome! You are in good company here. There are actually dozens of denominations that don’t hold to a hierarchical view of men and women. In addition to the mainline Protestant groups many churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness camp have a more egalitarian view. Be sure to check out our resources page and the website of Christians for Biblical Equality And yes, we all should seek the Lord – it’s surprising what we might learn 🙂

      • Welcome Kim, It was seeking the Lord and beginning to look into the original language and context of the biblical books that led to a change of mind for me. I’m glad you’ve found us. May God encourage you!

  • You say that “the Greek New Testament manuscripts used to translate the Bible into English contain neither of these commands.” This is a simplification, at best. Nestle and W/H do not; TR and MT do. So this entire subject hinges on textual criticism. Surely this cannot be overlooked or written off.

    The word in question, “υπoτασσεσθε” (G5293) in Eph 5.22, is found in some cases, not found in others. Some texts don’t even include the word “γυναῖκες” (women/wives).

    • It is a simplification, given that this is a blog article and not an academic lecture. Context is important here too. To be more specific, the oldest known Greek manuscript does not include these commands. I encourage everyone to delve into the history of Bible translation for themselves. The more recent the copies of the biblical manuscripts, the more patriarchal they become. This can be seen when comparing older Alexandrian manuscripts to more recent Byzantine text-type documents. Translations from Greek to Latin take a further turn towards a patriarchal bias. The bias progresses into the German and finally the English translations of the Bible. The discrepancies I’ve noted here are disclosed by the Foundation responsible for translating the NASB, in their introductory notes. Sharing all of the research and notes related to a patriarchal trend in translation would be well beyond the scope of this blog. The information is available for anyone interested in pursuing this course of study. Wilshire’s work on the evolution of translation regarding 1 Timothy 2:12 would be a good starting point in my opinion. I hope that offers some clarification, and a bit more detail.

      • Great take on that, Bob! That is really helpful. I just read Wilshire’s most recent work (2010, I believe) on 1 Tim 2:12 – Insight into Two Biblical Passages: Anatomy of a Prohibition and it is fascinating! I notice the complementarian theologians are no longer focusing on this passage much – maybe this is why.

    • Thank you for sharing that Paula. What I find significant is that the term hupotassetai (Eph. 5:24) is not a command. Yet, many English Bibles translate the word as if it is. It’s a description of a relationship of interdependence, not a command to be obedient.

      I also find it interesting that many English Bibles repeat the term for wives. In the oldest Greek manuscripts, the term occurs once, between Christ and the church.

      So, English translations provide an additional use of the word, and turn it into a command.

      Also, the military application of the term is generally chosen over meanings not consistent with a military context. In a military setting, the term is properly translated “is subject to.” In a non-military setting, the term can mean “is joined to.” Paul is, after all, talking about the interconnectedness of the head and body in his metaphor. Even if “is subject to” is selected, though, it is a description of something that already exists, rather than a command to make it so.

      So, a complementarian rendering of Ephesians 5:24 makes at least three interpretive decisions that skew the passage away from the original language and context towards a military type of command rather than a description of an interdependent, organic relationship. These choice points effectively change the meaning of the text and spuriously establish an male-dominated hierarchy in Christian marriages.

      To be honest, I really don’t think we should handle the Bible this way. If we do, I think we project our own assumptions onto God and his word, thereby confusing the traditions of men with the will of God (c.f. Mark 7:8). Jesus tells us that this is something we ought not to do.

  • Wow, amazing how scripture can get soooooo twisted into what someone wants it to be, in order to meet their fleshly desires.

    • I was truly shocked by the additions made to the Bible by the NASB translators. I was also troubled to see the apparent absence of women on the translation committee. I wasn’t able to discern any feminine names on the list, though some of the translators (very few) only shared their initials. It’s no wonder we have such androcentric translations of the Bible.

      Also, the neo-Platonic emphasis on a male-led social hierarchy is clearly evident. It’s a shame that many of today’s translators and commentators don’t seem to take the time to consider the Platonic lenses of the commentators and translators from previous generations that they seem so eager to emulate (e.g. Augustine, Erasmus, Calvin, Luther etc.). One of Plato’s basic premises was that creation is kept from chaos by a God who is fully in control of all things, and that on earth he has placed men in control of the lower social classes, which in his mind included women, children and slaves.

    • You’re welcome Zoe :). Happy to share. Thank you for the encouragement.

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