In September of 2014 Cheryl McGrath posted an article on male headship using the story of Ananias and Sapphira from Acts 5.  Traditionally, women have been told that they were to submit to their husbands, but if you read this article, you’ll see that Sapphira’s sin was in agreeing with her husband in deception rather than refusing to comply with him.  How can that be when the Bible clearly tells women to submit?[1]  If we see something in scripture that looks like a contradiction, it’s time to dig further.

One of the primary causes of what appear to be contradictions in scripture is mistranslation.  The New Testament was written primarily in Koine Greek which is the everyday, common form of the Greek language that was used at that time.  Until recently, about the last fifty years, Bible translators had to guess about the meaning of many words.  Due to recent discoveries of everyday papers like receipts, letters, business documents, etc. from the first century, the meaning of nearly every previously unknown New Testament word is clear.  The problem is that most of this information has not yet been used by our translators.

These documents are often referred to as ‘papyri’ because of the material on which they were written.  From these papyri we have a new understanding of hupotasso, which is the Greek word translated as submit or subject as a verb or submission or subjection as a noun.  There is a word for submit or subject but it is not hupotasso.  It is hupoeiko as found in Hebrews 13:17, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit (hupoeiko) to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you…”

It is easy to understand why hupotasso was mistranslated when we separate the word into its parts.  It is a compound word made up of hupo and tassoHupo means under and tasso means to put or place.  To ‘put or place under’ fits with the traditional understanding of how women are to relate to men.

I hate to have to do this, but a grammar lesson is necessary to understand the problem with translating hupotasso as meaning to submit.  If this were easy and uncomplicated, the problem might not have occurred in the first place.  In traditional grammar, the verb indicates whether its subject acts (active voice), or is acted upon (passive voice), or the subject chooses to do something to themselves (middle voice).

For example:

One may teach – that’s in the active voice.
One may be taught – that’s passive voice
One may teach oneself –that’s middle voice

Teaching oneself is not possible with the English words submit or subject, because they mean someone else (not the person themselves) is taking action or being allowed to take action on a person.

Voice in Greek is determined by the ending of the word.[2] Most concordances do not show endings so their usefulness on this issue is limited. Hupotasso in the middle voice is spelled hupotassomai as the ending changes if it is used in something other than present tense. In the middle voice the person (subject of the sentence) voluntarily chooses to do something to themselves. Remember that middle voice expresses a voluntary action by the subject of the verb.

Thousands of examples in the papyri show that hupotasso in the middle as well as the passive voice means “give allegiance to, identify with, tend to the needs of, be supportive of, or be responsive to”.  It does not mean submit or subject.  A longer and more detailed discussion of the use of hupotasso and the scriptures where it is used is found in the Women for the Nations course Part Three Sessions Three and Four from which this article is taken.

As we see from the example of Ananias and Sapphira, Christian wives cannot submit or sometimes even support their husbands because they must put the Lord first. Bible translation has made Paul’s writing conform to traditional beliefs that God has given men authority over women. However, when properly translated, Paul never gives men the right to command women, nor husbands the right to “have dominion” and control over their wives.  No one can serve two masters and neither Paul nor God tells us to.

As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to love and support one another but our submission is to Him.


[1] The Encarta® World English Dictionary[1] gives the following definitions for the words subject, subjection, submit or submission : (v = verb, n = noun)

  • Submit: v. to accept somebody else’s authority or will, especially reluctantly or under pressure or to yield, to defer to another’s knowledge, judgment, or experience
  • Submission: n. a willingness to yield or surrender to somebody, or the act of doing so
  • Subject: v. To submit to the authority of, subjugate, subdue
  • Subject: n. somebody who is ruled by a king, queen, or other authority
  • Subjection: n. the bringing of a person or people under the control of another, usually by force

[2]  Voice changes the spelling of the end of a word in Greek just like tense changes the spelling in English. For example the verb “live” in Present tense = “live,” past tense = “lived.” There is also the form “living” when the verb “live” is used as a participle or a gerund.


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