“Obedience” and “Submission”: Biblical Word-Study

A friend posted on her facebook status an interesting question: “Why do you think the Bible says for wives to ‘submit to’ their husbands instead of ‘obey’? Do you think there is a difference?”

Here’s what I think:

I think “to submit” is a good translation, and yes, I do think there is a difference between “to obey” and “to submit”. The verb “hypotasso” (1 Peter 3:1 ) does mean “to submit” AND “to obey”, and is used in James 4:7 in connection with obedience to God. HOWEVER, in Peter’s usage, “hypotasso” seems to refer only to relations of submission between humans (1 Peter 2:13, 2:18, 3:1, 3:5, 5:5). When speaking of the elect’s obedience to Christ (1 Peter 1:2), Peter uses the noun “hypakoe” instead. Though the two words are largely synonymous, Peter seems to use these two words to draw a distinction between submission to people and obedience to Christ. Therefore, in the KJV, “hypotasso” is consistently translated as “to submit” or “to subject”, whereas “hypakoe” is translated as “to obey”. So YES, there IS a difference.

For your information though, Paul does not draw such a distinction between “hypotasso” and “hypakoe” (see Eph. 5:22, 24). Of course, if you believe that the Bible is inspired, then there cannot be any contradiction between Paul and Peter. It seems to me that the best way to explain the difference between Paul and Peter in their choice of words is to say that in Ephesians 5 Paul is speaking metaphorically and analogically, so although the same word “hypotasso” is applied to both husband-wife and Christ-Church relations, these two relations involve two kinds of submission in virtue of the analogy (i.e. since the two relations are analogous, they are not identical). In contrast, Peter is speaking realistically and not metaphorically or analogically, so Peter must be careful in his choice of words to make a distinction between the wife’s submission to her husband and the elect’s obedience to Christ.

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