Sometimes we hit a text which to the modern mind is quite controversial. One such passage is in Ephesians 5 where Paul twice says “women should submit to their husbands”! Tackling this can be a bit like going into no man’s land or walking through an active minefield where at any moment you could step onto a mine by making a statement which blows up in your face!

I am a married man and I’m not nearly brave enough to tackle this head on, so, I am going to dance around the mines and use this passage to help us to understand some of the rules or techniques we can use when considering what Scripture says.

Rule 1. Do not assume that our modern understanding of a word is the meaning the original writer has in mind. It may have, but we cannot ASSUME this, we must always be conscious that if the words we use today can change in their meaning and use within our own lifetimes (the word “Gay” for example), how much more careful should we be when looking at a document written 2,000 years ago? So for example here, the word “submit” in the 21st century carries with it an almost entirely negative understanding, specifically that submission implies a stronger party has overpowered a weaker one and there is some form of duress and consequently no choice. Yet throughout Ephesians Paul has been talking about the importance of unity and preferring one another. He has only just told them to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, so in this instance, it is at least possible, and probably very likely that, for Paul, submission is entirely voluntary, and not coerced at all.

Rule 2. We must also remember that the Bible was not written in our modern languages. The Bible we have is a translation from Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, and in some cases, translated from a Latin translation (which makes it a translation of a translation). Just as in translating from one language to another can be problematic, so in many instances, translating from the original language may well mean that the words chosen in the recipient language do not convey the whole meaning of the original language. Some versions of our Bible will recognise this by adding footnotes which explain alternative understanding and nuance. You can mitigate this to some degree by using 2 or 3 different translations in your studies, and accessing some of the excellent Bible dictionaries, cross references and word books that are available.

Rule 3. Look at the whole passage before drilling down on just one word, phrase or idea. When I was growing up, people would talk about not being able to “see the wood for the trees”, meaning that focusing in on one small aspect of something may well result in the big picture being missed. To alleviate this risk, read the whole passage—often the intention of the writer is revealed elsewhere in the passage, and looking for words like “therefore”, “for”, “because”, “so that” and so on will really help us to tease it out. In this particular passage, a recurring thought helps, Paul does indeed mention submission, but 5 times in the passage, he talks of the parallel between the relationship between husband and wife and that of Christ and the church, in fact he says in Ephesians 5:32 “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church”, so this passage isn’t primarily about women submitting to men at all, but speaks to the relationship between Christians, or “the church”, and their saviour, Christ.

Getting all offended and dismissing something the Bible says out of hand because on the face of it, it appears to say something we find distasteful, risks missing the incredible richness and benefit the Bible offers to us.

Why not take a passage and try reading it in two or three translations, see if you can see some of the different choices translators have made and thereby gain a greater understanding of the passage?