the weblog of Alan Knox

In Scripture, are grammar and structure important?

Posted by on Dec 4, 2012 in scripture | 14 comments

In Scripture, are grammar and structure important?

When gathering with the church, have you ever had a discussion about grammar and structure in Scripture? I have… several times. And, the last time this happened was last Sunday when we were studying Ephesians 5.

I know what you’re thinking… “How can a discussion about grammar and sentence structure be edifying to the church?” Well, believe it or not, it can be. In fact, in some cases, it’s important to discuss grammar and sentence structure in order to understand Scripture.

But, in this particular case, we were looking at Ephesians 5:22-33. Of course, this is a very famous passage because everyone wants to argue about what it means for a wife to submit to her husband. (Although, I’ve found it strange that there are very few arguments about what it means for a husband to love his wife… and why there are few – if any – websites or “ministries” devoted to the husband loving the wife. But, I guess that’s a question for another day.)

At one point, I mentioned that Ephesians 5:22 does not include a verb, and that it follows directly from Ephesians 5:21. I also mentioned that Ephesians 5:21 is a participial phrase that is part of the sentence that begins in Ephesians 5:18. In other words, “wives submit to your own husbands” is part of the description of “submitting to one another” which is part of the command “be filled with the Spirit.”

Let’s take this the other way: When Paul writes, “Be filled with the Spirit…” (Ephesians 5:18), he then gives 4 results (at least, I think they are results of being filled with the Spirit – but that’s actually another grammatical question): 1) addressing one another… (Ephesians 5:19a), 2) singing and making melody (Ephesians 5:19b), 3) giving thanks (Ephesians 5:20), and 4) submitting to one another (Ephesians 5:21).

Then, as part of “submitting to one another,” Paul next addresses wives and instructs them to submit to their own husbands as an example (Ephesians 5:22). So, whatever it means to submit to one another, and whatever it means for wives to submit to their husbands (and, yes, we discussed this), it all begins with being filled with the Spirit. (By the way, I didn’t say all of that on Sunday morning, but other people did bring up different grammatical aspects of this passage based on the relationship between Ephesians 5:18, Ephesians 5:21, and Ephesians 5:22.)

What’s interesting is that after we talked about this and continued to the end of the chapter. A few people later wanted to talk about it again. One of the questions that was often brought up is this one: What does it mean that addressing, singing, giving thanks, and submitting all follow from being filled with the Spirit?

So a grammatical / structural question not only led to understanding Scripture better, it also led immediately to encouraging one another about being filled with the Spirit. Plus, it puts the whole discussion about husbands / wives, parents / children, and masters / slaves in a completely different light… because it all begins with being filled with the Spirit.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 12-4-2012

    Lloyd-Jones’ “Life In The Spirit” is a good one on this, from his expository sermon series on Ephesians.

  2. 12-4-2012

    Dear Alan: Thanks for your comments regarding Eph.5:22ff and especially the information that the sentence begins with verse 18. I got myself into a quandary with both moderates and conservatives, circa 1985, by pointing out the possibility of biblical justification for what Sandy Creek church and assn. die with reference to having eldresses who exhorted the congregation. The moderates did not apparently care for it as I based it upon verbal inspiracion, inerrancy, and infallibility, and the conservatives did not like it as it violated their favor clear statements, never mind the ambiguities of dealing with a word from God which so clearly reflects the subtleties of the omniscient being inspiring such a work. Since I was doing a simple work of history, I sought to reconstruct the justification for such a view in the 1700s, in a period when there was no questioning of the word of God in the churches that were orthodox. There was, of course, questioning as to meaning. I found justification in a Puritan, which Shubal Stearns and his brother-in-law were, coming from that background, especially the former (I think Marshall might have had more of a Presbyterian background at this point). The Puritan commentator, Matthew Poole, pointed out that “I suffer not a woman to teach or to usurp authority over man” was true “except it be for a specially called, gifted, and endowed woman such as” and he proceeded to name the leading prophetesses and other females of the Old and New Testament who had served as God’s messengers or agents of leadership for His people at some point in the biblical timeline. Our Reformed folks, and we are originals, I think, if you leave me off of the Landmarkers’ list, who remembered that the church was congregationalist in nature, from the meaning of ekklesia, and that the complementarity issue was simply one of functionality with checks and balances.

  3. 12-4-2012

    In functional linguistics, it is well-established that communication is isomorphic to grammar. So to speak, all of grammar and structure is about communication. Grammar indeed serves communication. Therefore, grammatical analysis, broadly speaking, is critically central to exegesis. Amazingly you pointed it out by illustrating how you can see the Holy Spirit in action only by carefully considering grammatical concerns.

    Actually, grammatical analysis is pervasive in everyday life. We do it whenever we are communicating. We do it so automatically that we don’t pay attention. Methodologically, what we can learn about your experience is a careful consideration of grammatical concerns in a systematic way, even for “easier” parts of the Scriptures. Needless to say that it will be amazing. We will indeed feel the Holy Spirit incrementally teaching us.

  4. 12-4-2012


    Yes, many preachers/teachers use grammar and sentence structure to study and present their material. In this case, I was excited to see that many different people were discussing grammar and structure and how those issues help us understand Scripture. So, it’s not just an issue for the “experts.”


    I appreciate the insight into your thoughts and history on the interpretation of Eph 5:22. There are definitely different opinions about that verse (I have my own, of course). Have you ever had a discussion with the church about grammar and structure and had several people work through the implications together?


    Yes, grammatical and structural analysis are necessary for communication, which would include the interpretation of Scripture. Have you ever been part of a discussion of this kind of analysis with the church?


  5. 12-4-2012

    I’d be interested to read more about how the one(s) facilitating the grammar discussion helped to guide the discussion. I think this is an important skill for believers.

  6. 12-4-2012


    One of our other brothers (not me) was leading us through a discussion of Ephesians 5:22-31. I originally brought up the connection back to the 5:21 and 5:18, which then led a few others to ask questions and/or make comments related to that connection. After we went through the whole passage, the conversation about the grammatical / structural connections continued over lunch and even later that afternoon once we had dispersed. I hope this somewhat answers your question.


  7. 12-4-2012

    Not yet Alan. But so far, I have been using various grammatical tools for my personal Bible studies and annotation in Xiphos. Using those tools sounds rather natural and intuitive, as far as I am concerned. Of course, they have proven to be effective and insightful in several respects. I am part of a choir where we use to share the Scripture. I am planning to introduce the grammar-based method.

  8. 12-4-2012

    Good thoughts as usual. I have always thought the breaking of Ephesians 5 between verses 21 and 22 as is commonly done unfortunate at best. There are of course other examples where man has placed a division in a less then ideal spot, or added words because they seemed to make the passage grammatically correct. Or at least what they felt was grammatically correct since far too many times we then interpret it differently than a strict reading of the Greek/Hebrew would seem to indicate. I am not a Greek or Hebrew scholar, but it has been my observation that such careful scrutiny is necessary, along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, if you are to rightly divide the Word.

  9. 12-4-2012

    Great article. Much to think about and go back and reconsider.

  10. 12-4-2012
  11. 12-5-2012

    Thanks for a great article. here are a few of my musing on this passage.
    It is great to see how the grammar helps to see what a passage says. We could take it a bit further. Are the participial clauses subordinate one to the other or are they coordinate? Either way, it would all be subordinate to being filled with the Spirit. If they were subordinate to one another then submission comes first, then giving of thanks, then singing, then addressing. There is a sense that when we submit we then can truly give thanks, which in turn helps us to sing and then to speak. That shows us how important it is to submit.
    The word submission is interesting when one looks at the grammatical word which always follows it. It is a reflexive pronoun, which means it is a voluntary decision by the one making it. It can never be made for you nor can it be forced, then it is not submission. That directly helps us to understand what a husband’s love is all about.
    The definition that I appreciate for submission is a voluntary attitude of cooperation.

  12. 12-5-2012

    Context is what seems to be the key in your passage. How often has interpretation been divorced from a passage’s surroundings!

  13. 7-1-2013

    This grammatical approach used here also supports of passages of NT scripture like Eph 6, I Peter 5:5 and Colossians 3:18-25.

    Have you ever known anyone to support mutual submission with Romans 8:7 to defend the concept of mutual submission and even husband and wife co pastor teams? If so how would you respond?

    Please visit and like us on facebook. God has graced my wife and I to address the disappearance of man and the role of man as lover and savior (in type) of his wife, in our bi-weekly fellowship groups and are starting touch to man’s role on our website.

  14. 7-1-2013


    Looking at the context of Romans 8 (and the chapters leading up to that), I don’t really see Romans 8:7 referring to mutual submission among the church. But, like you’ve said, there are plenty of other passage that point to mutual submission.