“…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)
This verse is often invoked in the context of the marital relationship to teach against male headship. Rather than the wife submitting to the man, it is claimed that Paul argued for mutual submission: the wife should submit to her husband, but the husband should also submit to his wife. This principle is extended beyond the marriage relationship as well to include all Christians. Each Christian ought to submit themselves to each other.
Is that the point of this passage? Is Paul teaching that we should always yield our will to someone else’s will? I think not. While a look at the context will prove this to be so, common sense alone rules this interpretation out. Consider the following:
- It would rule out the notion of any hierarchy of authority. And yet Scripture is clear that there is a hierarchy of authority in the church (1 Corinthians 12:26; Ephesians 4:10-11). The author of Hebrews told us to “obey them that have the rule over you” (Hebrews 13:17). Paul commanded obedience many times in his letters. Was Paul contradicting himself?
- Mutual submission is impossible to practice. The concept of submission implies a conflict of wills. When wills conflict, if all parties involved decide to submit their will to the will of the other, nothing would ever get decided. Person A decides to do what person B wants, while at the same time person B decides to do what person A wants. They merely swapped opinions and find themselves in conflict again. It is a vicious circle that can only be broken when one of the parties decides not to submit his will to the other. But on the “mutual submission” interpretation, this would be wrong.
A look at the context also shows this interpretation to be flawed:
Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[a] 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. 6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. 5 Bondservants,[a] obey your earthly masters[b] with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. 9 Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master[c] and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Ephesians 5:17 – 6:9)
The passage begins with Paul’s instruction to understand the will of the Lord and be filled with the Spirit (17-18). He goes on to tell them how to be filled with the Spirit using four participial phrases (5:19-21):
- Addressing one another in psalms…
- Singing and making melody to the Lord
- Giving thanks
- Submitting to one another
Paul does not elaborate on the first three, but does do so for the fourth. Indeed, while you would not recognize this from translations, verse 22 is grammatically incomplete. It lacks a verb. It literally reads, “Wives, to your husbands as to the Lord.” The verb is inferred from verse 21: submitting. The grammatical contingency of verse 22 on verse 21 makes it clear that Paul’s discussion in Ephesians 5:22—6:9 is a practical description of how we are to submit to one another. And it becomes clear in that section that for Paul, the submission was uni-directional – not bi-directional – and to be practiced within clearly defined relationships: wives to husbands (5:22-33), children to parents (6:1-4), and servants to masters (6:5-9).
- Wives submit to their husbands (22-24)
- Children submit to parents (6:1)
- Servant to master (6:5-8)
We see a pattern in Paul’s comments on each relationship. First he describes who submits to whom, and then he describes the responsibility of the authority figure within that relationship:
- Wives submit to husbands; husbands love your wives
- Children submit to parents; fathers raise children in the discipline of Christ without provoking them to anger
- Servants submit to masters; masters treat them as brothers and do not threaten
It’s clear that the submission was unidirectional, not mutual. Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands and for husbands to love their wives. He does not tell husbands to submit to their wives. Children are to submit to their parents, not the parents to the children. If the “mutual submission” interpretation of 5:21 is correct, then parents ought to submit to their children just as much as children submit to their parents. Obviously not! It should be just as obvious, then, that Paul is not teaching mutual submission between husbands and wives. Wives submit, while husbands love. And this doesn’t mean the wife is a doormat and the man gets to act like a knuckle-dragging dictator. Male leadership, when exercised in love, is not something to be feared, but something to be desired. A man who loves his wife will always consider her thoughts and feelings.
In summary, Paul was not teaching reciprocity in submission between husband and wife, parents and children, or masters and servants, but defining the relationships in which submission is to be exhibited, who is to submit to whom in the context of those relationships, and the responsibility of the party in authority. So much for mutual submission!
Keep it in context….