Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5:21?

S. M. Hutchens recent post about “mutual submission” in marriage got me to thinking about the interpretation of Ephesians 5. Hutchens and I are on the same page theologically when it comes to gender-roles in marriage, though my exegesis of this particular passage differs a little bit from his. Here’s my go at it.

In Ephesians 5:22-25, Paul directs wives to “submit” to their husbands, and husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church. Traditionally, this text has been understood to teach that husbands should be the leaders of their families.

A newer interpretation, however, says that the command in verse 21 shows the older view to be wrong-headed. For in verse 21, Paul says, “submit to one another in the fear of Christ.” According to this view, the “one another” clearly makes submission a mutual obligation for husbands and wives. In other words, Paul is calling for mutual submission. Husbands submit to their wives, and wives submit to their husbands. This pattern of mutual submission means that husbands are not in fact called to be the leaders of their family.

So which interpretation is right? How is the word of God teaching us to order our families? Is the husband supposed to be the leader, or does the Bible designate no leader?

I think a closer look shows that the newer interpretation has misunderstood the command “submit to one another” in two ways.

(1) The “one another” in verse 21 does not necessarily imply that submission is reciprocal. The word translated “one another” is the Greek term allÄ“lois, and its use in the New Testament often has nothing to do with reciprocal action. Here are some examples:

1 Corinthians 7:5
Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

1 Corinthians 11:33 So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.

Matthew 24:10 And at that time many will fall away and will deliver up one another and hate one another.

Luke 12:1 Under these circumstances, after so many thousands of the multitude had gathered together that they were stepping on one another,

Acts 19:38 The courts are in session . . . let them bring charges against one another.

In each one of these texts, the term “one another” is used, and it is clear that reciprocal action is not in view. One party is performing some action and another party is receiving the action. The “one anothers” in these texts would make no sense at all as reciprocal actions. I think “one another” is used in the non-reciprocal sense Ephesians 5:21 as well.

(2) The command to submit is not directed to the husbands. In the Greek text, the verb for submit appears in verse 21 but not in verse 22. Verse 22 specifies what this submission is supposed to look like: “Wives to your own husbands.” When Paul begins instructing the husbands in verse 25, he moves to a totally different verb—love. There is no specific command to the husbands to submit. Only the wives receive such instruction.

So what is the text teaching? It teaches that husbands are to love their wives self-sacrificially and that wives are to follow the leadership of their husbands. Paul says this relationship is patterned after Christ’s relationship to His church.

“The husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, . . . as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:23-25).

There is no reciprocal submission between Christ and his bride; neither is there to be such between husbands and their wives. Are there mutual obligations for husbands and wives? Yes. Is there mutual submission in the reciprocal sense? No.

33 Responses to Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5:21?

  1. russware October 6, 2009 at 10:52 am #

    As to the ‘reciprocal sense,’ the problem with this argument is that while reciprocity may not be in play in each specific instance, the clear sense is that it could be going either way in any given instance.

    So, for example, in 1 Cor. 11… it may be me waiting for you this time, but you waiting for me the next. Not because ‘you owe me one,’ but because we are both equally called to ‘wait for one another,’ the sense that we can not both do so (at least practically/concretely, though certainly in spirit) in the same instance notwithstanding.

  2. Don Johnson October 6, 2009 at 11:12 am #

    Denny,
    You fail to consider a few things.

    1. Jesus did and does submit to all believers. Being my savior is a HUGE example of Jesus serving me and I hope you see He did that for you too. He also explicitly washed the feet of the disciples, which was the position of the lowest servant in the house, in fact, a gentile slave was to do it if available in a Jewish household. This flips the cultural hierarchy, which is why it was so shocking.

    2. Eph 5:19-21 form a chiasm, with

    B4 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,

    C4 singing and praising in your heart to the Lord,

    C4′ giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God the Father,

    B4′ submitting to one another in the fear of Messiah;

    One can easily see that v. 19 pairs up with v. 21 in the chiasm and JUST as speaking psalms to one another is mutual, so is submitting.

    3. One needs to be VERY careful about making a special case of “one another” verses due to the famous ones like love one another, etc. In fact, my Greek teacher is writing a book about “one another” verses. Yes, there are a FEW examples where “one another” is not mutual, but the mutual version is far more common.

    4. Eph 5 pairs wife’s submission with a husband’s sacrificial love, not his (supposed) leadership. It is reading into the text to add leadership.

    5. Because Paul says a wife is to respect her husband, does this mean a husband is not to respect his wife? No way!

    Because Paul says a husband is to love his wife, does this mean a wife is not to love her husband? No way!

    And in exactly the same way, when Paul says a wife is to submit to her husband, does this mean a husband is not to submit to his wife? NO WAY!

    P.S. The leaders of an egal marriage are both spouses; it is NOT the case that there are no leaders, it IS the case that the spouses share leadership.

  3. Caroline October 6, 2009 at 11:51 am #

    Amen!

  4. Tom 1st October 6, 2009 at 12:06 pm #

    Well said, Don. Well said!

  5. Dan October 6, 2009 at 1:55 pm #

    I heard Bob Stein teach that vv. 19-21 are an elaboration of v. 18, telling us how to go about being filled with the Holy Spirit. His take on it was that regardless of your theology of submission, verse 21 is grammatically connected to verse 18 and thus can’t be used to interpret verse 22 one way or the other.

  6. Ryan K. October 6, 2009 at 2:39 pm #

    Don the only problem is that we have no example in Scripture of Christ being a co-leader along with the Church in their relationship.

    Eph. 5 says that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. So the question becomes how does Christ love the church? The answer is with sacrificial/servant leadership. This can be clearly seen in Jesus’ own words in which he says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).

    Jesus dies for his bride in sacrificial service in which he leads for the well being of his Bride.

    Likewise, husbands are to die in servant leadership for their wives, just as Christ gave his life for his Bride. To impose an idea of “co-leaders” is not faithful to the words of Jesus on what it means for a husband to lead his bride.

  7. Don Johnson October 6, 2009 at 2:49 pm #

    Ryan,

    You are conflating and confusing service with leadership. There are no leadership examples in Eph 5, they are all serving examples for how a husband is to serve his wife.

    1. Savior is a serving function.
    2. Cleansing the body is a serving function.

    The myth of (sole) leadership in Eph 5 in dealing with husbands needs to be rejected as adding to Scripture, which one is not to do.

    Jesus wants believers to be co-leaders with him.

    Rev 20:6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

    Eph 1:22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church,
    Eph 1:23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

    If one is a part of the BODY of Christ, then one is above the things that are under his feet.

  8. russware October 6, 2009 at 2:56 pm #

    Is the complimentarian position such that “husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church” means that the husband to wife relationship should be functionally identical to Christ and the Church in every way? That is the sense I get from these types of arguments.

  9. Ryan K. October 6, 2009 at 6:38 pm #

    No confusion at all Don:) Truth be told the Biblical model of leadership we see time and again is one of servant.

    Maybe this is part of the conflict in this debate, thinking that leadership is akin to what we see in in the corporate world and is very bossy and commanding.

    Instead the Bible gives us the ethic that leaders are always servants of the people they lead, Jesus, elders, husbands, or even OT Characters. They do not lead in order to exert their power and have their way, but instead to give themselves fully for the benefit of others.

    @ Russ, what I am saying is that when Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church the big idea is the ethic behind Jesus’ words in Mark 10:45. Paul is not calling husbands to dominant their wives but lovingly serve them, wash them in the word, and serve them in anyway that will promote growth in Godliness.

  10. Don Johnson October 6, 2009 at 8:43 pm #

    All believers are to serve, this is one of the characteristics of a believer.

    It is the curious idea that a husband is to be the sole/final leader that I find lacking in Scripture. Some people may teach that it is there, but when you actually look for it in a clear explicit statement it is not to be found. There is simply no verse that says a wife is to obey her husband or that he gets a trump card or he has 51% of the vote or he is the captain on a ship with the wife being 1st mate, etc.

  11. Sue October 7, 2009 at 2:40 am #

    I look forward to seeing other verses paraphrased and explained away in similar fashion.

    “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love some among you are to be the slaves of others among you.” Gal. 5:13.

    “Some among you are to bear the burdens of others among you, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Gal. 6:2

    “Some among you are to submit to others among you.”

    I am also interested in how you explain away Calvin’s commentary on Eph. 5:21?

    21. “Submit yourselves. God has bound us so strongly to each other, that no man ought to endeavor to avoid subjection; and where love reigns, mutual services will be rendered. I do not except even kings and governors, whose very authority is held for the service of the community. It is highly proper that all should be exhorted to be subject to each other in their turn.

    But as nothing is more irksome to the mind of man than this mutual subjection, he directs us to the fear of Christ, who alone can subdue our fierceness, that we may not refuse the yoke, and can humble our pride, that we may not be ashamed of serving our neighbors. It does not much affect the sense, whether we interpret the fear of Christ, passively, thus, — let us submit to our neighbors, because we fear Christ; or actively, — let us submit to them, because the minds of all godly persons ought to be influenced by such fear under the reign of Christ. Some Greek manuscripts read, “the fear of God.” The change may have been introduced by some person, who thought that the other phrase, the fear of Christ, though by far the most appropriate, sounded a little harsh.”

  12. Nathan October 7, 2009 at 8:57 am #

    “I am also interested in how you explain away Calvin’s commentary on Eph. 5:21?”

    And Sue, that would be because Calvin was such an Egalitarian?

  13. Sue October 7, 2009 at 11:12 am #

    That’s the ironic thing. Even though theologians historically have not been egalitarian they could at least treat scripture with honesty and recognize that the ideal was that everyone needed to submit to other human beings.

    The notion that some are slaves of others, and some submit to others, and some serve others and some carry the burdens of others, all this thinking, is not Christianity. It is rather shocking. Poor beasts of burden on the bottom – Christianity is not for you.

  14. Sue October 7, 2009 at 11:12 am #

    Anyway, I come from some of this thinking, and it is my daily task to remind myself that this is not Christianity, but a false religion.

  15. Ryan K. October 7, 2009 at 11:28 am #

    Sue I gotta say I am hesitant to engage with you and you make it rather difficult because of your tone and polemic attitude.

    Does it really do any good to accuse those who disagree with you of not being Christians but rather part of a false religion?

    I would hope we would afford more love to each other than this.

  16. Nathan October 7, 2009 at 12:12 pm #

    But you are reading Egalitarianism into Calvin and he never led the church that way, nor is there any evidence that he believed in anything other than men taking the lead.

    Simply because one can be mutually submissive to one another at a variety of levels does not insist that Ephesians is speaking about total equality in all roles in the home or the church. As someone else noted, Bob Stein believes v. 22 is not related to v. 21. I realize Stein is only one theologian, but I think many line up with that view.

  17. Don Johnson October 7, 2009 at 12:27 pm #

    How can ANYONE think that v. 22 is not related to v. 21, as v. 22 has no verb and so does not stand by itself.

    Calvin was not egal, not by a long shot and he made some other blunders also, but at least he could interpret Eph 5:21, what we are seeing today is special pleading to distort the “one another” verses, and the trajectory of this does not end up in the Kingdom.

    Grudem et al may claim that they are NOT REQUIRED to see “submit to one another” as mutual submission but rather as “some submit to others” but they do so at their peril, as this smacks of reading for personal advantage.

  18. Nathan October 7, 2009 at 2:35 pm #

    Don, I am not arguing that v. 21 does not mean mutual submission, but submission in what things? General principles have layers of specificity. The Son (Jesus) submits to the Father (God) and they are still one. Roles do not have to supercede mutual submission, but mutual submission does not override roles given to men and women.

    By the way, the subjects do change beginning in v. 22 to husband/wife relationships from general relationships. And then the subject changes in 6:1 to parent/child, boss/employee, etc., so Stein’s logic is not absurd.

  19. Nathan October 7, 2009 at 2:38 pm #

    Don, just curious. How could Calvin get v. 21 right and yet not live by your egal perspective on it. It would seem that he saw the transition of the subjects in v. 22 also, because that is the way he lived.

  20. Sue October 7, 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    Nathan,

    My comments have been misunderstood.

    If Eph. 5:21 means that overall some Christians submit to other Christians, and if Gal. 5:13 means that some Christians are the slaves of other Christians, then what does this mean about the law of Christ?

    I am asking a much deeper question than whether or not this ethic was applied to women also.

    I want to know what the basic foundation is for the commands of Christ, to love one another. What is the basis of Christianity and any treatment of others, if we believe in our heart that Christ came to make some of us the slaves of others?

    Think of this in general terms, as a Christian ethic, not specifically about women.

  21. Don Johnson October 7, 2009 at 3:19 pm #

    Nathan,

    On Calvin, he lived in the culture of his time and traditions of men can negate Scripture, as Jesus pointed out. The culture taught that women were inferior beings, so it was mostly simply unthinkable that they might be equal.

    If you look at the Transline translation, Magill outlines the verses and shows that the pericope after Eph 5:21 are all subordinate clauses to v.21, that is, all 6 examples are examples of mutual submission, the principle established in v. 21.

    As I see it, Jesus submitted his (human) will to the Father’s will (God’s will) while on earth, but this is a special case, not the general case. The general case is that the Godhead has one will, God’s will, so ideas of a hierarchy of wills are not valid, and lead to tritheism. Another way the Bible describes the Godhead is the persons are in perfect mutual submission as an expression of love.

    The idea of a role is fairly recent, it originated with the idea of what a player in a play does during the play, he acts in a role.

    role: Etymology: French rôle, literally, roll, from Old French rolle
    Date: 1605

    1 a (1) : a character assigned or assumed (2) : a socially expected behavior pattern usually determined by an individual’s status in a particular society b : a part played by an actor or singer

    2 : a function or part performed especially in a particular operation or process

    You can search the ESV and not find the word role. So whatever is taught about supposed Biblical roles are due to interpretation, not explicit plain verses.

    For example, Eph 5 is sometimes used to suggest there are roles for husband and wife, but I asked a few questions above about it.

    Since Paul says a wife is to respect her husband, do any imagine that a husband does not need to respect his wife? I claim this is obviously true and that what Paul is therefore doing is making emphases about things, not carving up roles. As a husband I can testify that being respected by my wife is very important to me, so I am glad that Paul reminded wives to do it; but I do not think I get a pass and do not need to do it also, simply because Paul did not mention it explicitly.

    And similarly for the other things Paul says in this passage.

  22. Don Johnson October 7, 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    I think Sue’s point is that if one can special case “submit to one another” as “some submit to others” what is stopping one from special casing “love one another” as “some love others”?

    Then the Animal-Farm-like transformation of the principles of the Kingdom will be transformed into nothing like the Kingdom.

  23. Nathan October 7, 2009 at 3:50 pm #

    Don,

    To say that Calvin was a man of his time is irrelevant to the discussion. If that is the case, then the egals (which is a very recent phenom) may well be a passing fad and therefore vanish in the days ahead.

    BTW nobody is arguing about loving one another or mutually submitting, but that does not leap over into egalitarianism in every task that men and women have undertaken since the dawn of time.

    I don’t see any confliction between submission and hierarchy in Ephesians.

  24. Don Johnson October 7, 2009 at 4:20 pm #

    I do not see egalism as a recent phenom, as I see Jesus, Peter and Paul, etc. as egals in their culture. They said and wrote too many things that up end the cultural assumptions of their time. So I see egalism as only increasing until the Lord returns.

    Only women can bear kids and breastfeed them and only men can impregnate women, so I do not think that EVERY potential role-task among humans can even be made the same, there are physical distinctions that must be respected. But in marriage a couple is free to structure it as best suits them and do not need to conform to any roles other than physical ones.

    I do see hierarchy in Paul discussion of masters and slaves and also with parents and kids, this is because of the explicit use of “obey” but this is not found with husband and wife. And this is significant because this is exactly what Aristotle taught, that a wife is to obey her husband; yet Paul declines to endorse this, so his silence given this cultural context shouts equality to me.

  25. Sue October 7, 2009 at 6:30 pm #

    BTW nobody is arguing about loving one another or mutually submitting

    Yes, Denny is arguing this,

    In each one of these texts, the term “one another” is used, and it is clear that reciprocal action is not in view. One party is performing some action and another party is receiving the action.

    What I am trying to say is that it reaches far beyond how women are treated. If the ethic of treating others as if they were born for submission is okay, and if a person believes that they are born for leadership and their other is born for submission, then the foundation of this religion is altered.

    If others are deprived of one of the aspects of what a man considers to be essential to his personhood, then there is no need to treat another as one would be treated.

    It is not a detail but the foundation of the religion which is redefined.

    Calvin did not consider women to be by nature the same as men. However, he had the ethic of mutuality if not the reality. But now I see that the ethic of mutuality is being disgarded.

  26. Sue October 7, 2009 at 6:43 pm #

    When Paul begins instructing the husbands in verse 25, he moves to a totally different verb—love. There is no specific command to the husbands to submit. Only the wives receive such instruction.

    So women are not to love their husbands? Or do women have to both love and submit? This seems like an extra burden on wives. They carry double the load of men.

  27. TL October 8, 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    ” In each one of these texts, the term “one another” is used, and it is clear that reciprocal action is not in view. One party is performing some action and another party is receiving the action. The “one anothers” in these texts would make no sense at all as reciprocal actions. I think “one another” is used in the non-reciprocal sense Ephesians 5:21 as well.”

    I don’t think so. While there is some merit that when one is using allelon in a general sense to a large segment of individuals it will not always mean everyone to everyone, but leaves the determination up to us in that everyone is to look to everyone and see if their help is needed. When we support one another we extend that to the one who needs the support and carry the burdens of those who need the help. In the same way, when speaking in past tense of what one has viewed happening, i.e. people fighting with one another, how else is one to express a group participation without counting heads.

    What you will NOT see, is the grouping of one anothers into blacks and white, men and women, etc. This is because if it were that specific, then the speaker would not have used allelon which is not specific. IOW if Paul had actually meant that only those in submission to those in authority were to be submissive, he really would have said that, because the word allelon erases those distinctions making it generally applicable to all.

  28. a.b.e. October 9, 2009 at 7:21 am #

    Don, Sue and TL,

    Thanks for protecting women. It is nice to see Christians that allow women to have a will of their own.

  29. Brian Krieger October 14, 2009 at 8:57 am #

    From boundless:

    I’ve learned that it’s not about unilateral decision-making, following my husband into sin or enduring abuse. As John Piper and Wayne Grudem write,

    Christ is her absolute authority, not the husband. She submits “out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). The supreme authority of Christ qualifies the authority of her husband. She should never follow her husband into sin….

    [A husband] must lead in such a way that his wife is encouraged to depend on Christ and not on himself. Practically, that rules out belittling supervision and fastidious oversight…. He is preparing her to be a “fellow heir,” not a servant girl (Romans 8:17). Any kind of leadership that, in the name of Christlike headship, tends to foster in a wife personal immaturity or spiritual weakness or insecurity through excessive control, picky supervision, or oppressive domination has missed the point of the analogy of Ephesians 5. Christ does not create that kind of wife.”

    I thought is was a great quote.

  30. Lydia October 25, 2009 at 10:21 pm #

    “No confusion at all Don:) Truth be told the Biblical model of leadership we see time and again is one of servant.”

    Then why call it leadership? Because it does communicate something different when you call it what it really is: Servant.

    And it is not as pleasant.

  31. Lydia October 25, 2009 at 10:23 pm #

    [A husband] must lead in such a way that his wife is encouraged to depend on Christ and not on himself. Practically, that rules out belittling supervision and fastidious oversight…. He is preparing her to be a “fellow heir,” not a servant girl (Romans 8:17). Any kind of leadership that, in the name of Christlike headship, tends to foster in a wife personal immaturity or spiritual weakness or insecurity through excessive control, picky supervision, or oppressive domination has missed the point of the analogy of Ephesians 5. Christ does not create that kind of wife.”

    Piper is presupposing that a wife never more spiritually mature than the husband. Is that not allowed in comp marriages?

  32. deefgee June 30, 2010 at 4:59 am #

    even if the submission is not mutual – and i don’t accept that – then what is it the wives are to submit to?
    when people speak of husbands being head of the wife, they have in view the glorified Christ.
    but the husbands are called to be like Christ when He was here on earth, when He loved His Church as a servant Who died for her. perhaps the man’s service is even more submission like than even would be suggested above.
    it is this confusion between the glorified head Jesus – and the servant head Jesus that causes all too often modern day problems for me.
    plus we all too often start at verse 22. when in reality verse 18 – verse 23 is one long sentence in the original text. it seems the overiding reality for everyone – even before we get to these verses, is that they are being continually filled with the Spirit – and in so doing these other realities follow in their own proper way.
    see The Cultural Context of Ephesians 5:18-6:0 by Gordon D. Fee online.
    best regards
    deefgee

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