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 allelois, 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.