How do we read Ephesians 5:21 and make sense of “mutual submission”?
By Ryan Moffat
Much has been made of the complex nature of the household code passage in Ephesians 5 around the issue of “submission”. The difficulty comes when you observe that in 5:21 the command is “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” and then one verse later in the marriage passage it is only the woman who is called to “submit” while the husband is predominately called to “love his wife”. So the debate ensues; is there mutual submission and if so what does that mean? Why is Paul specific about submission in marriage, in parenting and in the master/slave relationship and how does that fit with his earlier command to “submit to one another”? These are the complexities at play in this passage. So the task is to harmonize these seemingly competing passages and sort out meaning and application of what Paul intends in in these texts.
Context of Ephesians 5:21
The starting point for understanding what is meant by this text in Ephesians 5:21to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” is by working through the context of Paul’s larger argument within the passage. This command comes within the context of Paul exhorting the church to “walk in wisdom”. He unpacks wisdom in the Church as “not being drunk with wine but be filled with the Spirit”. As Paul develops the activity of the Spirit filled life he mentions four activities of the Spirit filled person:
- Speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs
- Singing and making melody in your hearts to God
- Giving thanks to everything to God the Father
- Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ
The important thing to notice in the context of this passage is that Paul is not speaking to every relationship in every context for all time. What Paul is speaking to is a cruciform attitude (one that submits) especially in the context of corporate worship for the joy and good of our brother and sisters. It’s a far more faithful application of this text to submit our preferences of worship style than it is to say “let’s all be egalitarian with no organized leadership” because this passage comes in specific context, mainly the idea of church life together.
Within the larger themes in Ephesians we can see submission as a major end goal for Paul. Ephesians 1:22 brings cosmic proportions to this command when Paul says “all things are subject to Him (Christ)” so when we see the command to submit or be subject this is the teleological end of all things. Everything and everyone under the reign and rule submitted to King Jesus. Submission, in this sense, is inevitable.
Lastly, Ephesians 4:1-3 contains all of the synonymous language of submission that must be considered; “humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love”. What are these behaviors if not mutual submission? There can be an attitude of mutual submission while simultaneously containing an ordered hierarchy designed and instituted by God. The greater context of Ephesians does not leave this as impossibility. So it seems that Paul is advocating for an attitude of submission, service, and humility one to one another but this is not to eliminate divine hierarchies and Biblically ordered institutions.
Submission in the New Testament:
Secondly, if one takes a “mutual submission” view of Ephesians 5:21 you immediately see a command that undermines that view. Wives are called to submit to their husbands (5:22), children are called to honor their parents (which implies submission, 6:1) while servants are commanded to obey (submit) to their masters (6:5). Why would Paul command something in 5:21 only to disagree and undermine his own commandment the next paragraph?
When you go outside the texts of Ephesians the “mutual submission” view quickly disintegrates. Peter calls his readers to “be subject, for the Lords’ sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13) while Hebrews calls church members to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17). Why would there be any other instruction about who submits to whom if mutual submission IN ALL MATTERS is the Biblical principle and norm? If mutual submission is the guiding Biblical principle in all matters related to ecclesiology than I think it’s fair to say that the New Testament did a poor job clearly communicating that principle. What we see is that Ephesians and other spots in the New Testament show proper relationships and proper postures of how Biblical submission works. Submission is not about rank, value, ability or worth but it is about calling and God’s good created order. I would dissect from the New Testament commands that there should be/must be submission in marriage (wife to husband) business (employer to employee), church (member to pastor/elder) and in government (citizen to governing powers). All submission has limits but specifically in the context of Ephesians submission is another embodiment of the cruciform community and thus functions as an alternative, subversive power in a world power grabbers. Submission is the way of Jesus in a world of false powers. So in a sense the call to submit is simply a call for Christian discipleship. In the Church, no one is exempt from submission.
Jesus and Submission:
To complete a fuller understanding of submission I would like to lastly look at the life of Jesus as a model. Does Jesus submit and if so when and to whom? To understand a Biblical model of submission I believe Dr. Gerry Breshears rightly presents the “garden of Gethsemane” as a critical spot where we learn what Biblical submission looks like. Gerry notes that in the Matthew 26 we see a model and progression that is informative as we develop a Biblical model of submission. Jesus does in fact submit, that’s what the whole narrative is explaining. In prayer with His Father Jesus is wrestling so intensely that he sweats drops of blood. Jesus does three things that leave a roadmap and narrative lens to which we bring to the concept and theological idea of submission. The progression looks like this:
- Jesus brings to the Father his emotion (“He was sorrowful even to the point of death”
- Jesus bring to the Father his desire (“My father, let this cup pass from me”)
- Lastly and most importantly, Jesus brings to the Father his trust (“Nevertheless not my will but thy will be done”)
What we see in Jesus isn’t a blind trust that follows His Fathers leadership without question or wrestling but what we do see is that after the entrustment of emotions and desire what we see at the end is that Jesus gives the Father his trust. “not my will but your will be done”= I will trust.
Ephesians clearly teaches that mutual submission is to happen in certain contexts in our practice of resurrection life together. We can and should submit to one another and give preference to one another about certain kinds of things (worship style, what time our service starts, how we handle benevolence and needs in the Church, etc). These are great things where we should submit one to another and actually honor one another’s preferences. Ephesians 5 simultaneously teaches that there are to be leadership and headship in certain relational dimensions that are to be honored and submitted to. While Paul’s commands in 5:21 and 5:22 appear to be contradictory it seems to me that they actually harmonize well given the vast contexts that the Church finds itself in. The attitude of submission and humility is clearly the desired outcome of Paul but this does not negate the institutions that we live in that possess leader and follower, employer and employee, husband and wife, governing officials and citizens. Paul’s word to any and all in the new family, the Church, is to live faithfully with an attitude of ultimate submission to Christ for we know that our earthly submission is done “out of reverence for Christ”