What does it mean to ‘submit to one another’?
1. Some think that it means that everyone is to submit to everyone else. Wives to husbands, husbands to wives, children to parents, parents to children, and so on. In this case, ‘to submit’ would have to mean, ‘care for one another and put one another’s needs first.’ It is claimed that this is the clear meaning of the text itself.
Christians for Biblical Equality state that ‘the Bible teaches that husbands and wives are heirs together of the grace of life and that they are bound together in a relationship of mutual submission and responsibility (1 Cor 7:3–5; Eph 5:21; 1 Peter 3:1–7; Gen 21:12). The husband’s function as “head” (kephale) is to be understood as self-giving love and service within this relationship of mutual submission (Eph 5:21–33; Col 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7).’
Muddiman notes the lack of the verb hypotassomenoi (“to submit”) in Eph 5:22, and points to 1 Corinthians 7:4, which states that neither a husband nor a wife has authority over their own bodies; instead, the authority of one spouse’s body belongs to the other spouse.
I.H. Marshall cites a number of examples of reciprocal submission: ‘The key passage in Paul is Galatians 5:13, where believers are to be slaves to one another (even stronger than “being submissive”!) in love. Similarly, in Philippians 2:3–4 they are to consider others better than themselves and to look to the interests of others (cf. Rom 12:10). If this is to be true of Christian relationships in general, it must surely include the marriage relationship. In John 13:14 the disciples are to wash one another’s feet, and Jesus as Lord sets an example by doing this to his disciples. The collocation of a command to the younger to be submissive to the older members/elders with a command that all are to put on humility toward one another in 1 Peter 5:5 indicates that it was possible to combine the general and the specific and offers a parallel to what is done here’ (Discovering Biblical Equality).
Marshall has shown that all relationships between Christians should be characterised by humility, but not that they should be marked by reciprocal submission.
This approach implies ‘servant leadership’ – the notion that even those who are in authority should submit to those under that authority. This interpretation is supported by Paul’s description of himself as becoming a slave to all, 1 Cor 9:19, and his instruction to the Galatian Christians to ‘serve as each other’s slave through love’, Gal:13. Thielman quotes Calvin: ‘Even kings and governors rule that they may serve.’ Although husbands, parents, and others retain their authority, they exercise it with an attitude of service over those over whom they have been placed.
Although this concept of ‘servant leadership’ embodies a clear scriptural principle, it is less clear that it adequately represents Paul’s meaning here.
It would, moreover, make Paul inconsistent with himself when he proceeds to talk specifically about wives’ subjection to husbands, but not the converse. Grudem remarks that the idea that a wife should submit to her husband would have been so unexpected in the male-dominated culture of the time, that the NT writers could have been expected to say it very clearly, if that is what they meant.
The term ‘one another’ (allēlous) certainly can sometimes mean ‘everyone to everyone else’, as in Jn 13:34. But there are other times when does not carry such an unrestricted meaning. See, for example, Rev 6:4, which speaks of men slaying ‘one another’, and 1 Cor 11:33, where Paul exhorts his readers to ‘wait for one another’. Accordingly, Grudem paraphrases the present verse as follows: ‘Be subject to others in the church who are in positions of authority over you.
According to Derek and Dianna Tidball (The Message of Women), the word translated ‘submit’ was originally a hierarchical term but in time broadened its meaning and did not necessarily include the idea of obedience, still less inferiority. They note that Paul deliberately avoids the word ‘obey’ here, though he will go on to use that word of children and slaves. The Tidballs are correct (I think) to state that ‘one can obey without submitting’, since the latter involves an attitude of heart of mind that may be absent in the former. But they are less persuasive when they imply that one can submit without obeying (having already allowed only that it did not ‘immediately carry with it’ that thought).
To the Tidballs, the idea that ‘one another’ in v21 applies only to the wife submitting to the husband, and not vice-versa, is ‘indefensible for several reasons’. They note that mutual submission (or something like it) is taught in Gal 5:13; Phil 2:3f; Eph 42, 32; 5:1. What they do not note is the asymmetry of the present passage (in which Paul might easily have addressed both husbands and wives, but only directly instructs the latter to ‘submit’ to their husbands).
The Tidballs’ argument seems inconsistent when they quote Arnold (favourably) on v24: ‘This means that a wife should cultivate an attitude of affirming, supporting and respecting her husband’s leadership in the marriage without holding back certain areas where she wants to assert or maintain control.’ And no complementarian would demure when they add: ‘But…this is not a licence for the husband to demand obedience, to require that the wife act sinfully or submit to abuse.’
The Tidballs write that ‘when women in the Christian household submit to their husbands they might expect to be met with a reciprocal submission, patterned on Christ himself, rather than an arrogant authoritarianism which has been moulded by the non-Christian values of their culture.’ But ‘arrogant authoritarianism’ is not the only alternative to ‘reciprocal submission’!
Claire Smith writes that ‘there are several problems with this ‘mutual submission’ idea, not least of which is that the plain meaning of the subsequent verses goes against it: Christ does not submit to the church, neither are parents to submit to their children or masters to their slaves (cf. Eph 6:1-7; Col 3:18-22). These are non-reversible ordered relationships, as is the marriage relationship. Certainly, selfless love is a common mark of being filled by the Spirit (cf. Eph 4:2-3), but it exists alongside of (not to the exclusion of) responsibilities of submission and authority in specific relationships. Besides, nowhere are husbands told to submit to their wives, and submission language (hupotassō/hupotagē) is uniformly used in the New Testament for asymmetrical relationships.’ (God’s Good Design)
Grudem (in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood) agrees that there is a sense in which mutual submission is a scriptural principle. This sense is captured well by Campus Crusade for Christ:
‘In a marriage lived according to these truths, the love between husband and wife will show itself in listening to each other’s viewpoints, valuing each other’s gifts, wisdom, and desires, honoring one another in public and in private, and always seeking to bring benefit, not harm, to one another.’
But, because of the meaning invested in ‘mutual submission’ by egalitarians, the phrase is (suggests Grudem) best avoided.
2. Others think that Paul’s instruction here is defined and clarified by the examples that follow. Grudem, for example (in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood), points out that in those examples, wives are instructed to submit to their husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters, and never the reverse. There is never any command for husbands to be subject to their wives. This is also the case in Eph. 5:22–24; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1–6. Grudem notes that in all the following instances where the Greek word hypotassō is used, it contains the notion of ‘submission to authority’:-
• Jesus was subject to the authority of His parents (Luke 2:51).
• Demons were “subject to” the disciples (Luke 10:17; it is clear that the meaning “be considerate of, be thoughtful toward” cannot fit here, for the demons were certainly not considerate of or thoughtful toward the disciples!).
• Citizens are to be “subject to” the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1, 5; see also Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13).
• The universe is “in subjection” to Christ (1 Cor. 15:27; see also Eph. 1:22).
• Angels and other spiritual beings have been “subjected to” Christ (1 Pet. 3:22).
• Christ is “subjected to” God the Father (1 Cor. 15:28).
• Church members are to be “subject to” the elders in the church (1 Pet. 5:5).
• Wives are told to “submit to” their husbands (Eph. 5:22, 24; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:5).
• The church “submits to” Christ (Eph. 5:24).
• Servants are to be “submissive to” their masters (Titus 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18).
• Christians are to be “subject to” God (Heb. 12:9; Jas. 4:7).
Grudem concludes that Paul’s meaning is, ‘Be subject to others in the church who are in positions of authority over you.’
Andreas and Margaret Kostenberger (God’s Design for Man and Woman) notes that ‘mutual submission in the sense of interchangeability of roles…doesn’t work in the larger context of Ephesians 5: 21, where Paul moves from wives to children to slaves, calling each group to submit to its respective authorities.’
It is likely (the Kostenbergers add) that ‘Paul first sets down the overarching principle— submission to authority— and then specifies that in each of the three types of relationship he adduces, one group should submit to the authority of the other: wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters.’