Ephesians 5:21 – ‘…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.’
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.
According to Arnold, this is the view of Chrysostom, Best, Hoehner, MacDonald, G. W. Dawes, George W. Knight III, Lincoln, Schnackenburg, Bruce, Stott, Barth, and Ellicott. Several others are named in the following notes.
‘The importance to Paul of the whole concept of submission is evident from the use of the word more than twenty times in his letters. He is to apply this in special instances in the next section, but we should note that he first gives it a completely general application. There must be a willingness in the Christian fellowship to serve any, to learn from any, to be corrected by any, regardless of age, sex, class, or any other division.’
‘There are two possible ways to view the mutual submission taught in verse 21. One is to see it in terms of classes (groups, roles or ranks), with one another meaning that members of one group submit to members of another group in one direction only, according to the group’s function (as in military rank). The other interpretation is that it applies to interpersonal relationships among individuals, with each deferring at appropriate times to the other. This seems more in accord with the theme of verses 18–20, Spirit-filled believers ministering to one another.’
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).
But it seems to me that although Marshall has shown that all relationships between Christians should be characterised by humility, he has not demonstrated that they should be marked by reciprocal submission.
Michael Bird, in Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts (Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry),offers a fairly nuanced version of the interpretation. He maintains that
‘Ephesians 5:22–24 should be taken in light of 5:21, and 5:21 plainly states that every person can find themselves subject to another person. Paul doesn’t say “every person” should submit to “every person” in some kind of anti-hierarchical anarchy. More likely, the church of God exists in a network of relationships where submission to other persons in some office or task is necessary. When such submission happens, one is following the example of Christ, who submitted himself to God the Father.’
But, asks Bird, ‘should husbands ever submit to their wives?’ Although some complementarians (such as Grudem) find this unthinkable, 1 Cor 7:4 makes it clear that wives and husbands do not have authority over their own bodies but submit them to the authority of the other. Thisis consistent with 1 Cor 11:11, where the apostle speaks of interdependence between husbands and wives.
‘I think male headship is in a sense normative, but headship will mean bowing that head to the wife in many matters pertaining to marriage, so “mutual submission” is in fact an accurate term.’
But what about at church? Bird thinks that the mention of a male (Stephanas) and a female (Chloe) as leaders of their respective households suggests that they had a leadership role in the house-churches that met in their homes. This is clear enough in the case of Stephanas (1 Cor 16:16f), and may have been the same in the case of Chloe.
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’;
1 Cor 11:33, where Paul exhorts his readers to ‘wait for one another’;
Mt 24:10, where people are said to ‘betray one another’;
Lk 12:1, where people ‘trample 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.
Beth Allison Barr (The Making of Biblical Womahood) faults the ESV for introducing a section break between verses 20 and 21. This has the effect, she says, of muting Paul’s teaching on mutual submission, and is motivated by the complementarian bias of translators. But what Barr fails to note is that the word translated ‘submit’ in verse 20 is the last in a series of five participles and is therefore as strongly linked to what immediately precedes is as to what follows it. (In truth, there probably shouldn’t be a section break here at all!)
Tom Nettles points to the illogical and unbiblical implications of Barr’s reading:
‘Why has Paul gone into such detail about the duties fitting in these various relationships if in the end they are rendered plastic by their connection with verse 21? Paul should have said “Wives submit to your husbands” and also “Husbands submit to your wives.” He should have written, “Children, obey your parents and bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” and “Parents, obey your children.” He should have commanded, “Masters, obey your earthly slaves with a sincere heart as you would Christ.” But he did not: he explained in detail, even given the connection of 21 with 22 rather than a summary of 15-20, how God expects the relations of persons and various states in the church to relate to one another.’
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’!
In What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women, Kevin Giles asserts that ‘the vast majority of commentators accept that verse 21 is an exhortation to mutual submission,’ and that the Interpretation of Grudem and the Kostenbergers is ‘idiosyncratic’, determined by its proponents’ presuppositions about complementarianism. Giles dismisses the Kostenbergers’ appeal to Rev 6:4 (where opposing armies are said to ‘slay one another’, when, clearly, ‘these people don’t kill each other at exactly the same time’) as ‘not serious scholarship’.
Giles cites Philip Payne in support of the view that ‘every occurrence of the Greek reciprocal pronoun allēlōn/one another in Paul’s epistles speaks of reciprocal action.’
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
According to Arnold, this is the view of O’Brien, Grudem, Clark and Robinson.
Thielman adds the names of Theodoret (5th century), Ellicott, Hoehner, and Walden.
Also Poole: ‘Submitting yourselves one to another, viz. to those to whom ye ought to be subject in natural, civil, or church relations.’
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.’
Surveying the same kinds of NT evidence as adduced by Grudem, DeYoung concludes:
‘Nowhere in the New Testament does hypotasso refer to the reciprocal virtues of patience, kindness, and humility. It is always for one party or person or thing lining up under the authority of another.’
Andreas and Margaret Kostenberger (God’s Design for Man and Woman) note 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.’
Arnold finds four problems with this view:
(1) It fails to recognize that this participle is dependent on the main verb of this section, “be filled with the Spirit,” which is addressed to all believers;
(2) it also fails to recognize how this admonition provides a fitting conclusion to the previous section by calling all believers to the radical form of self-denial and love that Christ has modeled for the church;
(3) it unduly restricts the unqualified reciprocal pronoun (ἀλλήλοις) to members of the household addressed in the next section; and
(4) it does not take into account that the primary verbal element in the household code shifts from “submit” (ὑποτάσσω) to “obey” (ὑπακούω) when Paul moves his focus away from wives to children and slaves.
3. Still others think that what is being taught here is the idea (prevalent elsewhere in the NT) of ruling and serving
Lincoln, in his nuanced discussion of this text, argues against an either/or interpretation. The author prescribes both mutual submission and the subjection of wives to husband, slaves to masters, and children to parents. There is, writes Lincoln, an interesting parallel in 1 Pet 5:5,
‘where the exhortation “you that are younger be subject to the elders” is followed immediately by the further appeal “clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another.” The latter admonition was not meant to cancel out the former. Rather, the writer holds that there is a general sense in which elders are to serve their flock, including its younger element, in a submissive attitude, but that mutuality goes along with a hierarchical view of roles. Thus there is a specific sense in which the flock in general and the younger in particular are to be obedient to the elders. Similarly, here in Ephesians mutual submission coexists with a hierarchy of roles within the household. Believers should not insist on getting their own way, so there is a general sense in which husbands are to have a submissive attitude to wives, putting their wives’ interests before their own, and similarly parents to children and masters to slaves. But this does not eliminate the more specific roles in which wives are to submit to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters.’
This idea of ruling and serving is captured by Calvin:
‘God has bound us together in such a way that none of us should reject submission. Where love reigns, this spirit of service is mutual. Even kings and governors rule as servants.… However, since there is nothing more opposed to the human spirit than the desire to submit to others, Paul calls us to it by reminding us of the reverence we owe to Christ. He is the only one who can tame our rebelliousness and subdue our pride, so that we shall be willing to serve our neighbors.’
Hodge sees the principle of mutual submission in this passage:
‘This command to submit one to another is found in other passages of the New Testament, as in 1 Peter 5:5, “All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility.” Romans 12:10; Philippians 2:3. The scriptural doctrine on this subject is that men are not isolated individuals, each one independent of all others. No man liveth for himself and no man dieth for himself. The essential equality of men and their mutual dependence lay the foundation for the obligation of mutual subjection. The apostle however is here speaking of the duties of Christians. It is, therefore, the Christian duty of mutual submission of which this passage treats. It not only forbids pride and all assumption of superiority, but enjoins mutual subjection, the subjection of a part to the whole, and of each one to those of his fellow believers with whom he is specially connected. Every Christian is responsible for his faith and conduct to his brethren in the Lord, because he constitutes with them one body having a common faith and a common life. The independency of one Christian of all others, or of one Christian society of all similar societies, is inconsistent with the relation in which believers stand to each other, and with the express commands of Scripture.
‘The general duty of mutual submission includes the specific duty of wives to be subject to their husbands, and this leads the apostle to speak of the relative duties of husbands and wives.’
Hays (cited by Arnold) puts it like this:
‘The hierarchical structure of the relations described is tempered by a comprehensive vision of the church as a people living in humility and mutual submission.’
Thielman, while thinking that there is much to be said for the second view outlined above, also favours this third view. He begins by explain that
‘The verb ὑποτάσσω refers to the ordering of something underneath something else, and when the passive voice of the verb is used of people (as it is here), it often refers to the voluntary “submission” of one person to another (BDAG 1042). People should place their minds underneath God’s authority (but often do not do this; Rom. 8:7; cf. 10:3); people should place themselves under the divinely ordained governmental authorities (Rom. 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1); the Corinthian church should submit to the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:16); wives should, similarly, submit themselves to their husbands (Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5), and slaves should do the same with respect to their masters (Titus 2:9).’
Thielman continues by agreeing that
‘there is a sense in which even those in authority “submit” to their subordinates. If Paul, who considered himself to be an authoritative apostle, could speak of becoming a slave (δουλόω, douloō) to all (1 Cor. 9:19), and could command all the Galatian Christians to “serve as each other’s slave [δουλεύετε ἀλλήλοις, douleuete allēlois] through love” (Gal. 5:13), then he could also speak both of “submitting to one another” and of exercising authority without contradiction (Jerome [Heine 2002]: 231). “Even kings and governors,” says Calvin (1965: 204), “rule that they may serve.” In the household code that follows 5:21, then, there is a sense in which husbands, fathers, and masters submit to those over whom they have authority, although the terms ὑποτάσσω or ὑπακούω (hypakouō) are not used of their responsibilities. Although the head of the household retains his position of authority, his use of that authority is tempered by an attitude of service to those over whom he has been placed (cf. Eadie 1883: 407; Bruce 1984: 382; Lincoln 1990: 366; Best 1998: 516–17; Helton 2005: 33–41).’
‘Paul’s use of the notion of reciprocity so far in Ephesians leads the letter’s readers to understand the pronoun here in a fully reciprocal sense. The letter has just spoken of bearing with “each other” (4:2), being members of “one another” (4:25), and being kind to “one another” (4:32), using ἀλλήλων in each case to refer to expectations of all believers. To hear now of “submitting to one another” might seem slightly strange, but it does hint that there is a sense in which everyone is involved in serving others.’
Thielman cites 1 Cor 16:15f as somewhat parallel:
‘There Paul says that the members of Stephanas’s household in Corinth “placed themselves at the service of the saints” (εἰς διακονίαν τοῖς ἁγίοις ἔταξαν ἑαυτούς, eis diakonian tois hagiois etaxan heautous). He then urges the Corinthian believers generally to “submit [ὑποτάσσησθε, hypotassēsthe] to such people.”’
The mutuality of submission, observes Thielman, is not the same in every case. For,