[For a more in-depth treatment of this passage and the issues surrounding it, see Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Multnomah, 2004).]
One of the principal arguments of Egalitarians is that whatever submission exists in a marriage relationship is to be mutual, not only wives to husbands but also, and equally, husbands to wives.
This interpretation is based on a certain reading of Ephesians 5:20ff.
“giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
There are several reasons why I find this interpretation inadequate.
1. The context of Eph. 5 specifies the kind of submission Paul had in mind: wives to husbands (5:22-23), children to their parents (6:1-3), bondservants to their masters (6:5-8). These relationships are never reversed.
Ephesians 5:24 makes clear that the kind of submission wives are to exercise is like the submission of the church to Christ. The latter is not mutual submission. The church is submissive to Christ’s authority in a way that Christ cannot and never will be submissive to us.
2. We should also be aware of the absence of any command that husbands be submissive to their wives. While wives are often told to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Pt. 3:1-6), the situation is never reversed. If mutual submission were so essential to Paul’s or Peter’s or John’s view of the marital relationship, it is stunning that neither they nor any other biblical author explicitly or directly instructs husbands to submit to their wives
3. The word “submit” or “be subject to” (hypotasso) is always used for submission to an authority. e.g., Luke 2:51; 10:17; Rom. 13:1,5; 1 Cor. 15:27-28; 1 Pt. 3:22; 5:5; Eph. 5:24; Titus 2:9; 1 Pt. 2:18; Heb. 12:9; James 4:7. The submission is always one-directional.
4. No one has produced an example in ancient Greek literature where hypotasso (“submit”) is applied to a relationship between persons and it does not bear the sense of “be subject / submissive to” an authority.
5. The word translated “one another” (allelous) in Eph. 5:21 need not mean “everyone to everyone” but often means “some to others”. See, e.g., Rev. 6:4; Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 11:33; Matt. 24:10; Luke 2:15; 12:1; 24:32). In this case it would be wives to husbands, as Eph. 5:22 makes explicitly clear.
6. In other texts where wives are exhorted to be submissive to their husbands, nothing is said about submitting to one another. See Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1.
7. Even if Paul meant complete reciprocity (wives to husbands and husbands to wives), this doesn’t mean husbands and wives submit to each other in the same way. Their “mutual submission” would be expressed in ways consistent with their distinctive roles and without compromising the headship of the husband.
After reading this material I encourage both men and women, but especially the men, to go back to lessons three and four on headship and submission and carefully read them once again. It is all too easy, given our depraved proclivity for self-aggrandizement, to use the truths in the current lesson as a way of rationalizing a dictatorial and unkind and insensitive way of relating to our wives.