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10 Things You should Know about Ephesians 5 and Mutual Submission

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We’ve been looking closely at some important principles to understand when it comes to male headship and female submission. We turn today to 10 things we should know about how Paul’s appeal for mutual submission in Ephesians 5 applies to this subject. Continue reading . . . 

We’ve been looking closely at some important principles to understand when it comes to male headship and female submission. We turn today to 10 things we should know about how Paul’s appeal for mutual submission in Ephesians 5 applies to this subject. I should also point out that I was greatly helped in my understanding of Ephesians 5 by the treatment found in Wayne Grudem’s book, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Multnomah, 2004).

(1) 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, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 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. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”

(2) The context of Ephesians 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.

(3) 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.

(4) 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

(5) 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.

(6) 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.

(7) The word translated “one another” (allelous) in Ephesians 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 Ephesians 5:22 makes explicitly clear.

(8) 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.

(9) 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.

(10) Men especially must resist any temptation to use the principles of headship and submission as an excuse for self-aggrandizement. It is all too easy, given our depraved proclivity for self-assertion, pride, and arrogance, to use these truths as a way of rationalizing a dictatorial and unkind and insensitive way of relating to our wives.

5 Comments

I don;t believe anyone claims that love and submission are the same thing. But, they have to work in total harmony with each other. This whole idea of submission, while it is Scripturally correct, has been distorted and abused for quite some time. Echoes of it can be heard in the comments here. We get into debates over who is to submit as teachers and the people in the pews hear it's all about who is in control. We hear too much emphasis on who is to submit to whom and not enough on how men are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. I'm all for the structure God gave the church. I support it wholly. But Eph 5 also tells us to submit to one another out of reverence to Christ. Submission to one another, wives submitting to their husbands, husbands loving their wives...it all has to be part of our part of our teaching on how the home should function. Now, how does that impact the church. Men are clearly called to be pastors and elders. Are they in control or are the there to serve? Too much emphasis on either will cause problems. There has to be balance in control and serving just as there has to be in submission and love.

The scripture seems clear to me. Submission is not love and doesn't "sound like love" nor does it seem that there is any room for a different historical or cultural understanding

Sorry Doug, but love is not the same as submission. The structure of Ephesians 5-6 gives three specific calls to submit - wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters. And in each of the three cases, a corresponding command is given to the one submitted to - husbands are to love their wives, fathers are not to exasperate their kids but disciple and instruct, and masters are to treat the slaves well and not threaten them. These are complementary commands, but not reciprocal ones. It's not mutual submission (a meaningless concept, given the meaning of hypotasso), but it is mutual love.

I have to agree with what Doug says about loving our wives. I think Sam Storm does a nice job with his point #10. But, it's not enough to caution against the misapplication and abuse of the first nine points that has characterized much of church history. Most of us in the reformed movement get and agree with the headship-of-the-man idea. The problem, the way I see it, is that far too many interpret that as being a the-man-is-superior position where the women is more of a pet instead of a partner. Most of us who teach and preach are probably not advocating a distortion of the Scriptures. But, some of our teaching and some of the ways we practice church may be sending a different message than we intend. After years of counseling in the area of marriage. I can confidently say that many families in the church have the impression that the man is the "king" of the house. Some of our practices in the church lend credence to that idea with many churches defining a woman's role by what they can't do rather than how they can partner with us in the ministry of the gospel. As conservative evangelicals, we shy away from these issues for fear of what "might happen" if we allow women to become true partners in the gospel and operate in their areas of gifting. To me, this is nothing more than a lack of trust in God to gift appropriately according to the structure He's given the church. Structure with equality is the model we see in Scripture (and in the Trinity as well.) We can achieve that with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. I know Storm is not advocating abuse. The previous postings in this series show that to be true. I just wish there had been more emphasis on the last point.

Along with every verse that tells a wife to submit to her husband is a command for the husband to love or honor his wife. Love requires self sacrifice on behalf of the one loved, it seeks not it's own way and requires the one who loves to consider the other person more important than themselves. The result of this kind of love, according to Phil. 2:2 is relationship where the participants are "of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind." Sounds like mutual submission to me.

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