Mutual Submission Explained - Ephesians 5:21
In Pauls letter to the Ephesians (5:21) he commands the Christians there to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” The term “subject” is a word we are all too familiar with; hypotasso. This is the same word we see in the very next verse concerning wives toward their husbands and it’s the same word in Romans 13:1 for citizens under a governing body.
This idea (often referred to as mutual submission) is not without controversy. It is either challenged or misinterpreted by Christians, bot to fit a particular agenda. Today I hope to show that mutual submission is not only Biblical and therefore good but also how it plays out and why it’s so important.
The reason I want to deal with this particular issue within our series on Romans is actually to help augment our understanding of the value of submission. Peter tells us that we are to submit to "every human institution." The Apostle Paul speaks of submitting to "governing authorities” among other things but why? Because each of these serves the much greater purpose of showing the world true hope! When Peter tells us to "be ready to give a defense for the hope that we have" his instruction is firmly rooted within the context of a life lived in submission to authority (1 Peter 3:13-16). He is not giving us an isolated teaching about defending doctrine or theology. Instead, we are to show people why we live the way we live. We have hope because no matter what is happening in our lives, we believe that God is on His throne.
At the outset, (as a kind of disclaimer) I want to stress that mutual submission does not imply an abandoning of leadership within Scripture. Some have asserted that to advocate for mutual submission that is "everyone to everyone" is a move necessarily towards liberalism (and more specifically egalitarianism.) But this is only true if the person advocating mutual submission is also denying any leadership hierarchy in the Scripture. In other words, to believe in mutual submission without leadership order is clearly a move towards egalitarianism. But to hold that both are true is, in fact, the biblical model.
So where do we begin? The same place I always begin: CONTEXT! The context of chapter 5 up to this point is rooted in Chapter 4 verses 30 and 32 in which the Apostle Paul tells the Ephesians not to "grieve the Holy Spirit." But how would we grieve the Holy Spirit? Paul goes on to say that this happens through bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and slander.
According to Paul we must put these actions away. As a good pastor, the Apostle Paul doesn't just point out the problem he also provides a solution. His solution is far more than simply saying, "put it away." He goes into detail by saying that we are to be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other. Note the phrase in verse 32; "be kind one to another." This phrase is the same as 5:21.
Wayne Grudem who is a valuable and respected scholar and brother in Christ wrote an article titled, "The Myth of Mutual Submission" in it he says that the phrase “one to another” should be translated "some to others.” But as we've seen from chapter 4, there is an obvious problem with this idea. Simply put, it would render chapter 4:32 to say that Christians should "be kind some to others." This is utter nonsense!
Grudem goes on to make his case by using obscure passages scattered throughout the Scripture but all he needs to do is look within the book of Ephesians. The Apostle Paul (within a mere 20 verses) helps us to understand the words he is using. Ephesians chapter 5:21 means what it clearly says. "Be subject 'everyone to everyone' in fear of Christ" just as we know chapter 4:32 to mean that we are to "be kind 'everyone to everyone.'"
Mr. Grudem is one that fears a slide toward liberalism. But we don’t have to reinterpret the scripture to prevent this from happening. We just need to keep reading the Scripture. You see what Paul goes on to say from chapter 4 through the end of chapter 6 sets it all straight.
In chapter 5:1-21, Paul makes an often missed, but significant case that we are not to look like the rest of the world (v. 8). Instead of our former narcissistic selves, we are to walk in newness of life to reflect the glory of God rather than fall short of it.
Paul first exhorts us to “walk in love.” Then in verse 3, he shows what we are to avoid: “immorality, impurity, and greed.” Paul says that these things “shouldn't even be named” among God's people. He continues by calling out “filthiness, silly talk, and coarse jesting,” all of which are “not fitting” for God's people (v. 4). Again he provides solutions and not just criticism when he calls the people to thanks-giving. It is important to note that gratitude toward God is an antidote to filthy talk and a destructive tongue.
Following this, Paul presents a stark warning: People who practice such wicked things will not inherit the kingdom of God (v. 5). Paul even anticipates 21st-century objections when he warns against those “deceivers” who attempt to downplay both sin and Holiness within the church. He says that the wrath of God is waiting. (v. 6)
Paul continues as he calls the Ephesians to leave that former life behind and walk as children of the light (v. 8-11). The fruit of this, Paul says, is “goodness, righteousness, and truth.” I love that this new way of living is said to be our way of "learning how to please God." (v. 10)…
What comes next is unheeded as well in the church today. Paul says, 'do not participate in the old life, that life of darkness, but rather expose it. And don't even talk about what that life consisted of.' (v. 11-12)
Just a couple quick observations here: 1. All too often, I hear Christians talking about their former way of life with pride or a tone of fondness. I listen to people who talk about their infidelity or their promiscuous past, and they never seem to talk about it with a repentant heart. 2. Paul says we're not even to "speak about the things which are done in secret" and yet far too often Christians are willing to watch it on television. Do we think that Paul's instruction not to even talk about such wickedness does not extend to the very things that we take in through our eyes? True Christians care about Holiness. Given Mercy, we're commanded to live fully surrendered lives. We should take this very seriously.
So Paul continues to teach this church (an assembly of men, women, children, husband's, wives, masters, slaves, officials, and citizens, even elders in congregants) that they are to be nothing like the rest of the world. But you might be asking the question, 'what does this have to do with mutual submission?' Well, in his final instruction among those listed in verses 15 through 20, which I do not have time to go into is precisely where we started, "be subject to one another in fear of Christ."
What does it mean not to look like the rest of the world? Of course, we're not to live in sin, but the context also includes mutual submission. It means that we don't Lord it over each other as the Gentiles do. It means that we don't believe our place to be of special rank or superiority but instead of an opportunity to serve the most high God who bought us at a price. To be holy (altogether set apart), is to be a people who submit one to another.
So we've made the case that mutual submission is biblical. We've also made the case that there is a hierarchy inside of God's kingdom. So what's the issue? Well, quite simply, it's not an issue of whether we are to submit to one another but rather how submission plays out in each life and what that submission says about us as God's people!
In chapter 5:22, Paul doesn't take a break from his former train of thought. He doesn't espouse some independent set of ideas or doctrines on how wives should live in the house and husbands and fathers and children. Instead, in accord with the rest of Ephesians 5 and Genesis 3, he's setting out the guidelines for mutual submission, what it looks like, and what it means in the larger view of Redemptive history. Paul is actually answering issues concerning the curse.
Now I told you that some either challenge or misinterpret this command. Here’s a few of those challenges: Some will say 'but Paul expressly calls wives to submit. While he never calls husbands to do the same.' Their argument goes even further still when they rightly show the God's word never uses the phrase 'husbands submit to wives.' Lastly, they argue that the order of submission is never reversed. So what do we say to these challenges?
1. In light of Ephesians 4:32, Ephesians 5:21 clearly says 'everyone submits to everyone?' If a person disagrees the burden of proof falls on them, and they can't make their case from the text. However, we still have to show how each party is called to submission and what that looks like within each context. (E.g. We can submit to one another in a general Christian sense, honoring one another as more important than ourselves. But wives are said to submit to their OWN husbands. Also note, scripture doesn't say women are subject to men but rather wives to husbands.) All of this is submission, but it plays out in different ways. So 1. The context supports mutual submission.
2. Mutual submission exists even though the word "hypotasso" doesn't appear in each individual case. In chapter 6:1 and 6:5 children and servants are told to obey, but interestingly enough they are not told to "hypotasso" they are told a derivation of the word which is "hypa-coo-o" (to listen). Are we to infer here that because "hypotasso" is not present (like it's not present for husband's) that a child shouldn't submit to their father? Of course not. So 1. The context proves the case and 2. The absence of a term doesn't prove anything. (e.g. Trinity)
3. Some will say that leadership order is never reversed in Scripture. What they mean is that Mutual submission cannot be possible because Scripture tells a master and a Slave how there to respond to one another or children to parents or Humanity to Jesus and Jesus to God, but none of those circumstances are ever in reverse order? This simply isn’t true.
After Paul states that Christians are to "be subject one to another in the fear of Christ," he goes on to explain what submission looks like in each particular context. In 6:1 he tells children to obey their parents in the Lord for this is right. We understand that they are to live in obedience to their parents as a way of mutual submission. However, he then says to fathers that they are not to provoke their children to anger. This is a form of coming under.
Some will say that if this is submission, it's submission to God and not submission to their children. And although I agree, the next instruction will help us to see that it’s actually both.
Slaves are to be obedient to those who are their masters according to the flesh. But look what he goes on to say in verse 7, "with good will, render service as to the Lord." As to the Lord? Yes, because when we obey God's word toward other people, mutual submission, we are living in proper submission to God. Make no mistake this is submission to both.
But now for the big reversal. Immediately after Paul says to slaves, "be obedient to those who are your Masters according to the flesh with fear and trembling in the sincerity of your heart as you would to Christ." In verse 9 he says, "and Masters 'do the same things to them' and give up threatening knowing that both their master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him." Did you hear that? “ Do the same things to them.” The content of "do the same things" was found in Verses 5 through 8. Slaves submit to your Masters, and Masters submit to your slaves. The slave is to be obedient, and the master is not to be harsh. Make no mistake it's mutual submission and yet there is an order.
If the image in Ephesians 6 doesn't convince you, let me give you the words of Jesus in Matthew 20:25-28. When James and John sent their mom to ask Jesus to put them into places of prestige or honor or authority Jesus responds with these words, "you know that the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you..." (NOTICE there is still an order) "...shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave." Now, look at what Jesus says next, "Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many." Based on the context, Jesus just declared Himself (LORD OF ALL) to be a slave. He came to serve US not to be served by us. Anyone who concludes that the order is not reversed in submission doesn't understand what is meant by submission.
If we say that the order is to be reversed in which the wife becomes the head of the household, the Bible does not agree. But if we are saying that as the head of the household, the husband is to submit himself to his wife by loving her and willingly laying down his life for her, then there is no way around it! Mutual submission is a Biblical matter. And husbands remember Jesus was your model.
Here's where the story gets exciting. We’ve looked at challenges and misinterpretations. We’ve also seen how submission plays out in unique ways. But now we soon out to the BIG picture. The instruction that the Apostle Paul gives to each people group listed in Ephesians 5 and 6 is a direct response to the curse found in Genesis 3.
What God Said to the woman was this "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth in pain you will bring forth children," and this is the critical line "yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (v. 16) If you read that without context, you might think that the curse was pain in childbirth and the ruling of a husband over a wife. But that is not what the words actually say. The ESV translates this statement as follows, "your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you." What the curse shows about the woman is that she will have pain in childbirth and that she will try to usurp her husband's authority. Just in case you don't like the ESV translation, we can look to the text of Genesis 4 to find the same wording communicating this exact point. In Chapter 4:7-8, God is speaking to Cain, and he says, "if you do well will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door," look at it here "and its desire is for you, but you must Master it." Its desire is for you? It's the same phrase used in Genesis 3 About Eve, "its desire is for you," and "your desire is for your husband." That is not saying that she will desire him. It is saying just as sin seeks to control, so will you. The Scripture says we must master sin and that the husband should rule over the wife.
What's the point? Well, what does Ephesians 6 specifically say to the wife? "Wives submit to your husbands." Do you remember at the beginning of the message I told you that we are not to look like the rest of the world? You see the rest of the world lives under the curse. They are still under the weight of sin and death. But we have been bought at a price. We were formerly children of darkness, and now we are children of light. We once walked in all of those ways that are unfit for the kingdom of God, and now we walk to the glory of God not even speaking of the things that were formerly done. We no longer live in a contentious way towards one another, but instead, we walk in newness of life. The woman doesn't war against her husband but instead submits to him!
Take God's instruction to Adam in verses 17-19. He says "because you have listened to the voice of your wife and had eaten from the tree about which I commanded you saying you shall not eat from it cursed is the ground because of you in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face, you will eat bread, till you return to the ground. Because from it, you were taken, for you are dust and to dust, you shall return." Where do men spend their strength? Proverbs indicates that men spend their strength on women. This has clear promiscuous connotations. But men throughout human history have spent their strength on their work and their own agendas, on loving themselves. What, therefore, is the instruction given to men in Ephesians 5? "Love your, wives." Give your strength to them. Lay down your life for them.
In the garden, the scriptures tell us that as Eve took the fruit, and she gave it to her husband, "who was with her." Adam should have done his job. He should have slain the dragon and won the girl. But he didn't! And in light of that, he is cursed. But to be unlike the rest of the world, men are to do what nobody in first-century times would have done, love their wives and be willing to lay down their life for her.
How does the creation order speak to fathers and children? (Malachi 4:6) The scriptures tell us that after Pentecost, one of the great signs of God Spirit dwelling in men is that the hearts of the fathers and the children will be turned back to one another. Can you not see in Ephesians 6 that fathers are not to provoke their children to anger and that their children are to be obedient to them and that this is a reversal of the curse? Paul knows this!
The story of God's Redemption continues to unfold when we see slaves and Masters submitting one to another because their master who is in heaven is God, and he shows no partiality. God's word says that in Christ, there is neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither Gentile nor Jew. This does not mean that there are no clear distinctions in God's eyes but rather that he loves all. In the kingdom of God, we are all one in Him. (Galatians 3:28)
Mutual submission is not only Biblical, it is a direct affront to the curse. It is a sign of hope for the world. So much so that they would ask us about that hope. Our response is a reasoned defense of why we submit one to another in the fear of Christ! Jesus is on the throne! What have we to fear?
Let us close by looking at Ephesians 6:10-18. Paul says, "finally be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the full armor of God so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil." Based on the context, what do you think the scheme of the devil is? Not only does he want to convince us to look just like the world (living in unrighteousness), but it is also living in division against one another, continually trying to Lord it over one another.
Paul goes on to say "for our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the Heavenly places." In other words, our battle is not a husband against his wife. It is not father against child or slave against master, but rather against the spiritual deceiver who is continually trying to disrupt the unity that is found only in Christ Jesus. A Unity of mutual submission out of fear of God.
And then Paul's classic instruction about the armor of God. Paul says to "stand firm; therefore, having girded your loins with truth," What is this truth? That we no longer live as the world does. We are not a part of the curse. We live contrary to that story! He continues, "having put on the breastplate of righteousness," What a great thing to know that the heart of man is protected through faith by the righteousness given him at the cross. "And having shod your feet with the preparation of the Gospel of peace in addition to all taking up the shield of faith with which you are able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one." The first piece to note is the Gospel is one of peace, not dissension. The second is to understand that the shield of faith is able to extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. When the devil says men, you should tell everybody who's boss. Your response is
'I will lead my house like Christ. I will do so in the love and admonition of the Lord. I will lay down my life for those who are in my charge. I will not provoke my children to anger, but I will obey my God, who is in heaven.'
When the devil says to the women, 'you should take control, he's lazy.' Your response is
'I will submit to my husband because I know that my God is in control. And even if he lacks understanding, I can win him over with my reverence to God.'
What is faith? Not only is it the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. But it is 'trust.' The shield of faith is a shield of trusting God. A shield that prevents the enemies lies from getting to you. Just as we saw Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil and told lies, Jesus responded with a faith trusting what God truly said.
Paul then talks about the helmet of salvation Salvation renewing our minds and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God. Our only offensive weapon is the word of God. The very word that says submit everyone one to another. The same word that teaches that God is the head of Christ, and Christ is the head of man and man is the head of woman. The same Scripture which teaches us what is true and right in God's sight. The same scripture that teaches us the Gospel!
Lastly, Paul instructs the Church of Ephesus to "pray at all times in the spirit and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints." What is the context that informs this prayer? That we look nothing like the world and that we live lives in mutual submission to one another completely unlike those around us.
So why does all of this matter? Why take a Sunday off from a series in Romans to talk about Mutual submission? Because as we read through passages that tell us to submit to governing authorities and every Human Institution, we begin to realize that as we do that and we trust in God our savior who is on the throne reigning and ruling in sovereignty over all things we know that we are safe. That we have hope. And that that hope is what the world needs to see.