Mutual Submission?

Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)

How often have I heard that the scriptures teach mutual submission in marriage, or in the church, or in the family?  And it's based upon an improper understanding of this very text.  Let's take a closer look at this verse, and at the surrounding contexts, in order to understand what the scripture means by what it says.

This verse contains the last in a list of participles describing one who is filled with the Spirit.  Verse 18 says, "Be filled with the Spirit," and then is followed by these verbal adjectives, describing a Spirit-filled individual: speaking, singing, making melody, giving thanks, and being subject.

NASB translates this last participle as an imperative, which it is not.  Verse 22 then says: "Wives to your own husbands as to the Lord." Clearly, the understood verb for this exhortation is taken from the previous sentence.  The writer then goes on to explain exactly what kind of submission he is talking about, saying, "Since man is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church."

When he talks to the husbands in verse 25, he doesn't tell them to submit themselves to their wives, but rather to sacrificially give of themselves in love to their wives, as Christ has done for the church.  Then in 6:1 he tells children to submit to (obey) their parents, but does not tell the fathers to submit to their children, but rather to serve them.  Then in verse 5 he tells the servants to submit to (obey) their masters, but does not tell the masters to submit to their slaves, but rather to serve them.  Peter uses a very similar construction for his argument in 1 Peter 2:13-3:12, including exhortations to submit also to government authorities.

It seems clear that the statement in Ephesians 5:21, describing a person who is controlled by God's Spirit, is expanded upon in 5:22-6:9. Not infrequently Paul mentions a topic, and then "goes off" on it for a little "rabbit trail".  The fact that a clear exhortation in 5:22 follows the participle in 5:21 lends itself to this kind of interpretation.  A spiritual man/woman will submit himself/herself to God-ordained authority, entrusting himself/herself to Christ.  This is very similar to Peter's exhortation to wives in 1 Peter 3:5-6.  

There is no doubt that the scriptures teach mutual service to every other member of the family of God.  In the upper room Jesus powerfully demonstrated and taught his followers to serve each other (John 13:14-15).  Paul exhorts the Galatians to use their freedom to serve each other, not to indulge in licentious behavior (5:13).

If you try to apply mutual submission in the context of 5:21 and following, you end up with the church submitting itself to Christ and Christ submitting himself to the church.  And that's not gonna happen!   There is no difference in attitude between service, what Christ does to the church, and submission, what the church does to Christ.  There is a big difference, however, in accountability and responsibility.  

Could this be any more clear?  If a husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church, he must give of himself in selfless, sacrificial service to his wife.  He cannot submit to her.  To submit to her would be to force her into the position of leadership, and that is to abdicate his responsibility and compel her to do what he is commanded to do.  But he must serve her, for that is exactly what Christ did for the church.  

It is frustrating to hear Bible "expositors" saying, from these verses, that there should be mutual submission between husband and wife in the marriage relationship.  The scriptures simply do not teach that there should be mutual submission between husbands and wives, between servants and masters, between children and parents, or between government officials and citizens.  But they do teach mutual service!

It is an important distinction to keep as one seeks to develop relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and Christians in both the workplace and public square.

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