There are a few things we need to understand about the Bible in order to make sure that we are clear in what is being taught. The first thing is that chapters and verses came a long time after the original text was written, so while they may (at times) be helpful guides, they can also lead you astray when putting things together. Another is to always allow the Bible to be a commentary on itself. Lastly, always take things in context.
So in order to fully comprehend everything that’s going on here, we need to take the full chapter into account as well as go into the next chapter so that we understand the meaning.
So let’s go to the text. In the beginning of Chapter 5 we see Paul exhorting the believers in the church to make sure that they imitate Christ. (Ephesians 5:1). He then walks through a list of items that he said must not even be named among believers, including immorality, impurity and covetousness (desiring something someone else has). After listing thing, he encourages all the believers to walk wise, make best use of the time, and not to be drunk with wine. At the end of this list, he tells the believers to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).
If we were to take this section on its own and be done with it, one would easily have related verse 21 with the preceding list of items the Apostle had commanded to all the believers there, and it definitely fits the list.
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 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.Ephesians 5:18-21
It even has the trinity represented– filled with the Spirit … thanks always and for everything to God the Father… submitting t one another out of reverence for Christ. So if it weren’t for the next word, Wives, we wouldn’t even be discussing the idea of mutual submission. But as it stands, I want you to keep looking at the context before the details.
A Noticeable Pattern
What we see, if we look down through the entire passage, is that there’s a pivot after saying that we all should submit to each other to listing specific human relationships, and in these, specific commands:
- Wives, submit to your own husbands (Ephesians 5:22)
- Children, obey your parents in the Lord (Ephesians 6:1)
- Bondserants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ (Ephesians 6:5)
When taken as a whole, it seems a little odd that Paul would give a blanket statement that everyone should submit to everyone else (v. 21), but then make statements about classes of people submitting or obeying a different person. Indeed, it’s almost like if he is referencing verse 21 at all, it seems that he is listing possible exceptions or clarifications.
If we take the two that aren’t related to marriage, Paul tells children to obey their parents– with no comments that parents should also submit to their children. He admonishes the fathers not to provoke their children to anger, but that is not a call to submit. He tells servants to obey their earthly masters. While there’s a call for the masters to “do the same to them” we know that Paul cannot be saying that the master should obey his servant, but to act justly and uprightly before the Lord– stop threatening because the servant’s Lord is yours as well.
Which brings us back to wives and husbands. The command is clearly for wives to obey their husband as unto the Lord. There’s no command for husbands to submit to wives. Husbands are told to love their wife like Christ loved the church, a balance just like a father not provoking his son to wrath or a master dealing justly with his servant, but not the same as husbands submit to your wives. Indeed, here would have been the perfect time to say that these scenarios should result in submission both ways, but instead of calling for this, Paul lays out three categories that he says we should have submission to someone else.
Indeed, if you read the text of Ephesians 5:22 through the end of the chapter, you will see that there is a big problem if you hold to mutual submission of the husband and wife.
Agape or self-sacrificing love does not equal submitting to someone’s will. Jesus exercised agape love towards us, but doesn’t always submit to our will in prayer. Neither did he always do what others wanted him to do while he was on this earth. And that’s where Paul is drawing our attention to in the passage, telling us that marriage of a husband and a wife is like that of Christ’s relationship to the church. The church submits to Christ, not the other way around. Christ loves the church enough to give up his life, but the church does not do the leading or the guiding, it does the following.
Christ loves the church and cares and provides for the church. The husband should love his life like his own body. I don’t know about you, but my body would love to eat more ice cream and do less exercise. The question is, who has the authority and who has to submit to whom. In both the illustrations of the body and in Christ, there is one doing the providing and care and the other doing the submission and following.
The entire passage does not teach mutual submission when it comes to husband/wife, parent/child or master/slave. It teaches the opposite, for the glory of God.
When we start to look at other portions of Scripture we find that this concept of God’s is only reinforced.
Scripture Interpreting Scripture
- Genesis 2 talks about woman being created for man because man was incomplete
- Sarah calls Abraham lord
- Numbers 30 tells us that God permitted husband/father to absolve a wife/girl of her vow or promise
- Men were permitted to divorce their wives, but women were not given the same permission
- Ruth – Men were to redeem the wife of a relative that died
- 1 Corinthians 11 – Paul instructs that the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the husband
- 1 Corinthians 14 – The wife is to ask her husband at home regarding what is said in the congregation
- Colossians 3:18 – Wives submit to your own husbands as is fitting to the Lord– no preceding command to mutually submit
- 1 Timothy 2 – Men were to lift holy hands, wives were to be quite in the church
- 1 Peter 3 – Wives were to submit even to unbelieving husbands. Husbands are to honor the wives as the weaker vessel
While we could look at each passage, what we know from the practice of the Old and New Testament times and what we read in Scripture, the most consistent application is that Ephesians 5:21 does not teach mutual submission within marriage, but in general. Believers in the congregation should seek out each other’s best interest; however, the hierarchy is not flat.
Where Paul could state in Galatians that there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, bond or free in the body of Christ, the same Paul said that there is order, as did Peter.
Paul and Peter told us to submit to our government– not that it should submit to us. They both told servants to submit to masters– read Paul’s book to Philemon, pleading for Onesimus which was Philemon’s slave. He does not say that Onesimus should be freed, but that he is now “more than a slave.” Meaning that he is now both a slave and a brother in Christ. Paul and Peter both tell wives to submit to their husbands, and they made sure the husbands didn’t treat them like property, but that they were to love and care for their wives. That was a big deal in itself.
Therefore, I do not think an honest, consistent reading of the Scripture, taken with what we see practiced at the time supports the concept of mutual submission in marriage based on Ephesians 3:21.