Submit to each other?

 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.Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” [Eph5:21-29]

Man and woman arm wrestling © Stokkete | Dreamstime.comOne of the first arguments against husband as head of the family is taken from the start of the passage above, which tells us to “submit to one another”. The suggestion of some is the verse is saying every Christian should submit to every other Christian, and thus husbands and wives are to submit to each other – mutual submission. The easiest way to cast doubt on this is to point out that the same Greek word is used in Rev 6:4 where we read, “that they should kill one another”. Clearly every person cannot kill every other person! Likewise, how can everyone submit to everyone? If we all follow each other, the best we can do it walk in a circle!

Beyond this, if we read forward a few more verses, we find Paul telling children to submit to their parents, and slaves(see note below) to submit to their masters. If Eph 5:21 applies to marriages, it must also apply to the other two relationships. If husbands are to submit to their wives, then parents are to submit to their children, and masters to their slaves. The answer I when I ask this is that the chapter change means that children and slaves are a new discussion. The problem with this is chapters did not exist in the original text.

I’ve also been told we are to be like Jesus and God, and that God did not rule over Jesus; Jesus was in full agreement with God on everything. My answer to this is the garden of Gethsemin. Jesus asked to not go to the cross, but said “not what I will, but what you will.” Seems very clear to me that Jesus didn’t want to do it, but choose to submit to God.

My bigger problem with this is husbands and wives are not called to imitate God and Jesus; we are told to imitate Jesus and the church. This takes us back to the passage at the top, where we are told wives should submit to their husbands as the church submits to the Jesus. I see this as another argument against mutual submission; while I have seen those who want Jesus to submit to their will, I don’t find it a biblical concept. We submit to Him, He is our head – nothing mutual about it!

Bottom line for me: God called husbands to be head, and wives to submit to his headship. If I accept that as truth, my next task is to understand what headship and submission are supposed to look like.

A note on slavery: The slavery at the time of Christ and the early church was nowhere as horrible as the atrocity Britain and America carried on in the 17th, 18th, and much of the 19th century. I don’t mean to defended any kind of slavery, but I think we should understand the kind of slavery Paul is talking about was very different than what we all think of when we hear the word slavery.

This is a seven part series: 

Headship? Me? Maybe not … Why men shy away from being the head.
Submit to each other? Wait, how does that work? Does it work?
Submit! But only if you want to? It’s a choice?
Who submits to whom, and why? God has a plan here, really.
Being the head What it means, and how it’s to be done.
Sexual submission New we’re talking … or not.
How we do headship and submission How it works in our message.

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10 Comments on “Submit to each other?

  1. What is at stake here? What is the problem with men and women submitting to each other in a marriage, instead of one being the head? I am also waiting for you to explain exactly what it means for someone to submit to someone else in a marriage.

  2. I was listening to a podcast with Dr. Tim and Kathy Keller this morning. Kathy pointed out that both husbands and wives get to play Jesus’ part. For husbands, Eph 5 tells us to give up our lives for her as Christ did for the church. For wives, Phil 2:5-7 tells us that Jesus did not regard his equality as something to hold on to but humbled himself to become a servant and helper to us. I believe this idea also supports the role distinction that husbands are to be the sacrificial servant leader and wives are to be the submissive servant helper.

  3. Jamie – What it means starting with the next post.

    As for what is at stake, it’s two fold in my mind. One is doing what God wants. The other is that it works better if one leads. I know I will get arguments on that, and I have seen exceptions, but on the whole I see better marriages when he leads. In such marriages both he and she are happier, and the kids do better.

  4. You hit on what may be the most misunderstood and misinterpretted verse in the Bible. Thanks for getting it right.

    I have litterally seen people disregard every other verse in the Bible having to do with submission because they are able to bludgeon this verse out of context. I guess that is whats at stake.

  5. Hi there. First, I love your blog and benefit from it greatly, so don’t take offense. I’m a lecturer in NT and Greek at Acadia Divinity College. Your reading does not jive with the text. You say “the suggestion of some….” It is not the suggestion of some, at least not when you get into scholarly circles. Most commentators recognize the mutual submission statement as the main point, with the others being sub-points reinforcing the mutual submission.

    Also, this section is pretty much universally recognized as beginning what we call the “household code” section of the epistle (found in other NT epistles too). Because of this, the “one another” is not talking about everyone, but specifically in regards to the household.

    I don’t say all of this to dissuade your positions. I respect those who take a soft complementarian position (I myself would be a complementary egalitarian) and I think you have legitimate grounds for coming to that position. Just don’t do it by building it on bad exegesis—we seminary profs dislike that ! :-)


  6. Danny Zacharias – Thank for chiming in! I am not a Greek scholar, and one can only do so much without that.

    I agree we all are to submit, but not that we all submit to everyone else.

    I’d say the passage starts by talking about the fact we are all to submit, then goes on to give some specifics. In my mind the specifics both clarify and modify the general.

    Is that clearer?

  7. Hi Paul; though this post is three years old it is still a very much misunderstood subject in the Christian household. My relationship is falling apart as I write because she contends with me on many issues and when she does agree it is begrudgingly to be “A good submissive wife” (mocking tone). Not my words but hers. There are many times when she speaks wisdom and I take her advice on something but then she see’s it as a cue to takeover as captain of the ship; likewise when I disagree, it is tantrums and at one point said she had the education and made more money so she qualifies to make decisions related to money.
    My main question about this post is that I have heard in Christian circles that husbands and wives should never do anything without the other spouse being in agreement. The power of agreement is awesome when husband and wife can understand a vision but what about when one spouse say’s “I will not go with you on that.”
    I’m referring to a project that I believe God gave me an idea for to create a residual income for our house to help meet some other goals we have. I don’t know if I am wrong in thinking this but if God speaks to one spouse regarding an assignment, He has spoken to both spouses…..right? She has begrudgingly when along with me up until now but has outright said I am not going with you on that. Does that mean because she is not in agreement that I should not finish what I believe God told me to do? She is thinking about short term depreciable items like a new car and wanting to borrow for it but will not borrow $5000 to put towards something that will bring a return. I have not put any money towards it because I’m thinking if she is not with me on it then God won’t bless it in reference to what I heard about biblical agreement.
    Once more, that causes me to think that if both spouses are not in agreement then God has not spoken and will not bless but if they are, then He has spoken and He will bless seems very flawed as well. I am not going to follow her because she is educated and makes more money, but even in my church education is highly esteemed seemingly above God’s ability to give wisdom so that would be a losing argument for me. Like Eccl: 9:15 “Though the poor man had the wisdom to save a city, nobody remembered him or heeded him because he was poor.” The reason she does not agree with me is that she has one perspective on how money is attained… saving up, more hours, more jobs, etc. Anything with risk or any unknowns is out of the security zone for her and refuses to hear any other opinion on the subject.
    Does God still allow the man to go forward with decisions as a head even if the wife is in a rebellious state without getting in trouble with God?

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