Ephesians 5 – Husbands, Wives, and Mutual Submission?

I am in the process of writing small group curriculum for Paul’s prison letters. The text in focus right now is Ephesians 5:21-6:24 and part of that is Paul’s “household code.” Paul mentions three sets of relationships in chapters 5 & 6 that each have two parts: husbands & wives, children & parents, slaves & masters. Paul makes the point that in no relationship does only one party have an obligation to the other. All relationships are reciprocal and place requirements on both parties.

First, Paul calls on all Christians to view each other with an attitude of submission (5:21). Paul says that Christians should submit to each other out of reverence for Christ. That means that out of respect for Christ we love each other and see each and every Christian as someone Jesus died for. Because of that, we don’t abuse each other or take advantage of one another. We don’t always have to have our way on everything because other people are too important to just run over.

In 5:22 wives are told to submit to their husbands. There are a lot of opinions on what is going on in these verses. Is Paul starting out with the broader concept that all Christians are to submit to each other (5:21) and then starts going down the line of who is to submit to whom? If that is the case, wouldn’t you think he would say, “Wives, you submit to your husbands and husbands submit to your wives. Because as we all know all Christians are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

But it doesn’t read that way. Is it possible that all Christians are to submit to each other as a general purpose but not always in reciprocal or exactly equivalent ways? If you follow the interpretation that Paul is writing that all Christians are to submit to each other in the exact same ways: wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters we would very quickly see that the second two pairs don’t work out so well. Which then puts into question whether it is really intended in the first example as well (wives and husbands). The next thing you notice is that, although the husbands aren’t specifically told to submit to their wives, I think they are given the more difficult task (feel free to rebuke me kindly if you disagree on this as I can only see this best from a male point of view). 5:25 says the role of the husband is love their wives as Christ loved the church. Christ loved the church so much that he gave himself up for her. Christ died for the church because of his great love for the church. Men…treat your wives with that kind of love and desire.

This is more than jumping in front of a bullet or pushing your wife out of the way of an oncoming bus and letting it hit us. Just as Christ’s giving of himself was more than 6 hours on a cross so is a husband’s obligation to self-sacrifice for his wife a one time event. In fact, I think it is actually easier to jump in front of a bullet or a bus than to live each day in a self-sacrificial way. So, while husbands are not specifically told to submit to their wives, their leadership is characterized by total self-sacrifice.

What is more, when men lead their families with that kind of attitude (which I am still very much working on myself, by the way) then it will certainly make the wives obligation in 5:22, to be submissive to her husband, that much easier. So I am not so sure that this passage teaches mutual submission in the sense that we all submit to each other in precisely reciprocal ways but that as we each fulfill our role as God has defined it that behind it all lies an attitude of love, sacrifice and submission. It just shows up differently as differing roles are being lived out.

What is your take on the concept of mutual submission?

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

7 Responses to Ephesians 5 – Husbands, Wives, and Mutual Submission?

  1. Roger Butner says:

    I hope to weigh back in here, Matt. For now, I will just say that I find the Ephesians 5 passage to be informed and supported well by Philippians 2:1-11.

  2. I’m reticent to use the word “role” since scripture doesn’t. But people are incontrovertibly different with regard to gender, to age, and to social-or-authority placement (employment, slavery, government office, military rank, etc.).

    Christ supplied what only He could supply: everything that meets our need to grow closer to God and to each other in the process. He submitted to our deepest need. I think that’s the kind of submission this passage is talking about: giving Himself up for us, washing us, presenting us spotless to Himself, feeding and caring for us.

    We also are to submit to each other’s needs, but what about each other’s whims and demands? Obviously, if all parties are living as Christ in this world, we’re not requiring that our whims and demands be obeyed, but that His instructions be honored for our own good and the good of others.

    So what is implied here is that each of us must become intimately acquainted with what others need. What do wives need from husbands? (In my experience, most would say love that is hers only.) What do husbands need from wives? (Again, in my experience, most would say “respect.”) Children from parents and parents from children? Slaves from masters and masters from slaves?

    In order to meet the needs of others different from ourselves in gender or age or social/authority rank, we have to know them.

    This requires a relationship so intimate that we are spiritually naked before each other in order to bathed in the love of Christ through each other; seeing each other as He sees us: radiant, unblemished, wrinkle-free, unstained by sin. When the other is hungry, our inclination is to feed them; when in need of care, we cherish them as we would our own bodies … because that’s what Christ did and still does through us.

    (As a side note, the instruction here is especially important when a believing spouse is married to an unbelieving one {1 Corinthians 7}. One spouse’s submission to the other wins his/her heart and her/his soul because that spouse is Christ in the other’s life.)

  3. Peter says:

    It would be unthinkable for the great majority of people in Paul’s day, or of the audience of the epistle to the Ephesian churches in particular, to conceive of a society in such egalitarian terms as ours in the modern west.

    Considering only the word “submission,” nowhere outside of Ephesians 5:21 is egalitarianism an issue in the NT so far as I recall … implying that egalitarianism is also not under consideration in Ephesians 5:21. It is much simpler to say the general principle of “submitting to one another” in 5:21 is illustrated in the hierarchical relationships that follow (husband-wife, parent-child, master-slave).

    In every case, the hierarchy is recognized. It would no more be conceivable that Paul meant for masters to submit to slaves or parents submit to their children than for husbands to submit to their wives. Of for Jesus’ Father to submit to His only begotten Son. Or for a civil judge to submit to a convicted criminal in matters of the conviction and sentence.

    I agree that in the passage the authority of the hierarchical superior is also tempered by the duties toward the inferior. But to suggest that the hierarchy’s duties are synonymous with submission would seem to obliterate the hierarchy.

    In church society, of course, there is equality with respect to the “Image of God” and salvation in Jesus, but not with respect to social function in the family and church. The duties of the superior to the inferior cannot wholly be confused with submission without distorting the Ephesian passage to favor modern sentiment.

  4. jamesbrett says:

    i think God intends for marriage to be a play that Christians act out in their communities — a play about Christ and his love for the church, and the churches love for, and submission to, him. i think marriage is to, at its core, demonstrate what that relationship looks like. and i think it probably should work both ways to some extent. 1) i look at Christ and the church in order to know how my marriage should function and 2) at times, i look at my marriage to better understand what Christ and the church are all about.

    so the questions of submission, i answer by looking at how the church submits to Christ. and i’ve heard before that “if your husband acted like Christ in his love for you, wouldn’t it be easy to submit to him? wouldn’t you want to?” and i agree with the sentiment; it certainly would be easiER for me if i were in that situation. but it doesn’t make it easy — just look at our submission to Christ as the church. we’re lacking in lots of ways. anyway, just some thoughts…

    by the way, i think God purposed for us to act out other plays for the world as well. like baptism, the play we perform about Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

  5. Jerry Starling says:

    I had a post on this in my leadership series, which is also on Matt’s site in the Bible Class materials section as “Christian Leadership” This is #12 in that series and can be seen here.

    Jerry Starling, CommittedToTruth.WordPress.Com.

  6. James Wood says:

    There is no doubt that 5:21 functions as a setting for the rest of the code in 5 and 6. Submitting to one another is the context of the husband-wife, parent-child, and master-slave relationships. Anyone who wants to claim that husbands, parents, and masters are free from the obligation to submit cannot do so based on this passage.

    However, there is still a clear authoritarian structure in place that is not damaged by the mandate to submit. Paul says that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church and sets up a parallel relationship between husband, parents, and masters. No one would argue for parents to give up their authority over their children and Paul did not advocate abolition, but for masters to be loving. How, then, can we see that Paul was arguing that husbands and wives are different?

    The major hurdle for people here is that the word for ‘head’ needs to be redefined from an authoritarian perspective to something else. The problem is that such a redefinition isn’t supported by the language or the context. In all of Greek literature there are just a handful of instances where kephele is taken to mean anything but the round bit on top of a neck or someone in authority. And contextually, it is most natural to see Christ as the authority over the church, not the rivers’ source as some would argue.

    Therefore, mutual submission is absolutely the context for this passage, but it is mutual submission among people with different authority. Love, respect, and care must transform the authority relationship that exist in the household. This is a radical call, but it is not a call to egalitarianism.

  7. I think you are spot on, and when you consider what sacrificial love really entails in many ways that is submission – in that you are putting your wife’s needs before your own.

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