Mutual Submission?

Jason Dulle

In Ephesians 5:21 Paul said we should be "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." What does it mean to submit to one another? Submission entails the yielding of one's will to the will of another party. Taken on its face, and divorced from the broader context, this could be understood to mean every Christian is to yield himself to the will of every other Christian. Surely this is not correct.

First, the very notion of submission presupposes the existence of a hierarchy of authority, in which one person is obliged to yield their will to a superior in a chain of authority. The idea of mutual submission, on the other hand, presupposes that every Christian has equal authority, thereby gutting submission of its fundamental meaning. One might respond with a hearty amen, declaring that this is the beauty and distinction of Christian submission: There is no hierarchy of authority, and thus submission is voluntary, not an obligation. But surely this is not right. Paul commanded mutual submission. To do so he must have the authority to do so, and those to whom he was writing were expected to submit to that authority by obeying his command. So the elements of hierarchy and obligation remain.

As for being voluntary, this is not exclusive to the egalitarian view. People can voluntarily submit themselves to a superior in the hierarchical chain, even if their submission is obligatory. While this sounds contradictory at first, we recognize this distinction all the time. That's why we speak of those who obey willingly, and those who obey reluctantly. How, then, is mutual submission different from traditional submission? It differs only in the sense that it eliminates a hierarchy of authority. This is the very distinctive that disqualifies it from being a true form of submission. Mutual cooperation, maybe, but mutual submission, no.

Secondly, Scripture is clear that there exists a hierarchy of authority in the church (1 Corinthians 12:26; Ephesians 4:10-11). Paul often used and defended his authority to correct the doctrine and behaviors of those in the church. In fact, Paul used his authority to command submission one to the other.

Thirdly, everyone submitting to everyone else would invite a vicious circle, with the result that no will be able to exercise his will to do anything. I cannot will x until I know what P wills, and P cannot will for me to do x until he knows what Q wills, and Q cannot will x until he knows what R wills, ad infinitum to an infinite regress. To make matters worse, whose will should we submit to when they conflict? It should be evident that the "every Christian submits to every other Christian" interpretation Biblically, rationally, and practically deficient.

Mutual Submission in the Marital Relationship

Egalitarians understand Paul's command in a more limited sense, as applying specifically to the husband and wife relationship. They argue that in the marriage relationship neither the husband nor the wife is "top dog." Neither is the leader of the family. They are both leaders, and they both follow the other as each follows Christ. Their relationship is one of mutuality. For example, decisions must be made together, and mutual agreement is required before acting. No one person holds veto power over the other. This is the interpretation I want to focus on for the remainder of this article.

Is there reason to think the submission Paul speaks of applies to the marital relationship? To find out we must look at the context:

And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit, 5:19 speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, 5:20 always giving thanks to God the Father for each other in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5:21 and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 5:22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, 5:23 because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church - he himself being the savior of the body. 5:24 But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 5:25 Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 5:26 to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, 5:27 so that he may present the church to himself as glorious - not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless. 5:28 In the same way husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 5:29 For no one has ever hated his own body but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, 5:30 for we are members of his body. 5:31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 5:32 This mystery is great - but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 5:33 Nevertheless, each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (NET Bible)

The connection between submission and the marital relationship is justified based on the immediate context, but does this mean, then, that the husband is supposed to submit to his wife, and the wife is supposed to submit to her husband--mutually--as egalitarians claim? No, this conclusion does not follow, for at least three reasons.

First, just as in the "every Christian submitting to every other Christian" interpretation, so in the case of the "mutual submission between husband and wife" interpretation, submission is gutted of its denotative meaning, and it leads to a vicious circle that precludes actual submission in instances where the husband and wife will different things. Let's say a husband wills p, while his wife wills q. To practice mutual submission the husband must yield his will to his wife's, so that he decides to do q. And yet the wife needs to submit her will to her husband's as well, so that she decides to do p. So now the wife wills to do p rather than q, while the husband wills q rather than p--just the reverse of when they started. How are they to solve this dilemma?: mutual submission. The wife must submit her will to her husband's, and the husband must submit his will to his wife's, to the effect that they reverse their wills again, but are no closer to being able to move forward with an action. In fact, this process would have to be repeated an indefinite number of times, resulting in a vicious circle and impasse. To avoid this problem one of the spouses must stop practicing mutual submission, choosing to accept the other's yielding without yielding in return. In actual practice, then, mutual submission is only possible in cases where both the husband and wife will the same thing. But if this is the only time mutual submission can be applied, it is practically irrelevant! Submission is most relevant when there is disagreement, and yet this is the very situation in which mutual submission cannot be applied. As such, it is a useless concept.

One might wonder why egalitarians limit mutual submission to the marriage relationship. Why is marriage singled out? While Paul certainly applied his teaching on submission to the marital relationship, he did not stop there. Paul continued:

6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right. 6:2 "Honor your father and mother," which is the first commandment accompanied by a promise, namely, 6:3 "that it may go well with you and that you will live a long time on the earth." 6:4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but raise them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. 6:5 Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart as to Christ, 6:6 not like those who do their work only when someone is watching - as people-pleasers - but as slaves of Christ doing the will of God from the heart. 6:7 Obey with enthusiasm, as though serving the Lord and not people, 6:8 because you know that each person, whether slave or free, if he does something good, this will be rewarded by the Lord. 6:9 Masters, treat your slaves the same way, giving up the use of threats, because you know that both you and they have the same master in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (NET Bible)

If the context includes child-parent and slave-master relationships, why single out the marriage relationship as egalitarians commonly do? I would venture to say it is because the other examples undermine the way egalitarians understand Paul's command to submit to one another. While it could be argued that Paul was commanding masters to obey their slaves and vice-versa, it is beyond credulity to think Paul commanded parents to submit to their children in the same fashion that children were to submit to their parents. Not only does this call into question the egalitarian interpretation, but I think it gives us some insight as to what Paul meant by "submitting to one another."

Paul's idea of submitting to one another was neither general, nor mutual. For Paul, submission was to be practiced within the contexts of clearly defined relationships: wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters. In each of these relationships the submission was unidirectional, not mutual. This cannot be emphasized enough. There is no such thing as mutual submission. The text is clear on this. Only wives are instructed to submit to their husbands. Husbands are instructed to love their wives. Only children are instructed to submit to their parents. Parents are instructed to raise them in the discipline of Christ without provoking them to anger. Only slaves are instructed to submit to their masters. Masters are instructed to treat their slaves as brothers. There is nothing mutual about this submission. We find a pattern, then, in which Paul first describes who is to submit to whom (wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters), followed by a charge to the "superior" with his obligations and duties to his "subject."


Paul was not teaching reciprocity in submission between husband and wife, parents and children, and masters and slaves, but defining the relationships in which submission is to be exhibited, who is to submit to whom in the context of those relationships, and the responsibility of the party not under submission. So much for mutual submission!


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