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Mutual Submission

There is a lot of debate over how to take the command in Ephesians 5:18-21 to “Be filled with the Spirit … submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” How you interpret this text is, for many, the dividing line between being egalitarian or complementarian in their view of the roles of men and women in general and husbands and wives in particular.

The two main lines of interpretation are

  1. “Submitting to one another” indicates mutual submission, which means that Spirit-filled Christians are to submit equally to one another without making hierarchical distinctions. This is the traditionally egalitarian interpretation.
  2. “Submitting to one another” is a call to recognize the differing roles of authority that God has established in society and to submit appropriately to each one. This is the traditionally complementarian interpretation.

Peter O’Brien, in his excellent commentary on Ephesians, offers a helpful outline of the arguments behind each of these interpretations. Below is a summary of what he has written.

The first interpretation is often supported by the arguments that

  • Grammatically, Paul uses the verb “submit” in a form (the “middle/passive voice” for you Greek-ers) that softens its meaning so that it indicates a more voluntary, self-sacrificing kind of submission.
  • Paul adds the expression “to one another” after the verb to indicate the elimination of any idea of hierarchy in how we understand who is supposed to submit to whom. Submission is to be across horizontal lines, among equals.

The second interpretation is often supported by the arguments that

  • Wherever else the verb “submit” occurs in the New Testament, regardless of its form, it implies an ordered relationship in which one party is “over” and another “under.” And since the same understanding of “submit” fits well in Ephesians 5:21 and it’s context, there is no warrant to go beyond its usual semantic range and interpret it otherwise.
  • The expression “to one another” does not always indicate a fully reciprocal relationship in the New Testament (see Revelation 6:4 and Galatians 6:2, where the actions in view are not always two-way streets).
  • The flow of the argument—seen in how Paul moves immediately in 5:22-6:9 to spell out what submission looks between wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters—illustrates that he sees a God-designed order in society for who ought to submit to whom.

O’Brien concludes that, “on grounds of semantics, syntax, and the flow of Paul’s argument we prefer the latter interpretation. The apostle is not speaking of mutual submission in the sense of a reciprocal subordination, but submission to those who are in authority over them.” You will not be surprised to learn that I find his argument compelling.