Much has been made in the past few years of mutual submission within marriage. Where traditionally women were encouraged to submit to their husbands, today we are told that the correct Biblical pattern is a mutual submission where the husband and wife submit equally to each other. This teaching seems to contradict the traditional Biblical pattern on male headship. Today I want to take a quick look at mutual submission.
The basis for this teaching is Ephesians 5:21 which reads “…submitting to one another in the fear of God.” Those who hold to this view would say verse 21 provides a cut-and-dry teaching on submission “out of reverence for God every Christian is to submit to every other Christian. Submission, in this view, would mean placing another person’s interests ahead of your own. It is an attitude of love, thoughtfulness and helpfulness that displays that character of Christ. Now certainly those are admirable qualities and ones that no Christian would argue are wrong. However, that is not what Ephesians 5:21 teaches.
To believe in mutual submission there are several interpretive errors you must make.
“One Another” Means “Everyone”
Do the words “submit to one another” mean that every Christian is to submit to every other Christian? Though there are places in Scripture where “one another” is used in that sense, there are other places where it is not. For example, in Galatians 6 we are told to “bear one another’s burdens.” Does this mean that every believer is to bear the burdens of every other believer? Of course not! In Luke 2:15, after seeing the angels singing, shepherds said to one another”Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” This, of course, does not mean that each shepherd spoke to every other shepherd. Clearly “one another” can be used in a non-universal sense.
So while the meaning of the word is not completely transparent, it must be admitted that either interpretation could be correct. We will need to look further to determine what it means.
Context Is King
The belief in mutual submission ignores the context of the passage. The next verses read “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” Paul then echoes the call to husbands, but instead of teaching submission teaches love. Where women are to submit, men are told to love. There is no call for men to submit to their wives. The sixth chapter of Ephesians speaks about the relationships of children to parents and slaves to masters. Once again there is a call to submission on one party and of love to the other.
The context of verse 21 does not support the teaching of mutual submission. God is orderly and it is would go against His character to deny the authority structures that He has put in place. Just as He would not expect a king to be in subject to his subjects, so He would not expect a husband to be subject to his wife.
Meaning of Submission
There is little reason to believe that Paul or his audience would have understood the word we translate as “submit” to mean anything less than “subject to.” In Biblical use, the word always refers to a relationship where one party has authority over another. Jesus was in authority to his parents, the church is subject to Christ, the laity is to be subject to appointed church officials and so on. There is no basis to believe that anyone would have understood the word “submit” to speak of a mutual relationship.
Extra-Biblically there is also little to support this idea. For example, in the contemporary writings of Josephus, the word was used to describe the relationship of soldiers to their superiors.
The Bible does not support the view of mutual submission as taught by so many Christians of our day. The clear teaching of Scripture is the same today as it was to the church at Ephesus and as it was throughout the history of the church. God has placed man in a position of special responsibility and wives are to submit to the headship of their husbands. While this does not negate the requirement that a man love, cherish and respect his wife, even to the point of placing his desires as secondary to her’s, it does not require that he submit to her.
Many books have covered this topic much more eloquently and exhaustively. A good resource is the The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.