Is “Mutual Submission” in Marriage
Conveyed in Ephesians 5:21-25?
By J.R. Ensey
These verses are a focus of egalitarian writers today who have embraced the concept of gender equality at all levels of Christian and secular life. Do they really teach mutual submission of husband and wife or are they misinterpreted by a flawed hermeneutic?
If the mutual submission of husband and wife is truly a biblical principle being expressed in v. 21, how did it escape the many textual exegetes who have examined the Scriptures since Paul penned them two millennia ago? After checking with many of the often quoted Protestant commentators 1 of the last two hundred years, none appear cognizant of this principle.
In Christian circles, contemporary egalitarian authors like Letha Scanzoni, Paul Jewett and Craig Keener are the ones who get quoted by those leading the charge toward female empowerment and cultural change. Keener focuses on Ephesians 5:21 to insist that it includes the relationship of husbands and wives in the mutual submission principle. Is that what Paul is teaching in this verse or is it merely being used as part of a larger agenda?
Different types or levels of submission
The target of Paul’s words in verses 19-21 is the body of Christ as a whole. All Christians, male and female, defer to one another in ways that maintain unity and harmony in that setting. More specific types of submission are the focus of vv. 22-25. As Wiersbe points out, the submission Paul speaks of in v. 21 “has nothing to do with the order of authority, but rather governs the operation of authority. …Often Jesus tried to teach His disciples not to throw their weight around, or seek to become great at someone else’s expense. Unfortunately, they failed to learn the lesson, and even at the Last Supper they were arguing over who was the greatest (Luke 22:24-26). When Jesus washed their feet, He taught them that the greatest is the person who uses his authority to build up people, and not, like the Pharisees, to build up his own authority and make himself important. We are to humbly esteem others more important than ourselves (Romans 12:10; Philippians 2:1-4).” 2
Verse 21 speaks of a general submission of all members of the body of Christ to each other to ensure harmony. It acts as an introductory sentence to the more specific areas mentioned in the next verse, where submission is a factor in the relationships of husband and wife, children and parents, and slaves and masters. In those relationships, a submission is called for that emulates the submission of the church to its Head (authority), which is Christ: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing” [sic - KJV] (vv. 22-24; Titus 2:5). There is no mutual submission suggested in these three areas or regarding Christ and the church. The order and line of authority descends from God through Christ to man to woman: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (I Corinthians 11:3). 3
There is submission both in v. 21 and in v. 22, but of different types. One is reciprocated and the other is unrequited in kind. That in v. 21 is marked by reciprocity which does not appear in v. 22. Both husband and wife submit, but the wife’s submission is to her husband, and the husband’s is to the principle of selfless love of v. 25. The wife is to submit to her husband, but the husband is not told to submit to his wife. 4 There is no correlative mutual submission in Paul’s four illustrations: husbands/wives, parents/children, slaves/masters, Christ/the church. Otherwise, total confusion would ensue.
How can husband and wife live in harmony with both having equal authority? It would be a standoff and both would be in their right. Confusion would result. Someone has to be in charge. That which is two-headed is usually considered an anomaly or unnatural. There is no clear analogy in either Testament of mutual submission that can be applied to husbands and wives.
Some attempt to tie v. 22 to the submission command of v. 21 because the verb “submit” does not appear in the Greek in v. 22 but is “borrowed” by the presumption of Greek grammar from v. 21. This grammatical insertion changes nothing.
In Misquoting the Scriptures
According to Keener, “Sometimes Paul gets a bad rap. The slave narratives are replete with sentiments from former slaves who loved Jesus but hated Paul, because slaveholders regularly quoted Ephesians 6:5, “Slaves, obey your masters.” What the slaveholders didn't bother to quote was the rest of the passage, which goes on to say, “masters, do the same things to them” (6:9). That is, if slaves have to obey their masters, masters must also obey their slaves.” 5 Virtually anyone can see that the passage does not say that masters are to obey their slaves. That would be quite problematic. Masters were to treat their servants according to the principles laid down in vv. 20-21. The thrust of the passage is that masters manifest the same spirit of heartfelt sincerity and humility, treating their slaves/servants with respect and dignity as a brother in Christ, but it does not say that masters must obey their slaves. This is a manipulation of the language to subject it to his own assumptions and presuppositions.
Keener doesn’t give up: “Moreover, he never instructs the male householder to rule; instead, he is to love his wife, serving her by offering his life for her (5:25), to avoid provoking his children (6:4), and to treat slaves as fellow servants of God (6:9).” Has he never read I Timothy 3:12: “Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well”? (Italics mine) It seems best to follow Paul’s advice and ignore the secular humanists and radical egalitarians, else we could find ourselves slouching toward serious theological error.
The idea of the mutual submission of husband and wife can be made to sound so kind, so relevant, so thoughtful and reasonable as to make one think if it is not actually expressed in Scripture it should have been. Are Apostolics picking up this concept from the secular sociologists, the media, and the feminist authors who try to coerce us to bow to the god of political correctness? Paul’s admonitions may not find acceptance with the social philosophers of the 21st century, but popular human reason cannot be placed above the authority of the Word of God. Perhaps we have sat at their feet so long and been indoctrinated with how pagans and Christian liberals conceive of Christianity that we are beginning to think like them. Can we become so enamored with letters behind our names that we come to believe that all who have many are smarter in all ways than any who have fewer or none?
The source of this concept
Where did this concept of “mutual submission” of husband and wife originate? In the ever-darkening minds of modern secular humanists and sociologists? In the bowels of Berkeley, Columbia, and Harvard? In the glass-enclosed, downtown highrises where the media monsters lurk? In the hot-button books of the pop psychologists so faddish in the last half of the 20th century? In the 1960s cultural revolution that brought the Women’s Liberation Movement to the forefront in England and America? All may have had a part in the meteoric rise of this idee fixe among current sociologists and liberal Christian authors.
Early secular feminists were inclined to dismiss the Bible entirely and take their cues from contemporary sociologists. “Progressive” Christians, however, were hesitant to go that far. Too many American women were still conservative church goers. So they began to cast their lot with new Bible interpreters like R. T. France, David Thompson, and I. Howard Marshall who promote the idea that the Gospels gave Christianity a start, but the faith has been sort of “unfolding” since then. Therefore, we know more today, we are more educated, and our understanding of ethics and morality are set in a better and more equitable light than that of the apostles. They suggest that a “fuller outworking of God’s purpose” is being captured today by modern thinkers. They propose fundamentally equalizing the roles of men and women, husbands and wives. They posit that Pauline admonitions were good for that time period, but new perspectives update Christianity and make it relevant to our time. These “progressive” new perspectives include the dismissal of the traditional complementarian view of women’s roles in favor of a more radical egalitarianism. 6
These “progressive” ideas were espoused by Christian feminist authors Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty who were emboldened to say Paul was wrong. His admonitions about female subordination in marriage were simply unresolved holdovers from his former rabbinic training. His references to Genesis passages reflected contemporary understanding and the way they were interpreted “in his day.” Therefore, since Paul’s statements were misguided Jewish concepts current at that time, and were inconsistent with other NT passages, we are not obligated to obey the apostle’s commands regarding husbands and wives. 7
A new hermeneutic?
A word about hermeneutics. Should we employ “Pentecostal” hermeneutics or Baptist hermeneutics or some other religious tradition’s hermeneutics to interpret Scripture instead of standard “biblical” hermeneutics? This might bring pressure to accept theological error merely to accommodate whatever is already is being done by prominent pastors. In throwing the grid of Penteccostal hermeneutics over the Bible, we could possibly find ourselves in error along the way, depending on what stripe of “Pentecostal” grid is being employed.
The modernist “trajectory hermeneutic” suggests that the commands that Paul gave in the first century need not be followed today. Gender equality advocate R. T. France proposes this approach: “The gospels do not, perhaps, record a total reversal of Jewish prejudice against women and of their total exclusion from roles of leadership. But they do contain the seeds from which such a reversal was bound to grow. Effective revolutions are seldom completed in a year or two. In this, as in other matters, the disciples were slow learners. But the fuse, long as it might prove to be, has been ignited.” 8 Fellow egalitarian, I. Howard Marshall adds, “Paul wrote as he did about marriage because in his world he did not know any other form than the patriarchal. As he did with other relationships, he worked within the structures of his time and gave directions for Christian behavior within them. The danger is to think that this validates the setup for all time.” 9 Ah, now we see the plan—today other moral standards (read: ours) apply. Paul’s statements applied to his time, but our more erudite, educated and more ethical understanding is the way for today. I trow not.
Do Paul’s statements give husbands the right to mistreat or abuse their wives as some may have assumed? Absolutely not. Tyrants are not countenanced in the Scriptures. There are other verses which make that abundantly clear (I Peter 3:7; Colossians 3:19; et al). In the case of slaves, the same is true. Masters were enjoined to treat them as Christian brothers (see the Book of Philemon). Nor does it allow for child abuse, although there is no mutual submission in parent/child relationships. Additionally, there is no hint in these or other verses of a husband’s superiority or a wife’s inferiority. All persons are of equal value and worth in the sight of God. That being said, there is no justification for expanding the scope of the Scriptures merely to condemn unauthorized acts.
Let me conclude with a thoughtful observation lifted from Barnes Notes on the Bible: “Submitting yourselves one to another - Maintaining due subordination in the various relations of life. This general principle of religion, the apostle proceeds now to illustrate in reference to wives Ephesians 5:22-24; to children Ephesians 6:1-3; and to servants, Ephesians 6:5-8. At the same time that he enforces this duty of submission, however, he enjoins on others to use their authority in a proper manner, and gives solemn injunctions that there should be no abuse of power. Particularly he enjoins on husbands the duty of loving their wives with all tenderness Ephesians 5:25-33; on fathers, the duty of treating their children so that they might easily obey them Ephesians 6:4; and on masters, the duly of treating their servants with kindness, remembering that they have a Master also in heaven; Ephesians 6:9. The general meaning here is, that Christianity does not break up the relations of life, and produce disorder, lawlessness, and insubordination; but that it will confirm every proper authority, and make every just yoke lighter. Infidelity is always disorganizing; Christianity, never.” 10
1. In the commentaries listed at Biblos.com, including Clarke, Poole, Pulpit, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, Ellicott, Barnes, Expositors, etc., etc., I found no principle of mutual submission of husband and wife laid out from these verses in Ephesians 5. One would assume if the concept mutual submission of husband and wife was apparent in Paul’s admonitions, some of them would have caught it. Obviously, it is a recent idea, concocted to support the new postmodern perspectives regarding male and female relationships.
2. Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Colorado Springs: Cook Comm. Ministries, 1989), p. 50.
3. One should not assume from this that every woman is to submit to every man, even strangers, “in everything.” The principle is being applied here only to the marriage relationship.
4. There is deferment and agreement along the way in any relationship. No one is absolutely right all the time, in every case. However, this does not alter the basic principle, oft repeated in the Epistles, of wives’ submission to their husbands.
5. Craig Keener quotes in this article are found in https://www.cbeinternational.org/blogs/case-mutual-submission-ephesians-5. Keener lamely concedes that “there is much less mutual submission in the instruction to fathers: children do need guidance.”
6. Galatians 3:8 has been called upon by gender equality advocates to prove that gender is no longer a factor in the kingdom of God. We shall deal with that topic in another setting. I Corinthians 7:3-5 has also been used in the discussion, but one can see that the passage there is dealing with the matter of deprivation of sexual fulfillment in marriage, not authority.
7. These ideas were set forth by Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty in All We Were Meant To Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation (Waco, TX: Word Publishers, 1974), pp. 28,212,213, et al. In What God Hath Joined Together: A Christian Case for Gay Marriage (San Francisco: Harper 2005), Scanzoni would reveal her direction and ultimate goal: God sanctions gay marriage and so should we. One must be careful which path he chooses—where will it lead? She was following the concepts of Fuller Seminary professor Paul Jewett who wrote Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).
8. Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), p. 54
9. Ibid., p. 58.
10. Barnes Notes on the Bible at the Biblos.com website.