Mutual Submission - The Missing Verse

The majority of modern believers are so eager to enter the controversy of wives submitting to their husbands in Ephesians 5:22-33 that they miss the verse that I believe is the key to it all: Eph 5:21. This verse teaches mutual submission; from the preceding verses we see that this is church wide mutual submission. Any attempt to interpret the word submission directly in the context of the 'battle of the sexes' is going to lead to the influence of bias. I believe that if we adequately understand just how strong the injunction of Eph 5:21 is then the particular issue of the marriage bond becomes somewhat less controversial.

The older commentators take three subtly different approaches to the 21st verse that I believe cover the range of possible meanings quite adequately.

  1. The rule of love - This is the approach taken by Adam Clarke; it essentially views submission as an entirely symmetric thing. Person A submits to person B whilst person B submits to person A. Thus submission is not an authoritarian issue but one of putting others before oneself.
  2. Deference to structure - To quote Albert Barnes: "Maintaining due subordination in the various relations of life". Barnes goes on to point out that three different examples are given: man/wife, parent/child and master/slave. Essentially Barnes maintains that even with Christian equality the old asymmetric relationships are to be faithfully maintained.
  3. Mutual submission enhancing structure - Exemplified by Matthew Henry, the basis of Christian interaction is mutual submission and this will lead to the more traditional relationships being enhanced. It may be noted in support of this that all three relationships place burden on both parties. Thus a traditional asymmetric relationship is to become more symmetric.

In order to pick between the three alternatives I believe it is necessary to look at the words "... to one another ..." are wrapped by: "Submitting yourselves ... in the fear of God". The vital point to note in our relationships with one another is that there is always a third person present: God. Further God should be the dominant person in the triumvirate. If my eldest and youngest son are alone together, especially in a situation that could involve some degree of danger, it behooves the younger[1] to do what the elder says. However when I am able to be with the two of them then their principle responsibility is to me even if they are essentially playing together. God is omnipresent thus he is always the one to whom we are primarily responsible even whilst we are interacting together.

The mutual nature of the submission that this verse enjoins has led some to question whether it really means subjection or whether mutual submission really implies democracy. The problem is that the word is 'hupotasso' is a military term denoting rank and command. The implication is that one has the full ability to command the other. There can be no real question of the meaning in the case of the parent/child and master/slave and thus questioning the meaning in the husband/wife case essentially amounts to special pleading. I thus think the simplistic 'rule of love' interpretation has to be rejected.

However the military picture does add one extra dimension - this is an external ranking not an implication of worth. A sergeant in the army may well have in his command a soldier that will eventually outshine his officer by a mile; nonetheless part of that soldiers greatness lies in his ability to follow the orders he is presently given.

The other 'word' issue to note is that the edict is to submit ourselves. The word is reflexive in the Greek. The picture is most certainly not of the stronger taking control of the weaker but of one party voluntarily and deliberately subjecting themselves to the other. I believe this precludes the notion of straightforward deference to structure; at the time Ephesians was written all three of the relationships that are described would have been at the behest of only one of the parties[2].

This leaves us with the 'mutual submission enhancing structure' which I believe is correct except I would personally view it as 'mutual submission despite the need for structure'. There will come a time when we are with the Lord, will know all things, will interact with Him directly and fully and these structures will no longer exist within the body of Christ. Mutual submission is the underlying basis of the Church. It is this ideal that we are pushing towards. However the Lord has also mandated some behaviors for the interim period to ensure the smooth running of society; three of these are illustrated in the relationships that are expanded upon following Eph 5:21.

One of the transient structures that God has ordained for His people is the marriage bond[3]. We know that from the very outset that husband and wife are to become one flesh[4]. However the view of man and wife as one flesh leads to a problem with mutual submission: what happens if the submission of the male half of a couple to one person conflicts with the submission of the female half of a couple to someone else? As men and women tend to work in somewhat different spheres and have different sets of relationships then natural working of mutual submission will typically pull a couple apart.

Further a purely democratic view of marriage will cause any imperfections in the relationship between the partners and God to lead to a tension between them. Sometimes a little mathematics helps bring the problem to light in a way that is sufficiently abstract that we can swallow it. Suppose a couple are equally in tune with God and are able to discern His will 75% of the time: this means they will only agree on issues 62% of the time[5]. If they simply choose to agree to disagree on the no-hits then they will go through their lives with almost 40% of their decisions unmade. If they choose to battle it out then they will be fighting over two fifths of their decisions. If they choose to just 'pick one' - and I have seen couples resort to 'rock, scissors, paper' to settle disputes - then each partner will have to watch one decision in six go the wrong way just by chance and with no accountability. These numbers are scary even when the couple are each following God very closely: bring the 'successful' discernment rate down to 60% and it is easy to see how the divorce rate got so high.

God has ordained that the solution to this problem is that the husband gets the casting vote. This may stick in the modern gullet but it is theologically inescapable. The standard recourse to the notion that it was written 'purely for the time' is clearly obviated by the parallel that the passage draws between husband and wife and Christ and the church. In fact the parallel is very strong: many of the same people that object to the notion of the husband being head of the wife also object to the notion that the Bible is authoritative in the lives of the believer.

It should be noted however that God has not stated that the husband is better than the wife: simply that in situations where there would otherwise be conflict that the husband has the duty to take responsibility for what the united couple do. Additionally one should note that the wife is responsible to her own husband[6]; not men in general. This is not a hierarchy with the men above the women; it is a complex social network where the couple's principle and dominant earthly bond is to each other and no-one else.

An argument against the notion I have suggested is that it leads to the wife losing her identity, independence and sense of personhood. This argument is interesting in that it is usually only made for the wife. It should be noted that the edict is that we are to submit ourselves to one another. This may be in work, to a parent, to a teacher, to a church elder or even to a government official. We are all as believers supposed to be voluntarily submitting to one another and yet it is only within the context of the marriage bond that we are concerned that this will lead to a sense of identity, independence and personhood.

The particular irony is that if ever there was a relationship that is supposed to lead to both individuals losing their identity it is the marriage bond. Marriage is designed to be the fusing together of two souls to produce something that is better, stronger and more complete than either partner could have managed alone. The husband is specifically enjoined to love his wife as he does his own body[7] and the wife is enjoined to be subject to their husbands as the church is subject to Christ. Going back to the math earlier it should be noted that if a couple can establish and openness, communication and understanding that allows them to co-operate then they have the potential to see God's will 93% of the time[8].

In closing I believe it is necessary to go back to the verse that I believes underpins this; we are to submit ourselves to one another in the fear of God. We live in a culture and age where marriage within the church is more likely to fail than succeed. Many of us bare the scars of highly dysfunctional marriages and the notion of the marriage bond being an exemplar of love and trust is almost repulsive. I believe we can trace this back to our relationships with God. If we trust and fear Him as the basis of all of our relationships then I believe it will be easier for us to submit to each other and frankly to 'roll with the punches' if and when that becomes necessary.


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