Submission: What Does Ephesians 5 Tell Us?

Who should submit to whom? That question seems to be a pressing one for some. Recently in reviewing It’s Good To Be a Man, I took issue with the position of the book on submission. The authors state their position (from which I dissented) that “All leadership, whether in the Old or the New Testament, whether civil or domestic or ecclesiastical, is exclusively male.” (page 9 in the Kindle edition)

A commentator on the review questioned my use of Ephesians 5:

I’ve seen you bring up that Ephesians 5 proof text to back up your logic multiple times. Unfortunately, you use that text extremely vaguely. What does that verse mean? Are you implying that husbands are to submit to their wives as well? If that is the case, then interestingly enough, the interpretation you use is the same one that egalitarians use. Hmmm might not be the best company to be lodging with theologically, don’t ya think? (July 23, 2022, comment by Dd)

Ephesians 5:21 reads “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”(NIV). Paul did not insert paragraph and section breaks in his original letter, but for our convenience the NIV editors placed a section break entitled “Instructions for Christian Households” before verse 21. They make that verse a separate paragraph, and then the following paired instructions for wives and husbands, children and fathers,  and slaves and masters are each separated into a distinct paragraph. The ESV, on the other hand, puts a section break between Verse 21 and verse 22. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is making connections which our editorial breaks can obscure. Greek tends to use longer, more complex sentences than we do in English, and there can be good reason for a translation to separate a lengthy sentence into several for ease in reading. For instance, Ephesians 1:3–14 is all one sentence in Greek — trying to diagram (does anyone still diagram sentences?) it in Greek or English is a challenge!

I hope that my questioner, Dd, does not mind a bit of a dive into grammatical structure, but that’s necessary to answer his question, “What does that verse mean?” Ephesians 5:21 is connected with the preceding context. The word we translate “submit” in Ephesians 5:21 is actually a participle, more literally translated “submitting.” It looks back to the main verb in the sentence in verse 18. Believers are prohibited from getting drunk with wine and, positively, are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. What does being filled with the Spirit look like? Paul describes that with a series of participial phrases: addressing one another with psalms and hymns, singing and making music to the Lord, giving thanks to the Father, and finally, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. The opening verses of Ephesians 1 make clear that the letter is addressed to all the saints (holy ones) in Ephesus. Just as all believers are to be filled with the Spirit, sing to the Lord, and give thanks to the Father, so all believers are to submit to one another.

Thus, if we look at Ephesians 5:21 and 22 and conclude that submission is a command addressed only to wives and not to husbands, we have misread the inspired apostle. There is a deep sense in which every believer is to submit. Note the reason Paul gives for his command of mutual submission. It is not based on superiority or inferiority, but rather out of reverence for Christ. My submission to Christ, my Savior, my union with him as my Redeemer, calls me to an attitude of submission to fellow members of his body. To respond to Dd’s question, yes, there is a sense in which I, as a husband, am commanded by God to submit to my wife. We dare not overlook the way that verse 21 is connected with the preceding context.

But we also must be careful not to obscure the connection between verse 21 and what follows. Paul takes the concept of mutual submission and applies it to a series of three paired groups found in the Ephesian church: wives and husbands, children and fathers, and slaves and masters. He is showing what that submission looks like in various cases.

When Paul moves to addressing wives, he is not introducing a new topic. The verbs in verses 21 and 22 are the same. In fact, in some of the earliest Greek manuscripts of this letter, the verb “submit” is not stated in verse 22, but is just assumed from verse 21. (Similarly, in verse 24, the verb to submit in the second half of the verse is not expressed, but is picked up from the first half of the verse.) In verse 22 our English translations, and many later Greek manuscripts, supply the verb “submit.” But whether the verb is expressed or assumed, the connection with verse 21 is clear. The submission that Paul instructs wives to give to their husbands, is a specific application of the mutual submission of the previous verse.

To amplify my response to Dd, in addition to the mutual submission my wife and I give to each other, my wife submits to me as the head of our home. She imitates the submission that the church renders to Christ. In turn, Ephesians 5 summons me to love my wife by serving her as Christ loved and served the church. Paul’s words do not do away with authority and responsibility in the home or in the church. But they do challenge us to be consistently biblical in our relationships with one another.

If we look at Ephesians 5 and our primary question is, “to whom do I have to submit?” we have gotten off on the wrong foot. We would do well to look at Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 20:20–28. When the disciples were indignant with James and John for seeking positions of eminence, Jesus pointed out that the seeking of authority was an attitude that characterized the pagan Gentiles. The path to greatness in the kingdom is the pursuit of service. He, the Son of Man, came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Dd suggests that my interpretation of Ephesians is similar to, and perhaps influenced by(?) the exegesis of contemporary egalitarians. To the contrary, look at John Calvin’s comment on Ephesians 5:21: “But as nothing is more irksome to the mind of man than this mutual subjection, he directs us to the fear of Christ, who alone can subdue our fierceness, that we may not refuse the yoke, and can humble our pride, that we may not be ashamed of serving our neighbors.” My concern is with what the text says, not with who may or may not agree with me.

It may seem natural to read Ephesians 5 and to ask, “to whom do I have to submit?” But this passage, like the Beatitudes, turns the standards of the world on their heads. It is not the rich and powerful who are blessed, but the lowly and humble in heart. Similarly, Ephesians summons me to walk in fellowship with Christ and to be filled with his Spirit — and to make that visible by submitting.