Mutual Submission: Following the Way of Christ

"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God...submitting yourselves to one another in reverence for Christ." --Ephesians 5:1-2, 21



"Wives, [submit] to your own husbands, as to the Lord." v.22

Where does v.22 of Ephesians 5 begin in your church, the sermons you listen to or Bible study? Is it on its own? Does it pose as the start of a sermons series on how men and women are different?

Context is everything and where one begins and ends in their reading says something about how one views the world. Nick and I are egalitarians. In an evangelical context this means we believe the Bible teaches the mutual submission of Christians within the church and home. When it comes to gender, this means that no individual makes unilateral decisions or has more authority based only on gender. This means we defer to one another according to our gifting and tend to make decisions together where possible.

At our wedding, we had Ephesians 5:1-2, 21-33 read. We chose this arrangement because the larger context of v.22 "wives [submit] to your own husbands" is actually the entire church imitating God in loving one another to the extent they are willing to sacrifice themselves. After explaining what this looks like generally, v.21 transitions us into marriage as an example of how much Christ loved the church. Everyone, including husbands and wives should submit themselves to one another in reverence for Christ.

How do we know that v.21 does go with v.22? Well, there is no verb "submit" in v.22. It is added in English Bibles (usually put in italics) because it is inferred from v.21. Wives submitting to their husbands is part of the larger picture of mutual submission.

Although women are addressed first (unheard of in ancient household codes), husbands are told again what everyone was already told in vv.1-2; that is to be willing to lay down their lives for others--in this case their wife! They are also supposed to regard their wives as part of their own body. The reasoning is that because the wife is part of the husband's own body it would be stupid not to honor and take care of her! In the Old Testament (also a world where women were financially dependent on men) not being taken care of by one's husband was grounds for a divorce. 

Regarding others as part of the same body of Christ is a larger theme of Ephesians (maybe Nick and I will do a Bible study on it one day). In fact, it sounds very Christian to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself anyway. Still, despite the reality that nowhere in Ephesians 5 are husbands told how to, or even to lead their households somehow some people still read Ephesians 5 as prescribing male and female differences that include "servant" leadership for the husband and "submission" for women. Usually v.21 is not read with v.22 or when it is, it is still somehow explained in terms of men leading. 

Why? If we were looking purely at the text and not tackling any cultural or political reasons, it would come down to a metaphor that English speakers take for granted is the same for everyone else: "head" = leadership. In Koine Greek it is difficult to assign leadership as a likely or valid meaning for kephale (read Philip Payne or Richard Cervin on this). A better fit is "preeminence" with the sense of "source." If one understands Paul's metaphor this way, the husband is being described not as an authority figure, but as a source of nourishment for his body--the wife. He too must follow Christ's example and lay down his life for the body (i.e. his wife). In fact, grammatically "head" and "savior" are in a relationship of apposition meaning Paul gives you "savior" to understand what he means by his metaphor "head." To be the head of the body is to be life-giving and willing to die for it, not specifically to lead it.

In today's world we don't like the idea of "submitting" to anyone, but at times rather like the idea of others deferring to us. In Paul's day and in much of the world today men are the default leaders and women subordinate. In the United States, this is still the case in its own way in the culture of many churches with the extreme opposite among many radical feminists who put their classical liberal counterparts to shame. This message of mutual submission is timely (as it always is!). We are not to think in terms of zero sum (if you then not me), but in terms of us all being interconnected and patterning ourselves after the model of Christ. That is, submitting, even in the ultimate sense to the other and seeing Christ in the other so that our relationships are defined not by seeking authority for ourselves but by at times giving it up out of reverence for Christ who is the gift God gave us.