One of the most popular buzz phrases in the gender discussion is “mutual submission”. I see it all the time and it is often laid down as a conversation stopper, a trump card of sort. The notion of "mutual submission", a fairly recent invention, is based primarily on a single passage of Scripture, Ephesians 5:21, that allegedly commands all Christians to submit, without distinction or definition, to one another. That is a bold claim and one that bears examination. If it is true, then centuries of gender relationships in the church and home are out of step with the Bible. If it is false, as I will assert, then what we are seeing today is an attempt to subvert the teaching of Scripture and replacing it with a culturally palatable sidestepping of a crucial relationship.
(More after the break)
To begin with, we need to look at the verse in question in context. Ephesians 5:21 is part of a longer sentence so I am going to reprint Ephesians 5: 15-21 (emphasis on verse 21 added):
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph 5:15-21)
Well there you have it! Case closed! Or maybe not.
This is a contentious topic and one that I think a lot of people would rather just sweep under the proverbial rug or just go with the contemporary interpretation of egalitarianism. I just don’t see that as an option and I think it is very, very important which is why I keep returning to it even though it upsets people. From the very beginning God made man and woman, each in a unique, wonderful and complementary way. Throughout the Bible the relationship between men and women, specifically the relationship between husbands and wives, is crucial to the Biblical narrative. Adam and Eve. Abraham and Sarah. Jacob and Rachel. David and Bathsheba. Joseph and Mary. Christ and His Church. The husband and wife relationship is one of the most crucial in Scripture and because it has such a prominent place in Scripture, it demands a careful study and a humble heart to follow the teachings of Holy Writ.
In my previous post on Voddie Baucham’s new book, I made some pretty strong statements regarding the importance of male leadership in the home. I fully expected some backlash and if I am honest I was a bit intentional in making bold statements to garner a response. I think we spend too much time in sullen silence about these issues and when we do bring them up the conversation often gets ugly in a hurry. Any topic that gets this much attention in Scripture demands that we face up to the issue squarely and in humble submission to the Bible as our authoritative source. I am not super interested in anecdotal “evidence” or impassioned pleas. What I am interested in is a consistent interpretation of Scripture.
Male headship or patriarchy, whatever you call it, is often described as a system of one person dominating or ruling over another. Who wants to defend that?! I agree that any system of domination between believers should be stamped out. I also strongly reject the notion that male leadership in the home is inherently a system of domination. As I have written before, I cannot make my wife submit to me and have no interest in doing so. That doesn’t mean that she is not called to do just that. Her submission is first and foremost a response in love and an act of obedience to Christ, not primarily obedience to me. I lead and trust in her to submit and follow. I cannot make her submit to my leadership and she cannot make me love her.
Back to the topic at hand, i.e. Ephesians 5:21 and “mutual submission”. Why do I have a problem with treating Ephesians 5:21 as Paul’s “final word” on the topic? Simply put, it is unsupportable from Scripture. If anything Ephesians 5:21 can best be described as dealing with general submission, submission of one Christian to another. Paul doesn’t stop there. Rather he goes on to drill down and get specific by talking about specific and unique relationships. The truth that unfolds from Paul’s teaching is that the way that I react and respond to other Christians is not the same as the way that I interact with my wife or with my children. The relationship between me and my wife is far deeper by its very nature than simply the relationship between two Christians. Likewise, the relationship between my wife and I and our children is different than our relationship as husband and wife. My wife and I will be in the same basic relationship till death do us part. My children will grow up, get married and move out and start families of their own. They will always be my children and we will always be their parents but our relationship will of necessity change as they grow and enter new seasons in their lives. The relationship between husbands and wives is unique and special in the church and the family by design and there is no other relationship between individual Christians that rises to this level. In light of these indisputable truths, Ephesians 5:21 is best understood not as Paul’s “final word” on the topic but rather his "first " and most unspecific word, a high level, general word immediately followed in a great deal of detail. In other words, an introduction rather than a conclusion.
I find the “mutual submission” notion applied to marriage as just a terrible interpretation because it flat out ignores the very next verse and the following context, all of which clearly call men to love their wives as Christ loved the church and for wives to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord”. Let us look once again at these very familiar passages of Scripture, starting with Ephesians 5:22:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)
In no other place in Scripture do we see the relationship between Jesus Christ and His church compared this closely to human relationships. When we look to Christ in our marriage, there is not a one size fits all commandment (i.e. “mutual submission”) but very specific and direct correlations. This is a very powerful and crucial teaching: the relationship between husbands and wives is directly and specifically compared to the relationship between Christ and the church. Unless you are willing to say that Christ submits to the church, you cannot take Ephesians 5:21 as a trump card to override the very specific passages dealing with specific relationships that follow. If Christ is not to submit to the church but rather to love her, then husbands cannot be declared to be called to submit to their wives but rather to love them as Christ loved the church and be willing to lay down their lives for them, literally and figuratively.
Let’s look at another passage that is part of the flow here
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4)
What is being described here? Is it a “mutual submission” relationship? Obviously not. As a parent I am called to love my children, train them, care for and provide for them. Submit to them? Not in any sense I can imagine. So can we say that when Paul, continuing his unbroken train of thought, speaks submission regarding children and parents he means one thing but when he speaks of submission regarding husbands and wives he means something else? I am not comparing the relationship between husbands and wives and the relationship between parents and children because they clearly are different but I am making a simple statement: Ephesians 5:21 is not the end of the conversation when it comes to submission and Paul clearly is teaching that there are different ways believers relate to one another, especially in the context of the family.
When it comes to this idea of “mutual submission” in the marriage relationship, I get it. I really do! I understand that well meaning people want to see the whole Body of Christ functioning and ministering and nobody, least of all me, wants to see anyone in an abusive relationship. I don’t think that the majority of people who disagree with me are secret agents embedded in the church by NOW and the ACLU or that they have as their mission a desire to willfully disobey Scripture. There are some people like that, people who use egalitarianism as a vehicle for undermining Scripture as a whole (Rachel Held Evans comes to mind) but the majority of people I interact with are sincere brothers and sisters who I would joyfully fellowship with and serve alongside in spite of our strongly held differences on this issue.
This is a difficult topic. Many of the conversations are filled with lots of emotional talk about "being liberated". Liberated from what? Scriptural teaching? We should be very hesitant to celebrate being "liberated" from what Scripture teaches. Would we celebrate being liberated from our calling to love our neighbor? Or proclaiming the Gospel to the lost? What about fellowshipping with the saints? Avoiding or neglecting the commandments of God is not “liberation”. These clear teachings are not something to be avoided or ignored. They are rather the sign of a loving relationship with Christ (If you love Me, keep My commandments).
We cannot rely on emotions or anecdotes or personal experience or the contemporary culture to define how we relate as husbands and wives in the church. Men cannot get out of their responsibility and calling to lead the family by abdicating that calling to their wives. Wives need men to be exhorted and encouraged to lead in the home so that they can function in their own calling and role. The last thing that our sisters need is an undermining of male leadership in the home by leaders in the church. We need more men to step up, not step back. We aren't helping our sisters by glossing over the unique and crucial calling of men to be servant leaders in the home and the church.
(For a more technical examination of this question, read Wayne Grudem’s article for the Council On Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, The Myth of “Mutual Submission” )