Submission in marriage often comes with lots of negative baggage. In fact, many people refer to submission as the “S”-word.
Let’s review the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. He begins Ephesians chapter 5 talking about walking in love; then the dangers of immorality and impurity; filthiness and silly talk; idolatry; deception and empty words; darkness and light; wisdom; spirit-filled living; worshiping the Lord, and always giving thanks. It appears there was a lot going on in Ephesus that Paul addressed before he talked about marriage.
In this passage, Paul states a previously unheard-of, culture-shattering command. He introduces a revolutionary New Testament concept that focused on mutual submission: “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21). Note that this other-centered command was not only for husbands and wives but for all followers of Christ. In the next verse, Paul states; “Wives be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” It is important to note that the words “be subject” are written in italics indicating they are not found in the original text. Literally verse 22 reads, “Wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.” Unfortunately, the New International Version and many other translations don’t make note of this.
It is also important that nowhere in this passage is a wife commanded to submit to the authority of her husband. Our experience is often traditional-hierarchical-complementarian marriage proponents automatically connect submission to authority. The reality is that there are only a few Bible texts that focus on submission in marriage.
A related passage is in the Apostle Peter’s Epistle where he instructes a wife to be submissive to her husband (1 Peter 3:1). Similar to the Ephesians passage on mutual submission, Bible interpreters often pay little attention when Peter states “In the same way” and “You husbands likewise”. These commands highlight mutuality and mutual submission between a husband and wife. Re-read Peter’s pastoral letter, his overall theme was not submission, but “the true grace of God” in the life of every believer.
Men and women who support traditional-hierarchical-complementarian marriage views often ask people with a mutual authority marriage position (egalitarian and God’s original design marriage views) to cite a Bible verse where a husband is commanded to submit to his wife. The response is typically Ephesians 5:21, which clearly commands every person to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” These people believe ”one another” includes husbands and wives. But the truth is that there is no biblical command that specifically says, “Husbands submit to wives.”
We believe the mutual submission commanded to all Christ-followers in Ephesians 5:21 includes husbands, wives, and single men and women. Furthermore, there are many “one another” and “each other” passages in the Bible. For example, in John 13:34, Jesus addresses both men and women with a new command “that you also love one another.” Galatians 5:13 says, “Through love serve one another.” Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another.” Romans 12:10 says, “Be devoted to one another; … give preference to one another.” Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.”
From these examples, it is clear that the phrase “one another” applies to both men and women. So why would the command “be subject to one another” in Ephesians 5:21, which precedes marriage instructions, be any different?
Reviewing these and many other “one another” texts, none are gender exclusive. If a person takes what we consider a hyper-legalistic approach based on the position that husbands are not specifically commanded to submit to wives, our response is to ask them to cite an exact book, chapter, and verse that commands “do not smoke cigarettes” or “do not shoot heroin.” Everyone agrees these are important components to living a healthy lifestyle, yet they are not specifically commanded in the Bible.
It is unwise for a person to build their theology based on the silence of Scripture. The fact that the Bible does not command a husband to submit to his wife should not be used to build a case for male hierarchy, male leadership, or female subordination. Especially in light of the passages that command mutual submission and mutual authority, as well as over fifty “one another” and “each other” passages that clearly apply to all men and women—many of whom are husbands and wives.
The apostle Paul understood authority and hierarchy; if he wanted to, he could have clearly designated a hierarchy where the man had authority over his wife. In the first verse of the next chapter he commanded, “Children, obey your parents.” Likewise, Paul could have easily commanded, “Wives, obey your husbands,” but he didn’t. Instead, he introduced to a patriarchal culture a new, revolutionary view of mutual submission in marriage. He also introduced a new concept of headship where the husband was commanded to nourish, cherish, and be willing to die for his wife.
It’s interesting to note that at the end of Ephesians 5, the apostle Paul goes back to the beginning. He returns to God’s original marriage principles and quotes Genesis 2:24: “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh.”
In Ephesians 5, Spirit-filled mutual submission is the central principle that is then applied in slightly different ways to husbands and wives in a marriage relationship. God’s overall theme for life as well as for marriage is mutual submission and reciprocal servanthood. Rather than placing an inordinate focus on submission—even mutual submission—we focus on love.
The reality is that it’s possible to submit without love, but it’s impossible to love without submitting. Bottom line, after all is said and done, love is the ball game.
Adapted with permission from chapter 9 of the book Together: Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage,
¹For more on Peter’s emphasis on mutuality in marriage read Likewise women…Likewise husbands, by Marg Mowczko.