Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Submitting to one another

SLW raised some issues concerning complimentarianism and egalitarianism in Genesis on a previous post. Here I wish to discuss a couple of ways that Ephesians 5:21 may be understood. It says,
...submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Two questions arise: whether this should be attached to the preceding or following verses; and who the submission applies to. The second question is the more disputable one, though the former may have implications as how to best answer the latter.

In Ephesians Paul is instructing the believers in Christian behaviour—the Christian walk. Christians have new life in Christ therefore they are no longer to behave like the other Gentiles (Eph 4:17) and stop acting how they did prior to trusting Christ; put off their old self, put on their new self, change they way they think (Eph 4:22-24).

Interspersed in the following verses are several behaviours that need addressing: falsehood, unrighteous anger, theft, laziness, corrupt speech, bitterness, slander, covetness, sexual immorality. Concluding these Paul states,
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, (Ephesians 5:15-18).
There is debate as to whether one does these things in order to be filled, or whether one does these things because he is filled. Nevertheless, what does being filled with the Spirit look like? Paul lists the following:
  1. addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
  2. singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,
  3. giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
  4. submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:19-21)
The structure suggests that submitting to one another is connected to the list of being filled with the Spirit.

Following this Paul talks to husbands and wives. He tells wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives.
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)
The egalitarian interpretation suggests that the passage about submitting (Eph 5:21) applies to everyone in the church; all people within the church are to submit to each other. Thus it (Eph 5:21) is a summary of things to follow, with the subsequent discussion giving specific advice to husbands and wives based on areas they tend to struggle with. Wives are to actually submit to their husbands; that is the command to submit to each other (Eph 5:21) applies in marriage even as women tend to struggle to do so. Men are to love their wives (Eph 5:25, 28, 33) as well as submit (Eph 5:21). But the tendency for the man is not to love the woman in the same way that he loves himself (Eph 5:28). The woman is not specifically told to love as she generally does not find that difficult. The man is not specifically told to submit as he does this more easily.

The complementarian interpretation would see the passage about submitting (Eph 5:21) as be a prelude to the subsequent examples. Verse 21 concludes the previous passage and Paul then gives some specific examples of submission. These are marriage, fatherhood and slavery. In these 3 situations the specific person in the submissive role is reminded that it is still appropriate to submit, even though they (wife, child, bondslave) have equal standing as believers in Christ.

Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21) therefore means that those who are in submissive roles are to submit.
  1. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. (Eph 5:22)
  2. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. (Eph 6:1)
  3. Bondslaves, obey your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, (Eph 6:5)
After each of these Paul adds a command to the people who are being submitted to ensure that they act godly in their actions and not abuse their position.

Some of the debate is over what is meant by "to one another" or "one to another" (Greek allelon) in verse 21. I do not think this can easily be resolved; it almost certainly cannot be if verse 21 is interpreted in isolation. The term "one to another" can mean both "all to all" and "some to all". "All to all" is meant in certain contexts, eg.
Greet one another with a holy kiss. (2Co 13:12)
See also Luk 24:14; Joh 13:34; 15:17; Other contexts can only mean "some to others", eg.
Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, (Rev 6:4)
See also Joh 4:33; Act 26:31. Many other phrases could possibly be read as "all to all" though it would seem more likely that "some to others" is what occurs in any one specific situation, even if these roles are somewhat fluid and change in other specific situations, such as,
Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1Pe 4:9).
See also Gal 6:2; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13; 1Th 5:11.

So the egalitarian interpretation reads this as a summary of what is to follow, and claim all are to submit to each other; the complementarian interpretation reads this as a prelude (and possibly as a conclusion of the preceding verses) and some categories of people are to submit to other categories of people.


  1. Verse 22 seems not to have a verb (English translations repeat the "submiting" from verse 21). To me this sounds as if the items below continue the list of -ing from above... I wonder what you think about the missing verb?

  2. Hi Tim

    Taking out the implied "submits" and removing paragraphing we get

    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. Wives, 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 to their husbands in everything.

    I am not sure this changes anything? The proximity of wives to "submit" in the previous clause in both cases carries the idea of submit across. I don't think this continues a list, but expands the concept.

    I can see why you may consider this a list, but it would be a sub-list. The carry over of a verb would look back to the verb, not back to the list.

    Consider singing. If Paul connected singing specifically to the choir and carried across the verb, then this would create a sub-list; note that such a sub-list would have to be mentioned after the singing and before the giving thanks and submission.

    One could say that wives are told to submit but slaves and children are told to obey, thus the verb "submit" in verse 21 is not expanded by Paul in 3 examples, and hence the list continues. I don't really think this is the case but assuming it is, we have a generic command to submit to one another and a specific command wives to submit to husbands. The egalitarian approach would be the specific is an emphasis (though the passage is not emphatic). The complementarian approach would see this as a specific with a general, implying there are exceptions to the general.

    Compare also Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.

  3. I'm not sure what you meant by the reference to 1 Cor 7, what I found striking there reading again quickly (apart from Paul's puzzling idea that being single is better than being married - that the Catholic Church seems to fit better than mine) was how (almost?) every time he expressed things reciprocally. That was not normal in his culture (whether Jewish or Graeco-Roman), but part of the newness of the gospel!

    On Eph 5 it seems to me that the list and lack of verb in v. 22 means that 22ff. is an example of 21.

  4. Hi Tim, I do think that 21 is a prelude to 22, but I think that anyway, even if the word "submit" was specified and not just alluded to. Note that "submit" is alluded to a second time.

    Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives [should submit] to their husbands in everything.

    So I think it is mainly proximity, but perhaps it strengthens the complementarian interpretation?

    My reference to 1 Corinthians 7 was about how Paul specifies both husband and wife in this passage. He gives specific advice, and mentions both male and female. If Paul had meant that the specific to the female (v22) was part of the general to the male (v21) in Ephesians it would have been preferable for Paul to be specific to the male as well. Interestingly he was specific to the male, but gave him a different command not relating to submission.

  5. Like so often what I talk with reasonable complementarians I don't really know that we are so much disagreeing as putting the emphasis differently. In this case it seems quite clear that Paul is saying that wives should submit to their husbands, I think he is also telling them they should see it as part of a wider submission of each to other in the Christian community, and above all of all to Christ.

    On husbands the odd thing to me is how little Paul addresses them (traditional "household codes" in the Graeco-Roman world were all about how the paterfamilias should rule and govern his household. While here the man is told to love.

    But then I suspect the whole "comp-egal" debate is driven not by real disagreement (both say men and women are equal in Christ, both recognise that men and women complement each other, the differences are of stress and of how far traditional roles are expected to describe this) but by fear of the opposite "side's" extremes. OTOH fear of renewed oppression or even abuse of women OTOH fear of an "equality" that seeks to forcibly remove difference.

    In the process I think the miss what is really radical in this passage, the call in v.21 to submit to one another. Too many churches have hierarchies in which the loud and/or strong dominate.

    1. "when" not "what" in first line and "we" instead of "the" in the first line of the last paragraph.

      Sorry poor proof reading :(

  6. Tim, I think the disagreements are significant. While I attend an egalitarian church, I don't see how a (single) church can be both egalitarian and complimentarian at the same time.

    There may be problems with how churches are structured, though this need not relate to this debate. The desire to be in control is often misplaced, and seeking to place oneself in control is non-biblical.

    I disagree about your assessment of history, I think Christianity has been the true liberator of women and think the current secular trajectories while claiming liberty are offering bondage.

    I haven't written much on the topic of complementarianism (somewhat contentious) though can do if it is of interest. You may be interested in my incomplete series on Genesis. Click on the lapsology label.

  7. Since we do live in fallen society, society which lives under a curse which has males dominant and women frustrated, I think the summary of Paul's instructions concerning husbands and wives in v. 33 serves to illuminate how Christian husbands and wives should relate to other in a fallen world, and clarifies how everything following v. 21 is meant to relate to it.

    Christians should neither resist each other nor exert arbitrary authority over the other--mutual submission. Insofar as marriage is concerned, I do think the instructions in 1 Corinthians 7 tend to support this view. A husband laying down his life for his wife and cherishing her as he does his own flesh is about as non-authoritarian as it gets. Even though there is a certain accommodation that Paul makes throughout his writings for the conventions of fallen society (non-egalitarian marriage, slavery), there is also instructions given as to how to apply Christian egalitarian principles within the practices of fallen society. For a Christian husband to assert that he has final say-so over his wife and that she must submit to his order, is for that man to not understand what it means to be a Christian husband. For a Christian wife to assert that she is free in Christ, and does not need to submit to her husband's wishes is for her to not understand what it means to be a Christian wife.

  8. Hi SLW,

    What I was trying to do here was explain how egalitarians and complementarians would interpret this verse. While I side with one position, I was trying to offer how I have seen this verse approached.

    As to your comments, I am in somewhat agreement with them, though I don't think my (partial) agreement is egalitarian. What we need to distinguish is how God would have us lead and follow, and how this may be abused. Abuse of a truth does not negate the use of a truth. And we need to remember what we are commanded to do, not try and enforce what others are commanded to do.



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