I am in the middle of a bit of a friendly debate with a good friend of mine. To the best of my understanding, there is no significant theological difference, but there is a bit of a difference concerning the best way to interpret the command to submit in Eph. 5:21ff (ff is shorthand for “and following”). I’ll try to briefly give the two positions, and explain why I think I’m right.
Let me start with where the passage starts, and where we both agree. Paul is arguing, as he does in many of his letters, that the gospel has implications in our lives. In the first three chapters he explains the gospel with considerable clarity. Starting in chapter 4 Paul begins to urge us to live in a manner consistent with that gospel.
Part of living in a manner consistent with the gospel is being filled with the Spirit. This, I believe, is another way to talk about the same principle he discussed in Gal. 5 where he used the language “sew to the Spirit.” The basic premise is this, God saves us so that we are free from the penalty of our sin, but that we progressively experience this freedom as we cultivate our awareness and responsiveness to Him.
This is exactly what Paul commands in Ephesians 5:18. Stop getting drunk with wine, this only leads to debauchery. Getting drunk is the kind of behavior that sows to the flesh and prevents you from experiencing the full freedom of your salvation. Instead of getting drunk, you should be getting full of the Spirit. In other words, don’t do the things that prevent you from experiencing the joys and freedoms of knowing God, instead do things that help you experience those joys and freedoms.
So what can we do to sow to the Spirit? What kinds of behavior help us experience those joys and freedoms? Paul immediately gives us three things to do in order to be filled with the Spirit: (1) address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, (2) give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, (3) submitt to one another out of reverence for Christ. When we make these kind of practices and behaviors a habit in our life we sow to the Spirit and put ourselves in a position to more fully experience his joy and freedom in our life.
So far, I think my friend and I agree. Where we differ is the relationship of what comes next to what we have just discussed. Paul follows this section with what is sometimes referred to as the household code. It discusses the relationship between a husband and wife, a child and parent, and finally a slave and a master. My friend argues that rightly participating in these relationships are the 4th, 5th, and 6th way we sow to the Spirit and enjoy freedoms of new life in Christ.
I don’t entirely disagree, but I think that misses, or at least greatly underemphasizes, an important connection between these household codes and the 3rd point. In fact, I believe that these household codes are given as practical examples of what it means to do what is commanded in verse 21. The relationships described in verses 22ff are examples of submitting to one another. So in this context, 5:22ff are not new or different ways to be filled with the Spirit, but specific examples of one particular way to be filled with the Spirit; namely submitting to one another.
So why would Paul need to give these codes in connection to verse 21? The reason is because the word submit, in its normal usage, evokes ideas of obedience. This is fine in certain relationships, but in other relationships the concept of submitting would seem out of place. It is easy for someone to understand how a child should submit to their parents, but is there any meaningful way that a parent can submit to their child?
If the answer is no, then we should interpret verse 21’s charge to submit to one another in a somewhat limited sense. We would assume Paul certainly doesn’t mean that I submit to everyone in the church, but only those in authority over me. However, I think Paul gives these household codes to show us that there is a meaningful way that every Christian is able to submit to every other Christian they are in relationship to. This isn’t merely a command for people under authority, it is a command for people in authority too.
So, if I am correct, what would submission look like when applied to both sides of an authority based relationship. For those under authority, it looks much like we expect: respect and obedience. The distinction between spirit filled submission and an every day garden variety of submission found in the world is the spirit in which one obeys. Wives submit, but not as if they are merely submitting to their husbands, but as if they are obeying the Lord. Children get a similar command with regard to obedience. Slaves, perhaps, get the most expansive explanation of the distinction between Christian submission and worldly submission to those in power. The Christian’s submission is different not primarily in form, but in spirit because it is characterized by joy and sincerity.
These examples of submission are certainly unique, but they don’t significantly stretch the way we typically understand the concept of submission. They they don’t help us think through how those who are in authority might submit. But, if I am understanding Eph. 4:21 correctly, submitting to one another is a two-way street. It is not simply that those under authority submit to those in authority, the command is that we submit to one another.
So how does one in authority submit to the person he leads? He submits in the same way Christ submitted himself to the church. He loves and sacrificially gives himself for the person he leads. Husbands are clearly the chief picture here as marriage is specially designed to display this relationship, but the general principle, it appears, applies more broadly. We submit to those whom we lead by denying ourselves for their good. I submit to those I lead by mimicking Christ and considering their needs to be more important than my own.
In this sense, submission obviously means something other than obedience. Christ doesn’t obey the church. Nevertheless, I think there is a meaningful way of talking about Jesus submitting himself to the church. We mean something along the lines of Philippians 2 where we are called to consider the interests and needs of others as more important than our own. We are called to a form of self denial where my needs and desires are submitted to those of the people I am called to lead.
To be clear, I think Eph. 5:21ff teaches that all of us should mutually submit to each other in the sense that we consider others as more important than ourselves. This does not obliterate the existence of authority structures. Eph. 5:22ff explicitly point out that authority structures such as husband/wife, parent/child, and slave/master can exist in a real and functional way without rendering mutual submission impossible. Mutual submission doesn’t mean that obliterate the concept of authority in our relationships (I understand that some people have argued this, but that is not what I mean by mutual submission).
What’s at Stake
So why does this debate even matter? I don’t want to overstate the importance of this debate. I don’t think the gospel or any serious point of theology is hanging in the balance. We are wrestling over each others souls here. Nevertheless, we both feel that the debate matters, though perhaps for different reasons.
My friend is concerned that, at worst, my interpretation functionally abolishes any form of authority. He argues that if, for instance, parents are told to submit to their children then they are left without the right or responsibility to tell their children what to do. Or at least, if they do tell their children what to do, they need to allow their children to tell them what to do sometimes as well.
My response to this objection is that this is only possible if we ignore Paul’s whole point (to which he agrees, though as already covered he disagrees about what that point is). Paul’s point, as I understand it, is that there is a requirement to submit to each other in a way that takes serious and does not destroy authority relationships. I think Paul is using these relationships to teach husbands, parents, and bosses that we can exercise authority in a way that simultaneously submits ourselves to someone else.
My friend’s other concern is that my interpretation stretches word meaning beyond any reasonable bounds. He argues that submit means and can only mean to obey. Once we change the meaning of submit to something more like “sacrificially deny yourself for the benefit of another,” we so change the word so drastically that it looses any communicative power.
My response to that is that words almost never have a single meaning, instead they have what we call a semantic range. That is, a word’s meaning is best determined by how it functions in that particular context and not how it was used in a previous context. To demonstrate the concept of semantic range, I think we can actually use the word submit. When we talk about a wrestler who submits to his opponent, we don’t mean the same thing as when we say a child submits their parent. One refers to tapping out because of the pain. The other refers to our concept of obedience. Of course, there is a degree of semantic overlap there, but now we are back to the exact argument I am trying to make. Submission can have a broad sense that applies to every person in an authority relationship, and a more narrow sense that applies more narrowly to the one who is under authority. Words actually are pliable tools and they always have been.
But what if I am right and my friend is wrong? What is lost by him if he doesn’t come on board? Again, nothing quite as major a one’s salvation. This isn’t a heresy issue. Nevertheless, I think my friend’s interpretation of this passage runs the risk of missing two significant implications of the text.
First, by describing Christ’s love as a submissive love, I think we actually get a more full understanding of what Biblical love is. Biblical love is sacrificial love. It is love that submits myself for the good of another. We live in a culture that defines love primarily in terms of feelings. Christ’s love however isn’t described primarily as enjoying His church, but by enduring suffering for the benefit of His church. Removing the concept of submission from the definition of love risks a shallow understanding of what true love is.
I would assume that my friend would respond that there are plenty of passages that teach that love sacrifices for its object. Romans 5:8, for instance, explains that God demonstrates His love in this, that while we were sinners Christ died for us. So, even if his interpretation minimized this component of love in this particular passage, it in no way denies it as a general principle.
The other thing that I think is at risk in my friends interpretation of this passage is that it misses what I believe is a fairly simple and universal argument. It is clear that the first to ways to be filled with the Spirit are applicable universally. All Christians of all times and in all places are able to sing to one another and to give thanks with each other. I think continuing the triad with another universal command to submit to one another both makes sense and provides a valuable consistency to the argument of the passage.
That is the debate in a nutshell. Granted, not much hangs on who wins this one. I’m not convinced either of us will convince the other, nor that it is of any great importance that we do so. So why bother? Let me list three reasons why I think this is worth our time.
- It’s the Bible. 2 Tim. 3:16 promises that this passage is profitable (or useful) for teaching rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness. Wrestling with God’s word brings a reward. Of course, this reward is available only if we wrestle with the text and submit to it. But those things come in that order. There is no meaningful way to submit to a text if I am unwilling to read it and wrestle with its meaning.
- Further, God’s word is only profitable to the degree that we rightly interpret it. Sloppy interpretation doesn’t produce profitable results, it produces cults and false doctrine. Granted, I don’t think either position is teetering on the edge of heresy, but passages like this are where we learn the skills to responsibly interpret the Bible. Michael Jordan didn’t wake up one morning dunking a basketball. He practiced. This is my practice. You may want to practice in a different way, but you ought to practice.
- This particular text is one that not many people in our culture like because not many people in our culture like authority. This compels me to interpret this passage all the more carefully. Knowing that this text will be difficult for many people makes me want to be all the more careful when I study it.