I’m still puzzling through the function of Ephesians 5:21 in its context. My argument was that Ephesians 5:21 was one of several ways that Paul tells us to sow to Spirit, or to be filled by the Spirit. Ephesians 5:22ff., in my view, then work out what it looks like to submit ourselves to other Christians without obliterating any concept of authority structures in our society.
One really fun and helpful resource for Bible study is called the “Exegetical Summaries of the New Testament.” There is one for each book of the NT and they walk you through the different debates and positions regarding the interpretation of almost every clause in the New Testament. For this particular clause, the summary gives us three options.
QUESTION—What is meant by ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ‘being subject to one another’?
1. This clause focuses on an attitude of reciprocal or mutual subjection to one another [AB, Can, CBC, DNTT, Ho, IB, ISBE2, LJ, Lns, MNTC, NCBC, NIC, NTC, Si, St, TD, TH, TNTC, WBC, WeBC (probably)]. This is an attitude of meekness, gentleness, and humility toward one another [St]. There must be within the Christian community a willingness to serve, learn from, and be corrected by any other believer, regardless of age, sex, class, or any other division [TNTC]. Paul is talking about reciprocal subjection within the fellowship of the church [AB, Ho, Lns, NCBC, NIC, NTC], even though, in the following verses, submission is only applied to three of the six groups mentioned, namely wives, children, and slaves [AB, Lns, NCBC, NTC]. This subordination consists of a willingness to respect and honor the needs of others [CBC, ISBE2, NCBC, NIC, TD], even taking precedence over one’s own needs [ISBE2, NCBC, TD].
2. This clause focuses not so much on a reciprocal subjection of Christian to Christian, but on voluntary subjection to the various areas of constituted authority in life [Alf (probably), Ba, EBC, ECWB, EGT, El, Rob]. In the Divine ordering of human life one person is to be subject to another, but this must not be pressed into meaning that even the highest is, in some sense, subject to those beneath him. The husband, in the following verses, is not told to be subject to his wife, nor parents to their children [Rob]. Rather husbands, parents, and masters are told to use their authority in a proper manner, with no abuse of their power [Ba].
3. This clause covers both reciprocal subjection of Christian to Christian as well as to all constituted authority [Cal, Ea]. Where love reigns, believers will mutually minister to each other. Even the authority of kings and governors is held for the service of the community. It is highly proper that all should be exhorted to be subject to each other in their turn [Cal].
So, a quick look at the exegetical summary suggests that my position is the most common (the abbreviations in brackets represent different people who hold the positions). However, there is one big problem. The exegetical summary series is pretty dated. most of the commentaries they survey were written before the 1950’s. In other words, just because my view used to be popular, doesn’t mean it still is.
In fact, my view has taken a serious hit in popularity. Today, many of my favorite commentators are tending toward the second option. In other words, more and more people are suggesting that “submit to one another” doesn’t address how every believer is to relate to every other believer, but only how we are to relate to the people who are in positions of authority over us.
My question is, “why the change?” Of course, any answer to this question is only speculative, but I have been speculating. Wayne Grudem, I think, provides a helpful case study. Grudem has written an article titled, “The myth of mutual submission as an interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 (chapter 7 of BFMW).” In that essay he discusses the rise of feminism, and particularly a part of feminism called egalitarianism. Grudem argues that egalitarians have interpreted Ephesians 5:21 to rule out any possibility of male authority in the home or society. Grudem explains,
And so egalitarians began to claim that Ephesians 5:22 did not really teach any unique authority for the husband in a marriage, because Ephesians 5:21 nullified that idea. Any submission in marriage has to be mutual, and thus male headship in marriage evaporates.
Thus, Grudem recognizes that the previously common interpretation has been used, or rather misused, by egalitarians to explain away what follows in Ephesians 5:22ff.
It is my suspicion that the rising popularity of this second interpretive option of 5:21 is due in large part to an effort to disarm the egalitarian position. Don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming that people are intentionally misrepresenting their views to win a debate, only that our involvement in contemporary debates can sometimes shape the way we read historic texts. As much as possible, we should try to avoid this temptation.
One way to help us avoid interpreting texts solely through our contemporary lens is to read older works. It is a good thing for Christians to dust off their commentaries written by the old dead guys. Reading John Calvin, Martin Luther, Matthew Henry, Charles Hodge, and the like not only give us a glimpse of how this text was applied in other eras, but helps rise the text out of any given cultural milieu and thus reveal a less historically biased approach to the text.
To wrap this up, I admit my position on this verse has lost some popularity, but for what its worth I still think it is the most common even if the margin has narrowed. At least that is what Clinton Arnold claims in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament. And I bring him up so I can close this post with his take on Eph. 5:21
Thus, Paul can say, “be filled with the Spirit … by submitting to one another.” Mutual submission is not just the result of Spirit-filling; it is prerequisite to the reception of grace from the Spirit-endowed members of the body. Thus, it is easy to see from Paul’s perspective that attitudes and behavior reflecting arrogance, harshness, impatience, and intolerance will not only adversely impact the unity of the community, but will also keep believers from effectively ministering to one another. The work of the Spirit is thus effectively hindered.
Although the English term “submit” is viewed in a pejorative way today and is often seen as a sign of weakness or as something one should resist at all costs, it should not be seen in such negative terms here. In general, the verb (ὑποτάσσω) is widely used for the proper social ordering of people, as, for example, warriors giving their allegiance to their commander (e.g., 1 Chr 29:24). Similarly, people living in a certain political jurisdiction are obliged to respect the authority of (ὑποτάσσεσθαι) their local governor. This carries with it the responsibility to live in an orderly manner and not to be seditious or rebellious (Josephus, Ant. 17.314).
As within the social, political, and military spheres that have a leadership structure, Paul will elaborate on his expectation that “submission” should characterize the response of the wife to the husband in the divinely ordered marriage roles (Eph 5:22–33). His appeal here, however, takes an unexpected twist. He calls for all believers to submit “to one another” (ἀλλήλοις), not just to those in leadership roles. By expressing himself this way, Paul subverts the normal usage of the term to convey the idea that all believers should defer to one another in the life of the Christian community.
This is the same countercultural attitude that Jesus commended to his disciples when they sought positions of preeminence in the coming kingdom. Jesus condemned the mind-set of the Gentile leaders who sought to “lord it over” (κατακυριεύω) people and taught that members of his new community need to become servants of one another, following his own example (Mark 10:42–45). Paul’s desire for these believers is similar to what he longs for in the Philippian community, that they “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” that they humbly consider one another in the community as more important than themselves, and that they look not only to their own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil 2:3–4; see also Rom 12:10).