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‘Mutual submission’? Scrutinizing a lazy slogan

A furore has indeed erupted over the use of the dreaded ‘s’-word in certain proposed new marriage vows. The word ‘submit,’ of course, comes from the Bible (e.g. Ephesians 5:22-24); the proposed vows are an attempt to give couples the option of using biblical terminology in place of the traditional, often misunderstood, term in the prayer book: ‘obey.’ The inclusion of the ‘s’-word, however, has caught many people’s eye (and ire). It needs to be said that the word ‘submit’ can never be understood alone. The concept of submission in marriage is always part of a package deal. It’s one side of a double-sided coin: the other side is the husband’s responsibility to sacrifice himself for his wife, loving her tenderly and caring for her (e.g. Ephesians 5:25-30). That, in itself, should rule out any suggestion of abuse of women by men.

However, sometimes in their further desire to rule out any suggestion of abuse or power struggles in marriage, some Christians will refer to a catchy little slogan: ‘mutual submission.’ The slogan is supposed to be a summary of a verse which occurs just before the relevant passage in Ephesians:

“… submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)

When the slogan ‘mutual submission’ is used, it’s usually designed to make the following argument:

  1. Ephesians 5:21 clearly means that everyone must submit to everyone else without exception (‘mutual submission’)
  2. This ‘mutual submission’ in Ephesians 5:21 must be used to override / temper / change the meaning of the passage about submission in marriage.
  3. Thus husbands must submit to wives just as much as wives submit to husbands.

However, this logical argument is flawed.

Firstly, “…submitting to one another” does not necessarily mean that everyone must submit to everyone else without exception. It could mean that, but it doesn’t have to. The term ‘one another’ has a wide range of meanings. In some passages, the term ‘one another’ just means that some people are doing something to some other people. Revelation 6:4 talks about people “slaying one another”; it just means that some people were killing other people, not that everybody was killing everybody else simultaneously. The same goes for ‘judging’ in Romans 14:13. You can’t make a dogmatic decision about what “submitting to one another” means until you’ve read the rest of the passage.

Secondly, the idea that Ephesians 5:21 must be used to override / temper / change the meaning of Ephesians 5:22-24 is a very bad way to read the Bible. The tried-and-true method to read the Bible is to use the passages that we find clear to interpret the meaning of passages that we find unclear. But the ‘mutual submission’ argument does the exact opposite: it uses an ambiguous verse (“submitting to one another”) to override the complementarity which is spelt out clearly in the following verses. Ephesians 5:22-6:9 lists a number of different kinds of relationship (wife / husband; children / father; slaves / masters). In each relationship, the first party is called on to voluntarily submit, while the second party is called on to care for the first party in a way which has the first party’s best interests at heart. Submission and care are clearly related to each other, but they’re not the same thing. So “submitting to one another” can’t mean that everybody submits to everybody else.

By all means, let’s call on husbands to man up, to take their responsibilities seriously, to sacrifice themselves for their wives, to treat their wives with tender care and respect, and to hate any kind of abuse. But let’s not use ‘mutual submission’ to do it. In fact, I reckon we should avoid using the slogan entirely. It’s lazy, and it’s a bad way to read the Bible.

For more: check out Tim Challies’s summary of Peter O’Brien’s Ephesians commentary.

62 thoughts on “‘Mutual submission’? Scrutinizing a lazy slogan

  1. Lionel, in your first point, I think another example where a command to do something to one another is distributive not universal is in 1 Corinthians 11:33. There Paul says, “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other.” You can see this from the prior context of the discussion in chapter 11, especially 1 Cor 11:21. Paul is clearly saying something like this: Whoever gets there first should wait for those who are later. It would be ridiculous to say those who get there later should then wait for those who were early. By then, of course, you can all eat together!

    • Hi Sandy–yes!! In fact, it would be impossible for “wait for one another” to mean “everybody has to wait for everybody else”… Otherwise the Corinthians would be ending up in an endless loop of bizarre politeness (“After you”, “No, after you,” “No, I insist”), and whoever goes first would be end up being the loser who breaks God’s command.

  2. Agreed Lionel .Good clarification . There needs to a leader when there is unresolved controversy and a final decision needs to be made . I think to be fair though, there is a bit of “both and” in some circumstances ( otherwise Dad would always be right ) .
    Men, being the weaker party , like to assert themselves on occasions, and not always when its appropriate to insist ( when a final ruling required)
    These words of mine are mine and I have not yet checked with my wife whether she agrees with me. Who cares if she does . I will talk to her though and submit if she can convince me of the errors in my thinking .

  3. So what do we do with the commands to “love one another”, “bear with one another” and “forgive one another”? Aren’t they in the same category as the command to “submit to one another”? And can we so easily dismiss a Biblical command by calling it a lazy slogan?

    • I don’t see Lionel dismissing the command anywhere in the article. In fact, he affirms it in the second-to-last paragraph.

      I think this paragraph is the pivotal point in the argument, rather than the one preceding it (to which you, it appears, object). To say that “submit to one another” in Ephesians 5:21 calls for identical submission of husbands to wives as wives to husbands is to (seemingly deliberately) ignore the distinct commands given immediately afterwards in 5:22-33. Furthermore, as Lionel identifies, such an interpretation would direct contradict the commands given in Ephesians 6:1-4 or 6:5-9. And if 5:21 is to trump 5:22-33, then why not let it trump 6:1-4 also and tell parents to submit to their children’s wishes?

      So, contrary to the presupposition in your final question, Lionel argues that we shouldn’t dismiss the Biblical command – for husbands to sacrifice themselves for their wives and for wives to submit to their husbands – by misinterpreting one verse in contradiction to its adjacent verses.

  4. No biblical command is being called a ‘lazy slogan’ Grae. A concept that needs clarification, “mutual submission’ being used as though it means it overrides the complimentary roles of husbands and wives.

    The commands to love one-another does of course mean each loves the other. Bear with one another means we need to do this with each other; but most likely at different times depending on when we need to bear another. It’s the same with ‘forgive one another.’

    I think that behind your question is the assumption that any command that involves ‘one another’ means we do the same thing in the same way to each other. But that can only be determined from the context, as Lionel shows us from his very helpful post.

    • No Phillip, that was not the assumption behind my question. I was simply questioning whether the assertion that some of the “one anothers” in Scripture NOT meaning everyone all the time necessarily means that submitting to one another is in that category. However I do note that Lionel says that it “could” mean everyone all the time. I don’t believe that verse 21 “overrides” the following verses. I also don’t believe that the following verses mean we have to reinterpret what seems a very clear and simple command in verse 21. I think that the latter may also be “a very bad way to read the Bible.” Harmonising v21 and the following verses is indeed a challenge though – and therein, I suppose, is the argument.

      • Grae, I’m sorry to say it but there’s some basic logic in my post which, as your comments show, you have failed to grasp. You said that in your initial comment about my post you were:

        questioning whether the assertion that some of the “one anothers” in Scripture NOT meaning everyone all the time necessarily means that submitting to one another is in that category.

        That question is quite beside the point; neither I nor anyone else was making this logical step.

        Let me spell out my logic again. My point was that, given the various other passages in Scripture, verse 21 can mean either:

        A. everybody submits to everybody (i.e. the common ‘mutual submission’ assumption), or:

        B. some people submit to some other people

        and there’s no way to be dogmatic about whether verse 21 means A. or B. until you’ve read the rest of the passage.

        When you do read vv. 22ff., you see some very clear examples of B. You also see some clear indications that some people (i.e. husbands) have to care for other people (i.e. wives) deeply and sacrificially. But this isn’t what the word ‘submission’ means, it’s something else. There’s no indication in vv. 22ff that A is true.

        So you are driven by the context, and by the normal rules of reading a text, to conclude that v. 21 means B., not A.

  5. A couple of other matters which are relevant.

    Firstly the instruction for wives to submit to their husbands is not unique to Ephesians 5:22ff. It also occurs elsewhere in Paul, Colossians 3:18, where there is no mention of anything that looks like symmetrical mutual submission. Ditto for Titus 2:5. In addition, it occurs in another NT author, the apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 3:1,6. Once again, there is nothing in the context that looks remotely like symmetrical mutual submission. Notably there is no example anywhere in Scripture where husbands are told to submit to their wives.

    Secondly, the meaning of the actual Greek word (“hupotasso”). It means submission to an authority, and it is unidirectional. It is always used in contexts where the meaning is of submission to someone in authority. E.g. citizens to governing authorities, church members to elders, servants to masters, Christians to God, angels to Christ, Jesus as a young boy to his parents, and wives to their own husbands, as in the 4 examples above. In fact, leaving aside the disputed occurrence in Eph 5:21, can anyone find a single example of the word being used of humans in the New Testament (or elsewhere in ancient Greek literature) where it means something like ‘mutual submission’ or ‘being caring and respectful’ or ‘putting others ahead of yourself’. Those supposed meanings for the Greek word just do not exist in reality.

    • See my comment later in the thread. Yes, of course, there are examples in Greek literature of a king submitting to his subjects, and Christians are to submit to their neighbours.

      It is absurd to assert that these examples don’t exist. This is the problem with assuming male authority. Authority needs to be related to accuracy and reliability not to genitalia.

  6. I know I’m breaking the comment policy here by not using my real full name, but I hope you still publish my comment, because there is a reason for anonymity.
    The issue of the status of women in the church and in relationships is a huge and potentially hurtful issue. I’m normally a pretty self-assured woman, but commenting here, where people could see my real name – people who know me could see me saying something they think is wrong or even heretical – is frankly terrifying.
    I don’t think that I am meant to be lesser than men simply because of my gender. I know those who promote submission say that isn’t what they preach, but that’s how it works in practice. That’s how it has always felt to me – that no matter my capabilities, I’m never to be ‘in charge’ because I have the wrong genitalia. Men are always the leader, women always submit. Sorry, but I don’t think God sees me as less capable just because I’m female.
    I’d also remind you that the second party in each of the three relationships listed was considered property of the male of the household when this was written. Paul elevated women, children, and slaves to a height that was radical for that society. Pushing wifely submission now, 2000 years on, seems like a regression, whereas Paul’s instructions were – at the time – hugely progressive.
    I’ve already said a lot (and given I’m not following your rules I’m unsure you’ll even publish this) but there’s one more thing I’d like to mention. This article and all the discussion on submission and roles always ignores singles. We’re the invisible members of the church, and many of us are getting really frustrated and tired of it. We’re subtly told we’re inferior or incomplete because we aren’t married. Women like me get the subtle message (and for some people, they’re told it outright) that we’re too assertive, too feminist, not the good submissive Christian type. You may not like to hear it, but there are those of us who are in the church but don’t fit the Christian happy families stereotype. And many feel hurt and discouraged and ignored because we don’t see the church acknowledging us. Instead, we see the church getting narrower and narrower in the acceptable ways to be a good Christian. I worry this is pushing people away – I worry it will push me away from the institutional church.
    I’ve rambled too long and too far from the original post, but I hope you do read and consider my concerns, whether you agree with them or not.

    • As one of the bloggers here, this is one time I am OK with an anonymous comment. Thank you for acknowledging that complementarians like me who uphold ‘submission’ (carefully explained) are not preaching inferiority. But I also hear that you are saying this is how it feels to you and how you think it works in practice.

      As I can guess you understand, in the end, someone like me feels conscience-bound to follow what they believe the Bible says (rightly understood). That’s because I believe Jesus is Lord and risen from the grave, and I am duty-bound to believe what he believes, and I am convinced he believes that humans do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, that Scripture cannot be broken and so forth.

      Personally I have come to my ‘conservative’ view against what I grew up with and against what I first thought was reasonable. I was a reluctant ‘convert’ to recognising some gender differences in Scripture for church and marriage.

      So in the end, I cannot simply make my mind up on what feels unfair, or is found to be hurtful by some, or will make us lees effective in attracting people to church. (Otherwise, there’s lots of other beliefs from the New Testament that I would jettison too). Instead I need to follow what I believe Scripture says.

      So to change the minds of people like me require convincing us from Scripture. And anyone who looks into the issue knows that these days that means fairly detailed and sometimes nuanced discussion of the text of Scripture, as well as some attention to the background (as best as we can research it).

      And many people claim that’s just being picky over words, or crushing people’s desires with pharisaical arguments and so on or missing the forest for the trees, to change image. But I am saying, along with many other ‘conservatives’ or ‘complementarians’ that we are convinced that these are some very important trees in the forest.

      I don’t see any way around that. If others want to change our minds, they will have to convince us primarily from Scripture. That means debating those issues and not just saying it feels so unfair, or that it implies women are inferior.

      Another of the difficulties in this conversation is that both sides can stereotype or generalise about the other party. That makes us all get defensive pretty quickly.

      For example, I don’t think many complementarians think “men always lead and women always submit”. From your point of view, that’s probably a fair summary of the big picture. But it ignores what most of us would say that the submission is to your own husband, and is voluntary. It would ignore that Bible-based Anglicans, for example, have been entirely happy to recognise a woman as head of state, and not just in modern times, with Queen Elizabeth II as a figurehead, but also when the British sovereign had far greater real power, as with the first Queen Elizabeth, who was not shy of using her power. In addition, I always point out that whatever headship and submission means, there is a very important place for mutual consent, and take people to 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, where that is the standard by which sexual activity within marriage should occur, and where I also point out that Paul teaches the woman is not the property of the man, any more than the man is the property of the wife, but there is a mutual ‘ownership’ of one another. As you say, quite radical, and all the more remarkable, then that he could be so radical, and yet, retain the submission/headship theology so strongly as well.

      Likewise, I am really sorry to hear of your experience that single women are always forgotten in discussion of submission and roles. That’s terrible when it happens. And I am certain there are times when in preaching and in practice I have been far less mindful of the single person in our churches than I should have been. Of course, in the former case of discussing submission, one might say, it’s because the discussion at that point is marriage.

      But more broadly, I also know that many preachers make special efforts to address singleness in its variety – never married, widowed, divorced – as well as those married happily and unhappily. I frequently remind people that Jesus was single and no one could say he was an unfulfilled or incomplete person. I said it just last Sunday in a sermon on Hebrews 4, in pointing out the statement he was tested in every way could not mean he was tested with the tests that come from being married, or female, or elderly, but rather the variety of tests and temptations that come from being human. I have commended singleness, and have spoken admirably of the ministries of those who have remained single.

      I am saying this not to suggest I have done it perfectly – far from it – but to say that it’s really hard to listen well when people generalise about all who hold to the complementarian position, as failing in ways we do not always personally recognise as intrinsic to the position, certainly not to its essential structure, and often not to its preaching or its (imperfect) practice. It’s no better than me saying all who reject submission are liberals, who sit loose to the authority of Scripture and are probably weak on every other hot button issue.

      Dear friend, if you manage to read my ramble in response, how do you suggest we address this apparent impasse?

      • Sandy, thank you very much for your response. I think I’ll address your last question first: we address this apparent impasse in the way you’ve just responded to me – we engage, we listen, we acknowledge, we don’t assume. I was blown away not just by the length of your response, but also by the fact that, while we do disagree on this question of submission, you’ve still engaged me with humility as a sister in Christ. You haven’t dismissed my feelings or experiences. You haven’t questioned my faith or intelligence (I’ve had both of those happen on blogs in the last few months), so I don’t feel like I need to be defensive or fight back. So I think the biggest thing in discussing submission, mutuality, and all of that is that we treat each other in a Christ-like way. That should be what we do always, but it is a sad fact that Christians (myself most definitely included) can be extremely vicious while cloaking ourselves in Jesus and the Bible. We need to move away from trying to ‘win’ and argument to instead be discussing what being a Christian should mean in our lives. Again, I thank you that your response to me was all discussing what being a Christian means in our lives, rather than just trying to win the argument.

        Working out from there, I agree very much about how unhelpful generalisations can be. I think one of the difficulties here is that it’s the hurts that often stick out in our minds. So I can think of a handful of times I’ve heard things that really hurt as a single woman – the sermon that said marriage completes people, the international speaker whose only comment to women was to ask the single women to put up their hands and then told the single men to marry us, the sermon on Ephesians 5 that mentioned singles vaguely at the end as an afterthought. I don’t think any of those speakers meant to hurt, I just think they didn’t realise how their words might be taken by others. And that’s the really messy part of all of this: intent doesn’t always match impact, and if we can’t get our heads around that – if we can’t acknowledge on all sides that, people don’t necessarily hear what we’re saying in the way we’d like them to – then we’ll always argue in circles over every issue.

        So Sandy, again thank you that in your response, while you gave detailed reasons for why you don’t think that complementarians teach ‘men always lead and women always submit’, that you did acknowledge that yes, that could seem to me like a fair summary. Rather than just say my view is wrong, you’ve said ‘ok, that’s how you view it, that’s how your experiences have lead you to see it, but I disagree and this is why’. Like I said earlier, this is how to move any discussion forward.

        Finally, I need to acknowledge that I’m a complete layperson with no biblical training. So really technical discussions about meaning and usage of words in ancient Greek or Hebrew can make me go a bit cross-eyed. Especially when I know there are people in both camps of this debate who make arguments to support their position from scripture and from contextual background, it all becomes confusing. I agree about the importance of making our arguments from scripture and the person of Christ, but at the same time it is important to be careful not to exclude laypeople like myself while the ‘grownups’ are talking. The days of ‘because it says so’ are, I think, largely over for Christians. By that I don’t mean we need to embrace anything goes moral relativism, but we need to be less scared of questioning and ‘post-modernism’. People like to ask questions, they like to know why, they like to share their views. We should embrace that and widen the circle of discussion, but always bring it back to Christ. As to how this works practically, I think we need to make sure we don’t exclude feelings from the discussion – sure, they shouldn’t rule it, but they are important. We need to not be afraid of responding to the question ‘but why?’ And we need to acknowledge peoples’ experiences, both good and bad, and on all sides.

        Well, it seems like one good ramble deserves another! I’m not sure how much I’ve answered your question, but I guess I’d say Christians need to embrace a messy humility in their discussions. Listen to other views, acknowledge them, and then respond. I don’t know if that will move past this impasse, but it should at least get us to the point where we can all acknowledge that we’re doing our best to live Christ-like lives, and that it can be ok for us to have some disagreements in there. It’s Christ crucified that saves us, and that should unite us, even as we all live our lives a bit differently from each other.

    • Dear ? – It’s a real pity that you feel that you have had to comment anonymously and that you feel afraid of letting people know who you are. I do understand that this topic is an emotive one–and people on both sides of the debate can be subject to ungodly and hurtful attitudes. Three years ago, my wife wrote a piece commending the concept of voluntary submission and providing some reflections about how it works out in married life for her. She was encouraged to publish it online by members of our church in Australia because a number of young married and single women at our church had found it helpful. Very sadly, after her piece went online my wife was very quickly subjected to a blog post consisting of horrible and sexually suggestive online verbal abuse by an Anglican priest in the UK who opposed her views on submission and who thought that such abuse was the best way to promote his own point of view. I was of course horrified, and since we were about to move to the area in the UK where the Anglican priest was conducting his ministry, I decided that we had to take the piece down to protect her against this abuse. Nevertheless, we don’t want such bullying tactics to silence us completely. I do hope that those people you mentioned who know you and might think you are ‘wrong’ will be sensitive and understanding, and willing to listen to you without making you feel terrified. Your own comment was sensitively and thoughtfully made–thank you–and I believe it is worth responding despite its anonymity.

      It’s worth noting that in this post I was primarily addressing people who assume that Paul’s letters address our own 21st century concerns in a relatively straightforward manner. The purpose of the ‘mutual submission’ slogan is to try to reconcile a view of the Bible that sees it as directly relevant for today with a reluctance to admit any asymmetry in its views of marriage. I was arguing that if we want to read the Bible in a straightforward manner, the ‘mutual submission’ argument just doesn’t work. However, the method of reading the Bible which you’ve suggested here–affirming the progressive elements while putting aside the perceived culturally conditioned elements–wasn’t directly in view. Of course this issue, along a whole raft of other issues to do with society, culture, church, Bible, etc., are important and relevant, and worthy of discussion. But rather than going into the details here, can I point you and others to some very helpful pieces which address these issues more directly? Firstly, Sandy’s brief post speaks to a number of these issues. Secondly, Claire Smith has recently written a book entitled God’s Good Design, which deals with many of these concerns with great insight. I see that it’s been so popular that it’s temporarily out of stock at the moment, but the electronic version is available at half the price, and it appears that free samples are available if you’d prefer just to browse.

      I do believe that singleness is an important issue. I hope you’ll understand that a brief article like this is intended to address one particular topic, and that an author can’t address every related issue in every article! I could point you to an article which is currently highlighted in the banner at the top of this website (and whose title I cheekily alluded to in my own post): The ‘S’ word: some thoughts on singleness. For further reading or interaction, you could check out the list of eighteen articles on the topic of singleness from various authors. I’m not sending you to all these articles just to pass the buck. Rather, I think they do a great job of clarifying some of the issues and promoting discussion on the topic. Singleness is indeed something that needs to be addressed, and I commend the editors of the Briefing for taking it seriously enough to have so many articles on the issue.

      • Hello Lionel, thank you also for giving a gracious response and suggesting many resources to read (I’ll try and look through as many as I can). I know you aren’t passing the buck giving resources to look at, that’s actually very helpful.

        First, I want to say how sorry I am your wife had awful things written about her by another minister. Like I just said in my response to Sandy, Christians can be very good at viciousness. It’s that viciousness that was the reason for me not wanting to use my name. If I’m purely thinking rationally about this, I’m pretty sure people I know wouldn’t say horrible things to me for expressing these views, but I’ve been burnt on some international blogs recently – being told I was stupid, illiterate, obviously not a Christian – so I’m feeling a bit reticent and overprotective of myself.

        Maybe I was a little unfair bringing singleness into this discussion here because you are talking specifically about marriage, but I do find that singleness isn’t discussed much in these debates on complementarianism, roles, and submission. I’ve asked questions other places, and get little or no response. So I’ll look at those other articles you recommend on the topic, because I haven’t come across much before.

        Finally, thank you to both you and Sandy for engaging with me. As I said above in response to Sandy, this is how we need to address these sorts of debates – with humility and care. I’m grateful that you’ve shown both here.

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  9. I am wondering whether there is another way of resolving this – namely, that Paul, in Ephesians 5:22 and 5:25, is highlighting particular aspects of mutual submission (5:21) that women (5:22) and men (5:25) find difficult. In other words, the suggestion is that men find love harder than submission, that women find submission harder than love, and therefore that Paul felt the need to highlight these particular different challenges for each gender, rather than imposing different obligations on one compared to the other.

    This would also mean that the analogy of Christ and the church is one which inevitably expresses itself as verse 5:21 is lived out, rather than giving rise to different decision-making roles or responsibilities.

  10. Hi Peter,

    This is a thoughtful response, thanks. Although in the end I have to say it doesn’t ultimately resolve the issues, I do find it very attractive, for a number of reasons.

    Firstly, it’s in line with one of the key, central scriptural theme when it comes to husband-wife relationships: mutuality. The primary emphasis of the Scriptures is on mutuality in marriage–think of Genesis and Song of Songs, for example. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Paul emphasising symmetrical, mutual obligations when speaking to husbands and wives; after all, that’s exactly what he does in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5. So there’s no reason, in theory, why he wouldn’t be talking about mutuality here also.

    Secondly, your resolution seeks to make sense of the fact that Eph 5:21 seems at first glance like it should be taken as an overarching heading which applies equally to all the instructions to the various groups of people that follow.

    The problem, though, is that your resolution just doesn’t make sense of the actual word, “submission.” If Ephesians 5:21 had said something like, “count one another better than yourselves”, or “serve one another”, then it would make perfect sense to see “submission” and “love” as two aspects of such “mutual service”. In fact, I’d be very happy to give the entire passage as it stands a heading like “mutual service in the Lord.” But that’s not what Ephesians 5:21 actually says. “Submission” is a more specific idea; it has to do with ordered relationships; so the passage can’t really be called “mutual submission”. In fact, if you went down that track, then you’d have to say that “submission” is one aspect of “submission”, and you’d just be in a linguistic mess.

    PS It’s important to keep remembering that the scriptural emphasis on mutuality has to remain the presupposition for all these discussions. The only reason I’m banging on about submission at the moment is not because I think that it’s absolutely central to the Bible’s teaching on marriage (I don’t), but because it’s the one element of the Bible’s teaching on marriage that’s getting a massive amount of push-back from the media at the moment. Mutuality is core. The emphasis on mutuality is, after all, reflected in the teaching on marriage found in the Book of Common Prayer, expressed most clearly in the almost completely symmetrical marriage vows. The debate that’s been sparked off by the media is not over whether there is an emphasis on mutuality in the Scriptures–nobody’s disputing that! The question is over whether this mutuality must be pushed so far as to create an absolute ideology which rules out of court any difference in the husband-wife relationship; which of course would rule out the small but significant difference between the traditional Anglican vows for men and women.

  11. Thanks Lionel – I think that the problem you have identified really isn’t a problem at all.

    Saying that “submission” v22 in is one aspect of “submission” in v21 does not result in a linguistic mess – the key qualifier is “to your husbands” in v22. In other words, Paul is choosing to highlight one particular circumstance in which submission is appropriate, without changing either the meaning of the term or its broader application.

    As for what “submission” actually means, I’m interested in why you think that the word submission refers to “ordered relationships” in a way that implies that “submission” can only go one way. I agree that submission is about “good order”, and about “orderly relationships”, but I don’t think it implies that order cannot be mutual.

  12. Lionel – one other thing that I should have added to my previous comment re the meaning of “submission”. To me, the words “one another” in v21 suggest that sometimes it might be one person who submits, sometimes it might be the other, depending on the situation (marriage being a “repeat interaction”, of course) . This is what I mean by “mutual order”, and it is different from “each other” (which could just end up creating an impasse if both people always submitted to each other’s point of view).

  13. Peter, people today might use the word in a mutual sense. But to understand how the word is used in the Bible, we need to see how it was used back then.

    So did you read my comment above, where I wrote as follows:

    …Secondly, the meaning of the actual Greek word (“hupotasso”). It means submission to an authority, and it is unidirectional. It is always used in contexts where the meaning is of submission to someone in authority. E.g. citizens to governing authorities, church members to elders, servants to masters, Christians to God, angels to Christ, Jesus as a young boy to his parents, and wives to their own husbands, as in the 4 examples above. In fact, leaving aside the disputed occurrence in Eph 5:21, can anyone find a single example of the word being used of humans in the New Testament (or elsewhere in ancient Greek literature) where it means something like ‘mutual submission’ or ‘being caring and respectful’ or ‘putting others ahead of yourself’. Those supposed meanings for the Greek word just do not exist in reality.

    Peter, I can supply the references if you like, although a fairly simple word search with good Bible software gets you a long way quickly. My point is that I am trying to deal in hard evidence, not just supposition.

  14. Sandy – yes, I did read that, but it doesn’t prove the point.

    To do justice to the whole of scripture, it is important to try to find an interpretation that allows each verse to stand on its own merits. In this case, I think that the way to do it is to accept Eph 5:21 as a statement of general principle, and to see the other instances that you mention as particular examples of situations where ‘submission’ is difficult.

    Reading down Eph 5:21 by reference to what follows, and by reference to the other instances you mention, detracts from the plain meaning of that verse, whereas my suggested interpretation allows all the relevant verses to fully co-exist.

    I am still interested, though, in whether there is any other justification for giving “submission” a more restricted – unidirectional – meaning.

  15. Peter, as I said above, I do think Sandy’s summary is a sound one.

    Yes, it is true that it is important to find an interpretation that allows a verse to stand on its own merits. However, I believe that I have presented such an interpretation in my post. I have shown that “one another” doesn’t necessarily imply “everybody to everybody else”, but can mean “some to others”. Hence the “plain meaning” of the verse is not self-contained, as you seem to be implying. Like almost all texts, the meaning of this single clause must be discerned by reference to the surrounding clauses. So, setting aside the meaning of the word “submit” for a moment, both my interpretation (which of course isn’t just my own, but relies on many other exegetes and commentators), and yours, are quite reasonable interpretations, and the decision must be made by reference to the usage of the word in the first-century Greek context, along with reference to the following verses.

    Now let’s return to the meaning of the term itself: “submit”. A simple, tried-and-true method for understanding the meaning of a word is first to look at how it is used elsewhere, in various contexts: what it denotes and what it connotes. In the other contexts Sandy mentioned (along with many others in the relevant secular Greek literature), the word implies “recognition of an ordered structure, with dative of the entity to whom/which appropriate respect is shown” (this is from the lexicon BDAG), and this ordered structure involves an asymmetrical relationship between the one who submits and the one whom is submitted to–a relationship which implies some element of fixedness rather than fluidity. Hence the burden of proof falls on anyone who wants to argue that there is some unusual or unique of the word in Eph 5:21, according to which the “order” implied by the word is particularly malleable, fluid or symmetrical.

    This proof cannot be provided simply by referring to the term “one another”, since, as I believe I have shown above, the term “one another” does not necessarily mean “everybody to everybody else”, and therefore does not neccessarily imply the kind of “mutual submission” you are arguing for. Neither can the proof be provided by the following six instructions, since each these instructions does imply an asymmetrical and relatively fixed order in the relationships referred to, rather than a back-and-forth swapping of order. So I don’t see any reason for a special use of “submit” such as you are suggesting. Nevertheless, if you have some other evidence that will help you to discharge your burden of proof, I’d be interested to hear it.

  16. Just to add a bit more,

    (i) I understand that lexicographers warn against multiplying novel meanings for words not attested elsewhere.

    (ii) I am not aware of one single example in the NT, let alone the wider body of Greek literature where some entity in a position of authority is told to ‘submit’ to someone who is ‘under them’ (for want of a better term) in the relational ordering of the situation.

    For example, is an ancient governor ever told to submit to the citizens? Is the father every told to submit to his children? Is Jesus ever said to submit to the church? Are church elders ever instructed to submit to the people they oversee? Are husbands ever told to submit to their wives?

    The use of the word translated ‘submit’ is uni-directional. All the evidence outside of Ephesians 5:21 (and it’s a good sample size) points in this direction.

    Why should we attribute a novel meaning to the term on this one occasion, where there is another way of understanding the grammar that Lionel has clearly explained.

    We are close to special pleading if we go that route.

  17. Lionel – I have already said why I don’t think that deciding the meaning by reference to the following verses gets your argument over the line. I also don’t think that answering the question by reference to the Greek secular context does so either. It is fairly well accepted on all sides of this discussion, I think, that whatever the precise nuances of Paul’s meaning, the overall thrust of his teaching was radically more favourable to women etc than the prevailing culture of the day. Thus, I think there is a reasonable argument that even adding the words “to one another” at all in v21, – ie “submit to one another” rather than just “submit”, is itself an indication that Paul was seeking to broaden the scope of submission beyond the norms and meanings of his day (ie beyond identity-based presuppositions), and therefore supports the more symmetrical / fluid / symmetrical approach that I prefer. Thus, I think the burden of proof shifts back to you.

    As I said previously, I don’t think that “one another” implies everybody doing the same thing simultaneously -who does what will depend on the particular situation – but I do think that there is nothing in the text of verse 21 to imply that the meaning of that verse is to be somehow limited by identity.

  18. PS: I also think that the last part of v21 – “out of reverence for Christ” supports my suggested position as well, since it is clear that Christ is Lord of all and that all of us, without exception, are to submit to him.

  19. Peter, just for clarification, all the examples I have referred to of the use of the word translated submit come from within the NT. They are not just from the secular Greek contexts. However secular Greek use supports my contention.

    I am frustrated because I am feeling very much like Alice in Wonderland at present…

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    Peter, can you give a concise definition of what you think the ‘submit’ word means in Ephesians 5:21 if not making oneself subject to another’s authority.

    Then can you give a single example anywhere in the entire corpus of Greek literature within the NT or outside, which also uses the word in the same way?

  20. Sandy – Submission doesn’t have to be defined in term of authority. It can simply mean “making oneself subject to another’s will” (ie whether the person submitting thinks that the other person has authority or not).

    Whether or not there are clear examples of this usage in Greek literature (NT or otherwise) is neither here nor there (though for a couple of possible examples, at least according to the NIV, see 1 Corinthians 16:16 and 1 Peter 5:5 – in the latter case, I don’t see why we should necessarily conclude that age confers authority per se). I don’t see any interpretative problem with the proposition that – as I think is the case here – a word can take on an expanded meaning, or a contracted one, having regard to the rest of the sentence in which it is used.

  21. Sandy – PS: at the risk of being misguided in attempting to introduce some humour here, the implication of my last point above is the Humpty Dumpty, in this context at least, is a straw man :-)

  22. I wonder if straw man eggs break if they fall off the wall!

    Anyway, thanks very much, Peter, I found your prior post really helpful. You gave a clear definition of what you meant and suggested a couple of possible NT examples, where the submission word might be used, without authority necessarily inhering in the one receiving the submission.

    I differ with your readiness to allow an expansion or an alteration in the semantic field of a word without (what seems to me like) strong evidence, but I feel like that’s progress in the conversation, at least for me.

    I will go and have a think about your two possibilities.

  23. OK, Peter, I’ve had a chance to have a look at your two examples, 1 Corinthians 16:16 and 1 Peter 5:5. I think both are most likely to be referring to church leadership, in context.

    1 Peter 5:5a says

    Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. (ESV)

    This could just mean, “those who are older” (NIV). But in context, I think ESV is more likely correct. That’s because 1 Peter 5:1 uses the same word to speak of an identifiable group, “elders”, with whom the Apostle Peter identified. And 1 Peter 5:2 identifies this group’s responsibility as “shepherding”/”pastoring” and as “exercising oversight”/”serving as overseers”.

    So the context strongly tends in the direction of seeing v5 as referring to submission to a group of people in a position of authority.

    But even if it refers simply to older people, I would argue it is pretty clear in the whole Bible that older folk have (or ought to have) an informal position of authority in godly cultures.

    The law said the elders of a village decided things at the town gate in Deuteronomy, with further examples in Joshua, Judges and Ruth, along with Prov 31:23. Titus 2:2-3 indicates that older men and women have a certain higher position in the order of things that their individual example ought to live up to.

    The word “authority” need not be understood to refer only to formal authority, but also to natural authority inherent (or normally inherent) to one’s position in the order of a society.

    Out of time before dinner to look at 1 Cor 16:16. Later.

  24. Hi Peter, I’m not particularly convinced by the two examples.

    1) The elders referred to in 1 Peter 5:5 are presumably the same ones who are to “shepherd the flock”, “exercise oversight”, who have a charge over people as their “lot”, etc. (1 Peter 5:1-4); there is a kind of teaching or ministry authority / order implied here.

    2) 1 Cor 16:16 is speaking about submission to particular people who are involved in a position w.r.t. ministry. In 1 Cor 16:15, they are described as being “devoted” to a particular position (the verb is tasso, cognate to hypotasso) which involves “ministry to the saints”. This “ministry” in 2 Cor 9:1, 12-13 is a key element of Paul’s own ministry to Jerusalem; Paul sees this ministry as an important element of his apostolic endeavour. In 1 Cor 16:16, the Corinthians are also asked to “submit” to every “fellow worker” and “labourer”–these terms are part of Paul’s vocabulary for people who teach and preach the gospel. Paul seems to be implying that there’s an order of authority created by apostolic / gospel ministry; and so it makes sense that he should use the term “submit” in this context.

    Anyway, thanks again, Peter, for a thoughtful interaction. Feel free to keep coming back, but I’m going to sign out of the conversation for now.

  25. Just to add to Lionel’s comment on 1 Corinthians 16:16, v15 specifically mentions the household of Stephanas, calling them the first converts (Gk, “first fruits”). It is certainly probable they were among the congregational leadership in Corinth, who naturally enough had been organisers for things like the ministry to the saints (probably the Jerusalem collection) as Lionel notes.

    There is some non-scriptural, but early evidence for this proposition. In 95 A.D. the epistle of 1 Clement was written – notably to the church in Corinth – in defence of certain elders who had been removed after a dispute. It contains a probable allusion to 1 Cor 16:15, when it says the apostles “appointed their first converts (Gk, “first fruits”, same word as 1 Cor 16:15) [...] to be bishops and deacons of the future believers” (1 Clement 42:4).

    It’s most likely those working with Stephanas in leadership ministries that the Corinthians should submit to.

  26. Lionel and Sandy – thanks for those responses. From my perspective, they show that we hold quite different views about the appropriateness of inferring formal roles, or formal positions of authority, from passages such as this that describe the practice of interpersonal relationships with the community of believers. I can see how you get there in 1 Peter 5:5, though Peter immediately balances this by saying “all of you, clothe yourselves with humility towards one another”, but I am far from convinced that the implication is warranted in 1 Corinthians 16:15. “The service of the saints” could mean any number of types of service, both formal and informal, and without any particular authority attached at all.

    Anyway, the question of inferring formal authority structures in these and other passages is a much broader discussion for another time. Thanks for participating in such an interesting and civilised discussion on Eph 5.

    Peter

  27. I find the discussions about submission and love and even mutual submission helpful but a bit hard to understand practically.

    Often the discussion is centred around the controversial passages and is understandably directed towards women who have qualms about
    what this means for them. This is a good thing. However (sorry if I missed the updates) I find precious little directed towards how *men* would apply this and how they should be a loving husband.

    If I were married I’d want to know this especially if we are supposed to love and lead. So In wives submitting to their husbands, what does this mean for the husband ? Is he leading in a way that is the final decision maker ?
    Is he co-leading as we often model in Church Bible study groups with singles (aka mutual submission or mutual decision making and compromising) ?

    - How does this differ from say a Godly woman giving their opinion in a Marriage ? How does this affect arguments and deadlocks in a Marriage where a husband and wife categorically disagree on matters of ‘Good Judgement or Triviality’ (ref: Guidance and the Voice of God).

    - Does a man leading sacrificially, as seems to be the argument, mean that in actualy fact men are duty bound to ‘sacrifice’ their desires and opinions and submit to their wives; this being the sacrificial aspect ? It seems a win/loose scenario for some party at least.

    - If a man’s headship is exercised just in being the final decision maker, does that mean he’s only leading or she’s only submitting in those infrequent cases where there’s a deadlock ?

    Again, maybe this is thrashed out somewhere in detail but as a Christian man I find little in practical teaching on this. I suspect I’m not alone here…? I would think in a marriage you’ll be quickly labelled autocratic (or worse) if you appeal to Eph5 for a way forward even if you claim to be acting lovingly. Thoughts ??

    • Hi Andrew, I also just had an email from a friend saying almost exactly the same thing. I think these are a brilliant questions. So brilliant, in fact, that I think a discussion along these lines deserves to be more prominent than would be the case if we tried to follow them up here, on the tail-end of an already long (albeit important) discussion on a slightly different topic.

      Because of that, I’m going to ask your indulgence. God willing, I’d like to put up another post on this site, early next week, summarising / expanding on your questions and asking for thoughts. I hope that there will be a bunch of people who have valuable things to say in this very important area. If you’re willing to wait for a couple of days to hear and perhaps to contribute to discussion on this topic, I’m sure it’ll be worth it.

      Of course, it’s possible that somebody else on the Sola Panel was already thinking of putting up a post like this (Sandy, I’m metaphorically looking at you…); if so, feel completely free to get in before me and steal my thunder.

  28. The “reply” thingo never works for me so I’ll comment on Lionel’s 12:46 pm post here. My comment is that I look forward to the proposed new topic. Maybe I can add a point or two after 40 years of marriage, if my wife lets me.

  29. Sandy
    Can there be valid authority over another without implied submission? If not, then 1Corinthians 7:4 would seem a counterexample to your claim. Here both women and men have authority over each other. Is this not, therefore, an instance requiring mutual submission?

  30. The comment above was intended as a response to Sandy’s comment of 27/8 @ 8.24 pm. The reply button didn’t work for me either.

  31. Brian, sorry for the delay in replying. I did speak about this passage you raise earlier to ‘Single Woman’ and made these comments, which I repeat here, since I realise that it’s not always possible to read, digest and recall every word in such a long thread as this…

    In addition, I always point out that whatever headship and submission means, there is a very important place for mutual consent, and take people to 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, where that is the standard by which sexual activity within marriage should occur, and where I also point out that Paul teaches the woman is not the property of the man, any more than the man is the property of the wife, but there is a mutual ‘ownership’ of one another. As you say, quite radical, and all the more remarkable, then that he could be so radical, and yet, retain the submission/headship theology so strongly as well.

    For reasons we can debate elsewhere, I am committed to the principle of not reading one part of Scripture (rightly understood) so it contradicts another, all the more so in the same author in the same stage of salvation history.

    So by way of ‘hint’ to Lionel, as he responds to Andrew, I don’t think headship and submission is primarily about who gets to make the final decision. Speaking personally, I can scarcely think of a time when that would be relevant. But I do not want to eviscerate what I think is the true and honest meaning of the word either. I think there can be submission and headship in the relationship at the same time as mutuality. That is mutuality in many matters does not entail identity or precise symmetry in all respects of the relationship.

    So I am going for ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’ and it can be hard to think those truths into each other together, and frustratingly vague at points (that’s also because I think it is fundamentally attitudinal, rather than a list of required actions). But it’s fair enough for Andrew to ask for this submission thing to be spelled out a bit more, but we might leave that to a possible new thread.

  32. Pingback: Forget the Channel » A husband’s sacrificial love: what does it actually look like?

  33. Sandy,

    Is this the example you are looking for?

    2 Macc 13.23,

    ”[King Antiochus Eupator] got word that Philip, who had been left in charge of the government, had revolted in Antioch; he was dismayed, called in the Jews, yielded (ὑπετάγη) and swore to observe all their rights, settled with them and offered sacrifice, honored the sanctuary and showed generosity to the holy place.”

    This is a king submitting to the citizens. Or this one, which is each one submitting to his neighbour,

    1 Clement 38.1:

    “So in our case let the whole body be saved in Christ Jesus, and let each man be subject (ὑποτασσέσθω) to his neighbor, to the degree determined by his spiritual gift,”

    Yes, of course, parents yield to their children, and rulers to their subjects all t the time. To teach that the husband never submits, as Bruce Ware does, creates a rather bizarre situation.

    • Dear Suzanne,

      The particular instances of the use of the word ὑποτάσσειν which you have cited are indeed interesting. However, they don’t at all prove what you seem to think they prove.

      On the contrary, 1 Clement 38.1 actually illustrates (in a rather stark fashion) the point I was trying to make about Eph 5:21. In many ways Clement is far more extreme than Ephesians, and he pushes the idea of “order” in the body of Christ in a troublesome direction.

      In the immediately preceding discussion (1 Clement 37), Clement has been comparing the body of Christ with a military structure. This military structure has various ranks, and Clement believes that it is important to keep the chain of command distinct and orderly. He even uses the term “submissively” (ὑποτεταγμένως) to describe how soldiers serve under the command of their generals and kings, before going on to assert that not everbody can be a prefect, a commander of thousands, a commander of a hundred, a commander of fifty, etc. Rather, each one must stick to his rank. Clement then goes on to show that keeping this order is vital for the mutual advantage of the entire body of Christ.

      Thus the phrase “let each one submit to his neighbour” (ὑποτασσέσθω ἕκαστος τῷ πλησίον αὐτου) in 1 Clement 38.1 is not an expression of the modern concept of “mutual submission” (i.e. everybody submitting to everybody else). Rather, Clement is envisaging submission happening according to the various ranks of the (quasi-military) body of Christ. This is what he means by his qualifying phrase, καθὼς καὶ ἐτέθη ἐν τῷ χαρίσματι αὐτου. The translation “to the degree determined by his spiritual gift” is a loose paraphrase; in the context of a detailed discussion such as this one it would be better to translate something like, “just as also he has been placed in [view of] his gift”. That is, a man must look at his gift, recognise his place in the order of Christ’s body, and submit to whatever neighbour happens to have authority over him in this order.

      So I’m afraid you haven’t found an example of “mutual submission” in 1 Clement; on the contrary, you’ve found an example of an early Christian writer who pushes the idea of order and authority much further than the Bible itself will allow!

      In the case of 2 Macc 13:23, you have inferred that the king is “submitting to the citizens,” but this is by no means a necessary or even a likely inference. The verb “to submit” lacks a dative indirect object (i.e. it doesn’t explicitly say to exactly what or whom the king submits). One likely possibility for understanding the indirect object of the verb is the term in the prepositional phrase which follows the , “all the rights” (πᾶσι τοῖς δικαίοις). That is, the author of 2 Maccabees is (polemically) portraying the king as recognising a rightful order, put in place by God, in which the Jews have certain rights. He is not technically submitting to the Jews; rather he is submitting to the rule of Law / God, and so reluctantly giving the Jews certain protections under his reign.

  34. In addition, the Greek expression for “one another” is never used to refer to what one class of human beings has to do to another. There are no examples of that.

    • Suzanne, at this point I’ll have to take your word for that since I haven’t scoured the lexica for this exact usage. But of course my argument doesn’t rely on the existence of such a precise parallel. I have simply been arguing that the word “one another” does not necessarily mean “everybody to everybody else”, and that there are places where it can mean “some people to some other people”, and that this latter usage makes best sense of the context in Ephesians.

      • I would like you to offer even one example of where the expression “one another” means that one class of persons has to do this thing to another class of persons. Even one! And I would also appreciate it if you could mention one commentator before the 21 st century who thinks that “one another” does NOT refer to mutuality. Once again, one will do.

        The problem is that exegetically, it is complementarians who are innovating, all the time. And egalitarians are just standing by thinking “what the heck is going on. I don’t remember the phrase “some submitting to others” being in the Bible.” No, we don’t.

        I would understand it if complementarians declared themselves to be a new religion of the late 20th century.. That would make more sense.

        • Suzanne: w.r.t. your first request, I have said that I don’t think it’s directly relevant to this particular discussion. Is there a reason you think that providing such an example would be necessary for my logic to hold?

          W.r.t. your second request (“I would also appreciate it if you could mention one commentator before the 21 st century who thinks that ‘one another’ does NOT refer to mutuality. Once again, one will do.”), thank you for giving me the impetus to look up a few older commentaries in the Theological Commons library at Princeton (tip: a fantastic resource!). A brief summary: some commentators pass over the term “submission” quickly without investigating it in detail, usually with a gloss that it means “mutual service” or some such. Others use the phrase “mutual submission” but qualify it by implying that it doesn’t mean everybody to everybody else (i.e. the point I’ve been making above). Here’s an example of the latter type:

          [On verse 21] Mutual submission to each other, according to our various relations, opens here a new subject, presenting new duties. [. . .] [On verses 22-24] There can be no doubt that this doctrine is the subjection of wives to husbands as the higher authority [. . .] When once we fully appreciate the love of Christ for his people–the very love (as the Scriptures often present it) of the bridegroom for his bride–and thoroughly accept this as the model of the husband’s love for his wife and his guide and regulator in the exercise of authority and headship over her, their mutual relations will be adjusted perfectly and the currents of domestic life will run smoothly, to their own mutual happiness, and to the well ordering of their household.

          Cowles, Henry. 1879. The Shorter Epistles; viz: Of Paul to the Galatians; Ephesians; Philippians; Colossians; Thessalonians; Timothy; Titus and Philemon; also, of James, Peter, and Jude. New York: Appleton, p. 104.

        • Suzanne, I did say I was about to bow out, but I thought that just before I did it would be helpful to add a couple more I found with a bit of searching:

          Barnes’ notes on the Bible (1834):

          Submitting yourselves one to another – Maintaining due subordination in the various relations of life. This general principle of religion, the apostle proceeds now to illustrate in reference to wives (Ephesians 5:22-24); to children (Ephesians 6:1-3); and to servants, (Ephesians 6:5-8). At the same time that he enforces this duty of submission, however, he enjoins on others to use their authority in a proper manner, and gives solemn injunctions that there should be no abuse of power. [. . .] The general meaning here is, that Christianity does not break up the relations of life, and produce disorder, lawlessness, and insubordination; but that it will confirm every proper authority, and make every just yoke lighter. Infidelity is always disorganizing; Christianity, never.

          John Gill’s Exposition of the Old and New Testament (1746-63):

          Submitting yourselves one to another,…. Which may be understood either in a political sense, of giving honour, obedience, and tribute, to civil magistrates, since they are set up by God for the good of men, and it is for the credit of religion for the saints to submit to them; or in an economical sense; thus the wife should be subject to the husband, children to their parents, and servants to their masters, which several things are afterwards insisted on, as explanative of this rule; or in an ecclesiastic sense, so the Ethiopic version renders it, “subject yourselves to your brethren”: thus members of churches should be subject to their pastors, not in the same sense as they are to Christ, the head, nor are they obliged to believe or do everything they say, right or wrong; yet honour and esteem are due to them, and submission and obedience should be yielded to their doctrines, precepts, and exhortations, when they are agreeably to the word of God; since God has set them in the highest place in the church, called them to the highest service, and most honourable work, and bestowed on them the greatest gifts; the younger members should also submit to the elder, and the minority to the majority; one member should submit to another, to the superior judgment of another, and to the weakness of another, and to the admonitions of others, and so as to perform all offices of love:

          • In fact, all these commentaries agree that the command is mutual submission, and then the commentator procedes to reconcile that with one way submission. That is what I would expect. But they do not actually say that there is no such thing as submitting one to another. They simply play this down in favour of engaging submission to authorities.

            But in the meantime, we now have democracy and not absolute monarchy. It is amazing that Christian men participated in bringing about democracy, because they scriptures tell men to submit to the authorities. So how did absolute monarchy get transformed? And how did slavery get abolished? And how did Christians leave the Roman church? By submitting to the authorities? Obviously not!

            When the USA resubmits itself to the queen and vows to do anything she says, and when two thirds of the male population becomes slave to the remaining one third, and when all churches are abandoned for the Roman church, then, then, men can say to women “we have submitted” and now it is your turn. Because right now, men do not have any idea what it meant to submit to the authorities of the Roman empire. Men aren’t modeling unilateral submission, they are modelling democracy.

  35. Hmm if I wanted to be provocative I might say that the issue here is as much about a lazy title to an article. Lazy to assume that because some people disagree with Peter O’Brien -with great reluctance and respect that they are lazy. Might it be possible that others have done the hard heavy lifting of careful exegesis …and some historical research? My own work on the text and wider leaves me thinking ….the quoted one another examples do look very mutual ….historical figures like Calvin seemed not to have a problem with mutuality -predating the modern egalitarian/feminist problem …mutuality does not neccessarily mean symetrical. In fact I first heard the “slogan” used by complementarians to get people thinking hard about the matter (i.e. point 2 does not neccessarily follow point 1. The feminist temptation is more likely to try and use the “one another” bit to undermine/deconstruct submission and the whole passage.

    • Hi Dave, I don’t mind you being provocative, but I would remind you out of fairness to everyone to please stick by the comment policy and use your full real name. Please could you send through the Calvin quote you found while you were doing your research; I’d like to check it out and read around it. Thanks, Lionel

  36. Lionel,

    You write,

    “Thus the phrase “let each one submit to his neighbour” (ὑποτασσέσθω ἕκαστος τῷ πλησίον αὐτου) in 1 Clement 38.1 is not an expression of the modern concept of “mutual submission” (i.e. everybody submitting to everybody else). Rather, Clement is envisaging submission happening according to the various ranks of the (quasi-military) body of Christ. This is what he means by his qualifying phrase, καθὼς καὶ ἐτέθη ἐν τῷ χαρίσματι αὐτου. The translation “to the degree determined by his spiritual gift” is a loose paraphrase; in the context of a detailed discussion such as this one it would be better to translate something like, “just as also he has been placed in [view of] his gift”. That is, a man must look at his gift, recognise his place in the order of Christ’s body, and submit to whatever neighbour happens to have authority over him in this order.”

    Here is the rest of the paragraph,

    “Let our whole body, then, be preserved in, Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect to the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He has given him one by whom his need may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by [mere] words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to himself, but leave witness to be borne to him by another. Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing that it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence.”

    You make the interesting claim that this is about authority. I have to say that your interpretation is novel to me, and I hope you will excuse egalitarians for not falling into line with your creative exegesis. It is one thing for you to say that this is why you believe in complementarian exegesis. But I hope you will understand that egalitarians come to completely different conclusions. I actually cannot even begin to follow your reasoning. As Clement said,

    “And ye were all humble, boasting of nothing, submitting yourselves rather than subjecting others, more gladly giving than receiving, content with the provision that God had given you;”

    Clearly, subjecting women should not be the goal of complementarian men, but it appears to be so.

    I am actually completely dumbfounded that you would write what you write, given that complementarians are always accusing egalitarians of twisting scripture. I read things in a rather straightforward way myself. The Bible says “submitting to each other” and then lists relationships, some of which we no longer believe should exist in their ancient form. And the very reason why is because from Clement to Calvin, they actually believed that the scripture meant what it said “submit to each other” and this shaped further practice, leading eventually to democratic governement, the end of slavery and finally the emancipation of women.

    But now, men want to put women back in the box, so for the first time ever, the truly Christian command, that has lead to so much emancipation and mutual respect, “submitting to each other” has now by complementarians been reinterpreted to “some of you, submit to others of you.” What a self-serving, non-Christian message!! This is no longer Christianity, but just an excuse to keep the underclasses under control. I don’t think that complementarians can make any superior claim to godliness on this one.

  37. I’m sorry Suzanne, I think you are misunderstanding the precise thrust of my argument, and the precise purpose of this discussion here. I am not trying to make a point about the general force of the passage in Ephesians, which, as I have insisted above and will continue to insist, has at its core mutuality: mutual service, mutual care, mutual concern. I am just saying that within that emphatic mutuality there is also another issue: a matter of order. What we are discussing at this point is not the overall thrust of the passage in Ephesians (or in 1 Clement 38 for that matter), but rather the particular meaning of a particular word; a word which is of course part of a wider discourse, but which also has a meaning in its own right. And when it comes to that word, I am claiming that it is a word that connotes a kind of order with some level of permanence.

    Thankyou for providing the full English text for the paragraph that follows 1 Clement 38.1. This very helpfully illustrates and properly expands on the point I made perhaps too briefly in my previous comment, that Clement is concerned for the “mutual advantage of the entire body of Christ”. It is of course clear that Clement wants to insist on mutual respect, mutual care for each other’s needs, and humility for all. That is important to emphasise, then and now. But those things are not what this particular discussion on this post is about. We are not discussing the vibe of the passage; rather we are discussing the precise meaning of the word “submit” in the first sentence.

    I have been claiming that this phrase in Clement needs to be read in terms of what has come before it. This strong link with the prior discourse is expressed by Clement’s use of the postpositive inferential particle οὖν which, as I’m sure you’re aware from your Greek studies, is designed to signal to the reader that what is about to be said is an inference from what has just been said. What has Clement just said? I’ll quote (the English translation here comes from the free online version by Roberts-Donaldson):

    Let us then, men and brethren, with all energy act the part of soldiers, in accordance with His holy commandments. Let us consider those who serve under our generals, with what order, obedience, and submissiveness they perform the things which are commanded them. All are not prefects, nor commanders of a thousand, nor of a hundred, nor of fifty, nor the like, but each one in his own rank performs the things commanded by the king and the generals. The great cannot subsist without the small, nor the small without the great. There is a kind of mixture in all things, and thence arises mutual advantage. Let us take our body for an example. The head is nothing without the feet, and the feet are nothing without the head; yea, the very smallest members of our body are necessary and useful to the whole body. But all work harmoniously together, and are under one common rule for the preservation of the whole body. Let our whole body, then (οὖν), be preserved in, Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him.

    I have been claiming that Clement has been comparing the body of Christ to an army with various ranks, because he wants to insist staying within one’s rank is for the good of all. I can see why this would appeal to his Roman readers; but as I said, I can also see how the rigidity which his illustration implies could cause problems for the later church. Your selective quotation and subsequent rebuttal of my previous comment seems to imply that I heartily endorse the illustration I have attributed to Clement. But as I said, I’m not here attempting to endorse the illustration; rather I am seeking to respond to your claim that it proves something about the use of the word “submit”. For Clement, within the strong sense of unity and mutual love in the body of Christ, there is also a concept of order. The “submit” word-group is designed to encourage people to be part of that order, so that the whole body will be advantaged. I have been making this argument in response to your initial claim about the use of this particular word-group in the ancient world.

    I’m aware that this is becoming a very long thread, and certain comments that I have made above can be missed. So to ensure that you get my thrust, I will repeat what I have already said above:

    It’s important to keep remembering that the scriptural emphasis on mutuality has to remain the presupposition for all these discussions. The only reason I’m banging on about submission at the moment is not because I think that it’s absolutely central to the Bible’s teaching on marriage (I don’t), but because it’s the one element of the Bible’s teaching on marriage that’s getting a massive amount of push-back from the media at the moment. Mutuality is core. The emphasis on mutuality is, after all, reflected in the teaching on marriage found in the Book of Common Prayer, expressed most clearly in the almost completely symmetrical marriage vows. The debate that’s been sparked off by the media is not over whether there is an emphasis on mutuality in the Scriptures–nobody’s disputing that! The question is over whether this mutuality must be pushed so far as to create an absolute ideology which rules out of court any difference in the husband-wife relationship; which of course would rule out the small but significant difference between the traditional Anglican vows for men and women.

  38. Anyway, I think I’ll bow out of this discussion now; I’m about to go away for a couple of days, and in any case this thread has become so long that it’s in danger of unravelling itself. Thanks for everyone’s contributions on all sides – it’s been a stimulating discussion.

  39. I see that we actually agree that “mutuality is core.” For some reason, I thought that you had transformed mutuality into “some to others” and then the others can go sunbathe, ;-) or something like that. But I see that you haven’t, so we agree that the focus is on mutuality.

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  41. Lionel,

    The place to look is his Sermons on Ephesians (Banner of Truth, 1979), 560.

    “Now a man may think it strange at first glance that we ought to be subject to one another. For it does not seem fitting that a father should be subject to his children, the husband to his wife, or the magistrate to the people whom he governs, or event hat they also who are equal ins status sshould be subject to one another. But if we examine all things well, we shall find that St Paul has not without reason put all Christians under thissubjection.”

    It’s important to be clear that Calvin would not mean by this what some today would mean/apply to marriage by the phrase mutual submission.

    We shouldn’t duck/override what Paul says about headship

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