Does Paul want husbands and wives to ‘submit to one another’?
The pattern for a husband’s headship is Christ’s headship over his bride — the church.
“Submit to one another in the fear of Christ, wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord.”— Ephesians 5:21-22
In Ephesians 5:22-25, Paul directs wives to “submit” to their husbands, and husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church. Traditionally, this text has been understood to teach that a husband should be the leader of his family and that a wife should follow the leadership of her husband.
A newer interpretation, however, says that the command in verse 21 shows the older view to be wrong-headed. For in verse 21, Paul tells both the husband and the wife to “submit to one another in the fear of Christ.” According to this view, the “one another” clearly makes submission a mutual obligation for husbands and wives. In other words, Paul is calling for mutual submission. Husbands must submit to their wives, and wives must submit to their husbands in the sense that they serve one another and put one another’s needs before the other. It’s mutual submission because the service they render to one another is completely reciprocal. This view of mutual submission means that a husband is not in fact called to be the leader of his family nor is a wife called to follow her husband’s leadership.
So which interpretation is right? How is the Word of God teaching us to order our families? Is the husband supposed to be the leader, or does the Bible designate no leader? I think a closer look shows that the mutual submission interpretation has misunderstood what Paul means by “submit to one another.”
What does the word ‘submit’ mean?
The Greek word translated as “submit” is hupotasso. It is a word that denotes ordered relationships, especially where one party submits to another. Nowhere in the New Testament does this word ever get softened to mean serving someone else or putting their needs first (see the BDAG entry on the word). While those are good things, that simply is not what the word means. In the New Testament, the word always indicates authority and submission (cf. Titus 2:9; 1 Pet 2:18). And of course that meaning is confirmed in Ephesians 5:21 by the immediate context which clarifies, “As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Eph 5:24).
The word translated “one another” is the Greek term allelois, and its use in the New Testament often has nothing to do with individual, reciprocal action. Here are some examples:
“Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Cor 7:5)
“So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Cor 11:33)
“And at that time many will fall away and will deliver up one another and hate one another” (Matt 24:10)
“Under these circumstances, after so many thousands of the multitude had gathered together that they were stepping on one another” (Luke 12:1)
“The courts are in session … let them bring charges against one another” (Acts 19:38)
“Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword” (Rev 6:4)
Reciprocal action in view
In each one of these texts, the term “one another” is used, and it is clear that reciprocal action is not in view. One party is performing some action and another party is receiving the action. For example, take the phrase “kill each other” in Revelation 6:4. Clearly, this text is not teaching that two or more individuals kill each other at the same time. No, the killing involved one party taking action against another.
Just as the “one anothers” in the texts above would make no sense at all as reciprocal actions, so it is also in Ephesians 5:21. The context makes it clear that Paul uses “one another” in the non-reciprocal sense, for the very next verse specifies who is to submit to whom, “wives to your own husbands as to the Lord” (v. 22).
The command to submit is not directed to the husbands. In the Greek text, the verb for submit appears in verse 21 but not in verse 22. Verse 22 specifies what this submission is supposed to look like: “Wives to your own husbands.” When Paul begins instructing the husbands in verse 25, he moves to a totally different verb: love. There is no specific command to the husbands to submit. Only the wives receive such instruction.
What does it mean?
So, what is the text teaching? It teaches that husbands are to love their wives self-sacrificially and that wives are to follow the leadership of their husbands. Paul says this relationship is patterned after Christ’s relationship to his church.
“The husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church . . . as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:23-25).
The pattern for a husband’s headship is Christ’s headship over his bride — the church. There is no reciprocal submission between Christ and his bride; neither is there to be such between husbands and their wives.
Are there mutual obligations for husbands and wives? Yes. Is there mutual submission in the reciprocal sense? No. On the contrary, Paul calls on wives to affirm and support the headship of their husbands, and he calls on husbands to love their wives self-sacrificially.
Editors’ note: This article was originally publishedat CBMW.