‘Mutual submission’? Scrutinizing a lazy slogan

From The Briefing:

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.

Comments at The Briefing.