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Submitting to one another (Ephesians 5:21)

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

Let’s face it: I’m a 21st century Westerner. More than that, I’m an Australian. So naturally, I have a deeply ingrained, culturally conditioned reaction against authority and ordered relationships. This anti-authoritarian reflex is part of my cultural heritage. The generation before mine was a generation of social revolutionaries, overturning all kinds of social norms in the name of justice, liberty, and equality. Going back a few centuries, my cultural ancestors were convicts—underdogs chained up and transported here by the British Empire for all sorts of misdemeanours: political insurrection, stealing handkerchiefs, etc., etc. This heritage has made a deep impact on me. Instinctively, I don’t like ordered relationships. I want to sit in the front seat of a taxi next to the driver, not in the back like Lord Muck as if I’ve got tickets on myself. I’m uncomfortable with people making something of me just because of my position or status. I run away screaming when people use titles like “Reverend” and “Doctor” (well, not literally, but at least this is what I’m doing on the inside). I feel the Aussie reflex to cut down the “tall poppies”, to make sure everyone’s on the same level.

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Of course, I’m aware that it’s not like this everywhere in the world. For example, visitors to our theological college from overseas—especially those from non-Western countries—are often aghast when they hear our students calling us teachers by our first names, as if students and teachers were somehow equals. But since I’m an Aussie, this reaction doesn’t bother me too much. We Aussies revel in our egalitarianism. In fact, in typical Western fashion, we Aussies tend to be quite sure that our way of doing things—including our anti-authoritarianism—is the best way to live, and shows that our culture superior to others…

Now there are often good reasons to question authority and order. Ordered relationships and authority structures can cause major problems in our world. This is because so often in our world, a person’s place in the social order is seen as a measure of that person’s intrinsic worth. If you’re in authority, you’re seen as a more important person. You matter more. On the flipside, if you’re further down the chain of order, you matter less. And so, in our world, order and authority often lead to pride and oppression. Those people further up the chain can easily despise and dominate those further down the chain. This is terribly unjust—and it happens all the time. This is why it seems natural that the best way to fix the problem is through social revolutions: overturning the order, and insisting on putting everyone on the same level, no matter how much blood is spilt in the process.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is, in many ways, revolutionary. As Paul writes his letter to the Ephesians, he speaks about a radically new way of life for believers in Christ, which comes from what Jesus Christ has done for us in his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Though we deserve only God’s wrath, God in his love gave Christ for us and made us alive in him (Ephesians 2:4–5). This is revolutionary. One way it’s revolutionary is that all believers now have the same status and the same security, no matter who we are, where we’ve come from, or what we’ve done. God “seated us together with [Christ] in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6). That means, among other things, that there are no second-class Christians—we all have equal status and equal membership in God’s family (Ephesians 2:19). This truth must make an impact on the way we see each other’s worth, and the way we treat each other. God’s Spirit binds us together, in Christ, into one body, so that we all need to take on attitudes that come from the gospel of peace: humility and littleness, patience, and putting up with one another (see Ephesians 4:2–3). The gospel, in other words, is profoundly revolutionary. There is a fundamental equality of all believers in Christ.

Yet in Ephesians 5:21, Paul starts talking in a way that might seem out of step with this revolutionary gospel. Paul here starts to use the word “submit”—a word that normally implies ordered relationships and authority. Paul says:

Submit to one another through respect for Christ

Ephesians 5:21

What’s happening here? What’s all this talk of submission? Is Paul, the great hero of the revolution, starting to go soft? Has he betrayed the cause? Why didn’t Paul just stop at Ephesians 5:20 and leave us with a good old-fashioned Western social revolutionary mindset? Why does he go on to confuse matters with all this talk of “submitting”?

Well, perhaps we need to stop and read again. Perhaps the problem isn’t with Paul, but with us. Perhaps we’ve been reading Paul too much through the lens of our own culture. Perhaps we haven’t quite understood precisely what Paul is saying here. And so perhaps we need to listen again to what Paul—and Christ through Paul—is actually saying to us when he says to “submit to one another through respect for Christ”.

Submission: Why and how?

To understand what Paul is saying here about submission, we need to come to grips with what Paul has been saying previously in his letter to the Ephesians about our relationships. In this part of Ephesians, Paul is talking about how our relationship with God (the “vertical” dimension of the Christian life) is worked out in our relationships with one another (the “horizontal” dimension). For Paul, submitting to one another stems from being “fulfilled by the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). In other words, part of the work of God’s Holy Spirit is ordering our relationships rightly. God’s Holy Spirit fulfils God’s purposes for us in Christ, making us into a new people who know and love and live for Christ more and more. As he does this, one of the results is that we “submit to one another”. This is not something we will do naturally; we need God’s help.

Colosseum with cross-shaped clouds

That’s why Paul says that submitting to one another is to happen “through respect for Christ”. The word “respect” can also be translated “fear”; Paul is talking about a healthy and right fear that comes through recognising Christ’s power and authority. In his letter to the Ephesians so far, Paul has spoken a lot about Christ’s power and authority. For example, in chapter 1, Paul has reminded his readers that Christ is the head over all things, far above all rule and power and authority. But Christ isn’t just a great unapproachable cosmic power “up there”; Christ is also the head of the church—intimately related to us believers as his “body”. Our task as Christ’s body, by “speaking the truth in love”, is to “grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). And since we are all different, distinct members of the body, we will all do this in different ways. From Christ “the entire body, being connected and held together by every supporting ligament, according to the activity of every single part, brings about the growth of the body, so that it builds itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16). So in Christ’s body, each one of us has a different role, but a common goal. This is why we are to live in ordered relationships with one another—because we are different but united members of the body of Christ, with Christ at our head.

Submission in the New Testament is a voluntary act. The word literally means “ordering yourself under”. Submission is not forced on you: it’s about willingly yielding to another person within a rightly ordered relationship. Normally, the ordered relationship in question involves some kind of authority. But we need to remember that the nature of the authority depends on the circumstances and the relationship. In human-to-human ordered relationships, authority is never absolute. But it’s still real. As my colleague Simon Gillham has helpfully pointed out:

here’s the thing about submission. It’s not submission until you disagree. If you only ever submit to an authority that is telling you what you already want to do, you haven’t submitted. You have retained your autonomy. You are the final authority.

Simon Gillham, “Stand Up and Stand Out for God”, Moore College Thinktank

So, says Paul, we are to “submit to one another through respect for Christ”. This starts with recognising Christ’s authority and ordering our lives under him as his body. But it doesn’t stop there. Submitting to one another also involves willingly ordering ourselves, in right relationship with others.

Submitting to one another

Paul says to “submit to one another”. Both parts matter: “submit” and “to one another”. We mustn’t neglect either part.

On the one hand, it’s possible, when we read this part of Ephesians, to pass too quickly over the phrase “one another” and then move straight on to the next verse. If we do, we can wrongly conclude that the only kinds of submission that matter to God are found in the three kinds of relationship that Paul goes on to name specifically: wives and husbands (Ephesians 5:22–24), children and parents (Ephesians 6:1), and slaves and masters (Ephesians 6:5–8). But if we limit submission to these specific circumstances, we can end up making a terrible mistake. We can end up saying that there are only some kinds of people who should always submit, and others who are always submitted to. But when Paul says to submit “to one another” in this verse, he’s saying that the idea of submission in our Christian lives is far wider than just the particular relationships he goes on to describe in the following verses. Submission is something that involves all of us as Christians, in various circumstances. We all have an equal status in Christ. And so, in all sorts of different ways and in different circumstances, we will need to submit to one another.

It’s possible, however, to make the opposite mistake. We can make the phrase “to one another” so absolute that we use it to completely overturn the whole idea of submission and to deny any kind of ordered relationship. Some people do indeed do this: they claim Paul is saying here that in every situation, everybody is to submit to everybody else (this is sometimes described using the phrase “mutual submission”). But the only way for that to work is to change the meaning of the word “submission” so that it means something more generic: for example, being loving or thoughtful or humble or self-sacrificial. Of course, we do all need to be loving and thoughtful and humble and self-sacrificial towards one another. Paul has already said this quite clearly (see e.g. Ephesians 4:2–3, Ephesians 5:1–2). But that’s not what the word “submission” means! Paul is not simply repeating himself here; rather, he is introducing a new word that means yielding yourself in an ordered relationship. In other words, the phrase “one another” doesn’t just cancel out the meaning of “submit” like an explosion of matter and antimatter annihilating each other. It’s not as if Paul is saying that every situation in our Christian lives is to be like that of two interminably polite people trying to walk through a door by saying “After you!” back and forth forever.

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Rather, “submit to one another” means that at various times, we will all find ourselves in situations where we are called on to place ourselves rightly within ordered relationships—that is, we are all to submit within various particular relationships. It will be different in different situations, of course. But at different times and in different ways, we’ll all find ourselves in particular ordered relationships within Christ’s body. And for the good of Christ’s body, as we seek to live for the gospel and proclaim the gospel, we should willingly submit ourselves to one another in those ordered relationships.

Here’s one example from other parts of the New Testament: church members are called on to submit to gospel workers and elders (e.g. 1 Corinthians 16:15–16; 1 Peter 5:5). This kind of submission of one person to another within this particular relationship is right and good. It doesn’t cancel out the fact that everybody (including church leaders) must also be humble towards one another (see 1 Peter 5:5). Rather, this is one example of a relationship where one person (who should be humble) is to submit to another (who should also be humble). We need to lift our eyes from the anxiety of our modern world that can’t bear to see any idea of a relationship of submission, for fear it implies that some people are more valuable than others. In Christ, there is something far better. When we submit within a particular kind of ordered relationship, it doesn’t define our worth—our worth is defined by Christ, and we are all entirely equal in worth before him. That’s because Christ is over us all, and he is a loving and sacrificial head of a body of which we’re all an equal part. Knowing that we are profoundly one in Christ, then, we are able to willingly submit in various ways, placing ourselves in these various ordered relationships.

How it works

There are many places and instances where believers today can and should submit to others within Christ’s body. Here are two examples from my own experience.

In our church, I’m on the welcoming team. The job of the welcoming team is to ensure that people who come to church—especially those who are new or visiting—are helped to feel welcome, so that their newness isn’t a barrier to them knowing what to do and who to talk to. We greet people, help them to find a seat if needed, give them welcome packs, etc. The welcoming team has a leader, and I submit to her. How do I submit? I willingly yield to her authority in this particular area. I follow her directions as to where to stand and whom to help at any given moment. And I do it gladly, not just doing what I prefer or deciding what I think is best from my limited vantage point. Rather, I submit to her leadership of the team, for the good of Christ’s body. That’s an example of submission.

Sometimes, submitting rightly can be a little more complex. At one point, for example, I found myself involved in a ministry where I gradually came to realise that I could not, in good conscience, do what the leader of that ministry was asking me to do. The leader wasn’t being outright sinful; it’s just there were certain things I had to do as part of the ministry which I was convinced were (unintentionally) undermining the gospel. That meant I could not continue to serve in that ministry in good conscience unless the ministry changed. So I met with the leader privately, shared the issue with him, laid out clearly the things I couldn’t do in good conscience, and allowed him to make a decision about what happened next. He decided it best that I not continue in the ministry. So I didn’t make waves about it—I just stopped, and I continue to pray for wisdom and grace for the leader of the ministry, who is a Christian brother and is doing good work in many ways. That’s another example of submission.

There are many other examples of submitting to one another, because there are many different ways in which we find ourselves in ordered relationships in the body of Christ. In the following verses in Ephesians, Paul gives particular examples of different kinds of ordered relationships that involve different kinds of submission: wives and husbands (Ephesians 5:22–24), children and parents (Ephesians 6:1), and slaves and masters (Ephesians 6:5–8). But we need to remember that submitting to one another goes far beyond the bounds of these particular relationships. Submission is something that is relevant to all of us, in various circumstances. In fact, any leader (or husband or father or boss) who can’t also submit in appropriate circumstances is very dangerous. In different ways, this instruction is for all of us: submit to one another, through respect for Christ.

For reflection

Consider a relationship in the body of Christ that involves you needing to submit to someone else. What does submission look like in that particular circumstance?

How does “respect for Christ”—that is, knowing Christ’s power and authority and your relationship to him—help you as you seek to submit to others in the body of Christ?

Audio podcast

Want more?

This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.