Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Submission is not necessarily to a person in authority

Wayne Grudem, among others, has made the statement that submission is always to a person in authority. He doesn’t believe submission can be mutual or reciprocal despite what it says in Ephesians 5:21 and 1 Peter 5:5 NKJV. Grudem even refers to mutual submission as a myth. I’ve written about his thoughts on mutual submission before, here, and mentioned most of the following information in a footnote, but I thought this topic needed to be highlighted in its own blog post.

The purpose of this post is simple: to use ancient texts that contain hypotassō to show that submission is not necessarily to a person in authority and that it can be mutual and beneficial.

In this article, I quote four prominent early Christian authors who speak positively about mutual submission among Jesus followers. But I begin with an example from a Jewish text that shows submission isn’t always to a person in authority. The following texts use the Greek word hypotassō (“submit”), the same word in Greek texts of Ephesians 5:21 and 1 Peter 5:5.

Submission in 2 Maccabees 13:23

Second Maccabees is a Jewish work originally written in Greek in around 150- 120 BCE. It recounts the story of the Jewish revolt against the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It also recounts the conflict with his son.

In 2 Maccabees 13, the Jews are fighting back against the powerful forces of Antiochus V Eupator.[1] However during the conflict, Antiochus hears that Philip, one of his generals, has revolted against him and intends to seize and take control of Antioch, the capital.

Antiochus, or rather his regent, knows he needs to act quickly. He needs to stop the fight with the Jews and go to Antioch to quell the revolt. So he “called in the Jews, yielded (hypotassō) and swore to observe all their rights, settled with them and offered sacrifice, honored the sanctuary and showed generosity to the holy place” (2 Macc. 13:23b NRSV)

This was a strategic move, and while it may have involved a degree of humiliation, Antiochus was not submitting to a higher authority. The NRSV translates hypotassō as “yielded” in 2 Maccabees 13:23. This act of yielding, or submission, was not mutual, but in several early Christian texts, the submission described is not to a person in authority and is mutual.

Mutual Submission in the Apostolic Fathers

Mutual Submission is mentioned in three letters contained in a collection of early Christian works known as the Apostolic Fathers. These letters were written to certain congregations in the late first to mid-second centuries.

Mutual Submission in First Clement

First Clement is a letter written from Rome to the Corinthians at the end of the first century. At the beginning of chapter 2, the Romans remind the Corinthians,

Moreover, you were all humble and free from arrogance, submitting rather than demanding submission, more glad to give than to receive … (1 Clem. 2:1, Michael Holmes’s translation).[2]

In chapter 37, the author tells the Corinthians to serve as soldiers. Using the analogy of soldiering, he acknowledges differences in rank and function, but also says there is an advantage when there is a “blending” (sugkrasis) among, or between, the ranks.

He then uses the imagery of interdependence and mutuality within the body, and the Corinthians are urged to submit to their neighbour.

Let us take the body as an example. The head without the feet is nothing, likewise, the feet without the head are nothing. Even the smallest parts of our body are necessary and useful to the whole body, yet all the members coalesce harmoniously and unite in mutual subjection, so that the whole body may be saved.
So in our case let the whole body be saved in Christ Jesus, and let each of us be mutually subject to our neighbour, in proportion to each one’s spiritual gift. (1 Clem. 37:5-38:1, Holmes’s transl.).

In these quotations, the author links submission with humility, unity, spiritual giftedness, and even salvation. I recommend reading 1 Clement 37-38 in context.

Mutual Submission in Ignatius’s letter to the Magnesians

In around 110, Ignatius wrote a letter to the church at Magnesia. In one statement, he includes an instruction for submission to someone with authority, the bishop, as well as an instruction for mutual submission:

Submit to the bishop and to one another (Ign. Magn. 13:2).

The second phrase uses similar language to what Paul used in Ephesians 5:21: the Greek word meaning “to one another” (allēlois) in Magnesians 13:2 is identical to the word in Ephesians 5:21.

Ignatius goes on to give examples of submission and its aim.

… as Jesus Christ in the flesh was to the father, and as the apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there may be unity, both physical and spiritual (Ign. Magn. 13:2, Holmes’s transl.).

We can model our submission as to a person with a higher level of authority or social status (cf. Eph. 5:22), and it can still be mutual and reciprocated. The aim of Christian submission isn’t subordination but unity.

Mutual Submission in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians

Later in the first half of the second century, Polycarp wrote a letter to the Philippians and simply advised them, “All of you be submissive to one another …” (Pol. Phil. 10:2)[3]

The author of 1 Clement (traditionally thought to be Clement the bishop of Rome), Ignatius (bishop of the church at Antioch) and Polycarp (bishop of the church at Smyrna) did not regard mutual submission as a myth. Instead, like Paul and Peter, they saw mutual submission as being vital for harmony and unity in the church (Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5 NKJV).

Chrysostom on Mutual Service and Submission

John Chrysostom (archbishop of Constantinople between the years 398 and 405) was a native speaker of Greek. He understood Ephesians 5:21 to be about mutual, reciprocated submission and service, and he used the master-slave relationship to explain it.

Let there be an interchange of service and submission. For then there will be no such thing as slavish service. Let not one sit down in the rank of a freeman, and the other in the rank of a slave; rather it were better that both masters and slaves be servants to one another;—far better to be a slave in this way than free in any other. Homily 19 on Ephesians (Source: New Advent)

Chrysostom believed mutual service and submission would result in tasks being shared equitably, rather than some working harder than others. He wanted Christian masters and slaves to serve one another.

Conclusion

Unlike what some claim, submission is not necessarily to a person in authority. Moreover, three (or four) highly respected bishops of the Early Church recognised that mutual submission is beneficial for the church.

The Greek verb hypotassō can mean to be subordinate or be subject, but it need not have a harsh sense or a strong force especially among Christians where relationships are to be founded on love (John 13:34-35). Submission between Christians, including submission between Christian husbands and wives, should be characterised by humility, deference, cooperation, loyalty, and of course love.[4]

Submission, like humility and meekness, should be a normal attitude or trait for all followers of Jesus.

… all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:5b NKJV

Footnotes

All biblical instructions should be understood and implemented with kindness and commonsense. Generally speaking, submitting to foolish whims or to bullying is not kind, helpful, or healthy to either party.

[1] Antiochus V Eupator was ruler of the Greek Seleucid Empire from late 164 to 161 BC. He was the son and successor of the dreaded Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus V was only a boy when he reigned. The real ruler, and the real negotiator with the Jews, was his regent Lysias. More info here.

[2] The quotations from 1 Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp’s letter that are marked as being translated by Michael Holmes are taken from The Apostolic Fathers, The Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd edition) edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).

[3] Polycarp’s letter was originally written in Greek, but this part of his letter only survives in Latin. However, he appears to have copied Paul’s wording, so it is reasonably safe to assume that Polycarp used the word hypotassō. Ephesians 5:21 in the Vulgate and Polycarp’s letter (10:2) contain the words subiecti invicem.

[4] The Christian texts cited are about mutual submission within Christian communities, in congregations, not in marriage. In First Clement and in Chrysostom’s sermons there are other passages about wifely submission (e.g., 1 Clem. 1:3b). These authors were not egalitarians or mutualists. And Ignatius is famous for advocating three-tiered hierarchical male leadership in churches. Nevertheless, I maintain that mutual submission in marriage is beneficial in the church and in marriage. Neither Jesus, Paul, or Peter ever tell husbands they are the authorities or leaders of their wives.

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Related Articles

Kephalē (“Head”) and Mutual Submission in First Clement 
Mutual Submission is not a Myth
Ephesians 5:22-33 in a Nutshell
Submission and Respect from Wives (1 Peter 3:1-6)
Submission and Respect from Husbands (1 Peter 3:7-8)
Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5:21 and 1 Peter 5:5 
All articles on Submission here.
Articles on Meekness here.

8 thoughts on “Mutual Submission in Early Christian Writings

  1. I appreciate the evidence in the early church fathers. Excellent.

    Have you written or discussed the effect that male/authority and female/submission have had in the homes of Christians? Do you think most Christians are aware of how much abuse has taken place based on the conventional (unbiblical) interpretations of those words?

    Dan

    1. Mary…when doing a wedding service I refer to ‘submission’ of one to the other
      Requiring humility and respect of the ‘other’s’ feelings without imposing ‘authority’ (either you agree with me or are wrong)
      Mutual submission is not always 50-50 – sometimes one person needs more support/encouragement/understanding than the other and so AT TIMES a good relationship doesn’t make a big deal out of something just to be ‘right’!
      When the dishwasher person is tired, frustrated, etc. the ‘other’ recognizes that while s/he would rather not do the dishes they will take over.

    2. Hi Dan, I leave discussions on abuse (mostly) to others. I stick more with the biblical texts and let other experienced people discuss the practical.

      I can’t speak about other places on the globe, but at the moment there are big discussions in Sydney about the link between “male headship” and abuse in Christian marriages. This is thanks to an investigation and report about family violence done by the Anglican Church in Australia, and thanks to this article by the wonderful Julia Baird.

      And starting next Wednesday, July 7, a few of us will be discussing this publicly via zoom. This will be announced on the Fixing Her Eyes Facebook Page.

      My guess is that many Christians are unaware of how widespread abuse is in Christian marriages and how horrific it can be. From listening to the accounts of many women, myself, “male headship” plays a huge part in abuse. At the very least, “male headship” is the excuse (or, permission) abusers give themselves, and it is the reason many women endure it; they think it is biblical. :'(

      1. Thank you, Marg. It saddens me that the Bible is used to promote such godless practices by “christian” men.
        Are you familiar with a little book, “What Paul Really Said About Women: The Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love.” by John Bristow.? He explains that headship in 1 Corinthians 11 (and elsewhere) is “leadership by example.” He contrasts “kephale” with “arche” and says that the latter is comparable to a general in the army, and that “kephale” is like the scout who goes out ahead of the army to see if the way is safe. I recommend the book highly.

        1. Yes, I have that book on my shelves and enjoyed it. I’ve even quoted it on my website, here.
          https://margmowczko.com/the-early-church-and-slavery/

          I’m not sure about that general-scout analogy, though. And kephalē and archē can sometimes be almost synonymous as in 1 Colossians 1:18 where both words have the sense of beginning or being first:
          [The Son] is the head (kephalē) of the church body of which he is the beginning (archē), the firstborn of the dead, so that he himself may be first in everything.

          Archē can also mean leader, as in a person in authority. However, kephalē in and of itself doesn’t mean leader or person in authority in ancient works originally written in Greek before the second century CE and often afterwards also. Kephalē, however, can refer to a person in authority.

          I had a look at pp.36-37 and agree with most of what Bristow says. I can’t see that he actually uses the word “scout.” It’s a shame that he doesn’t cite his source.

          In The Life of Pelopidas, Plutarch uses the word kephalē for General Pelopidas, but he uses it in a head-body metaphor.

          The purpose of the metaphor is to show that General Pelopidas is not “one man” by himself. Rather, his hands, his feet, and chest, that is, his light-armed troops, his cavalry, and his men at arms, are all part of the “one man” and all will perish as one man, if and when the general makes a bad move. The general is in a prominent, superior position (kephalē), and he is also the leader with authority. Kephalē is used by Plutarch to refer to oneness here, with the General being in the prominent position in relation to the body.

          Because kephalē often has the metaphorical senses of prominence, or of being first, or of having a higher social status or rank, it is sometimes used of people with authority–Paul uses it of God and Jesus and (first-century) husbands–but the word itself doesn’t mean a person with authority. This is the point I want to make in an upcoming interview, and it can be tricky to explain.

          (Reputations is the overall concern in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and unity is the sense of the head-body metaphor in Ephesians 5:22-33, not authority.)

          As these things are currently on my mind, my comment to you got longer than I intended.

  2. Thank you Marg for this and all the work you are doing… you have opened my eyes to review Paul’s discourse on the body. Thanks again

  3. Galations 5
    13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.
    14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
    15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.
    16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

    …….by love serve one another…. a husband and wife are to serve each other out of love, which implies , in my opinion , that we put our spouses needs ahead of ours – we submit to the needs of others, and this is what is meant to serve out of love. The love of Christ that we are suppose to show one another is the great equalizer in any christian relationship and marriage. A husband or wife who wants to control and dominate thieir spouse, and not share in the decision making, is lusting after power of authority over another human being. Christ Jesus submitted to the need of mankind – mankind needed a savior to be redeemed from sin and out of love Jesus gave his life to become redeemer for all.

    1. Thanks, Sonia.

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