Ephesians 5:21-22

I’ve heard some Christians state that submission is always to a person in authority, and so, in reality, there is no such thing as mutual submission. Wayne Grudem is one of these Christians.[1] He states that mutual submission is a myth. He believes that submission “is always one-directional”, always to an authority, and “it is never ‘mutual’ in its force.” He believes this so strongly that he has written at least three pieces with the title of “The Myth of Mutual Submission”.[2] This post is a response to his article which was published in the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, October 1996, and is available here, or as a pdf here: Grudem: The Myth of Mutual Submission

There are many statements in Grudem’s article with which I disagree, and so, to avoid tedious reading, I’ve noted my main objections in point form, with additional information in the endnotes. But first, here is the New Testament verse under consideration:

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

~ Wayne Grudem opens his article by suggesting that Christian egalitarians (Christians who believe in mutual submission) try to avoid the force of Ephesians 5:22 by looking at the previous verse, verse 21.
Rather than avoiding the force, reading the other verses in the surrounding passage, including verse 21, elucidates the force and meaning of Ephesians 5:22.[3]

~ Grudem writes, “I think that the whole idea of ‘mutual submission’ as an interpretation of ‘be subject to one another’ in Ephesians 5:21 is a terribly mistaken idea.” He goes on to say that mutual submission “can be advocated only by failing to appreciate the precise meanings of the Greek words for ‘be subject to’ and ‘one another’.” (Grudem makes an error with the Greek grammar here. See endnote 4.)
The Greek word for submission hypotassō is used in Ancient Greek literature with a range of meanings. So I wonder how Grudem can be certain that his “precise meaning” is the correct one. Even Grudem admits that “the exact form submission takes, the way it works out in practice, will vary greatly as it applies to soldiers, to children[5], to servants, to the church, and to wives.”[6]

~ Grudem tries to show that mutuality cannot be part of a relationship where one person, or one party, submits to another, and, to prove his point, he lists some examples where “submit” is used in the New Testament. His observation from these examples is that “Husbands are never told to be subject (hypotassō) to wives, nor the government to citizens, nor masters to servants, nor the disciples to demons. Clearly parents are never told to be subject to their children!”
The five examples that Grudem gives here actually demonstrate, to some extent, the breadth of usage of the word “submit”. However, apart from the example of the disciples and demons, considerate husbands, governments, masters, and parents do submit to their wives, citizens, slaves, and children, even if they do so only occasionally.[7] Furthermore, “submit” is used in many other contexts in the New Testament, other than the ones Grudem supplies in his article. The meanings of “submit” and “submission” are not as cut and dried as Grudem indicates.

Moreover, in two New Testament verses, the quality or temperament of being submissive is given as a virtue for women without there being a clear indication that the submissiveness is directed to someone with authority (1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11). Similarly, the cognate (or, related) antonym (anupotaktos) is used for the quality or temperament of being rebellious without an indication that the rebellion is directed to someone with authority. The KJV translates this antonym as “unruly” in Titus 1:6 & 10. The NIV translates it as “wild” (Titus 1:6) and “rebellious” (Titus 1:10). The demeanour of being submissive and its opposite, of being rebellious, can have nothing to do with authority, but with certain expectations of behaviour in society.

~ Commenting on Ephesians 5:21, Grudem says that our submission “to one another” has limits.
I agree with him on this.[8] Submission to one another is a general principle and, as such, there may be occasions when it is inappropriate to submit to another believer. Grudem thinks the interpretation of verse 21 should be, “be subject ‘some to others’, not ‘everyone to everyone’.” Yet this is not what the verse says in Greek, and it is not how English versions translate it: the principle of mutual submission in verse 21 remains. It is up to us to use wisdom and even plain common sense in how we apply this verse. Wives should also use wisdom when submitting to their husbands. Even Grudem would acknowledge that wifely submission has limits.

~ Grudem, writing hypothetically, states that “The command that a husband should be subject to his wife would have been startling in an ancient male-dominated culture.”
Grudem is correct here. Women in the Greco-Roman world were used to being told to be submissive to their husbands, this was nothing new, but if men were told to be submissive to their wives this could have caused offence and confusion.[9] I suspect that today the concept of being submissive to wives offends and confuses some Christian men.

Paul and Peter do instruct husbands to be submissive to their wives, however; but they use different language (e.g., Eph. 5:25; 1 Pet. 3:7; cf. Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5 KJV). The concept of husbands submitting to wives was revolutionary for the Christians who lived in Greco-Roman society where the inferiority of women was a deeply-rooted belief. So Paul and Peter use nobler language to urge husbands to yield and give themselves up for the well being of their wives. Laying down one’s privileges and one’s life for the sake of another person might be considered an act of submission. This is what Jesus Christ has done for his beloved church, and this is what he calls husbands to do for their wives. Moreover, Christ’s example of humility, servanthood, and sacrificial love are an example for all believers, male and female, married or single, to follow (Eph. 5:1-2).

~ Grudem believes that “a wife’s attitude of submission to her husband’s authority will be reflected in numerous words and actions each day which reflect deference to his leadership”. (Underline added.)
“Deference” is a fine synonym for “submission”. I believe that submission—which encompasses deference, cooperation, loyalty, and humility—should be in all our relationships with believers. However, because of the unique union and bond of the marriage relationship, wives and husbands owe each other a greater degree of deference, loyalty and consideration. But a wife’s deference has little to do with authority. Despite what the church has taught for centuries, neither the New Testament or Hebrew Bible teaches that God wants husbands to be the leaders or authorities of their wives.[10]

~ Grudem writes “Although some have claimed that the word [submit] can mean ‘be thoughtful and considerate; act in love’ (toward another), there is no hard evidence to show that any first-century Greek speaker would have understood it that way, for the term always implies a relationship of submission to an authority.” (Underline added.)
Here is some hard evidence from a first-century Greek speaker, Clement of Rome, where submission does not imply submission to an authority.

“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 Clement 37:5-38:1. [There’s more hard evidence in endnote 11.]

~ In his closing paragraph Grudem states “If hypotassō can be emptied of any idea of submission to authority, the New Testament’s ability to speak to our lives will be significantly impeded.”
I am certainly not saying that submission never speaks about submitting to authority. In some New Testament verses where hypotassō occurs, the context is clearly about submitting to authority. It seems to me, however, that too many Christians have an unhealthy obsession with who has authority and who doesn’t, and they have allocated authority and power in ways that are foreign to Jesus’ teachings on leadership and community. Also, it is important to note that there are degrees of authority and there are degrees of submission.

~ Grudem ends his article with “This egalitarian misunderstanding of Ephesians 5:21 carries with it a very large price.”
Mutual submission is neither an egalitarian concept nor a misunderstanding. Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp did not identify as egalitarians but they encouraged mutual submission among believers. [See endnote 11.] And several Greek manuscripts of 1 Peter 5:5 include a phrase about mutual submission; this is reflected in a few English translations such as the King James Bible. (See 1 Peter 5:5 NKJV.) Furthermore, I cannot see that mutual submission has negative repercussions in church life or in marriage. I do not believe that Grudem’s concern of a “very large price” is valid. Conversely, the negative results of a patriarchy that insists on the unilateral submission of wives to their husbands are all too evident. I believe it is Wayne Grudem who misunderstands Ephesians 5:21 and the concept of mutual submission. Mutual submission is not a myth. Rather, it is an ideal dynamic in relationships between members of the body of Christ, and between wives and husbands.

Q. Why is Wayne Grudem so keen to prove that mutual submission is a myth?
A. Because he realises, and acknowledges, that if verse 21 genuinely refers to mutual submission, one to another, this may influence the meaning of verse 22 which is about submission from wives.


[1] Dr Wayne Grudem is a theologian, seminary professor, and the author of a best-selling book on systematic theology.

[2] In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a book co-edited with John Piper, Grudem has written a chapter entitled “The Myth of Mutual Submission as an Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21.” In this chapter, which is an expanded version of the article I critique here, Grudem admits to a form of mutual submission and writes, “If mutual submission means being considerate of one another, and caring for one another’s needs, and being thoughtful of one another, and sacrificing for one another, then of course I would agree that mutual submission is a good thing.” (p. 223) Grudem goes on to say, that egalitarians have a different definition of mutual submission. But his definition of mutual submission sounds just like mine, and I am an egalitarian. Importantly, however, Grudem does not believe that this form of mutual submission is what is being spoken of in Eph. 5:21.

[3] All Bible readers should look at the surrounding verses to help make sense of verse 22. Verses 18-21, about spirit-filled worship and living, is one long sentence in the Greek, with verse 22 following on, and borrowing language, from the preceding verses. The instruction in verse 22 follows a string of directives that begins with “Do not be drunk with wine but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). The main verb for the passage is in verse 18b “be filled.” In verses 19 and onwards, participles continue to convey verbal ideas with “be filled” being the overarching idea. The participles in Ephesians 5:19-21 are: “speaking . . . singing and making music . . . giving thanks . . . being submissive (or submitting yourselves) . . .” and they borrow an imperatival sense from the main (imperative) verb “be filled.” Paul is telling the Ephesians what to do.
I believe verse 22 is a new sentence: it begins in a similar way, grammatically, as verse 25 where Paul starts addressing husbands. Even though verse 22 is a new sentence, it borrows the meaning of the participle “being submissive/submitting yourselves” from verse 21. (There is no verb or participle that means “submit” in a few of the oldest manuscripts that contain Ephesians 5:22; the sense carries over from verse 21.)
Note also that husbands are never told to be the authorities or leaders of their wives in Ephesians 5:25ff. Moreover, Paul uses the word “love” six times in these verses. Six times! (Eph. 5:25 X2, 5:28 X3, 5:33 X1).

[4] I’ve noticed some minor errors with Grudem’s Greek. For instance, hypotassomenoi means “be(ing) subject/submissive” or “submit(ting) yourselves,” and allēlois means “to one another.” Grudem, however, repeatedly writes “be subject to” and “one another”. (My underlines.) Grudem has placed the “to” in the wrong place. This error also appears in his book Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood (e.g., p. 226). Furthermore, Grudem gives the accusative form (four times) rather than either the dative form that occurs in Ephesians 5:21 (allēlois), or the lexical form (allēlōn). (I checked, and could not find a Greek NT that uses the accusative in this verse.) How can someone of Grudem’s stature be this clumsy with the Greek? Moreover, allēlois (lexical form: allēlōn) is a reciprocal pronoun. LSJ (1996:69) give the definition of this word as “. . . to one another . . . hence, mutually, reciprocally.” (Allēlois also occurs in 1 Peter 5:5 in the context of submission and humility. See 1 Peter 5:5 NKJV.)

[5] Children are never instructed to submit (hypotassō) to their parents in the New Testament; they are instructed to obey (hypakouō) their parents, both their mother and their father. Despite the fact that neither parents nor children are connected with any New Testament instruction for submission, Grudem uses them as examples a few times in his article. Note that the children mentioned in the New Testament “household codes” are primarily adult children.

[6] Hypotassō in its most literal sense means to “subordinate.” It is used this way in military contexts and in some contexts of the New Testament. However, the military relationship between a superior and a lower-ranking soldier should not be taken as a model for relationships among believers or for Christian marriage. The New Testament authors eschew the idea of rank, status, and social hierarchy in the church, and the Bible does not speak about husbands and wives as being of different ranks, or of one being superior to the other. In one lexicon, a distinction is made between the military usage and non-military usage of hypotassō: “A Greek military term meaning ‘to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader’. In non-military use, it was ‘a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.'” (Source)

[7] While parents are not instructed in the Bible to submit to their children, all good parents wisely and willingly submit to their children’s requests at times (Luke 11:11-13). [See footnote 5.]

[8] Our submission to the government is not without limits. There are enough examples of civil disobedience in the Bible by godly people to illustrate that submission to the government has limits (e.g., Exod. 1:17). Moreover, a democratic government (as opposed to the Roman government in NT times) has an obligation to genuinely represent and serve the very people they are governing. A government that is acting democratically is a government by the people, for the people, and should be deferring to the wishes and needs of the people. The Bible shows us that submitting to legitimate religious authority even has limits (e.g., Acts 4:19).
The submission of wives to their own husbands also has limits. Abigail clearly went against her husband’s wishes, and she is commended for it. We are to use wisdom, common sense and kindness when implementing any biblical directive.

[9] Note that no Old Testament author or Jesus tells wives to submit to their husbands. It is mentioned only in some of the later letters written to Christians living in places dominated by Greco-Roman culture (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1-6)  [More on this here and here.]

[10] There is simply no verse in the Bible where husbands are told they are to be the rulers or authorities of their wives. Ephesians 5:23 does say, however, that the husband is the kephalē (“head”) of his wife. I have written about kephalē in several articles on this website. See below for links to these articles.

[11] In First Clement the Corinthians are commended, “Moreover, you were all humble and free from arrogance, submitting rather than demanding submission, more glad to give than to receive . . .” (1 Clement 2:1). A few decades later, in the first half of the second century, Ignatius wrote a sentence that included an instruction for submission to someone in authority as well as an instruction for mutual submission: “Submit to the bishop and to one another” (Magnesians 13:2). “To one another” (allēlois) in Magnesians 13:2 is identical to the word in Ephesians 5:21. [See endnote 4] Polycarp wrote to the Philippians, “All of you be subject to one another . . .” (10:2)
While Ignatius (bishop of the church at Antioch) and Polycarp (bishop of the church at Smyrna) wrote in the second century and not the first, they clearly did not regard mutual submission as a myth. Instead, like Paul and Clement, they saw mutual submission as being vital for harmony and unity in the church (cf. 1 Peter 5:5 NKJV). (These quotes from Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp 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).)
Furthermore, John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the late 300 and a native speaker of Greek, understood Ephesians 5:21 to be about mutual, reciprocal submission and service, and he uses the master/slave relationship to explain it.

Let there be an interchange of service and submission. For then will there 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)


Screenshot from Bible Gateway.com

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