Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

The priority of wifely submission vs mutual submission

The Priority of Wifely Submission vs Mutual Submission

I believe that the church’s emphasis on wifely submission is misplaced. Wifely submission is never mentioned in the Old Testament or in the Gospels.[1] It is mentioned, however, in a few of the later New Testament letters, letters that were written to churches set within Greco-Roman society.[2] These few mentions have typically been given priority over verses about mutuality in marriage.

Unilateral submission from wives was a feature of pagan Greek society where women were viewed as ontologically and morally inferior to men. The Bible never states or implies that women are in any way inferior to men,[3] yet the low view of women held by the Greeks influenced church leaders after the time of the first apostles, And so, from the post-apostolic period onwards, the church held its women in a lower, subordinate position to men.[4]

With their teachings on love, honour, and mutuality, Paul and Peter hoped to soften the effects of patriarchy (male rulership) that was typical of Greco-Roman marriages and society in general. However, they were also concerned that Christians not give the church or the word of God a bad name by behaviours that were culturally inappropriate. So they did not openly denounce social dynamics such as patriarchy and slavery.[5] In western society, which mostly aims at equality, Christians who insist on subordinating women are giving the church a bad name, the very thing the apostles wanted to avoid.

One-sided submission from women was not a dynamic at Creation and it is not a dynamic of the New Creation. Mutual submission, one to another, is the ideal (Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5 NKJV). It’s a shame that the church has not given priority to verses such as Genesis 1:27-28 and Genesis 2:21-25, or to Jesus’ teaching about relationships, or to Paul’s teaching about the New Creation ideal of equality (e.g., Galatians 3:26-28; cf. 2 Cor. 5:16-17 NIV). Why have correct interpretations of these verses and teachings been largely ignored, but the verses about wifely submission highlighted when forming ideas and doctrines about Christian marriage?

A marriage of two competent people simply does not need one person to always be the leader and the other person to always be the submissive follower.[6] In fact, Christian marriages work better without a gender hierarchy.

A marriage may not need a leader, but families with young children do. I firmly believe that God’s ideal is that families and households are to be led jointly by parents, “where the family responsibilities and resources are shared, not according to rigid gender roles and cultural expectations, but according to each person’s skills, abilities and temperaments; where neither the husband nor the wife is ‘the boss’ because the real leader is the Lord Jesus Christ, leading and guiding through the Holy Spirit.”[7]

A gender hierarchy of male primacy and privilege and female subordination and submission is not God’s best intention in marriage. God’s ideal is that husbands and wives mutually submit to each other, preferring and honouring the other.

Which Bible verses mostly inform your ideas about Christian marriage?


Footnotes

[1] In Genesis 3:16 it says that one of the consequences of sin was that the husband would rule the wife, but this is far for God’s ideal. In Esther 1:20-22 (esp. v.22) the Persian king Xerxes decreed that husbands should rule their households. But Christians should not take their cues for living from the curses and consequences of the Fall or from decrees of pagan kings. (The Bible narratives are set in a patriarchal culture, but patriarchy is never endorsed by God.)

[2] The verses that mention wifely submission are Ephesians 5:21-24, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1ff. (There are just as many New Testament verses that mention wifely submission as there are verses that direct believers to greet each other with a holy kiss. More on this here.)

[3] The Bible never says that women as a group are unintelligent, gullible, deceptive, difficult, emotional, sexually wanton, temptresses, evil, or inferior to men. In fact, it says a lot of good things about women. More about this here.

[4] Despite the Bible saying good things about women, too many Christian theologians have seen women as morally inferior and they have said some terrible things about women. Here is a short selection of terrible quotations from Church fathers and Christian theologians.

[5] Paul may well have written his instructions about wifely submission so that the first-century church would not get a bad name among their pagan neighbours. (See Tit. 2:4-5; cf. 1 Tim. 5:14; 6:1.) The Romans were highly suspect of groups that caused social unrest and disturbed the peace in the Empire, so Paul recast traditional social roles, including wifely submission and slavery, with a Christian component (e.g., “as to the Lord” in Eph. 5:22). Peter specifically directed his instructions to Christian wives with unsaved husbands, hoping that they would stay loyal to their husbands and that their virtuous behaviour might bring about the conversion of their husbands (1 Pet. 3:1-6). Peace and evangelism appear to be the primary reasons for wifely submission.

[6] The idea that the man is the leader or authority in marriage is based on a faulty and biased interpretation of Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3. More about this herehere and here.

[7] From “Leading Together in the Home” here.

This post was written as a contribution to Rachel Held Evans’ synchroblog series “Submit One To Another: Christ and the Household Codes” here.

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Explore more

Paul and Plutarch on Husbands and Wives
The Household Codes are Primarily about Power
Mutuality in Marriage: 1 Corinthians 7

Busy at Home: How does Titus 2:4-5 apply today?
(1) Submission and Respect from Wives: 1 Peter 3:1-6
(2) Submission and Respect from Husbands: 1 Peter 3:7-8
Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33
A Close Look at Colossians 3:18 (Wives)
A Close Look at Colossians 3:19 (Husbands)
The Trinity and Marriage

18 thoughts on “The priority of wifely submission vs mutual submission

  1. This seems eminently logical.

    I’ve always assumed that the new paragraph and title aren’t in the text and that having said love one another and giving examples he npw says submit to one another then gives this beautiful love respect mutuality poem about 1 situation where people might find it hard to put it into practice, then gives 2 more illustrations where we might need a bit of prompting. I think respecting healthy boundaries in work relationships (including employers making their demands on employees appropriate and the non taking advantage of relationship with the employer) and prohibiting neglect of the elderly by the young and abuse of authority by parents are insufficiently underlined in our teachings. Xx Liz xx

    1. Hi Liz

      Even if Ephesians 5:22 is the beginning of a new section, we simply can’t ignore the preceding verse, or even the first two verses of Ephesians chapter 5. Submission isn’t just required from wives (Eph. 5:21, 22); sacrificial, Christ-like love isn’t just required from husbands (Eph. 5:1-2, 25).

      I’m grateful we live in a time and place where we can set and maintain healthy boundaries, and that some of these boundaries have been made law. But this wasn’t the case in the first century. The majority of slaves, for example, had no control of boundaries.

      But one thing remains. Christ’s law of love must trump all other ideas and actions. No person has the right to take advantage of another person.

  2. Greetings in Christ!

    I followed your account because I am being educated by the truth on submission.

    I would like to seek advise with my situation right now. I am 29 years old, Worship Pastor in our local church and I am planning to get married with my boyfriend next year who is also a Pastor in their local church. My mom seems to not like my partner for certain reasons especially that we are Pastoring from two different churches and she believes that I should stay in my local church because of my own calling. We decided to move at his hometown the moment we get married and this means that I will support his ministry as I submit and follow him. We also agreed that if my parents who are also Pastors would want us to visit and do certain works at my present church, we would be glad to be of help since we are only a 2 hour drive away.

    What is the best thing to do? I appreciate you giving me the advice I need so that I can continue to honor God and the people in my life. Thank you and God bless you.

    Love,
    From the Philippines

    1. Hi Danrine,

      I do not give personal advice to people I don’t know. For all I know, your mother has good reasons for not liking your boyfriend.

      I’m confused by your statement about submission, though. Since you are not a wife, “submission” does not apply except for mutual submission which applies to everyone, including your boyfriend.

      Please read this: https://margmowczko.com/ephesians-522-33-in-a-nutshell/

      1. Thank you for your insight. Does this mean that I should consider not to marry him because one of my parents do not approve? I have researched articles on submission because I have been told that I must submit first to God and consider my calling as a Pastor in my current church before I decide to settle and get married, which submission to my husband will be applicable there after. Thanks again, I appreciate you responding. God bless!

        1. Hi Danrine,

          I don’t know you, your partner, your parents, your call and ministry, and your overall situation. I can’t give you any personal advice.

          It sounds to me like you have already submitted every area of your life to God. Keep living this way, and he will direct your paths.

          God bless you, Danrine.

  3. I’ve recently heard some arguments against mutual submission in marriage that I would appreciate your thoughts on. One is that in some places like Acts 19:38, the reciprocal pronoun could not mutual, so it is not always used in reciprocal relationships. A more important argument I’ve heard is that Christ cannot submit to the church, so the analogy for husbands and wives would fall apart if Ephesians 5:21 included mutual submission in marriage. Lastly, I had a question about 1 Peter 3:5-6. Since Peter corresponds submission with Sarah’s obedience, does that mean that submission is close in meaning to obedience, or even synonymous? Either way, I do agree that many people have underplayed the importance of culture with regards to the household codes.

    1. I have no issue with “one another” (allēlōn) in Acts 19:38, or in Revelation 6:4 which is another verse sometimes brought into debates about the mutual submission.

      “So if Demetrius and the craftsmen who are with him have a case against anyone, the courts are in session, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another.” Acts 19:38 CSB

      “Then another horse went out, a fiery red one, and its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another. And a large sword was given to him.” Revelation 6:4 CSB

      The “one anothers” in these verses are (1) artisans and their opponents in Ephesus and (2) fellow human beings at war, these people are equals in terms of justice and in term of their humanity, even if the actions done in these verses are “potential” and are not reciprocal in every instance.

      Ephesians 5:21 also contains the Greek word for “one another” (allēlōn). This verse is indeed talking about mutual submission among followers of Christ which we do out of reference for Christ. Ephesians 5:22ff does not contain allēlōn. Ephesians 5:22-24 is not about mutual submission; it is about submission of wives to their husbands. However in the following verses, where Paul addresses husbands, we see that the apostle wanted the men to behave in ways that are not unlike being submissive. And Ephesians 5:21 includes husbands.

      Hypotassō (“submit”) can have a range of meanings and nuances. But the Bible never tells women they must obey their husbands. Also, the situation of the wives in 1 Peter 3 is different from the wives in Ephesians 5. Context is always key in understanding any Bible passage.

  4. I’ve been thinking about the word “submit” some lately, and I found a tool on a website called Perseus that has cataloged about 352 examples of hypotasso from Greek literature on their website. I’ve been going through them and their English translations; and while I have not gone through all of them, I’ve noticed that many have been about the subjects of kings or other uses where it was about subjects and/or submitting to people in authority. I was wondering, how common was it for hypotasso to be used of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, carrying a burden, supporting, and being loyal to, especially among equals, in extra-Biblical literature? And do you know of a resource where I can find more examples of that usage of hypotasso?

    1. Hi Taylor,

      I use the Perseus website a lot, almost every day. The Thesaurus Lingua Graecae (TLG) is the most complete source of Greek texts and Greek words from ancient literature (not inscriptions or papyri, etc). Some of it is open access, but it costs money to access all the features unless you have access through an institution. http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/
      If you want to search papyri, this is the place: http://papyri.info/search

      What’s the link to the webpage on hypotassō that you’re viewing?

      This is obvious advice, and I don’t want to insult your intelligence, but when you’re going through the hypotassō words take note of their voice (active, middle, passive, middle/passive). The voice makes a difference as it somewhat indicates who has the agency.

      I have no doubt that the typical meaning, or basic meaning, of hypotassō in the active voice is “subordinate/subject,” in the middle voice, “submit yourself,” and in the passive voice, “be submissive.”

      It’s the context of each passage that indicates the strength of force of the submission, or subjection, and how this submission is to be carried out. So I can’t answer your question about the meanings that Thayer gives, assuming they are correct glosses. I can’t see that assuming responsibility or carrying a burden applies to any New Testament verse that contains hypotassō.

      Are you writing an essay or studying for something?

      1. Thank you for the links to TLG and the papyri info website; those are both very helpful. I’m not studying for anything; I’ve just noticed that I tend to read about Greek literature and culture without checking the source material for myself. So, relatively recently, I have started trying to track down sources and read more from the Greek authors and works being discussed. However, I don’t know Greek well enough to translate it on my own, which has made that goal more difficult in some instances. Still, I have enjoyed learning more about Greek literature and the thoughts and concerns from that time period from the English translations available. A few days ago, I thought I could try to do the same thing with hypotasso since it is used frequently in discussions about women and marriage, but I decided to try to do a deeper dive into it than usual. It’s been interesting to read the literature even if it does not really help with the uses of hypotasso in the New Testament, but not knowing Greek too well has been quite a limitation (I hope to fix that eventually). And thank you for the reminder about noticing the voice of the word; many of the examples I have seen don’t seem to be in the middle or passive voice, which is another limitation to my search. What I have seen of hypotasso so far does seem to have connotations of being under the authority of another when used of human relationships, but I know I need to examine more examples and more that are in the middle/passive voice. I think the examples of mutual submission in 1 Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius are interesting, especially considering that Clement and Polycarp seem to link it in some way to helpfulness and consideration, and Ignatius believed that the outcome of submission would be unification. I do wonder if the Christian community talked about submission in a different way than others; that’s another reason I wanted to do a deeper dive into the word.
        The link I’m using on Perseus is this: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/searchresults?all_words=u(pota/ssw&la=greek&page=1&all_words_expand=yes

        1. That’s an interesting idea, Taylor! I think it’s plausible that Christian authors used the word hypotassō with a different nuance than other authors when writing about relationships with fellow Christians. This is worth thinking about.

        2. Hi Taylor,

          I asked around and someone did a search. He searched for both hypotassō (“submit”) and hypeikō (“yield”) in cominination with allēlois (“to one another”).

          It wasn’t an exhaustive search. The person found only two occurrences that were not in Christian writings. Both times the verb hypeikō was used, not hypotassō, and they are in literature that dates way before the first century AD.

          He wrote,

          Interestingly, Plato says μηδενὶ ἄλλῳ ὑπείκειν ἀλλήλοις, (not submitting to one another), but his point is that all (Athenians?) are equal and so there should be no subordination except based on virtue and respect. (Menex. 239a)
          There is also a speech from Hera to Zeus in the Iliad (4.50) where she says ὑποείξομεν ἀλλήλοισι, (let us yield/submit to one another). She says this on the basis of them both being gods. It isn’t intended as a general moral exhortation.

          He notes that a search of TLG and Perseus shows that the combination of ὑποτάσσω/ὑπείκω and ἀλλήλων (or ἀλλήλοις) shows up mainly in Christian writings.

          I didn’t want to press him further on this, and I need to do my own research, but it could be that pretty much only Christians were using the expression “submit yourselves to one another.” Early Christians may have been using hypotassō in unique ways in other slightly different contexts too (e.g. 1 Cor. 16:16).

          It could be that mutual submission is a Christian concept and that early Christians used the Greek verb hypotassō (“submit”) in a unique way.
          A search of databases of ancient Greek (Perseus and TLG) show that the combination of hypotassō and allēlois (“to one another”) occurs pretty much only in Christian writings. I need to look into this more.

          1. I hope you have had the time to delve deeper into this, Marg, because I too think it is a fascinating aspect to consider. We as Christians *do* have our own language and way of using language as pointed out to me by a non-Christian friend when I was discussing a church situation with her (I was, of course, already aware of this, but her commenting on it brought home how much of what I say and how I think as a believer is “foreign” to her). And then last night, this same friend thought I had made a Freudian slip when I said she had “convicted me” of something (she assumed I meant to say that she had convinced me).

            Like Taylor, I hope to someday learn Greek and possibly Aramic, but in the meantime, it is a pleasure to read carefully researched blogs such as yours. Thank you for what you do.

          2. Thanks, Miquela.

            Pretty much every week I read Greek inscriptions and literature to improve my knowledge of the language of the New Testament and especially how it was used.

            At the moment, I’m going through Titus one verse at a time with a friend, and we’re translating Greek inscriptions, etc, that have same keywords as in each verse in Titus.

            I love it. But hypotassō doesn’t come up much.

            Different communities of Christians have developed their own jargon. But I’m not sure that this was the case in the mid-first century. For example, only Paul called ministers “diakonoi.” No one else uses this word for church ministers in the New Testament.

            All my articles on submission are here:
            https://margmowczko.com/category/submission/

  5. Yes, it definitely takes time for language to be adopted by a community, and even then they don’t always agree on just what it means/encompasses (special nod to the use of “diakonoi” and whether or not female and male servants have the same duties, responsibilities, etc.). Since discovering your blog around this time last year, I have read–and enjoyed and learned so much from–a great many of your articles. I would like to say “all” but you have so many under your belt and preparing for my family’s now-very-imminent international move has occupied much of my time and brain power.

    After a sad and unfortunate falling out with our previous pastor over his awkward and unbiblical treatment of the idea of mutual submission exhorted by Paul in Eph 5:21,* my husband and I want to be prayerful and more careful in selecting a church in Beirut, without having a mindset of “church shopping.” When I asked said former pastor to read some of your articles, he invited us to leave the church because if we agreed with your views, we would certainly be happier elsewhere. :-/ Being “happy” is not what we are looking for; walking in God’s word IS.
    _____________________
    * I may have shared this in a comment a year ago, but: The basis of his argument that mutual submission is literally impossible is that it would be the equivalent of everyone being armed and shooting one another down. If everyone does that, no one will be left standing. Since this pastor used John R. Rice’s comparison of authority in gov’t, law enforcement and education in God’s Authority in Home, Government and the Bible, 1968 (also expounded by Wayne Grudem in almost the same, though summarized words, with the addition of “business” (because of course marriages are more like businesses…] in The First Epistle of Peter: An Introduction and Commentary, 1988) almost verbatim without crediting it to either predecessor, I am wondering if he took his Wild West-esque shoot-out analogy from someone else. He was, perhaps, referring to Complementarians’ use of other verses employing “one another” to discredit the idea of reciprocity, as stated in this article from CBMW: https://cbmw.org/2019/08/21/does-ephesians-521-teach-mutual-submission/ , specifically Rev 6:4.

    In your extensive studies, have you run across anyone else using this unfortunate dismal of mutual submission by likening it to mutual gunfire?

    1. Unfortunately, yes, I’ve seen the Revelation 6:4 verse used to explain why mutual submission isn’t really, or fully, mutual because dead people can’t shoot back.

      Here’s part of a note that argues against the idea that Paul’s instruction for mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21 applies to all believers. I strongly disagree with it!

      The reason the mutual submission interpretation is so common is that interpreters assume that the Greek pronoun allēlous (“one another”) must be completely reciprocal (that it must mean “everyone to everyone”). Dr. Knight has cited some texts where allēlous does mean “everyone to everyone,” but that is not the case in all of its uses, and it certainly does not have to take that meaning. There are many cases where it rather means “some to others;” for example, in Revelation 6:4, “so that men should slay one another” means “so that some would kill others” (not “so that every person would kill every other person,” or “so that those people being killed would mutually kill those who were killing them,” which would make no sense); in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens” means not “everyone should exchange burdens with everyone else,” but “some who are more able should help bear the burdens of others who are less able”; 1 Corinthians 11:33, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” means “some who are ready early should wait for others who are late”; etc. (cf. Luke 2:15; 21:1; 24:32—there are many examples where the word is not exhaustively reciprocal). Similarly, in Ephesians 5:21, both the following context and the meaning of hupotassō require allēlous here to mean “some to others,” so that the verse could be paraphrased, “those who are under authority should be subject to others among you who have authority over them.”
      Editors’ note in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Piper and Grudem (eds) (Wheaton IL: Crossway, 1991, 2006), 493-493. See also note 9 on page 500.
      <https://document.desiringgod.org/recovering-biblical-manhood-and-womanhood-en.pdf>

      The weakness of this argument is that in Revelation 6:4 the people who are killing one another are doing it indiscriminately. Anyone might kill, and anyone might be killed. They were killing “one another” (allēlous), everyone was involved, and in this sense, the killing is mutual even if some people were spared.

      In Galatians 6:2 we are to bear one another burdens depending on the need. If a person doesn’t have a burden, we don’t need to help them bear it. But there are no criteria that discriminates whose burdens we are to bear or who should do the bearing. Everyone is potentially involved. We need to bear the burdens of any Christian who needs our help, and sometimes that person might be us. In this sense, the bearing of burdens is mutual.

      The sense of “one another” (allēlous) remains. No one is exempt because of position or privilege, etc. The killing in Revelation 6:4 and the bearing of burden in Galatians 6:2, in fact, potentially applies to everyone.

      ________

      Also, all of Ephesians 5:1-21 is about behaviours for the whole church, not for just part of it. Verse 21 is part of a long sentence that explains what spirit-led living looks like. These verses apply to all followers of Jesus, not just to some people.

      Furthermore, and importantly, the idea that some Christians have authority over other people is not something that Jesus or Paul taught. The opposite is true. We are to humbly serve one another, not have authority over them. We can be authorised for ministry, that kind of authority is legitimate, but the authorisation to serve should not entail having authority over another capable brother or sister in Christ.

      We can all submit to one another out of reverence to Christ. I see Christian submission as encompassing deference, cooperation, humility, loyalty, and because it’s Christian submission, love. There should be plenty of times when an authorised minister submits to fellow believers, and vice versa, depending on the situation at hand. And there are times when submission is not needed. But these kinds of cooperative behaviours and humble attitudes should be normal for all Christians. No follower of Jesus is exempt from this.

      1. You summed that up beautifully, and your last two paragraphs gel exactly with how we believe Christians should be carrying out our Savior’s love to one another and showing the deference He wished of us as a body.

        Thank you so much for your time!

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