Buried Talents: Additional Material on Eph 5:21 (in response to Alan)

As Eph. 5:23 is often the passage most heavily relied on to establish the hierarchicalist position, this article will challenge the hierarchical interpretation of that passage. We begin somewhat indirectly, however, by first addressing two articles published recently in the Restoration Quarterly, evidently seeking to buttress the hierarchical position by arguing against an egalitarian interpretation of Eph. 5:21. After discussing that key passage, we will turn to the balance of Paul’s discussion of husbands and wives in Eph. 5.

The meaning of “submit to one another.”

In two translation notes,[1] Wayne Walden contends that Eph. 5:21, should be rendered “be in subordination among yourselves” (45/4:254) or “being in subordination among yourselves” (47/3:181). This article argues for the traditional translation: “submit to one another.”[2]

Before we delve into the details, we should pause to consider the larger context. Although Walden only indirectly raises the “role of women” question, it is clear that the discussion is about much more than the intricacies of Greek grammar. Rather, the translation of Eph. 5:21 bears very closely on our understanding of Paul’s immediately following teachings on the relationship of husbands to wives, fathers to children, and masters to slaves. If Eph. 5:21 states the theme of the discussion that follows, Paul is teaching not only that wives should submit to their husbands (5:22) but also that husbands should submit to their wives.

Walden argues, however, that “submit to one another” is not mutual, so that it may not be presumed that all Christians must submit to all others. Rather, the language only indicates that some Christians must submit to some others. Walden quotes with approval Stephen B. Clark’s translation: “let there then be subordination among you.”[3] The evidence adduced is unconvincing.

We begin with the mutuality of Christian submission. It can hardly be argued that the idea of mutual submission is foreign to scripture. After all, it was Jesus himself who washed the apostles’ feet, saying “you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:17). See also Rom. 12:10; Phil. 2:3; 1 Pet. 5:5. For Paul to state that some (but not all) Christians should be subordinate to others hardly holds the Christian community to a very high standard. Even the pagans met this standard! Moreover, it could hardly be true that the Christians were too mutually submissive, so that Paul needed to restore them to a proper hierarchical relationship. After all, what is the contrary position to “let there then be subordination among you” other than “let there then be no subordination among you”? Surely the real problem was a lack of submission-not too much!

Walden asks, “Just how is mutual submission supposed to be implemented without the chaos that sent 21 million Americans to divorce court in the year 2000?” Divorce is indeed a serious problem, but it’s hardly obvious how the American divorce rate would be solved by requiring wives, but not husbands, to submit. Is the major cause of divorce unduly submissive husbands? I would submit, as a practicing attorney, that divorces are often caused either by husbands’ or wives’ failing to submit. Any counselor can tell harrowing stories of husbands beating their wives, abusing their daughters, and abandoning their families. Teaching such men they have no duty to submit will hardly solve the divorce problem. Nor will wives be less likely to file for divorce it they’re told that only they have a duty to submit!

Walden then argues that because “parents aren’t told to obey their children,” Paul did not intend for submission to be mutual (47/4:180). But Eph. 6:4 does teach fathers not to “exasperate [their] children; instead, [and to] bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Speaking as a parent of four, bringing up and instructing children is unquestionably a form of submission. Midnight trips to the emergency room, cleaning and bathing, working all day to provide support, untold chauffeuring miles, helping with homework … Good parents serve their children in countless ways. Children submit by being obedient to the greater wisdom and experience of their parents. Parents submit by being good parents-an often very difficult, even overwhelming task of placing the child’s welfare ahead of the parents’. Parents and children both submit, although they do so in different ways.

Walden further points out that ???????? (hupotasso, meaning submit) is never used mutually elsewhere in scripture. But Walden ignores the word that follows, ????’??? (allelon), which means “each other.” No other NT uses of hupotasso are found in conjunction with allelon, with the likely exception of 1 Pet. 5:5, which the KJV translates, “all of you be subject one to another.” KJV borrows the verb, hupotasso, from the preceding phrase, in close parallel to Eph. 5:21, and consistent with the punctuation of Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece (21st ed.). NIV, however, associates “one another” with the following phrase, to read “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” Either way, the “one another” (allelon) is plainly fully mutual.

In fact, the pronoun allelon is often used in a fully mutual sense: we are to “love one another” (John 13:34,35; 15:12,17; Rom. 13:8; 1 Thes. 4:9; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 John 3:11,23, 4:7,11; 2 John 1:5); have “peace with each other” (Mark 9:50); wash “one another’s feet” (John 13:14); belong to one another (Rom. 12:5); “be devoted to one another” (Rom. 12:10); “honor one another” (Rom. 12:10); “live in harmony with one another”(Rom. 12:16); “stop passing judgment on one another” (Rom. 14:13); “edify [one] another” (Rom. 14:19 KJV); “be likeminded one to another” (Rom. 15:5 KJV); “accept one another” (Rom. 15:7); “greet one another” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 16:12; 1 Pet. 5:14); “wait for each other” when taking communion (1 Cor. 11:33); “have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25); “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13); “bear ye one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2 KJV); be “bear[] with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2); “be kind and compassionate to one another” (Eph. 4:32); “consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3); “bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another” (Col. 3:13); “encourage each other” (1 Thes. 4:18; 5:11); “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24); “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other” (James 5:16); “offer hospitality to one another” (1 Pet. 4:9); and “have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7).

This author hasn’t found any contrary example. When used in an instruction to Christians generally, allelon is always mutual. Instructions are so often given this way in the epistles that this is plainly a standard form of phrasing a mutual command. It is impossible that Eph. 5:21 would be the only exception. Certainly, allelon is used differently at times, but never in a general command to Christians.

Not surprisingly, the context compels the same conclusion. As Walden points out (47/3:181), “submit” is the last of a series of five participles illustrating the meaning of being “filled with the Spirit” (5:18)-

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Each verb plainly applies to all Christians. Just as all Christians are to be filled with the Spirit, all are to sing, give thanks, and submit. Indeed, if Paul had really switched his line of argument to “some of you be submissive to some of you,” the change would be astonishing, even jolting.

Finally, Walden argues that the fact Christian are commanded to submit “in the fear of God” (KJV) indicates that submission to “duly appointed authority” is in mind (47/3:181). But the truer interpretation is that, just as all Christians must fear God, all Christians must submit to others. After all, if you can’t submit to someone made in the image of God, how can you claim to submit to God? (cf. 1 John 2:9, 4:20). Indeed, if Jesus himself washed the apostles’ feet, aren’t we all called to submit to one another? As the preceding protracted list of “one another” commands plainly shows, even if Eph. 5:21 were not in the Bible, we’d know from other passages that we are to submit to each other.


Paul spends barely a sentence in Eph. 5 instructing wives. Wives well knew their duty to their husbands. But then, as now, husbands often feel little obligation to their wives. Indeed, due to the impact of the Curse on human culture, men often feel entitled to rule their wives as servants. Hence, Paul spends far more words instructing husbands. They had far more to learn.

His argument goes something like this: You husbands may think you have authority over your wives. After all, it’s been that way since the dawn of history. But no one has more authority than Jesus. In fact, I just said that Christ has authority over all Creation, enthroned at the right hand of God. And you know, husbands, are very much like the Head. You also sit on a throne of authority.

But wives aren’t your creation to be ruled. Rather, they are one flesh with you and so must be treated as your very body. You are to be united. This is how things were before sin entered the world, and Christians are called to work alongside Jesus to defeat sin and its consequences—the very enemies of Christ. Therefore, you husbands rule for your wives, not over your wives. Indeed, you elevate your wives above all your kingdom to rule as an inseparable part of you.

And as wives are like your body, you must love and care for them, feeding, supporting, encouraging, and helping them grow in every way. After all, your wife is part of you, and as you build her up, you build up yourself.

And, husbands, if you really understood women, you’d know that all the love and care you give them will be returned to you many times over. Be like Jesus. Give up the dominance and power the world gives you over your wives and, instead, become a servant. Learn to wash feet, to be humble and gentle, as Jesus was. And God will lift you up (James 4:10), just as he lifted up Jesus even above the heavenly realms.

[1] ResQ 45/4 (2003): 254 and 47/3 (2005): 179.

[2] Scripture quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise indicated.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Buried Talents: Additional Material on Eph 5:21 (in response to Alan)

  1. Alan says:

    I haven't read Walden's article but I came to the same conclusion he did, from the same evidence.

    Jesus' washing of the apostles' feet was not an example of him submitting to them. They did not command, nor even request, that he do it. In fact Peter objected to it.

    Wives well knew their duty to their husbands. But then, as now, husbands often feel little obligation to their wives.

    Perhaps in Paul's day wives knew their duty well (I rather doubt it.) But that is far from the case today. Americans hate authority in general. American wives hate the idea of submitting to their husbands. That worldly wisdom is making its way into the church. Those to whom God has entrusted the care of the church have a duty to resist the influence of worldy wisdom in the church.

    From my perspective, the arguments for reciprocal submission ignore the text. Wives are to submit to husbands as the church submits to Christ. That's unmistakably clear.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Yes, as I've said more than once before, wives are to submit to their husbands. It's quite clear. This hardly contradicts the idea of mutual submission.

    Paul also commands that —

    (Eph 5:25) Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her

    "Gave himself up" translates paradidomi, which means per Strong's,

    to surrender, i.e., yield up, intrust, transmit:–betray, bring forth, case, commit, deliver (up), give (over, up), hazard, put in prison, recommend.

    The most proximate use is in Eph 5:2, where it refers, again, to Jesus giving himself up as an offering. Rom 4:25 and 8:32 and Gal 2:20 are much the same.

    In 1 Cor 13:3 and 2 Cor 4:11, it refers to martyrdom.

    In 1 Cor 15:24, it refers to giving the creation over to God's authority. 1 Tim 1:20 refers to giving apostates over to Satan.

    In Rom 1, it three times refers to God's "giving over" those who reject him to heinous sin.

    1 Pet 2:23 refers to Jesus' giving himself over to God's judgment when he was crucified.

    1 Pet 2:4 refers to putting angels in the prison of hell.

    The same word refers to John the Baptist being placed in prison (Mat 4:12).

    The reference to Christ's sacrifice is a reference to submitting to the authority of God. 1 Pet 2:23 makes explicit what's implicit elsewhere. Jesus yielded to God's will.

    Over and over, the verb is used of (dare I say?) submission to the authority of another — in prison, in sin, in hell, or on the cross.

    And so, in what sense do husbands "give themselves up" for their wives? What meaning gives full and fair meaning the strongest metaphor in Paul's vocabulary — Jesus' sacrifice on the cross?

    (Peter, by the way, objected and then asked Jesus to wash his feet, hands, and head! )

  3. Alan says:

    Peter's second objection was to Jesus washing his feet only — but Jesus did not "submit" to that request either.

    Jesus had compassion on people, and did for them what was requested on many occasions. But that cannot be construed as submission to man. Jesus did his own will in those cases. And in some cases he chose not to honor their requests.

    Husbands are to love their wives in the same way. So they are to have compassion, to listen to their wives' requests, and to have a bias toward filling their requests (ie, compassion). They are to be touched and moved by their wives' needs and feelings, as Jesus was. None of that connotes submitting to the wife.

    Wives, on the other hand, are to submit to their husbands "in everything." That same idea is conveyed in 1 Peter 3:1-6, where Sarah is held up as an example for Christian wives, because she "obeyed Abraham and called him her master." Wives are not merely to submit in those areas where their husbands have greater gifts — but "in everything." That is what the text says. So wives are under the authority of their husbands.

    I don't see how someone could read those passages in context and come away with a notion of reciprocal submission. The only way to reach that conclusion is to take Eph 5:21 out of its context. Paul explained what he meant by that verse in the subsequent verses — and that explanation refutes the idea of reciprocal submission.

  4. Jay,
    I read a review of Jack Cottrell's new book, "Headship, Submission, and the Bible," at http://www.cbmw.org/Blog/Posts/New-Book-Weighs-Egalitari.... I thought that you and Alan may be interested in it. Dr. Cottrell teaches at Cincinatti Christian University, an institution affiliated with the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    I have Dr. Cottrell's earlier book Gender Roles & the Bible: Creation, the Fall, & Redemption. I'm not impressed.

    He completely omits any discussion of Deborah, which is one of the strongest texts contradicting his interpretation of the Fall.

    And he interprets Genesis 1-3 by circular logic — he reads 1 Tim 2:12-13 into Genesis, admitting that from the text of Genesis alone you can't conclude that the order of creation grants the man headship (page 86).

    It seems much more respectful of Paul to conclude that whatever Paul says is in Genesis really is in Genesis. Therefore, if Genesis 1-3 doesn't say the creation order demonstrates headship (of a hierarchalist sort), Paul must have been making a different argument, one actually supported by the text he relies on.

    The same book is critiqued at http://www.hendrickson.com/pdf/chapters/978156563…. This chapter is an excellent exegesis of the pre-Fall relationship of the sexes. Richard M. Davidson, The Flame of Yahweh.

  6. Nick Gill says:

    Is Peter saying that Sarah was right to deceive Pharoah and Abimilech because her husband told her so?

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