Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Does Ephesians 5:21 Teach "Mutual Submission"?

Dr. Allen Yeh is at it again. Over at Scriptorium Daily, Dr. Yeh wrote a second article in defense of egalitarianism as a follow-up to his socio-cultural approach. I responded to the socio-cultural article last week, claryifing why it is not inconsistent for complementarians (like myself) to allow for women to teach in seminaries but not in churches.

This time he gets all theological on us, and I should start by saying that he represents his case well. Most of the article consists of responses to common complementarian arguments rather than a positive defense of egalitarianism. For one thing, there is absolutely no mention of Gal. 3:28 (gasp!). Just thought you should know what you're getting into.

Part of that article includes the following comment that reflects a common egalitarian argument regarding the use of Paul's comments about marriage in Eph. 5: "Ephesians 5 calls for mutual submission. It is a case of proof-texting to only point to v. 22 (“wives, submit to your husbands”) but not v. 21 (“submit to one another”)."

I disagree.

Eph. 5:21 reads as follows: "submitting to one another in the fear of Christ,". "Submitting" is a participle in Greek and is dependent on the command to "be filled with the Holy Spirit" in v. 19, where "be filled" is the main verb. This is to say that "submitting" is either the means of being filled by the Spirit, or the result of being filled by the Spirit. I lean toward the former, which I mention only because if I am right, then this is an important issue indeed! What is at stake here is our being filled with the Spirit- I don't know about you, but I'd say that's a big deal.

In any case, Paul continues the "submitting" thought from v. 21 in v. 22, which I'll provide my own translation of: "wives to your own husbands as to the Lord." Hopefully what you notice is that there is no verb in v. 22. There is nothing especially strange about this in Greek, or for that matter in English. Indeed, the second clause of the sentence immediately preceding this one has no verb, but you all know what I'm saying. What it does indicate is that v. 22 carries on the thought from v. 21. Put another way, Paul begins to flesh out what v. 21 means in v. 22, as indicated by the fact that v. 22 has to borrow the verb from v. 21. Still with me?

I hope so. For what this begins to point toward is that Paul explains v. 21 in the passage that follows. The Ephesians will read and say, "Oh, o.k., we are to submit to one another in the fear of Christ- but what kind of submission?" Paul responds: wives to their own husbands, as to the Lord. The husband's role? Quite the opposite: headship. Cruciform, Christ-modeled headship to be sure, but headship nonetheless. Paul not only completely avoids suggesting husbands submitting to their wives here (and everywhere else, I should add), but he says quite the opposite?

So then, how should we understand the call to "mutual submission" in v. 21? I suggest that it basically functions like a section heading for Paul's explanation of the three relationships that follow: husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and masters. It is as if Paul put a break in the text, then wrote, "Christian Submission in Human Relationships", then proceeded to say that wives are to submit to their husbands, children to their parents, and slaves to their masters. In this case it is not a call to mutual submission, but a way of introducing the concept of submission, then fleshing out what "submitting to one another" actually means for Christians.

There are a host of other issues here that I am not inclined to get into with this post. My point here has only been to explain why the "mutual submission" that egalitarians are quick to reference in Eph. 5:21 is not something that complementarians avoid because they are, as Dr. Yeh charges, "proof-texting".


Laura Springer said...

If, and I do agree, v21 is a section heading, then one must also explain how do husbands, masters, and parents flesh out "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ," for they are surely part of the "one another."

Andrew Faris said...


Actually, my whole point is that the call to "submitting to one another" comes to fruition when wives submit to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters. The husbands, parents, and masters don't submit.


Laura Springer said...

I do not see how this does justice to the very clear phrase, "one another."

By your interpretation, are you saying they are not part of the one another? Or is Paul confused and did not really mean "one another"?

Andrew Faris said...


Fair point, and obviously the main reason why one would disagree with me.

But it seems to me that we must limit one another in some sense, right? If "one another" is meant as a totally inclusive, "everyone submits to everyone" phrase, then must parents submit to children as well? Further, why does Paul only specify that women are to submit to men, but completely avoid saying the other thing? This would be a strange way to teach that concept, wouldn't it?

It's better to take "one another" not as "everyone submit to everyone", but as an introduction, the meaning of which Paul fleshes out with the exposition in the three types of relationships that follow.

So everyone is part of "one another", and Paul isn't confused. He meant "one another". That's why he wrote it. He just didn't mean it as narrowly as you take it.

I hope that makes some sense.


Laura Springer said...


I am a literalist and prefer to take "one another" as meaning just that. I agree we must explain mutual submission ("limit" chaffs a bit). Let me give you my take:

- Wives submit by being subject to their husbands.
- Husbands submit by loving their wives to the point of ultimate self sacrifice.
- Children submit by obeying their parents.
- Parents (specifically fathers in this passage) submit by not provoking their children.
- Slaves submit by obeying their masters.
- Masters submit to their slaves by "doing the same" (there's a sticky wicket) and refraining from threats.

I contend that verse 21 is a heading and that the paragraphs that follow unpack how Christians of various statuses in society are to live out that mutual submission. I also contend that this is an interpretation that both egalitarians and complementarians can hold without contradiction.


Andrew Faris said...


In actual practice, I'd say we're probably not too far apart.

The problem is that you make the definition of "submission" so broad as to become almost meaningless, and certainly beyond the scope of what Paul seems to have in mind.

This is especially apparent in the first instance, where, as I've mentioned a couple times, Paul totally avoids using "submit" in any of its forms for what husbands do to their wives, but it is the main things wives are to do towards their husbands. What of that, in your view?

I'd also challenge your claim to being a "literalist". I don't know you (do I?), but I'd guess that you probably don't take "I am the sheep gate" to mean that Jesus is literally a sheep gate. Words and phrases are more flexible than we allow them to be. We all recognize this in English, but for some reason, we tend to forget it when we read the Bible.

For example: Imagine that you're at my house for dinner and I have cooked up five or six different items and laid them all out. I offer to serve you, and you say, "Thanks, I'll take a little of everything." Am I to suppose that you mean you want not only a little bit of steak and potatoes, but also a little bit of the plates they are on, the forks you are using, or for that matter, a little of the blankets on my bed and the seats in my car and the grass from my lawn, and so on?

Of course not: context determines the meaning of the word "everything" and I know exactly what you mean when you say that.

I'm not saying that this instance is as clear as the example above. I'm just saying that you don't need to force your read on each of the following three relationships strictly because of the phrase "one another".

And your interpretation, I'd suggest, is most certainly forced. Saying that a father is somehow "submitting" to his son by not provoking him makes little sense of the word "submission", which is what I was getting at in the first place. Plus, it just seems to me to be too apparent that Paul has selected these relational examples because of their clear authority structures, which he mostly maintains, but with massive Christian infusions that make the "submission" part not only more palatable, but even godly.

I hope I'm making sense, and I appreciate to this point your gracious and thoughtful comments.


Tangentrider said...


I may be making "the definition of 'submission' so broad as to become almost meaningless," but I would contend you are doing the same thing with "one another." The truth, I suspect, is somewhere in between (or somewhere neither of us currently sees).

As for being a literalist, the same argument you have used against my literalist position can be turned about against your literalist interpretation of "one another" where, "one another" seems to mean only those who are a sub-class in the current society (which wives, children, and slaves were in the first century). Frankly, your interpretation of one another seems nonsensical to me (as I expect my interpretation of submission does to you).

As for my interpretation of "one another," the context supports my contention, unless you hold that only some are to "address one another" in hymns, songs, etc. While it is possible that Paul changed his understanding of allelon so quickly, this seems quite unlikely.

As for my understanding being force, it seems to me that for a father in the first century, who was basically the owner of his wife and children, being asked to love his wife and not exacerbate his children would have been a form of submission. Sure, it seems odd to our ears, but then we are not Paul's original readers.


btw, as a literalist, I take metaphor, hyperbole, etc, as metaphor, hyperbole, etc. As you know, literal is not the same as wooden :-)

btw2, I wrote a bit about this on Laura's Writings.

Carrie Allen said...

I am interested to know what you think about this statement of Yeh's:

"I am not trying to prove egalitarianism without doubt from Scripture. I think it is impossible to prove either egalitarianism or complementarianism without doubt from Scripture, which is why it is considered one of these indeterminate nonessential things, like paedobaptism vs. credobaptism, premill vs. amill vs. postmill, and Calvinism vs. Arminianism. What I hope to do is show that a case can be made from Scripture about egalitarianism. I’m afraid that some complementarians often hold the Scriptural “high ground” as if somehow egalitarianism is a non-Biblical position. All I want to do is show that it is not as clear-cut as all that; that a case can be made for egalitarianism; and hopefully we can be more charitable toward each other recognizing that good evangelicals can hold various interpretations on such disputed nonessential, non-heretical matters."

Because this is kind of where I stand on the issue right now...

Andrew Faris said...


I don't love Yeh's comment, mostly because I think it oversimplifies things.

I agree without reservation about two things: (1) This issue is not an essential strictly speaking. (2) Evangelicals can be egalitarians.

The problem is that calling it a non-essential gets confusing. It almost implies that there are only two kinds of doctrines: essentials and non-essentials. But I'd say that there are multiple kinds of non-essentials.

So, I wouldn't go to a church that isn't Trinitarian, obviously. I also wouldn't go to an expressly egalitarian church, either. This doesn't mean they're on the same level, but it is to say that it's important. But I would go to a church that was expressly amill, though I lean premill. Even if I had a stronger millenial view, I don't think it would be as likely to affect my church attendance.

That said, I wouldn't take communion with an anti-Trinitarian, but I would with an egalitarian, and I'd do it gladly (assuming the orthodoxy of the egalitarian's other views).

The reason for my high view of the importance of it is because it so directly changes how families and churches operate. It's too practical, you could say.

As for whether or not one can prove one or the other "without a doubt"- well, of course you can't, right? What can you prove "without a doubt"? Without a strong doubt? Well, I have no strong doubts right now about complementarianism, though plenty of others disagree.

And I do get what Dr. Yeh says about "biblical high-ground", but I also think there is something obvious that he leaves out: almost no one (if anyone at all) with a low view of Scripture is a complementarian, but many, many vocal egalitarians have low views of Scriptures.

By saying that, I am not saying that this bears on the biblical case for either position. What I am saying is that there is a good reason that many conservatives are nervous about egalitarians. At the very least egalitarianism often brings with it some different hermeneutical convictions than what many evangelicals are comfortable with (cf. most importantly, William Webb, whose whole argument is that the NT, and especially 1 Tim. 2, teaches complementarianism, but that biblical Christians will still be egalitarians).

Dr. Yeh is none of these things. His whole post is an argument about what the texts originally meant and therefore what they still mean. His approach to the whole thing indicates beyond a doubt that he is an evangelical. So I'm not worried about that with him, and I see what he's saying.

But I hope you see why I don't love at least his phrasing.