The Contemporary Myth of Mutual Submission in the Christian Home (Part 1)


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It seems evident that the Apostle Paul wrote three letters—Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon—within a close timeframe. Likely, he sent letters to the Colossians and Philemon simultaneously since both headed to Colossae. Apparently, Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, whose conversion and return home are the principal subject of Paul’s shorter letter, served as his letter courier (Col. 4:8–9). Fittingly, in the letter to the Colossian Christians, as part of his instructions for Christian family life, Paul admonishes both slaves and masters to obey their Master, Christ Jesus, who is in heaven (Col. 3:18–4:1). In a subsequent letter, Ephesians, likely circulated among churches throughout the province of Asia (modern Turkey), Paul expands on his gospel directives concerning three binary relationships in the Christian family between the husband and wife, the parents and children, and the master and slaves (Eph. 5:22–6:9).[1]

1. For the purpose of this and the subsequent article, focus will be on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

Yet, standing at the front of these three relationships are these words, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In this verse, many Christians find a prooftext to encourage mutual submission within marriage: wives ought submit to husbands, and husbands ought submit to wives. This interpretation seems compelling at first, as the text encourages “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” When we look at the context, however, we see another meaning altogether.

In what follows, I will look closely at the “household codes” with a focus on Ephesians 5 to show that the passage does not teach mutual submission in marriage but shows how three pairs of relationships demonstrate God-given roles of authority and submission.

Christ’s Rule Over the Household

When he translated the New Testament, Martin Luther placed over Ephesians 5:22–6:9 and Colossians 3:18–4:1 the German word, Haustafel. This word carries the meaning “Household Table,” now usually designated “Household Codes.” In the early twentieth century, scholars became fixated upon the forms and sources of biblical texts. Their inquiries raised this question: Where did Paul get this discussion concerning household management? Was it from Aristotle, or the Hellenistic Jews, or some other contemporary moralist philosopher? These questions lead to no consensus. Despite the various opinions, the fact remains that the presence of earlier and contemporary literature addressing household management hardly implies Paul’s use or dependence.

Indeed, the apostle’s instructions for family living are distinctively Christian. He heavily punctuates his admonitions with phrases such as “in the Lord” (Eph. 5:22; 6:1, 4, 7; Col. 3:20), “as to Christ” (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:23), “as slaves of Christ” (Eph. 6:6), to name a few. The numerous Christian expressions renders unconscionable the notion that the Apostle Paul Christianized pagan moral codes. It is obvious that Paul’s directives exhibit ideas and attitudes vastly different from contemporary Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish social and moral instruction concerning homelife.

Beware of Culture’s Biasing Influence

As we know all too well, contemporary settings regularly influence how scholars (mis)handle the Scriptures. This is evident from how scholars have addressed the paragraph division and transition from Ephesians 5:15–21 to Ephesians 5:22–33 prior to and after the rise of feminism in the middle of the last century.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word

2. It is noteworthy that the Tyndale Greek New Testament, which devotes careful attention to such features as paragraph divisions in the manuscripts, correctly preserves the paragraph break after Ephesians 5:18–21.

In this case, the United Bible Societies’ second edition of the Greek New Testament (1966, 1968) broke the paragraph after Ephesians 5:21 because the clause, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” hangs on the imperative, “be filled” in 5:18 (see the ESV).[2] After the rise of feminism, contrary to its grammatical dependence on Ephesians 5:18, the UBS third edition of the Greek New Testament (1975, 1983) forces the verse to function as a superscription over Paul’s extended series of three binary family relationships as in the NIV: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Then a new paragraph begins: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (5:22). Other modern translations, with a few exceptions, do the same.[3]

3. Peter Gurry convincingly demonstrates that Paul’s household code begins in Ephesians 5:22, not at 5:21, and that the early and most reliable manuscript sources show that 5:22 should include its own main verb,  “let them be subject” (“The Text of Eph 5.22 and the Start of the Ephesian Household Code” New Testament Studies  [2021], 67, 560-81).

Cultural movements, such as contemporary radicalized democracy, shape the worldviews of scholars who serve on Bible translation committees and write commentaries. Thus, placing “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21) as a heading over the whole of Paul’s admonitions to the three binary familial relationships drastically alters the nature of those relationships from how the apostle presents them. Thus, in harmony with the current culture, many biblical scholars contend that the Apostle Paul requires reciprocal submission of wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters, a notion contrary to the divinely ordained order.

Mutuality of Submission Belongs in Christian Worship of Our Lord

Properly read, verse 21 is grammatically and conceptually bound to Paul’s imperative in 5:18 to “be made complete in the Spirit,” where his concern is the mutual edification of the congregation of believers who constitute the body of Christ. This is graphically shown below in Ephesians 5:18–21:

In this passage, Paul commands, “Do not become intoxicated with wine, in which is debauchery, but be made complete in the Spirit,” which is accomplished by four means: “[1] by speaking to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, [2] by singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord, [3] by always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, [4] by submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph. 5:19–21).

Thus, addressing believers as the body of Christ, Paul admonishes mutual submission where the proper motive to submit to others is “the fear of Christ,” not sexual roles, economic status, or age. Consequently, the submission called for in 5:21 does not address men as husbands nor women as wives, adults as parents nor offspring as children, some as masters and others as slaves. When believers congregate together, the mutual submission Paul admonishes must be allowed to stand within its proper context of the worshiping Christian body where earthly binary distinctions and stations in life are all subsumed within our oneness in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal. 3:28; Jas. 2:1–13). This “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” entails the subsuming of our individuality within the one body of Christ in our unified harmonious act of worshiping the Lord together.

Ephesians 5:18, not Ephesians 5:21, which speaks of being made complete in the Spirit, expresses what Paul now particularizes in Ephesians 5:22–6:9. Throughout this portion, by admonishing individuals who constitute the three binary relationships of the characteristic Christian home, the apostle extends to the individuals within those specific household relationships his command to “be perfected in the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).

Consequently, for a wife, submission to her husband is an essential grace in her becoming complete in the Spirit. Likewise, for a husband, the needed grace is loving his wife. For children, the necessary grace is obeying their parents. For slaves, becoming complete in the Spirit requires obeying their masters as Christ. And for masters, the needed grace is treating their slaves with kindness, acknowledging Christ as the supreme Master enthroned in heaven.

Obedience to Christ in the Binary Relationships of the Christian Home

In the end, contrary to notions that find their way into our contemporary Bible translations, Paul does not command reciprocal submission in these three binary relationships. He cannot do so without disrupting God’s ordained order. Instead, if the relationships in God’s established order for the home are to be redeemed, Paul appeals for obedient behavior, respecting the functional role distinctions among the members of the Christian household. Thus, he exhorts the Christian wife to submit to her own husband precisely because he is her head (Eph. 5:22–23), and he calls for the wife to fear her husband (Eph. 5:33).

Likewise, he admonishes children to take their obedient subordinate role under their parents (Eph. 6:1–4) and slaves to submit themselves to their Christian masters whom they are to obey (Eph. 6:5–9). Even with slaves, their subordination must derive from their desire to please the Lord (Eph. 6:6–7). Contrary to contemporary scholars, the apostle does not exhort husbands to submit to their wives, parents to their children, or masters to slaves. Paul frames his exhortations suitably for each member of the binary relationships, preserving their God-ordained distinctions yet accenting affinity as all obey Christ Jesus within their roles appointed by God’s providence.

Concluding Observations

The notion that the Apostle Paul calls for mutual submission between each paired member of the three relationships he itemizes is contrary to the commands he writes to each. Worse, the idea of mutual submission is silly and unworkable. Christ does not submit to the church, and Paul does not require husbands to submit to their wives. Christ’s act of love on behalf of the church is the standard to which Paul appeals when he obligates husbands to love their wives. Likewise, the notion that parents must submit to their children is foolish. Thus, to heed Paul’s household code, the way some egalitarians contend is to disobey the commands.

“Flourishing” is a word frequently heard among evangelical preachers and teachers. “Harmonious flourishing” seems an apt description of the fitting objective attained by our heeding Paul’s commands throughout his household code in Ephesians 5. What does a Christian home look like? It is one where the husband loves his wife as Christ loves the church, and his wife submits to him as she submits to Christ. Together, as parents, they cultivate obedience from their children, who learn to honor their parents who discipline them in the Lord.



  • Ardel Caneday

    Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.