Ephesians: In the Heavenly Realms

A Biblical Study on Mutual Submission

Ephesians 5:21

– The Bible Teacher's Commentary –

Paul J. Bucknell

Ephesians 5:21 seems like a simple enough verse until one begins to explore the results from two different interpretations. Which one is correct? Each interpretation shapes two different ways to live our one's life.

A note: This is a rather deep study for those interested in knowing whether mutual submission is correct and why. Careful evaluation of the two different interpretations are provided. This study on Ephesians 5:21 not only will help understand what the issues are but also how a study on such a passage is done. (Please refer to the associate pdf file below to read the accompanying footnotes.)

Other Resources

Respect: The Missing Key by Linda Bucknell (mp3)

A Biblical Study on Mutual Submission from Ephesians 5:21 by Paul Bucknell (pdf)

A Biblical Study on Mutual Submission
Ephesians 5:21

“And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.”(Ephesians 5:21)

There has been a lot of discussion and debate in recent years over the precise meaning and interpretation of Ephesians 5:21.

This is because an interpretation, better known as 'mutual submission,' has become increasingly popular. More importantly, the interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is used as one of the founding verses upon which a new approach for marriage, self and life are built.

Let’s look carefully at these two interpretations.

  • The standard interpretation states that it is important for Christians to faithfully subject themselves to those in authority around them.
  • The popular interpretation states that Christians should kindly treat other Christians in a humble and loving way.

We probably will not find much problem with these statements, but as we go along, we will discover which is the right interpretation for Ephesians 5:21. The importance of this will also be highlighted for this interpretation has changed many a Christian’s perspective on the way they live out their Christian life.

Be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-6:10)A grammar note on the context

No one seems to differ in the grammatical observations that the word to submit (upotassw hupotasso) in 5:21 is the fourth Greek participle following the command ‘be filled with the Spirit’ in Ephesians 5:18.

Some commentators, however, allow the participle in 5:21 to be disconnected from the first three and treated separately as a command because of the similar topics of submission that follow. Others find this separation to interfere with the overall interpretation because they see the exhortation to the church at large and see that this becomes a crucial key to interpreting the rest. We will discuss this more later. We will first look at the standard interpretation and then the popular interpretation.

Standard Interpretation

In the standard interpretation, the phrase ‘submitting to one another’ states how one should subject oneself to another person who is in authority over him or her. Following this interpretation, Paul continues on from Ephesians 5:22 onward by articulating at least three contexts which demand a person to subject him or herself to another:

  • wife to husband
  • children to parents
  • slaves to masters (see charts above)

It appears that the apostle got carried away when he started to talk about wives. He taught about marriage in a much more complete way. He wrote how marriage is representative of God’s love for the church in Christ as well as addressing the problem of mistreatment.

The apostle, as others, knew full well how a husband can abuse the command for a wife to subject to her husband and so particularly commanded the husband to love their wives. The apostle did a similar thing when he addressed parents and masters in Ephesians 6. He cautioned the father not to mistreat his children and the master to not act improperly toward his slaves (6:9). A Christian cannot be filled with the Spirit of God unless he or she properly responds in his given role in life as from God.

The meaning of ‘to subject’ (hupotasso)
Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:21)

The strength of this interpretation is that it actually focuses on the meaning of the word submit. The Greek word for submit or subject here (hupotasso) was used by a commander telling his soldiers to arrange themselves as commanded. They were to line up. This word, then, is used by one in authority to one who is subject to them, that is, under their authority. This is the reason the Christian is at times called to fear (5:33) and obey (6:1,5) those in authority over them.

This interpretation requires that the word ‘another’ (allelon) be translated ‘to one another’ rather than having the sense ‘to everyone’ as in the phrase ‘love one another.’ Those who teach this interpretation state that though, in some places it does mean to each other in general, it also can be used in a more limited sense. Galatians 6:2, for example, instructs us, “Bear one another’s burdens.” This does not mean that everyone carries everyone else’s burden, but that those who are able should carry the burden of another person in need.

This particular approach of Paul to address various groups of people to be subject to those in authority is quite common in the New Testament and even is present in non-biblical texts. Such ‘house-table’ passages include Colossians 3:18-4:1; Titus 2:2-10, 3:1-8; 1 Timothy 2:1-15, 6:1; Romans 13:1-7. 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 is the only non-Pauline list.

This common pattern helps strengthen the traditional interpretation. We are not surprised by Paul’s commands here. We expect them.
Another point of support for the traditional interpretation is the use of the word ‘head.’ The man is said to be head over his wife (5:23). This necessitates his authority (though it should be a loving authority) over his wife. He is responsible for the marriage and family.

Complementing this interpretation, yet even further, is the fact that the husband is not anywhere instructed to obey his wife. The husband, if anyone, would need to hear this command if he was to submit himself to his wife, but he is not commanded to. Not even once. Instead, he is to lead as the head. He is in authority.


The definition of ‘be subject,’ its NT usage and context all strongly suggest that the traditional interpretation should be used. Since the phrase ‘one another’ can be interpreted either way, the traditional interpretation requires the more limited sense, we should subject ourselves to those who are in authority over us.

Popular Interpretation

A more recent and popular interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is summarized by the phrase ‘mutual submission.’ The idea is that everyone is to live in a spirit of humbleness and care for each other. Each Christian is to respect the other person. Jesus summarized this sense by the phrase ‘love one another.’ We need to point out that no Christian who understands the scriptures would reject this concept including those of the traditional viewpoint. The mark of the Christian is love. We are in many ways exhorted to be kind and gracious. Philippians 2:4 says that we are to treat each other ‘with the humility of mind.’

It is easy for people to disregard this discussion due to the fact that this viewpoint is thoroughly Christian. This is the danger. The question before us is whether this is what Ephesians 5:21 is teaching us, not whether it is right to humble ourselves before others. When this popular interpretation is accepted, it subtly shapes how one approaches other instructions. More will be said on this later. Let’s first look at why people adopt this popular interpretation.

A note on grammar and text

Grammatically speaking, although ‘being subject’ is the fourth Greek participle listed, it is possible that it can begin another section starting in Ephesians 5:21.

About half of the English translations favor this view by using a command, “Submit to one another” (NIV). See the translation chart below.

The NASB and KJV, on the other hand, join this verse with the former section with an ‘and’ even though there is no conjunction present (nor does there need to be). John Stott in his commentary cleverly includes Ephesians 5:21 in the section ending with that verse but also uses 5:21 to begin the next section!

The interpretation of 5:21 can influence the interpretation of 5:22 and the following. The difference is not, however, so much in the structure. Both interpretations can hold to the integrity of 5:18-33 and allow 5:21 to influence the following verses. It has to do more with the interpretation of ‘one another.’ This will be looked at shortly. We need to first finish some observations on the text of Ephesians 5:22. Some manuscripts do not have the verb ‘to submit’ in them. Does this make a difference on the interpretation?

Various Bible Translations for Ephesians 5:21-22

Ephesians 5:21
NAS and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
ED submitting yourselves to each other in fear of Anointed (Ephesians 5:21)
GLT having been subject to one another in the fear of God. (Ephesians 5:21)
GWV Place yourselves under each other’s authority out of respect for Christ.
KJV Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
LO Be subject to one another, in the fear of God.
NIV Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
NLT And further, you will submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Phil And “fit in with” each other, because of your common reverence for Christ.
RWB Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
Wes Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.

Ephesians 5:22
NAS Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:22)
ED the wives to the own husbands be you submissive, as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22)
GLT Wives, subject yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord,
GWV Wives, place yourselves under your husbands’ authority as you have placed yourselves under the Lord’s authority.
KJV Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
LO Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
NIV Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.
NLT You wives will submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord.
Phil You wives must learn to adapt yourselves to your husbands, as you submit yourselves to the Lord,
RWB Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
Wes Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as unto the Lord;We cannot be sure whether Paul included the verb ‘be subject’ in verse 5:22.

One’s perspective is largely shaped on what manuscripts he leans upon in arriving at the final text. The NASB italicizes it, suggesting that it is not in the original and is dependent upon the prior verb. The KJV, however, includes it. Even though 5:21 looks like it closes one section, the way 5:22 lacks its own verb (if indeed that is the case) makes it dependent upon the verb from the prior verse which is ‘be subject.’ Originally, there were no verse numbers. The continuation of thought was tighter than it appears in our translations.

Ephesians 5:21 does not necessarily start a new section. Nor does 5:22. Paul often just continues on without clear breaks. These grammatical notes are not critical to our discussion on whether Ephesians 5:21 has the meaning of mutual submission. These points are mentioned so that one will understand what these two interpretations are and are not dependent upon. I prefer seeing Ephesians 5:22-33 as one of three units amplifying the meaning of the fourth participle, ‘to be subject one to another,’ one of the ways one is filled with the Holy Spirit.

Meaning of ‘be subject’ (hupotasso)

More important than where the section starts is the question whether 5:21 means subject to or be kind and humble to one another. The translations clearly use (as they should) the word ‘submit’ or ‘subject.’ They do not translate it to mean ‘one should be humble toward each other.’ This is significant. Let’s look at a few ways people have used mutual submission.

But when a husband and wife submit to one another, always looking for the best in each other and respecting one another, they are a witness to outsiders about God's love.

In the Christian home, husband and wife are to defer to each other in seeking to fulfill each other's preferences, desires and aspirations. Neither spouse is to seek to dominate the other but each is to act as servant of the other, in humility considering the other as better than oneself.

In case of decisional deadlock they should seek resolution through biblical methods of conflict resolution rather than by one spouse imposing a  decision upon the other..

Eph 5:21… For, when applied to marriage, it offers a distinctively Christian expression of an ideal which many modern readers of the New Testament will value, the ideal of reciprocity within the marriage relationship. The idea that wife and husband should ‘be subordinate to one another’, or )we might say) ‘defer to one another,’ is–I would like to suggest–a more positive, practical, and more profoundly Christian expression of this ideal of reciprocity than any talk of the ‘equality’ or ‘equal rights’ of women and men.

The majority of modern believers are so eager to enter the controversy of wives submitting to their husbands in Ephesians 5:22-33 that they miss the verse that I believe is the key to it all: Eph 5:21. This verse teaches mutual submission; from the preceding verses we see that this is church wide mutual submission.

We are driven to ask, “Where do people get this meaning of mutual submission?” There seem to be two places this thought derives from.

The meaning of submission in Ephesians 5:21

It appears that this interpretation of mutual submission is largely dependent upon translating hupotasso as ‘having a heart of submission’ rather than simply ‘submitting to.’ The connection of thought is obvious. When a person is submissive, he then needs to be humble and focus on what the other wants. It appears, then, that this misinterpretation ‘to have a heart of submission’ largely comes about by a misdefining of a word rather than some complicated hermeneutical phrase. We have already stated what the term means and supported it through how it is used in the New Testament. There is another aspect to this interpretation.

The inclusive usage of ‘one another’

We have already stated how ‘one another’ can have two interpretations/usages (one word in Greek).’ The term ‘one another’ must be used consistently in its context. That is, we are to look at the three prior participles and see that Paul is speaking to the whole church. They therefore insist that Ephesians 5:21 also be a charge to the church at large telling them to submit to one another in the fear of Christ. We do not have a problem with this. We do have a concern, however with what Paul supposedly charges the church in 5:21.

Those espousing the modern interpretation suggest that everyone in the church, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, etc., are to submit to each other regardless of their sex and calling. This calling to submit to each other, therefore, in their understanding, arches over individual roles and choices in life. Husbands and wives are to submit to each other. This means that whatever else is written must be interpreted in light of this one command. In this case this law, like the law of love, becomes a master law.

But is this the only interpretation? Hardly. The traditional interpretation agrees too that Paul charges the church to submit to one another. Everyone that has an authority above them must need subject himself to that authority. We all have someone over us, whether it be husband, master, parent, elder, pastor, government or Christ. Each is to discern his place and submit.

The usage of ‘one another’ cannot change the definition of the verb ‘to subject.’ It only clarifies the object to whom we are to subject. It is rather the definition of the verb that shapes the understanding of ‘one another’ as mentioned above. Mutual submission then only has its one slim support for its comprehensive and revolutionary concept. We should be much more cautious in adopting this view.

What about mutual submission?

This modern concept of mutual submission has spawned a number of changes in the way Christians live out their lives. This concept popularized a new and supposedly higher way of interrelating with others. Most who believe in this sense of mutual submission believe that instead of the old paradigm, where wives submitted to husbands and husbands ruled over their wives, the gospel inaugurated a new way to relate to others. This new approach would supposedly eliminate the abuse found in the traditional approaches.

In this interpretation, there is no true authority except perhaps God. The wives and husbands are equal and therefore have no authority over each other. As a result, they are expected to treat each other properly as a person. This is considered a better and more ideal way than the traditional way. This mindset makes this interpretation most dangerous because it portrays the old interpretation as inferior. The problem is that the traditional way is the ideal way. This popular perspective is leading God’s people away from God’s His Word. They are being led away like lambs.

Although the standard interpreters can appreciate the sense that we should love one another including their wives, the newer interpretation disdains the standard interpreter’s perspective. In their eyes, it is a lowly interpretation and sets itself up for abuse. When a clear authority is not apparent, it is much easier to have fights. One opposes the other. The two thoughts become hostile toward each other. The new interpretation then is not just an interpretation but a whole different way to relate, handle problems and approach life. We need to keep looking and see if Paul is really teaching this new teaching. Is it consistent in this context and in other places that he speaks? Have we missed the right interpretation for thousands of years?

In his study of the history of the interpretation of Ephesians 5:21, Daniel Doriani has demonstrated that a number of earlier writers thought that there was a kind of “mutual submission” taught in the verse, but that such “submission” took very different forms from those in authority and for those under authority. They took it to mean that those in authority should govern wisely and with sacrificial concern for those under their authority. But Doriani found no author in the history of the church prior to the advent of feminism in the last half of the twentieth century who thought that “be subject to one another” in Ephesians 5:21 nullified the authority of the husband within marriage.

We need to take a more closer look at this word ‘subject’ for much is at stake here.

The usage of ‘be subject’ (hupotasso)

A clear understanding of the meaning of Ephesians 5:21 could clarify these various views. What does ‘to submit’ here mean? The connection with the military is obvious but does the word have other meanings? How is it used in the New Testament? We will look at these two questions.

The meaning of the Greek word hupotasso (to submit)

Thayer’s Greek lexicon gives six meanings.
1) to arrange under, to subordinate
2) to subject, put in subjection
3) to subject one's self, obey
4) to submit to one's control
5) to yield to one's admonition or advice
6) to obey, be subject

“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.”
Robertson’s Word Pictures only speaks of it as a military term meaning to line up under and refers to Colossians 3:18.

The actual word, hupotasso, is derived from two roots. Upo means ‘of’ or ‘under.’ Tasso has a sense of ‘appointing,’ ‘setting’ or ‘ordaining.’ The one under authority then is required to meet the expectations of that particular appointment.

TDNT says of hupotasso New Testament usage,

Originally it is a hierarchal term which stresses the relation to superiors. But one should note that the subordination expressed may be either compulsory or voluntary. … In the NT the verb does not immediately carry with it the thought of obedience. To obey or have to obey, with no emphasis, is a sign of subjection or subordination.

So whether it is compulsory or voluntary, we still need to recognize that the word means to submit. The one who was appointed a certain post is responsible to fulfill the expectations. The word hupotasso does not mean to sympathize with or treat tenderly but to submit to the control of another. It appears that the standard interpretation is much more compatible with this meaning than the newer one which reads into the meaning of the word. Let us look at how the word hupotasso is used in the New Testament before making final conclusions.

New Testament Word Study on hupotasso

A search for the word “upotas” in the Greek text (Byzantine) brought out 20+ usages of the verb to submit. They are listed below.

Luke 2:51 And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth; and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
Luke 10:17 And the seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.”
Luke 10:20 “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”
Romans 8:7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so;
Romans 13:1 Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
Romans 13:5 Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.
1 Corintians 14:32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets;
1 Corintians 14:34 Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says.
1 Corintians 16:16 that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors.
Ephesians 5:21 and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.
Ephesians 5:22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
Ephesians 5:24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.
Colossians 3:18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Titus 2:5 to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored.
Titus 2:9 Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative,
Titus 3:1 Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed,
1Peter 2:18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.
1Peter 3:1 In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives,
1Peter 3:5 For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands.
1Peter 5:5 You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE.

Just a casual glance at the above verses will reveal that the word ‘to submit’ is consistently used and translated as ‘be subject’ or ‘be submissive to.’ The sense of ‘be humble toward’ is not at all used. The meaning is not wrong. It is part of being subject to another, but it is not what it means! In each case, we see that those being called to subject themselves are under the authority of the one mentioned whether it be Jesus to his parents (Luke 2:51), the spirit of the prophet to the prophet (1 Corinthians 14:32), slaves to their masters (Titus 2:9) or wives to their husbands (Colossians 3:18). Grudem concludes his study,

So my question is this: Why should we give hypotasso a meaning in Ephesians 5:21 which it is nowhere else shown to have? But if hypotasso always means “be subject to an authority,” then it is certainly a misunderstanding of Ephesians 5:21 to say it implies “mutual submission.”

The NT usage of hupotasso does not mean to have a humble attitude in Ephesians 5:21, 22 or 24. It does not strip away the sense of authority but instead firms it up in support of the traditional viewpoint. The wife is charged by God to subject herself to her husband’s wishes. Her husband is in authority over her, and she is obligated to listen to his wishes. This does not at all give permission for the husband to hurt his wife. Abuse stems not from the presence of authority but despite it. Abuse comes from a person’s willingness to manipulate others for their own selfish purposes.

Conclusions on Mutual Submission

Let us now make some conclusions on this popular teaching of mutual submission. This teaching asks all Christians to be submissive to each other. Please remember we have no problem with the fact that we are to humbly and kindly treat others. We are not told, however, to submit to each and every person. (It is hard enough just to submit to our parents!)

We see the results of this teaching already eroding the Biblical concept of family, marriage and society. If we do not turn about, surely we will face a devastation much worse than any typhoon or major earthquake. Several teachings make the popular teaching of mutual submission untenable and as mentioned above very dangerous. We will summarize them below.

The greater context of authority in scripture

The scriptures are filled with teaching about authority. Mutual submission has as its subtle companion teaching that there is no authority. Either this is a wholly new revelation of God or it goes against the teaching of scripture. What do we find in the scriptures?

God is the chief authority. Christ is an authority. In Ephesians 5:21 it says that we all should fear Christ because we will stand before Him for judgment (we get a hint of it in Revelations 2-3). Adam was head over Eve. God strongly rebuked Adam for listening to Eve when she proposed to do something different than God had ordained, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife...” (Genesis 3:17). Jesus obeyed his parents. “And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth; and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).

God has purposely put authorities in place to rule the world, society, family and the church. To abolish authority on earth is not a new revelation from God but a worldly philosophy that thinks it has a better way to do things then the Lord has ordained. It is for this reason God’s people are regularly exhorted to subject themselves to the authorities over them whether it be ruler, parent or husband.

Instead of lifting up this notion of an utopian society characterized by the absence of authority, God rebukes those who reject authority, “Yet in the same manner these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties” (Jude 1:8). There are specific authorities that we should all respect and be subject to. The teaching of mutual submission subtly removes any real appreciation of authority and therefore becomes an opposing teaching to it. This is what we have found that has happened in the church and the society as a large where authority is rejected.

The very intention of Ephesians 5:21 to have people acknowledge and submit to authority is rejected for a man-made teaching cultured by the world.

The definition of ‘be subject to’ (hupotasso)

The Greek lexicons clearly state that this word with hierarchal implications (i.e. Connected to authority) means ‘to be subject to.’ We appreciate the emphasis of the heart required to be submissive but this is not how ‘to be subject’ is defined.

To line one’s self up under, to submit. Used in a military sense of soldiers submitting to their superior or slaves submitting to their masters. The word has primarily the idea of giving up one’s own right or will, i.e., “to subordinate one’s self.”

Notice how the heart of submission requires a subordination. We are not speaking here only of a heart of submission but actually the subjection of oneself to another. By subtly shifting the meaning of this word, the popular interpretation now has wives and children not subjecting themselves to the authorities above them in direct disobedient to Ephesians 5:21.

The New Testament usage

We carefully examined the usage of this word hupotasso in the New Testament. The twenty or so usages require and list those certain individuals are to subject themselves. Slaves are to be subject to their master.

This is not a situation where the word is only used once, and the meaning needs to be guessed from the context. The verses are consistently clear as to its meaning. In Ephesians 5:22, for example, wives are to be subject to their husbands. They are not only to feel humble toward and kind but to actually do what the husband asks.

Some modernists perhaps are put off by this usage because it has the sense of a slave. The fact is, whether we like it or not, our lives are part of a web of complex relationships. Ephesians 5:21 instructs us that our choices are in many cases defined by the choices of another. If we are to use the modern interpretation, we would have to change the meaning of many scriptures. We must ask if we are seeking to understand God’s Word or trying to live out our lives the way we wish by interpreting God’s Word other than stated.

The incomprehensible sense of mutual submission

If we use ‘one another’ in an inclusive sense to include everyone, there is no longer any authority to subject oneself to. Everyone other than myself would become my authority. If we were consistent with the word’s meaning, we would need to say that a brother has authority over a sister or that a sister has authority over a brother. Are brothers and sisters to submit themselves to each other as one in authority? Clearly this is not the case.

Instead, there are certain people that each person is to be submissive to. Getting advice and submitting to a person is quite a different matter. People have problem enough submitting to elders let alone every brother or sister. Mutual submission does not practically work out in life and interferes with other authorities such as our parents who are in authority over us.
Imagine the situation where a brother says to another Christian brother, “Don’t worry what your parents want. You should go out this evening and have a break instead. You need to listen to me.”

The immediate context defines the head and authority

If there is any sense of “mutual submission” found in the husband/wife relationship, it would be found in this context addressing the husband and wife’s roles. We would expect to find a verse instructing man to subject to his wife and work with her in forming opinions. But what do we find? In indirect opposition to the popular tradition, it speaks of the husband as the head (not the wife).

Ephesians 5:23 starts off by explaining why the wife should submit. An explanative ‘for’ starts Ephesians 5:23. “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church...” Nowhere is a husband asked or told to submit to his wife. Nowhere. Instead we are told that the husband is head. This is just what we are to expect if the wife is to submit. The distinct structural roles remain in place.

Some have suggested that the term ‘head’ might have a softer connotation than the term ruler. This is possibly true, or at least can be true. We will learn in the next verses that the husband is to be gentle toward his wife. He needs to love her. This is true, but he is not told to submit but to lead his wife like Christ the church. I seek help from my wife. She is my helpmate, but in the end I must lead. I am the appointed (tasso) head, the one in authority and responsible that the decisions as a married couple are pleasing to God.

The teaching of mutual submission fails at this critical point. All its associated egalitarian teachings that stem from its teaching also fail: mutual submission in a marriage, family, church or society. Feminism, a form of egalitarianism, as a whole has caused great consternation in the family and society because it rejects the duty and calling of the wife to obey her husband.

The sin in the garden occurred when man submitted to his wife. Man failed to lead according to God’s Word and instead listened to his wife. We respect women and acknowledge her special position in creation, but she is still to live under her parent’s authority until she gets married and that authority is transferred over to her husband. God put this authority of the husband in place. When it is frustrated, problems result. This is exactly what we find in many marriages today.

Disdain proper teaching

Mutual submission sounds good and is therefore easily accepted. People do not want to think that they need to subject themselves to others. They want to make their own choices. This teaching helps them justify their disobedience. Something worse, however, is happening with this movement. Again, we must note its subtleness.

The greater danger is that such teaching causes us to despise what God really does teach. Once we accept a more ideal of handling relationships that denies any form of authority, the church becomes open to an invasion of worldly teachings that destroy the family. This is precisely what we see today in all its aberrant forms. Today, we find parents who disdain their parental authority and treat their children as equal in authority. These parents are astonished to see how bratty their children are but believe that this is ideal. These families are small because as they commonly say, “We couldn’t handle more than one.”

Divorce has become common because people are living by this supposedly more ideal way. Mutual submission implies that the husband and wife’s decision are of equal importance. They have no way to handle their frustrations but end up being more divisive and bitter. Divorce is the result. The focus (and tension point) becomes on what each person wants and values instead of obedience. Mutual submission might seem that it focuses on humility and giving in but because of its sister teaching that each of our opinions are as important as the other, a deluge of personal battles result.

God knows how to think about ourselves, life and each other. If the teaching of mutual submission in a marriage or family was ideal, the Lord would have taught this. It is not ideal. Nowhere in the scriptures is it taught. Instead a verse is hijacked and used to control the interpretation of many other verses that do not each anything like mutual submission. Mutual submission counters God’s Word and, as a result, the family is racing into ruin. God teaches the better way of authority and subjection.


Mutual submission seems like it brings us to a higher ideal, but in fact, it is based on an errant translation and sets forth teaching that counters what is so clearly taught in the scriptures. We need to repent as a church. We have not subjected ourselves to our head, Christ, and instead created teachings where each person can follow their own desires causing many to fall into ruin.

“But as the church is subject to Christ,
so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.”
(Ephesians 5:24)

Instead of causing us to subject ourselves to one another, the popular interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 teaches us not to subject ourselves to anyone. This is a great difference in translation. Readers beware!

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Read more exciting and practical articles on the Book of Ephesians.

Introduction to the Book of Ephesians

Paul's Second Missonary Journey to Ephesus - Map
Chronology Chart of Pauline Letters
Ephesians 1:1-3 Introduction in text.

Ephesians 1

Ephesians 1:1-3 Every Spiritual Blessing

Ephesians 1:1-3 Every Spiritual Blessing
Ephesians 1:1 Only by the Will of God
Ephesians 1:2 Only in Christ Jesus
Ephesians 1:3 Every Spiritual Blessing
Ephesians 1:1-3 Bible Study Questions

Ephesians 1:4-6 Bible Study Questions
Ephesians 1:1-14 Redemption & Sovereignty
Ephesians 1:15-17 Bible Study Questions

Ephesians 2

Ephesians 2:1-3 Our Need, His Grace

Ephesians 2:1-3, an Introduction
Ephesians 2:1 A) Man's Nature
Ephesians 2:2 B) Man's World
Ephesians 2:3 C) Man's Heart
Questions (Ephesians 2:1-3)

Ephesians 2:8-10 Extraordinary Purpose
Ephesians 2:8-10, an Introduction
Ephesians 2:8-9 A) Purpose of Salvation
Ephesians 2:10 B) Purpose of our Lives
Questions (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Ephesians 2:19-22 Bible Study Questions

Ephesians 3

Ephesians 3:1-10 Growing in Our Commitment
Ephesians 3:1-10, Introduction
Ephesians 3:1 The Value of the Gospel
Ephesians 3:2-5 The Reliability of the Gospel
Ephesians 3:6-7 The Glory of the Gospel
Ephesians 3:8-10 The Calling of the Gospel
Questions (Ephesians 3:1-10)

Ephesians 3:14-21 The Fullness of God's Love

Ephesians 3:20-21 God's Unlimited Power
Ephesians 3:20-21 Unlimited Power
Ephesians 3:20 God's Amazing Power
Ephesians 3:21 God's Amazing Glory
Ephesians 3:20-21 Bible Study Questions

Ephesians 4

Ephesians 4:1-3 Preserving the Spirit's Unity

Intro: Problems of Disunity
Ephesians 4:1 Calling to Unity
Ephesians 4:2-3 Our Oneness of the Body
Ephesians 4:3 Preservation of Unity
Ephesians 4:1-3 Bible Study Questions
Ephesians 4:4-5 Reason for Oneness
Ephesians 4:6 One God & Father
Ephesians 4:4-6 Bible Study Questions

Ephesians 4:11-16 The Purpose of Training

Ephesians 4:11-13: A) God's Word in the Church
Ephesians 4:11 Gifts in the church
Ephesians 4:12 Purpose of equipping
Ephesians 4:13 The final goal
Ephesians 4:11-13 Bible Study Questions

Ephesians 4:14 B) Responsibility 1. Deceit
Ephesians 4:15a 2. Speaking the truth in love
Ephesians 4:15b 3. Grow up into Christ
Ephesians 4:16 Summary: Function of the Church
Ephesians 4:14-16 Bible Study Questions
Ephesians 4:17-24 Bible Study Questions

Ephesians 4:11-14 Chart: Equipping of the Saints
Ephesians 4:25 Power of Speaking the Truth
Ephesians 4:25 Bible Study Questions

Ephesians 4:26-27 The Urgency of Resolving Anger
Ephesians 4:31 The Tree of Bitterness

Ephesians 5-6

Ephesians 5:8-14 Bible Study Questions
Ephesians 5:22-24 Wives be Subject to your Husband
Ephesians 5:25 Marital Love
Ephesians 5:31-32 Redemptive Analogy & Marriage
Ephesians 5:31-33 Building a Great Marriage
Ephesians 6:1-4 Obedience to Parents
Ephesians 6:17 Sword of Spirit

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Biblical Foundations for Freedom

Paul J. Bucknell

NASB Bible used