Submit to one another, part 4: Mutuality in the Spirit

“A new command I give you,” Jesus told his disciples.  “Love one another” (John 13:34, NIV).  To the Romans, Paul wrote: “Be devoted to one another.  Honor one another. . .Live in harmony with one another. . .” (Rom 12:10, 16, NIV).  Both Jesus and Paul were concerned about the gospel being embodied in the relationship between believers.

Although this series of posts is about Paul’s controversial instruction that Christian wives “should submit to their husbands in everything” (Eph 5:24, NIV), I have chosen a title that reflects a prior “one another” saying of Paul: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21, NIV).  That’s the verse immediately before his instructions for household relationships, and which I believe sets the context for their interpretation.

Ephesians 5:22 can’t be separated from verse 21.  Where in the NIV, the English reads, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands,” there’s actually no verb in the Greek.  A more literal translation would be, “Wives to your own husbands”: the verb “submit” has to be borrowed from the previous verse.  Whatever Paul says to wives, and by extension to the other members of the household, should be taken as elaborating the earlier theme of mutual submission.

The verb “to submit” conveys a sense of hierarchical order; the person who submits accepts his/her place below someone else in the organizational chart.  But how can there be mutual submission, then?  The five-star general doesn’t take orders from a buck private.

As I will argue in a later post, Paul’s purpose is not to challenge existing social structures directly, but to transform relationships from the inside out, to bring them in line spiritually with the vision of unity and peace described in earlier chapters.  Mutual submission is a direct expression of humility and compassion within the body of Christ, a manifestation of the joyous, Spirit-filled life.

In fact, if it’s true that 5:22 can’t be separated from verse 21, it’s equally true that 5:21 can’t be separated from verses 18 to 20.  Here’s the NIV:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.  Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.  Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (Eph 5:18-20, NIV)

The NIV then gives us a nice big bold heading: “Instructions for Christian Households.”  Only then do we get verse 21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and the household section that follows.

That way of punctuating Paul makes it seem as if he’s turning a page and moving on to another topic (as he sometimes does in other letters).  But contrast, for example, the way the same passage is translated in the Common English Bible, this time including verse 21:

Don’t get drunk on wine, which produces depravity. Instead, be filled with the Spirit in the following ways: speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts; always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; and submit to each other out of respect for Christ.

The CEB includes all of this under the heading “Be filled with the Spirit,” beginning at verse 15.  There is no separate heading for Paul’s instructions for households.  Why?  Because verses 18 to 21 form one long sentence in the Greek.  The instruction to “be filled” is followed by a string of participles that illustrate what it means: speaking, singing, “psalming”. . .and submitting.  (Wait — how did that last one get in there?)

In earlier posts, I suggested that we can’t come to Ephesians 5:22 and beyond without first celebrating the unimaginable mystery of God’s eternal and gracious plan, and in consequence, embracing our calling to live accordingly.  We can sharpen that: we’re not ready to wrestle with Paul’s instructions to wives and husbands unless we first embrace the principle of mutual submission.

And we haven’t really embraced it unless it makes sense to us as one more expression of Spirit-filled worship.