Marriage at work (3) Submit to one another”

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Our understanding of Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives will be influenced by how we understand the phrase hupotessomenoi allelloi  Here we have two apparently strong concepts.

hupotassomenoi is the present participle of hupotasso which means, “To cause to be in a submissive relationship, to subject, to subordinate.”[1] In the passive voice, it means that the subject of the verb will “become subject”[2] or “subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey abs.”[3]

allelloi, is “the reciprocal pronoun”[4] and has the idea of “each other, one another, mutually.”[5]

How do these two work together?  Some might argue that they do not, that they form an oxymoron.  You cannot have reciprocal subordination because the word itself contains the idea of hierarchy.[6]  Two options have been suggested for resolving the tension.

2.1. Option 1

This is a key argument for the egalitarian approach. Bilezikian argues hupatasso normally “means to make oneself subordinate to the authority of a higher power…except where its meaning is deliberately changed by a modifier such as in verse 21 of our text…mutual submission rules out hierarchical differences.  Being subject to one another is only possible among equals.”[7]

In other words, the meaning of the verb is controlled by its object.  Rather than having the strong sense of subordinating oneself to a higher authority, it suggests mutual regard for others, treating all as better than oneself, having an attitude of humility.

Indeed, Marcus Barth goes so far as to argue that the verb in and of itself need not communicate the idea of hierarchy.  He uses the following example:

“On occasion the rare noun hypotaxis is used to express one of the specific meanings of the verb hypotasso, that is the taking of a position in a phalanx by a military unit.  In the latter case there is no thought of inferiority or servility among those who subordinate themselves.”[8]

So in the Ephesian context, the verb need not suggest submission to authority but rather, it is about the ordering of equals within the church for the task of mission.

Lincoln also places the emphasis on mutuality, arguing that,

“There are similarities with the earlier paraenesis in 4:2,3, where ‘bearing with one another in love’ stands parallel to ‘making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit.,’ and in 4:30 where it is clear from the context that what grieves the Spirit are the words and deeds of believers that are disruptive of communal life.”[9]

This means that, “The call to mutual submission ‘demands readiness to renounce one’s own will for the sake of others, i.e., agape, and to give precedence to others.’”[10] 

Bilezikian thinks that the whole passage is about giving ourselves up for the sake of others as Christ did to the Church and the Church does in response to him.[11]

In other words, the idea of mutuality controls and weakens the force of the command to “submit” so that Sampley thinks that “Submit to one another” “cancels out the specific instructions to submit and to obey in the household codes that follow[12] and Marshall, linking the phrase with the command for husbands to love their wives, says that “mutual love transcends submission.”[13]

2.2. Option 2

A number of Complementarians agree that the two words sit uneasily together. However, they take the opposite approach, arguing that the verb qualifies the object so that allelloi, means “To anyone in the Church who is entitled to your submission.” [14] So for example, O’Brien says,

“A different interpretation recognizes that v.21 is a general heading…The particular ways in which Christians are to submit to others are then specified…It is not mutual submission that is in view…but submission to appropriate authorities.”[15]

He argues that,

“None of the relationships where the verb appears is reversed…The word does not describe a ‘symmetrical’ relationship since it always has to do with an ordered relationship in which one person is ‘over’ and another ‘under’.”[16]

With regards to Barth’s suggestion that the verb hu does not necessarily require the idea of authority, he notes that, “In the forty or so New Testament occurrences the verb carries an overtone of authority and subjection or submission to it.”[17]

Furthermore, he goes on to suggest that “The pronoun ‘one another’ is not always fully reciprocal.”[18]  So for example, he argues that “Revelation 6:4, ‘so that men should slay one another’ cannot mean that each killed the other at precisely the same time as he or she was killed.”[19]

O’Brien agrees with Sampley that it is possible to treat “Submit to One Another” as the heading for what follows.  However, rather than the heading subverting or limiting the instructions that follow, in this case, the instructions explain what is meant by submitting to each other.

2.3. A Third Way?

O’Brien’s thesis is highly persuasive.  On the face of it, it is difficult to envisage submission without hierarchy.  There is, however, one problem with his argument and that is that as Best notes, “so far as I can discover no one had thought of solving the difficulty in this way until the rise of the feminist movement, and it is not therefore an obvious solution.”[20]

For example, when you look at Calvin’s treatment of Ephesians 5, we find him commenting

“Now a man may think it strange at first glance that he should say that we ought to be subject to one another.  For it does not seem fitting that a father should be subject to his children, the husband to his wife, or the magistrate to the people whom he governs, or even that they also who are equal in status should be subject one to another.  But if we examine all things well, we shall find that St. Paul has not without reason put all Christians under this subjection.”[21]

Thus, Calvin argues that husbands, fathers and masters do submit to those under them, in the sense that they do not have absolute power over them and are not to dominate them for selfish purposes.  Rather, under God, they have responsibilities for the care and welfare of those in their charge.  In that sense, Calvin does allow the imperative to be qualified by the people it is applied to. So for him, mutuality in marriage looks like this:

“Now then, if a wife be cross-grained and cannot find in her heart to bear the yoke, although she does wrong to her husband, yet God is still more outraged.  And why?  Because it is his will that that bond should be inviolable…. We see then that in so doing she sets herself against the majesty of God. On the other hand, when a man will insist on lording it after his own liking and fancy, despising his wife, or using her cruelly and tyrannically, he shows that he despised God and defies him openly.  For he ought to know for what purpose he was created, what the state of marriage is, and what law God has set in it.”[22]

This goes against Ash’s assertion that “The idea of mutual subordination arose only as ‘an exegetical tactic commonly employed by those wishing to mitigate the hierarchalism of the subsequent passage.’”[23]  Indeed, even Ash concedes that “To evacuate verse 21 completely of mutuality might seem to reduce its force in Paul’s argument.”[24]  Tellingly, he acknowledges that not only is there a “strong general association of allelon with mutuality” but also “‘submitting to one another’ comes at the end of a series of participles about entirely mutual behaviour.”

So, O’Brien’s argument requires further analysis.  On reflection, I am not convinced that the examples he gives with regards to allelloi are asymmetrical.[25]  For example, it would be possible for two people to kill each other at exactly the same time. But in any case, mutuality does not require chronological reciprocity.  For example, whilst I may not bear your burden at the same time as you bear mine, if I help you when you are in need and then you help me at a future time, this is still within the scope of mutual support.[26]

However, if there is a historical argument for mutuality that predates feminism and fits within a Complementarian framework, then this would also challenge one of the key egalitarian presumptions that mutual submission must subvert hierarchical submission because historically Complementarians have been able to fit the concept within their framework. It is worth noting that within the popular context, preachers will make Complementarian applications whilst assuming mutual submission.  For example, I remember Philip Hacking arguing that wives could submit to their husbands in the home, exactly because their husbands had already submitted to them in the church.[27]

Therefore, I would argue for a third option, namely that Ephesians 5 does teach mutual submission, but within a Complementarian context.  This means that to some extent, “one another” does qualify “submit” but not in the sense of an absolute qualification. Rather, the force of the verb will depend upon the exact people whom it has in mind.[28]


[1] BDAG, 1042a.  Cf. Rom 8:20, Phil 3:21, Heb 2:5, Eph 1:22, Psa 8:7.

[2] BDAG, 1042a.

[3] BDAG, 1042a. Rom 13:5; 1 Cor 14:34, Eph 5:22, Col 3:18

[4] BDAG, 46a.

[5] BDAG, 46a.

[6] This is O’Brien’s position, which will be discussed in more detail below.  Peter T O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary.  Leicester: Apollos: 1999), 402-403. 

[7] George Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles. What the Bible Says about a Woman’s Place In Church and Family (2d Ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1985), 154.

[8] Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6 (The Anchor Bible.  New York: Doubleday. 1979), 709.

[9] Andrew T Lincoln, Ephesians (WBC42. Dallas, Texas: Word, 1990), 365.

[10] G Delling, “u`pota,ssw,” TDNT 8[1972] 45.  Cited in Lincoln, Ephesians, 365.

[11] Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, 164.

[12] Sampley. Cited in Lincoln, Ephesians, 366.

[13] I.H. Marshall, “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage: Colossians 3:18-19 and Ephesians 5:21-33,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (Ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordan D. Fee. Leicester: Apollos, 2004), 194.

[14] See especially O’Brien, Ephesians, 402-403.  See also see Clark, Man and Woman, 74-76.  Cited in Lincoln, Ephesians, 365.  Christopher Ash suggests that, “The idea of mutual subordination arose only as an ‘exegetical tactic commonly employed by those wishing to mitigate the hierarchialism of the subsequent passage,’” (citing Perriman) although he notes that the whole paragraph it completes refers to “mutual behaviour” and suggests that we cannot completely remove that sense from the verse. Christopher Ash, Marriage, Sex in the Service of God ( Leicester: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 311.

[15] O’Brien, Ephesians, 401.

[16] O’Brien, Ephesians, 402.

[17] O’Brien, Ephesians, 399.

[18] So for example, he argues that whilst Eph 4:25; John 13:34, 35; 15:12, 17; Rom 1:12 can be understood as reciprocal, Rev 6:4, Gal 6:2 and 1 Cor 11:33 cannot. O’Brien, Ephesians, 403.

[19] O’Brien, Ephesians, 403.

[20] Ernest Best, Ephesians (ICC.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 516.

[21]John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians  (Rev.  Rpr.  Trans. Arthur Golding.  Edinburgh:  Banner of Truth, 1979), 560.

[22] Calvin, Ephesians, 565.

[23] Citing Perriman.  Ash, Marriage, 310.

[24] Ash, Ephesians, 311.

[25] I am grateful to Peter O’Brien who took time whilst lecturing at Oak Hill to discuss his exposition with me in person.  I respect that his argument is a strong one given the consistent meaning of hupotasso within the New Testament and should not be set aside lightly.  However, his argument does depend upon the assumption that “one another” can be interpreted within a non-reciprocal framework.  I also would note that Peter does assume a mutuality in terms of humility and service between husband and wife and within the congregation, even though he would not argue that from this text.  (Personal conversation with Peter T O’Brien, 16/03/2010).

[26] Marshall cites “be  Slaves to one another” Gal 5:1 as another example of such mutual concern.  Marshall, “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage.” 197.

[27] Philip Hacking was Vicar of Christchurch Fulwood and founding chairman of Reform, a conservative grouping within the Church of England which has campaigned against the ordination of women to the priesthood.  I attended Christchurch as a student between 1992-1995 and recall him preaching on this subject.

[28] We will develop this point in Chapter 3.