What does Paul mean by “mutual submission” in Ephesians 5:21?

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How does Paul’s teaching on mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21 relate to his instructions on submission within specific authority structures just afterward (v. 22 — 6:9)?

 

In Ephesians 5:21, Paul moves from general instructions for all believers to how these apply in specific relationships. To understand his words, we must read them in context.  

Paul is writing to the saints in Ephesus, a group of men, women, and children; Jews and Gentiles; masters and servants; rich and poor. He writes to them as chosen and beloved children of God, redeemed through forgiveness of sins and given every spiritual blessing (chapter 1). Despite their former walk in darkness, God had mercy on them, granting salvation by grace through faith. God’s grace empowered them not only to live holy lives but to do so in unparalleled unity, despite their previous estrangement. 

In Christ the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles was broken down, and a new humanity was created. This humanity was no longer divided and ranked by ethnicity, socio-economic class, gender, or other factors that order people in the kingdom of darkness. Rather, Christ broke down these divisions to create a united family, a unified citizenship, a single structure built to the glory of God (chapter 2). Bound together by the immeasurable love of God, believers in Christ would fulfill God’s eternal purpose to bring reconciliation and redemption out of the ashes of sin and death (chapter 3). 

God’s people are to walk worthy of their calling, relating to each other in counter-cultural ways: humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, and love. United by shared belief, yet diverse in gifting, this new humanity would grow up to be like Christ as each part did its part. Such a community required a lifestyle of repentance, characterized by continually setting aside the old ways of sin and death, being cleansed, and walking in a new way of holy life (chapter 4).  

The upshot of all of this is a call to “walk in love” (NASB throughout), imitating God’s sacrificial and servant-oriented love expressed through Christ (5:1, 2). Abandoning darkness, believers are called instead to walk in light with one another, glorifying and giving thanks to God for His great grace and love. The closing phrase of this address to all believers is “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (v. 21). Here Paul relativizes all human relationships under the lordship of Christ. Two radical changes occur in Christ. First, all of us are called to mutual submission, recognizing that Christ alone is our Lord and we are His servants. Second, we no longer relate to one another according to sinful constructs of power, force, subjugation, inequity, or selfish ambition, but in humble, sacrificial love.

As Paul turns his attention to specific relationships (husbands-wives, children-parents, servants-masters), he calls them to cast off the models of worldly authority and instead embrace the loving, humble, sacrificial leadership of Christ (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). Household codes were common in Greco-Roman society at that time. In these codes, those in positions of authority were given absolute power and were not instructed to love or serve those under their authority. Those subjected to them were called upon simply to submit to this power. Paul’s household codes turn these worldly models of authority upside down, placing the burden of sacrificial love on those in positions of authority and calling on them to practice Christlike authority, characterized by loving service and sacrifice.

Paul’s final words to the saints in Ephesus are an admonition to put on the armor of God, recognizing that they do not battle against flesh and blood but against dark spiritual powers (chapter 6). Once more, Paul challenges the kingdoms of darkness that call on us to conquer by force, subjugate by power, and control by dominance. Instead, we live by righteousness, peace, and faith, walking in salvation by the Word and Spirit of God and praying for one another in love. Paul’s call to all Christians to walk in love just as Christ loved us is a call to mutual submission, serving and sacrificing ourselves both for those over us and those under our authority.  

— Elder Israel Steinmetz

 

Israel Steinmetz

Israel Steinmetz is dean of Academic Affairs for Artios Christian College and pastors New Hope United. In addition to teaching, Israel loves to write. He is co-author (with Whaid Rose) of Getting a Handle on Worship, contributing editor to This We Believe: Teachings of the Church of God (Seventh Day), and a regular contributor to the Bible Advocate and https://artiosmagazine.org. Committed to lifelong learning, Israel is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in San Antonio, TX, with his wife, Anna, and their eight young children.
Israel Steinmetz

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Israel Steinmetz is dean of Academic Affairs for Artios Christian College and pastors New Hope United. In addition to teaching, Israel loves to write. He is co-author (with Whaid Rose) of Getting a Handle on Worship, contributing editor to This We Believe: Teachings of the Church of God (Seventh Day), and a regular contributor to the Bible Advocate and https://artiosmagazine.org. Committed to lifelong learning, Israel is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in San Antonio, TX, with his wife, Anna, and their eight young children.