Jesus said, “If your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light” (Matt. 6:22, Luke 11:34 RSV). Jesus also starkly commanded, “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out” (Matt. 18:9, Mark 9:47 KJV).
Jesus recognized that perception is governed by the lenses used. If the lens of our eye—our way of seeing—is pure, righteous, of the kingdom of God, we will have a pure, righteous, kingdom perspective. The “eye that offends”—causes sin—is a way of seeing that is neither pure nor righteous. The eye that offends has many lenses, multiple filters. The Christian church has used many of these flawed perspectives in looking at submission. Submission is a relationship issue, and righteousness is a matter of right relationships.
For the first forty years of my life and church experience, submission did not emerge as an issue in relationships between women and men. The churches of my experience were governed by elders chosen through a representative process. They led, the congregation followed, and individuals served where needed according to ability and interest. When I ventured into other parts of the body of Christ, the tension over submission was both a novelty and a puzzle to me. I had no “lens” at all for viewing submission. Only then did I realize that the Bible, and Paul’s letters in particular, speaks about submission. Only then did I begin to realize that this controversy over the translation and interpretation of Bible passages concerning submission was beginning to generate increasing amounts of valuable Bible scholarship. Much reading, study, and reflection has followed.
Even when we determine to examine and interpret Bible texts in the original languages, we often review the results with the eye that offends. Today, we have many Bible translations and paraphrases, but few Bible readers have the time or resources to research Bible texts in the original Hebrew or Greek. For those less academically inclined, the eye that offends can be used to take verses that support a certain point of view and extract them from a favorite translation with no regard to context or to the meaning of the words in the original language. God’s truth becomes obscured by warped and clouded lenses.
Here are some common lenses that warp our view of Scripture: • Hierarchy—to consolidate and control power
- Chain of command—to regulate others’ behavior through organization
- Tradition—that values by prejudicially determined human status
- Culture—that values amorally according to fad and advertisement as well as human accomplishment
- Expediency—to reach a predetermined goal regardless of whether the text supports it
- Obedience—that measures compliance
Each eventually proves to be an eye that offends, leading to some imbalance or exploitation in relationships.
In contrast, the powerful lens of academic scholarship is essential and critical to how we view Scripture. With the efforts of excellent scholars of many theological traditions and both genders, this lens has been finely ground and minutely polished. I will refer briefly to some of this excellent work, but my hope is that my list and new lenses will help to move God’s truth regarding submission beyond the halls of academia to the often puzzled and frustrated believer in the pew.
Today, two of the most flagrant distortions of original language (Greek) concerning submission occur with Ephesians 5:18–22 and the parallel passage in Colossians 3:12–17. In both passages, Paul is writing about the way those who are followers of Jesus should relate to each other “in Christ.” The context of Paul’s writing preceding these passages and two key Greek words, hupotassō (to submit) and kephalē (head), deserve more careful attention. If we rid ourselves of the ways of seeing that cause offense and distort the truth of Scripture, what might we find in these passages pertaining to submission, while being mindful of the results of careful scholarship?
Following the flow of Paul’s discourse leading up to the first passage sheds important light on its meaning. Beginning in Ephesians 4, Paul begs his readers to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (vv. 1–3).1 He expected all to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (v. 13). Paul affirms and insists that his readers “must no longer live as the Gentiles [nations] live, in the futility of their minds” (v. 17). He reminds them they “were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (vv. 22–24). Continuing, Paul instructs them to put away falsehood, not to sin when angry, give up stealing, work honestly, let no evil talk come out of their mouths, and not grieve the Holy Spirit of God. They are to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, malice, and be kind to one another. They are to be tenderhearted, forgiving as God has forgiven them (vv. 25–31). In Ephesians 5, Paul exhorts them as God’s beloved children to live in love, as Christ has loved them (v. 1). They are to live as children of light (v. 8). They are to be careful how they live, and not get drunk with wine, but instead be filled with the Spirit (vv. 15, 18).
In Ephesians 5:18, Paul explains what makes the kind of living he describes possible: “being filled with the Spirit.” Maintaining such a lifestyle depends on being filled with the Holy Spirit, “with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (4:30). The “old self ” cannot be filled with the Spirit. Only the new self, a new creation in Christ, can be filled with the Spirit. After explaining that the Spirit is the key to righteous living, Paul then sums up all of his instruction for right relationships with “Be subject [submitted] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). Being filled with the Spirit, we are to be mutually subject, or submitted (hupotassō), to one another. In using the reflexive form of hupotasso to indicate reciprocal action, Paul is introducing a new concept. He is proposing a new paradigm for submission—one that is to be out of fear or reverence for Christ.2
In continuation of this thought, Paul then moves to specific examples in the home, where this new paradigm will be put into practice. He begins with the phrase “The wives to their husbands, as to the Lord, because. . . .” The verb hupotassō is absent; it is implied from the preceding sentence. Many translations make an arbitrary and unnatural break and even insert a heading between these two sentences. This tends to disconnect this exhortation from all that has gone before.
Hupotassō is also used in Colossians 3:18: “Wives be subject [submit] to your husbands.” As in Ephesians, the preceding verses (2:8 to 3:17) have described what constitutes living as “God’s chosen, holy and beloved” (3:12) in relationship with one another. Paul reminds the Colossians that they have died to the old nature (2:20). This section ends with “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (v. 17). Living in the kind of relationships Paul describes is done “in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
The verb hupotassō and Paul’s unique and deliberate usage in the context of mutuality have received extensive scholarly attention in recent years. Gilbert Bilezikian, writing on Ephesians in Beyond Sex Roles, makes the point that “the addition to ‘being submitted’ of the reciprocal pronoun ‘to each other’ changes its meaning entirely. ‘Being subject to one another’ is a very different relationship from ‘being subject to the other.’”3 He uses a military example and states, “Being subject to one another is only possible among equals.”4 Susan C. Hyatt’s consideration of hupotassō in her study of submission makes reference to its use in the sense of “being brought into a sphere of influence”5 with which one identifies and coming into unity. She further explores its use within the context of household codes of the time. Patricia Gundry gives a clear and extended explanation of hupotassō as a call to selfvolitional submission to achieve unity and equality in Greek hierarchical society.6
J. Lee Grady, in his 25 Tough Questions about Women in the Church,7 makes yet another point: that hupotassō can also be translated “be attached to.” What kind of implication does this give to “be subject to”? I believe that Paul had in mind that we are members together of Christ’s body, in which we are bound or attached together by Christ’s love in mutual submission. The witness to God’s work of redemption rests upon our mutual submission in the righteous relationships that Paul has described in great detail. Living or walking “in the light” keeps the body of Christ healthy, strong, and effective in witnessing to the world. The world needs to see God’s love in action through righteous relationships. This gives honor and reverence to Christ.
Ephesians 5:22, which begins, “The wives to their husbands,” continues, “because the man is the head of woman as Christ head of the church” (v. 23, my literal trans.). The Greek word for “head,” kephalē, is the same word used in writing to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:3. We have many examples of how kephalē was used in Jesus’ time that reveal it was often used to indicate “source,” and seldom used to identify a ruling authority requiring the compliance of someone of less authority.8 Paul is saying, in effect, “God is the source of Christ; Christ is the source of man; man is the source of woman.”
I was first introduced to the scholarship beginning to emerge in the controversy over submission through a paper on kephalē distributed in a seminary class in the early 1980s. It was by Catherine and Richard Kroeger, who have continued to make contributions to this area of study. In Equal to Serve, Gretchen Gabelein Hull includes in Appendix III an article by Catherine Kroeger, “The Classical Concept of Head as ‘Source.’”9 It serves as a brief historical overview and summary. Most recently, the debate has been summed up by Alan Johnson in the article “A Meta- Study of the Debate over the Meaning of “Head” (Kephalē) in Paul’s Writings.”10
Paul’s examination of submission between husband and wife in Ephesians 5 includes a description of Christ’s sacrificial and sanctifying love for the church and God’s plan that the man leave his father and mother to be joined with (attached in love to) his wife. It ends with “Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband” (v. 33). I believe that Paul is indicating that the man who does not love his wife as Christ loves the church fails in his witness to Christ. Christ is not honored or reverenced when this happens. Likewise, the woman who does not respect her husband in the mutual submission that Paul has so beautifully described in Ephesians 4–5 and Colossians 3 dishonors her source(s).
George Matheson, the blind Scottish preacher and hymn writer, saw the need for true lenses a century ago. In his devotional book Voices of the Spirit he writes, “When the Spirit comes the old words will come to thee as something new. . . .” He prays:
The wonders are in Thy law already; they do not need to be put there. But until Thou comest my eyes are in want of a lens by which to see them. Light up the old texts, irradiate the time-worn phrases, deepen the by-gone meanings, revise the inadequate readings, reveal the latent application, unlock the hidden doors. I shall find the treasures in my earthen vessels when Thou has made known the words of the Lord.”11
Now that we have examined Scripture itself and briefly considered the highly polished lens of academic scholarship, what are some of the other lenses for viewing submission that the Spirit might use for the benefit of Christ’s body?
1. The essentiality of equality
It is impossible to submit what you do not have. If you are outranked, outclassed, and outperformed, you acknowledge an inferior status. When I say, “You do it; you are better at it,” that statement can be shown to be true or untrue by measuring the two parties’ levels of competence. Recognizing a level of competence is not the same as submission.
Submission is the setting aside of something of equal or greater value. When I can do a task as well as you, but say, “You do it; I want you to have the pleasure (or honor, or experience),” or, if I give up a comparable opportunity in order for you to have a chance, that is submission. When I give you opportunity, place, position, or recognition that I could legitimately claim as mine, I have submitted mine in favor of yours.
Every person’s will—the ability to choose, decide, and determine action—is equally valuable. Being required, manipulated, or coerced to acknowledge an inferiority that is not true is subjection, exploitation, subordination, or compliance. It is not submission.
The apostle Paul, who wrote, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21), elsewhere stated, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NIV), and “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11). Yielding to the will of another is godly submission only when equality in Christ is acknowledged.
2. Reciprocal responsibility in relationships
Astonishing statements by Jesus about his relationship with the Father appear in the fifth chapter of John’s gospel: “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing; . . . Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. . . . I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:19, 20, 21, 30).
Here let us focus not on Jesus. We already know he was perfectly submissive to the Father. Let us look at the Father! Jesus sees and hears what he is doing. How? “The Father . . . shows him all that he himself is doing” (v. 20). Why? “The Father loves the Son . . .” (v. 20). What does this mean? The Father completely reveals himself to the Son. Jesus says, “As I hear, I judge” (v. 30). The Father reveals all and tells all to the Son.
What does this tell us about submission? First, the one to whom submission is given takes the initiative. The initiative is not a demand, not a command, not the stating of a requirement. The Father voluntarily reveals and discloses the very essence of his being. Father God opens himself up and invites knowing, in a relationship of love and trust. This is the context that calls for submission by the Son.
Secondly, submission is not given in blind mindless compliance. Submission is receiving—seeing and hearing in love—that which is voluntarily disclosed and revealed, and responding in kind. The submission and obedience of the Son depend upon and match the complete disclosure, revelation, and vulnerability of the Father. Submission is given and received in a relationship of complete mutual knowing. The complete knowing eliminates any hierarchy of power in the Godhead. The response of the Son by the Spirit finds its affirmation in the Father by the same Spirit. Through the Son, the Father is revealing and disclosing himself by the same Spirit to us.
With partial knowledge, we can respond, adapt, accommodate, adjust, support, enable, defer to, honor, go along with, comply, and even obey, but true submission can only be as deep as the knowing. In this context of knowing and being known, a husband and wife are to be in submission, to love sacrificially, and to honor one another. How many of those who demand “submission” from others are willing to be fully known to receive that submission in the righteousness of God?
3. The freedom of fellowship
Once we accept the New Testament message of equality in Christ, we are freed from the bondage of other systems of human relationships. Jesus’ disciples had difficulty accepting equality in Christ. At the Last Supper, “[a] dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves’” (Luke 22:24–27). Earlier, Jesus had said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31–32). An important aspect of the truth that frees is that kingdom relationships are not governed by Greek philosophy’s great chain of being or by a societal chain of command.12 These place us either in a hierarchy or on a ladder, with someone above us and someone below us. It is true that the successful execution of a project or program may require a chain of command for the delegation of tasks and responsibilities. The problem with ladders is that those who see themselves “below” can become frantic to force themselves higher, while those who perceive themselves “above” fear falling lower. In the resulting scramble, many are trampled, many are wounded, and some are lost. Neither hierarchical position nor ladders governs our relationships in the kingdom of God. Equality in Christ delivers us from territoriality, defensiveness, or having to justify displacing others.
Again, it is helpful to remember that we are part of Christ’s body. Each part contributes to the whole. The hand’s value is the same whether it is reaching overhead or into a hole. The heart’s function is as necessary when lying down as when running. Each cell contributes to and participates in the life of the entire body. Blood cells, nerve cells, lymph cells, and skin cells all have specific and individual functions—not on a ladder of ascending importance, but in a wonderful and complex interrelationship and interdependence.
In Christ’s body, we should be free to be submissive in fellowship without fear of being displaced or dishonored, free to be known without being overcome or overruled, free to know without being a threat, and free to explore our individual and collective identities as unique and precious parts of Christ’s body. We are free to receive the gifts that the Spirit of God wants to impart to us for the blessing of the body. With Paul, we can rejoice to share “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:13).
4. The mutual accountability of submission
To be submissive is to make oneself accountable. If you submit to my leadership, I can call you to account. But more than that, if I receive your submission, I am accountable to our Father for you. I assume a responsibility for you, for your obedience.
I need you to call me to account also. I may need you to remind me of my accountability. If I demand more than submission in equality, I need you to say, “If I yield to you in doing this which I feel is contrary to God’s will, are you prepared to stand for me in judgment and say, ‘Lord, I required this of my sister?’” If I still require of you that which is not God’s will, then your obedience as a Christian is to God, not me. Submission is not the surrender of your will to mine. Obedience to higher law is not rebellion, though some may see it so. The Jewish temple authorities, whom Jesus’ disciples would ordinarily obey in religious matters, ordered them not to “speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Their response is instructive: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19). Rebellion is not the opposite of submission. Rebellion is the opposite of obedience. The opposite of submission is lack of unity, lack of trust, detachment, separation, and divorcement. In Christ, when submission within a relationship becomes disobedience to God, then submission must give way to obedience to God.
The writer of Hebrews urges, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy, and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you” (Heb. 13:17). For the body of our Lord to function fully, both submission and obedience are needed. There are relationships to maintain, attitudes to keep pure, and tasks to be accomplished. Our witness will be most effective when we are submitted and accountable to one another in obedience to God together.
5. The law of love
Paul wrote to the Philippians of Jesus:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human likeness,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:6–11)
Submission is a temporary and reciprocal relinquishment of rights. Christ the Son, in submission to the Father, laid down his glory and dominion in heaven to come into time to be born as a baby. In full agreement with the Father, he accepted the limitations of the human condition. He submitted himself to obey the Father, and the Father kept and confirmed his sonship. If he had sold out to Satan (abdication) or surrendered to the flesh (abandonment), that which he had lain down in submission would have been lost. In the equality, trust, total knowing, love, and accountability of the Godhead, all was kept to be restored. Jesus could lay down this earthly life in total faith that the power of a greater restoration was secure in the Father. In the law of love, submission plus obedience plus sacrifice not only provided for the restoration of that which had been submitted, but more. The revelation of God was expanded. New life became available for humanity.
That which is submitted in agreement to an equal can be fully restored by the receiver. The functioning of the human body provides a rough analogy. The leg muscles can temporarily relinquish blood supply to the digestive system in order to process food. When the work of digestion and storage has been completed, not only is the blood released for other body use, but new stores of energy are available for both blood and muscles. Life has increased.
As members of the body of Christ, we can submit and sacrifice— in him—and trust the law of love.
Jesus warned his followers of the dangers of the “eye” or lenses that we might use to regard God’s truth. The New Testament, which proclaims the gospel of redemption from sin and the reign of Jesus Christ in the kingdom of God, presents us with new concepts for relationships and for the ordering of human society. Mutual submission is one of the concepts that has been viewed through an assortment of lenses, including tradition, culture, status, hierarchy, organization, expediency, matters of competence, compliance, or obedience. It is time to use new lenses in order to obtain an accurate view of God’s truth.
Humanly speaking, mutual submission is that expression of relinquishment of rights and power that keeps relationships right between those of equal will and value. They are willing in love to be fully known, vulnerable, and accountable to one another. It is righteousness—that is, keeping relationships right. This righteousness, expressed through mutual submission, contains the very essence of eternal life: knowing God (John 17:3), knowing as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12), and knowing and being known by one another.
- Scripture citations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
- Bruce C. E. Fleming makes a careful and detailed explanation of Paul’s new thesis in his pamphlet Submission Book 5 of his Think Again About the Bible series (Self-published, 2003), 27–39.
- Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2006), 154.
- Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, 154.
- Susan Hyatt, In the Spirit We’re Equal (Dallas, Tex.: Hyatt International Ministries, 1998), 256–59.
- Patricia Gundry, Heirs Together (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Suitcase Books, 1999), 94–96.
- J. Lee Grady, 25 Tough Questions about Women in the Church (Lake Mary, Fla.: Charisma House, 2003), 22.
- See, for example, Catherine Clark Kroeger, “Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of ‘Head,’” Priscilla Papers 20:3 (Summer 2006), 4–8.
- Gretchen Gabelein Hull, Equal to Serve (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1988), 267ff.
- Alan E. Johnson, “A Meta-Study of the Debate over the Meaning of ‘Head’ (Kephalē) in Paul’s Writings,” Priscilla Papers 20:4 (Autumn 2006), 21–29.
- George Matheson, Voices of the Spirit (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1979), 57–58.
- For discussion, see Letha Dawson Scanzoni, “The Great Chain of Being and the Chain of Command,” in Women’s Spirit Bonding, ed. Janet Kalven and Mary I. Buckley (New York, N.Y.: The Pilgrim Press, 1984), 41–55.