I am in the process of writing small group curriculum for Paul’s prison letters. The text in focus right now is Ephesians 5:21-6:24 and part of that is Paul’s “household code.” Paul mentions three sets of relationships in chapters 5 & 6 that each have two parts: husbands & wives, children & parents, slaves & masters. Paul makes the point that in no relationship does only one party have an obligation to the other. All relationships are reciprocal and place requirements on both parties.
First, Paul calls on all Christians to view each other with an attitude of submission (5:21). Paul says that Christians should submit to each other out of reverence for Christ. That means that out of respect for Christ we love each other and see each and every Christian as someone Jesus died for. Because of that, we don’t abuse each other or take advantage of one another. We don’t always have to have our way on everything because other people are too important to just run over.
In 5:22 wives are told to submit to their husbands. There are a lot of opinions on what is going on in these verses. Is Paul starting out with the broader concept that all Christians are to submit to each other (5:21) and then starts going down the line of who is to submit to whom? If that is the case, wouldn’t you think he would say, “Wives, you submit to your husbands and husbands submit to your wives. Because as we all know all Christians are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
But it doesn’t read that way. Is it possible that all Christians are to submit to each other as a general purpose but not always in reciprocal or exactly equivalent ways? If you follow the interpretation that Paul is writing that all Christians are to submit to each other in the exact same ways: wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters we would very quickly see that the second two pairs don’t work out so well. Which then puts into question whether it is really intended in the first example as well (wives and husbands). The next thing you notice is that, although the husbands aren’t specifically told to submit to their wives, I think they are given the more difficult task (feel free to rebuke me kindly if you disagree on this as I can only see this best from a male point of view). 5:25 says the role of the husband is love their wives as Christ loved the church. Christ loved the church so much that he gave himself up for her. Christ died for the church because of his great love for the church. Men…treat your wives with that kind of love and desire.
This is more than jumping in front of a bullet or pushing your wife out of the way of an oncoming bus and letting it hit us. Just as Christ’s giving of himself was more than 6 hours on a cross so is a husband’s obligation to self-sacrifice for his wife a one time event. In fact, I think it is actually easier to jump in front of a bullet or a bus than to live each day in a self-sacrificial way. So, while husbands are not specifically told to submit to their wives, their leadership is characterized by total self-sacrifice.
What is more, when men lead their families with that kind of attitude (which I am still very much working on myself, by the way) then it will certainly make the wives obligation in 5:22, to be submissive to her husband, that much easier. So I am not so sure that this passage teaches mutual submission in the sense that we all submit to each other in precisely reciprocal ways but that as we each fulfill our role as God has defined it that behind it all lies an attitude of love, sacrifice and submission. It just shows up differently as differing roles are being lived out.
What is your take on the concept of mutual submission?