The Myth of Mutual Submission

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).

This 11-page chapter (available for free as a PDF) concisely and convincingly explains why the phrase “mutual submission” is unhelpful at best:

Wayne Grudem, “The Myth of Mutual Submission as an Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21,” in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood  (ed. Wayne Grudem; Foundations for the Family Series; Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 221–31.


  1. Background
  2. An Acceptable Sense of Mutual Submission
  3. Objections to the Egalitarian Sense of Mutual Submission
    1. The following context specifies the kind of submission Paul has in mind.
    2. The absence of any command for husbands to submit to wives
    3. The meaning of “be subject to” (hypotassō)
    4. The lack of evidence for the egalitarian meaning of hypotassō
    5. The meaning of “one another”
    6. The meaning of Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1
  4. Practical Application

(The entire book is available for free as a PDF.)


  1. How the Trinity Relates to the Roles of Husbands and Wives
  2. Must a Wife Always Follow Her Husband’s Leadership?


  1. says


    1. You can prove almost anything by citing a church father (hyperbole alert). It’s one thing to say that one church father believes something (which you didn’t demonstrate, though it may be true—I don’t recall offhand), but it’s another thing to say “the early church” believed that.

    2. The six objections above are weighty.

  2. says

    I don’t understand at all the disagreement with “mutual submission.” I guess I need to read this. I understand the problem with over application–that mutual submission leaves nothing special for the wife to demonstrate. But that’s not the case. Both husband/wife are called to love, but the husband is tasked with a particular example of love. And certainly there is no way around the wording that tasks everyone (husband/wife, parent/child, boss/worker, and so forth) with the call to submit out of reverence for Christ. Wives are called to give a particular example. But the term mutual submission seems simply to take Eph. 5:21 at face value, which is a healthy conservative response to Scripture. Like I said, I guess I need to read this. I just hate it when we become suspicious of a clear Bible teaching because we feel an opposing group is misusing it.

  3. says

    Ok. I read the article. It is pretty clearly a reaction against egalitarian thinking rather than an unbiased exposition of the passage. His agenda is to show why the feminist agenda is wrong, but in so doing, I think he is throwing out the baby with the bathwater (oh, what am I getting myself into?! I have so much respect for Dr. Grudem. I trust he is OK with receiving some push back on his work).

    I find his treatment on p. 226 of the the meaning of “be subject to” (hypotassø) interesting. I think he’s saying that the authority figures of the husband/wife, parent/child, master/slave relationships aren’t included in Ephesians 5:21 in any way. I think that’s a wrong interpretation. Throughout the NT, Jesus clearly teaches the laying down of our rights with others. The leader in pagan society LORDS it over his minions. But not so in God’s kingdom. The first shall be last. The leader becomes the servant. Jesus laid down His rights as God when He washed His disciples feet–this is authority in the kingdom.

    I lay down my right to use authority with my children quite often. I don’t lay down my authority, but I do lay down my right to lord it over them. Because I love them. Because Christ calls me to lead them by serving them, laying DOWN my life, not picking up my authority and lording it over them. I’m still the mom with authority. They listen when I say no, but I TRY to listen with the heart of servant when they want or need something.

    My husband often lays down his rights for me. He could insist and lord his authority over me, but he loves me and SERVES me. Sometimes, we have principled disagreements that we can’t resolve after talking. In those cases, I defer to him and trust His leadership as the Church does to Christ. But he as a husband and I as a parent are both definitely included in Ephesians 5:21. To deny that seems to contradict the whole of teaching by Jesus on authority in the kingdom.

    He argues that egalitarians interpret Eph. 5:21 in a way that undoes Eph. 5:22. Well, I say he’s interpreting Eph. 5:22 in such a way that it undoes Eph. 5:21. Paul actually says both. Everyone submits to one another. Everyone loves one another. Husbands give a particular example of love. Wives give a particular example of submission. Mutual submission doesn’t undermine particular submission. We must hold to both. In my humble opinion.

    “This mystery is great ; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.”

    • says

      Thanks, Wendy. I agree with you that people in authority should unselfishly serve others. No argument there!

      This raises a question (and feel no obligation to answer it): Does your argument conflate the term hypotasso with the concept of unselfishly serving others? That’s what it seems like to me, and I’m not aware of any good reasons for doing that. I agree that we should unselfishly serve others, but that’s just not what hypotasso means. As Grudem says, hypotasso “is always used for submission to an authority” (p. 226). Parents don’t hypotasso to their children; masters don’t hypotasso to their slaves; and a husband doesn’t hypotasso to his wife. So in that sense, it’s misleading to speak of mutual hypotasso.

      On the other hand, there is an acceptable way of speaking of “mutual submission” (see pp. 223—24), and that seems to be the way you use it.

  4. says

    Sure parents can hypotasso kids and so forth. It’s just one more in a long string of paradoxes Jesus and later Paul teach throughout the New Testament.

    Strongs says of hypotasso that along with the straightforward use of submitting to authority, it’s “a Greek military term meaning “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader. In non-military use,it was a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” Do you consider that a bad definition of hypotasso? If that’s a decent definition, then mutual hypotasso means mutually giving in, mutually assuming responsibility, and mutually carrying burdens.

    But the military sense has meaning too. My life is primarily oriented around my husband’s mission–his work, his burdens for our family. By conviction of my role in our home, Genesis 2 in particular, I got on board with his mission and help/ezer him accomplish those objectives. It’s my first priority. However, he’s bought into some of my burdens as well. There are things he does, not because they are his first choice, but because he values my mission and supports me in it. When our missions conflict, Eph. 5:22 gives me a hierarchy and makes it clear what my priorities need to be. I regularly turn down opportunities because of this.

    You said, “I agree with you that people in authority should unselfishly serve others.” But Jesus teaches more than just this. Jesus says to authorities, “Humble yourself and LAY DOWN YOUR RIGHTS.” (Phil. 2) This doesn’t take away their authority, but authorities like Christ voluntarily cooperate and carry the burdens of those under their authority.

    I guess I’m out of a loop somewhere, but this is the first I’ve really noticed that CBWM denies that Eph. 5:21 has application for the authority figure. I haven’t heard that as an issue among complementarians in my little neck of the woods. I remain really uncomfortable with limiting the application of 5:21 in such a way just because egalitarians use it to diminish 5:22. We start to dismantle who is commanded to do what all the way back to verse 15. Verses 1-21 are universal truths for all who are in Christ, with specific applications starting in v. 22, each denoted by limitations on who is clearly addressed.

    Again, in my humble, no-seminary-or-Greek-classes-ever, opinion.

    • says

      Thanks, Wendy.

      1. Can you show me from the New Testament where parents hypotasso to their children, masters to their slaves, or a husband to his wife?

      2. Strongs is not the best reference work. The top Greek lexicon is BDAG, which defines the word as “to cause to be in a submissive relationship, to subject, to subordinate.” Hypotasso works only one way in a relationship in the NT; it’s not mutual. To use your example in a military context, a higher-ranking military official does not hypotasso to a lower-ranking one.

      3. Complementarians affirm that a husband should unselfishly serve his wife and lay down his rights. That’s exactly what Eph 5:25–28 says. But that’s not what Paul calls hypotasso; he calls it love.

  5. says

    “1. Can you show me from the New Testament where parents hypotasso to their children, masters to their slaves, or a husband to his wife?”

    No, but I can give an example of Christ subjecting himself and subordinating himself and instructing us of our same obligation.

    Phil 2
    5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

    Who was he a bond-servant to except the very same people of which he is Lord? He’s the example, right? That’s what Paul says in Ephesians as well. It seems your argument would have no application of Phil. 2 for a husband toward a wife, a parent toward a child, or a master toward a slave.

    “3. Complementarians affirm that a husband should unselfishly serve his wife and lay down his rights. That’s exactly what Eph 5:25–28 says. But that’s not what Paul calls hypotasso; he calls it love.”

    Sure–that is partly love. But I think there is a distinction between being nice/generous/diplomatic/patient and SERVING. Becoming a bond-servant more than implies the laying down of our rights. It’s fairly explicit in the term. Jesus laid down his right to claim his authority in every situation. Everything was subject to him. Yet he subjected himself willingly.

    I think it’s those moments of laying down our rights we most reflect His image.

    I can’t debate any more tonight — the Giants/Cowboys game is on. Thanks for making me think. I’m going to read up on this–Bryan Chapell’s commentary on Ephesians comes to mind.

  6. says

    I said I was done, but then I got Chapell’s commentary on my Kindle. Here’s how he concludes the topic.

    “The world will not understand this servant/leader role, but since it is a reflection of the ministry of our Savior/Lord (the One who totally submitted himself to our needs, though he had absolute authority), those in the church should have at least an inkling of its implications.”

    Chapell, Bryan (2009-08-10). Ephesians (Reformed Expository Commentaries) (Kindle Locations 5125-5126). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.

    • says

      Thanks, Wendy.

      It seems to me like you’re arguing past me because I agree with you that people in authority should unselfishly serve others. But that’s not the debated point here. The debate here is whether Paul calls that hypotasso. You’re conflating the term hypotasso with the concept of unselfish service and love. Paul doesn’t command a husband to hypotasso to his wife in the same way that Jesus hypotasso to the church; Jesus doesn’t hypotasso to the church, and a husband doesn’t hypotasso to his wife. Paul commands a husband to love his wife in the same way that Jesus loves the church.

      See how what I think is the top overall commentary on Ephesians interprets Eph 5:21: Peter O’Brien, pp. 400–404.

      O’Brien says this on pp. 403–4:

      The idea of ‘submission’ is unpacked in v. 22 without the verb being repeated. It is as though the apostle is saying: ‘Submit to one another, and what I mean is, wives submit to your husbands, children to your parents, and slaves to your masters’. To interpret v. 21 by abstracting it from the context not only misunderstands how the verb ‘submit’ would be grasped by a first-century reader but also fails to see the natural flow of the apostle’s argument. What submitting to one another means is spelled out in the household table, with its ordered array in society. And submitting to one another is a significant outworking of being filled by the Spirit.

      To conclude. On grounds of semantics, syntax, and the flow of Paul’s argument we prefer the latter interpretation. The apostle is not speaking of mutual submission in the sense of a reciprocal subordination, but submission to those who are in authority over them.

      And commenting on Eph 5:25, O’Brien says,

      The wife’s subordination to her husband has its counterpart in the husband’s duty to love his wife. . . .

      The model and ground of the husband’s love for his wife are Christ’s love for the church. . . . [I]t furnishes the basis for the exhortation to husbands to sacrifice their own interests for the welfare of their wives. Their love, which is modelled on Christ’s love for the church, means they will be willing to make even the ultimate sacrifice of life itself. (pp. 418–20).

  7. says

    “You’re conflating the term hypotasso with the concept of unselfish service and love.” Yes–or more correctly I’m linking the concept of submission in a military sense (coming in line with the orders of a supervisor) with the concept of becoming a bond-servant. I think those are more closely related, and that’s why I linked with Phil. 2. Should husbands choose an attitude of a bond-servant with a wife as Christ demonstrates? Should a parent with a child? Yes, I think so. I think that’s included in the whole of teaching on being conformed to the image of God, with which Paul starts Ephesians 5. I don’t think this attitude in husbands or parents (the same attitude that characterized Jesus according to Phil. 2) should anymore undermine their authority than it did His. It’s counterintuitive, but that’s the whole point. I find it helpful to constantly evaluate the tug and pull in His ministry with His disciples as I evaluate the interplay of my authority over my children with my humility and service to them–I am an authority to them and I am subject to them. I think this is an incredibly important part of the teaching of Ephesians 5 and 6 in each authority relationship.

    I agree with that last part of O’Brien’s commentary for sure. In fact, I think that simple principle is a great tool for understanding the entire issue. “The wife’s subordination to her husband has its counterpart in the husband’s duty to love his wife …”

    Husbands are specifically tasked with loving their wives in a way that wives aren’t tasked toward their husbands. Yet, we would never say a wife isn’t called to love her husband from a plain reading of Ephesians 5. Broad verses not limited to a particular group teach that everyone in Christ is called to sacrificially love. Yet that universal call doesn’t mean that there isn’t something specific and different that the husband is called to demonstrate in Eph. 5 that is in contrast to the expectations of the wife. All are tasked with love. All are tasked with submission. In the marriage relationship, the husband is tasked with a particular example of love, and the wife with a particular example of submission. I submit to my husband in a way he doesn’t to me.

    In my relationship with my children, there are times when I defer, submit, or subordinate my desires. I become their bond-slave. That isn’t an abdication of my authority. That’s part of how I disciple them, how I discipline them. It’s the paradox of leaders becoming servants.

    Luke 22
    25 And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ 26 “But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. 27 “For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves ? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among * you as the one who serves.

    I know you see a specific nuance in the word hypotasso that you don’t see in the term “serve.” But as I said before, I have a hard time seeing much difference in the call to hypotasso and the call to be a bond-slave.

    • says

      And so we come full circle. As I note above,

      There is an acceptable way of speaking of “mutual submission” (see pp. 223—24), and that seems to be the way you use it.

  8. says

    Ok. My main concern with how he defines acceptable mutual submission is that it doesn’t much sound like actually submitting, actually laying down rights of authority. It sounds more like being really nice and giving. I’d like for him to include some language of acceptable mutual submission that reflects laying down rights.

    From p. 224. “They took it to mean that those in authority should govern wisely and with sacrificial concern for those under their authority. But Doriani found no author in the history of the church prior to the advent of feminism in the last half of the twentieth century who thought that “submitting to one another” in Ephesians 5:21 nullified the authority of the husband within marriage.8”

    Right — submitting to one another doesn’t nullify the authority of the husband in marriage. But it is more than governing wisely and sacrificial concern.

    :-) Ok. Last word to you if you’d like it. Thanks for making me think hard through all this.

  9. Lance LaShelle says

    With all due respect, the understanding of “essence” vs. “roles” is important to this discussion is it not? Husbands and wives have equal essence (value), but very different roles. Similarly God the Father, God the Son and God The Holy Spirit have equal essence, but very different roles. The Lord Jesus “loved” his diciples, “loved” the church, but He never “submitted” to them. Conversely, the diciples and the church always submit to The Lord. Our culture and frankly the fallen state of man dictates that women will rebel against the husband’s (God given) authority as Genesis 3:16 clearly states.

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