“Mutual Submission” between Husbands and Wives in Ephesians 5?

Since the promulgation of St. John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem in 1988, Catholics often speak of a “mutual submission” between husbands and wives. Proponents of the idea of mutual submission between spouses, including John Paul himself and Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, often cite Ephesians chapter 5, and particularly verse 21—“submitting to one another out of the fear of Christ”—as the basis for their teaching. Located as it is between general exhortations on Christian living and specific instructions for relationships within families, this verse is read as teaching an attitude of service and mutual regard among Christians, an attitude which would be especially appropriate among spouses who possess an equal dignity and an equal share in the salvation won by Christ (cf. Gal. 3:28). While some claim that John Paul II intends to leave in place the traditional doctrine of male headship in marriage and others claim he has moved beyond this teaching, few have examined the exegetical foundation upon which this teaching is based. Does Ephesians 5 teach mutual submission among spouses? As plausible as this reading is on a superficial level, it is almost certainly wrong, for a number of reasons.

Lexical and Semantic Considerations
The first reason why Ephesians 5 probably doesn’t teach mutual submission has to do with the meaning of the Greek word for submission and the way it is used in the New Testament. As almost any lexicon will verify, the Greek word hypotassō means to submit or be subject, invariably to some sort of authority. For instance, the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature lists the definitions of hypotassō in the passive and middle voices as: become subject; subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey. Understood in this sense, mutual submission is difficult to understand, if not a contradiction in terms. What can it mean to say that there are two heads of a marriage, each of which submits to the authority of the other? Apparently recognizing the difficulty of such a view, proponents of mutual submission claim that in this passage St. Paul is emphasizing mutual love between spouses, and see this passage as roughly equivalent to Paul’s command to the Galatians to “serve one another in love” (Gal. 5:13).

Thus Rudolf Schnackenburg, in his commentary on Ephesians, claims that mutual submission is “an obliging behavior towards one another in ‘humility’ … an attitude demanded by love, urging to service (‘humility’) for which every Christian must be willing.” The problem with this reading is that in the New Testament hypotassō simply isn’t used to convey mutual love or humility, but instead always implies subjection to some authority. For instance, in the Pauline corpus, Christians are told to submit to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1, 5), servants are told to be submissive to their masters (Tit. 2:9), the Church is said to submit to Christ (Eph. 5:24), the universe and all the powers therein are said to be “submitted under the feet of Christ” (Eph. 1:22, cf. 1 Cor. 15:27), and Christ is said to submit to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28). In each case a relationship of authority is clearly in view, and the word submit is always used for the subordinate party, never for the authority.

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In fact, with regard to the submission of Christ to the Father in 1 Cor. 15, Paul explicitly denies a kind of mutual submission between Father and Son when he asserts that of all the things which are to be submitted under Christ, “it is plain that He [the Father] is excepted” (1 Cor. 15:27). And the instructions for husbands and wives are no exception to this pattern: three times in the Pauline writings (Eph. 5:22, 24; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5; not to mention 1 Peter 3:5) wives are told to submit to their husbands, but not once is the husband told to submit to his wife. To put the matter curtly, if Eph. 5:21 teaches mutual submission, why are the words “submit” and “fear” (phobos), or their cognates, used only for the wife in the instructions that follow?

Moreover, as almost all commentators agree, v. 21 (“submitting to one another out of the fear of Christ”) functions as a transition and as a kind of heading for the “household code” (Haustafel) that follows. Therefore, to be consistent, advocates of the mutual submission interpretation must apply v. 21 not only to spouses but also to the relationship between parents and children, masters and slaves, as indeed a number of them do. But given the way hypotassō is used in the New Testament, with its specific connotation of submission to an authority, it seems highly unlikely that Paul is enjoining parents to submit to their children! It is true of course that there is an element of reciprocity in all of these examples: Alongside the exhortations to wives, children, and slaves, husbands are told to love their wives, parents are told not to provoke their children to anger, and masters are told not to threaten their slaves. But can this reciprocity be called mutual submission? Being mild with one’s subordinates is to be commended, but it is not remotely synonymous with being submissive to them. The husband’s Christ-like love should involve a great deal of sacrifice, but submission and sacrifice are not interchangeable. Such household codes are primarily concerned with order among Christians, not mutual love, which is presumably why wives are not told to love their husbands!

But what about the pronoun allelōn in v. 21, usually translated as “one another”? Who is it that should submit to one another if not husbands and wives? While such a reading is certainly possible, a more likely reading is that some Christians (namely, wives, children, and slaves) are being told to submit to other Christians (namely, husbands, parents, and masters). Of course, the phrase “one another” can include everyone who is referred to by the pronoun and could grammatically mean something like “everyone submits to everyone else.”  But it can also include only a subset of those comprised by the pronoun and mean something more like “some in the congregation should submit to others in the congregation.” Such a restrictive meaning of “one another” is often found when those indicated by the pronoun are part of the same group. Evangelical exegete Wayne Grudem uses the example of an event at which people are said to be “trampling one another.” Obviously it is not the case that everyone is trampling everyone else; rather, some members of a group (e.g., attendees at a rock concert) are trampling other members of the same group (fellow attendees).

Similar examples are furnished by the New Testament itself. For example, in Revelation 6:4, the second horseman of the apocalypse takes peace from the earth “so that men might kill one another.” Surely this indicates that some men are killing other men, not that everyone is killing everyone else. Total mutual slaughter is about as oxymoronic as mutual trampling. But an even more important example of this restrictive use of “one another” can be found in chapter 3 of the letter to the Colossians, since these passages are roughly parallel to the general exhortations of Ephesians 5. In v. 16, Paul writes: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.” Coming as it does in the midst of general instructions to the congregation, this command might seem to apply to all Christians.

However, a closer looks reveals that this is doubtful; for both teaching and admonishing are activities clearly associated in the New Testament with the leadership of the Church. In particular, teaching is explicitly restricted to only some Christians and seems almost to have been a formal office in the early church. As the letter of James warns, “Let not many of you become teachers” (James 3:1). And Paul himself expressly forbids women to teach men (1 Tim. 2:11-12; cf. 1 Cor. 14:34) and asks rhetorically in 1 Cor. 12:29, “Are all teachers?” And since children are apparently among the intended audience of the letter (cf. Col. 3:20), it seems doubly likely that this charge is given to the limited number of Colossian Christians who are teaching and admonishing others.

The Christ–Church Analogy
But if such lexical and grammatical considerations are not decisive, a second reason for rejecting the “mutual submission” interpretation also presents itself: the Christ-Church analogy which follows verse 21, wherein the husband is likened to Christ the head while the wife is compared to the Church, his body. While the husband is told to love his wife as Christ loves the Church (a truly imposing command), the verses directed toward the wife clearly place her in a subordinate position with regard to her husband, who is depicted as a kind of vicar of Christ himself. Thus in v. 22 the wife is told to submit to her husband “as to the Lord,” and v. 24 tells the wife to “submit” to her husband “in all things” “as” the Church submits to Christ. Less egalitarian language is scarcely imaginable. Moreover, this submission is comprehensive and would seem to rule out the kind of alternating submission advocated by some. For if the wife submits to the husband in “all things,” then where precisely is the husband supposed to submit to the wife?

Furthermore, the notion of headship expressed in the analogy indicates a unique authority and is incompatible with mutual submission. If it is true that, as Peter Williamson argues in his commentary on Ephesians, “it is not correct to reduce the meaning of ‘head’ to ‘authority over,’ it is certainly not correct to deny that headship includes the idea of authority. After all, it is precisely “because” (hoti) the husband is the head of the wife “as” (hōs) Christ is the head of the Church that the woman is told to submit to her husband (v. 23). It is obvious that Christ’s headship includes an element of authority, especially since the central theme of Ephesians is the supremacy of Christ, whose headship entails dominion over the whole cosmos (cf. Eph. 1:19-10; Eph. 1:20-23).

Moreover, mutual submission simply makes nonsense of the head-body analogy. For if, as was commonly understood in ancient society, the head exercises authority over the body, what would mutual submission entail if not that each couple would be in effect a two-headed monster? Or to approach the metaphor from a different angle, mutual submission would require that the head “place itself under” (the literal meaning of hypotassō) the body, a curious icon of the totus Christus if ever there was one. If Paul is trying to teach mutual submission, it seems he has chosen a very poor analogy! And apparently this point is conceded by John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem when he writes, “However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the ‘subjection’ is not one-sided but mutual” (no. 24b). In other words, according to John Paul II, Paul has used an image of unilateral submission to teach mutual submission!

Mutual Submission Absent in Scriptural Parallels
The third reason why Ephesians 5:21 probably does not teach mutual submission is that the scriptural parallels to this passage, particularly those in the Pauline corpus, give not even a hint of the idea of mutual submission. Some proponents of mutual submission claim that in Ephesians 5 Paul uses the culturally dominant language of female subordination but subtly undermines the prevailing custom by including the language of mutual submission. But, as we have seen above, such qualifying language is conspicuously absent from any of the parallel passages where the roles of husbands and wives are addressed. Thus in Colossians 3:18-19, wives are simply told to submit to their husbands, while husbands are told only to love their wives. Far from challenging the prevailing cultural norm, Paul would in fact be reinforcing it, and innumerable Christians would have received instructions which include a defective idea of Christian marriage.

In truth, however, Paul’s teaching on male headship is informed not by Greco-Roman culture but by his Christological reading of the Old Testament: for Paul clearly sees male authority not as a consequence of the fall but as inherent in the original design of creation (cf. 1 Cor. 11:3-12; 1 Tim. 2:11-13), a design which the order of grace does not destroy but rather perfects. And this is why, moreover, male headship is in no way comparable to slavery, despite the facile claims made by some. In the household codes, Paul is not addressing the institution of slavery as such, but merely prescribing the order that must exist in any social structure. However, he not only asserts the divine origin of marriage, but furthermore affirms the God-given order which should obtain therein, which is why Pius XI in Casti Connubii described this patriarchal order as “established and confirmed by God” (no. 28).

So how should an orthodox Catholic respond to the language of mutual submission in general and in the teaching of John Paul II in particular, if this interpretation is correct? One thing to keep in mind is that even though the Bible doesn’t use the language of mutual submission, it does support the idea, if mutual submission is understood in the broader, extra-biblical sense of an attitude of humble service and love among Christians. John Paul II is surely correct that Christ, “who came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45), has introduced a radically new model for the exercise of authority. And perhaps John Paul is not rejecting male headship in se but only the abuse of such authority; in his Theology of the Body, he writes, “Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband, an object of unilateral domination.” This passage clearly does not rule out the kind of loving headship which the tradition has upheld.

But mutual submission must be understood in a way that does not undermine the unique authority of the husband, an authority which Pius XI said “must always and everywhere be maintained intact” (Casti Conubii no. 28). For even if my interpretation of Eph. 5:21 is incorrect, it is clear that mutual submission, conceived in this broader sense, does not rule out the exercise of authority. This is why 1 Peter can say, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another,” and in the next sentence exhort the younger members of the congregation to be “subject to those who are older” (v. 5). The fact is that in the New Testament, exhortations to mutual service exist alongside a certain authority ascribed to elders, Apostles, and Christ himself. Since there can be no denying that husbands are also accorded a unique authority in the New Testament, we should avoid doing serious violence to the theological vision of St. Paul and of the New Testament as a whole.


  • Josh Kusch

    Josh Kusch received his MA in Catholic Thought and Life from St. Meinrad School of Theology. He teaches Catholic theology in Louisville, Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and five children.

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