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The Myth of Mutual Submission

Stonebrook Community Church http://www.stonebrook.org

Between Mother’s day and Father’s day, we will be going through a series of messages on the family. Not wanting to simply duplicate what we did last year, I decided to tackle a subject that is very important to the family, yet is much broader than that, touching many other areas of life as well.


Today I’m going to talk about submission.


I don’t know what happens inside you when you hear the word “submission.” Some of us might be saying inside, “Oh, No!!!  He said the S word!!! He actually said it in public!  Submit! When we use the word something within us almost cringes, like someone has said an unwholesome word.  


Is that just me that feels like that?  Am I the only one who feels that cultural pressure?


On March 29th we celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary.  Dawn had given our wedding tape to Scott Hanson.  You know what a cassette tape is don’t you? Well, our wedding was recorded on one of these that our friend held on her lap in the balcony of the church. Back then, this was high tech!  Well, Scott transferred it to digital format and we listened to it. 


In our ceremony, our pastor admonished us with words from Ephesians 5, first of all to me he said, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her,” (Ephesians 5:25, NASB95). He said, “The Lord commands you, Dave, to love Dawn and give yourself up for her and die for her, to lead her, to nourish her, to cherish her as you do your own body.”


Then he turned to Dawn and read, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22–24, NASB95). 


And he said, “The Lord commands you, Dawn to submit to Dave and respect him and to honor him and to obey him.”


But he didn’t stop there. He turned to Titus 2 and read, “The Lord commands young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.”


And as we were listening to this message, I thought, “Wow, he is being pretty bold. I’ve performed a lot of weddings, but I don’t recall ever sharing those verses quite so boldly like that. Usually, I try to avoid the S word that rankles so many in our culture.”


But then I also thought, as I looked back over the last 40 years, basically we’ve done what he told us to do.  Not perfectly by any means.  But we’ve sought to do just what he said.  I’ve sought to love her and lead her and provide for her and protect her. And she’s sought to respect me and follow me and submit to me and be a worker at home, to love her husband and children.


Yes, for 40 years we’ve followed our pastor’s admonition and I didn’t ask my wife beforehand, but I’d be willing to bet that you would be hard pressed to find a happier wife in Ames, or a happier husband, or a couple more intimate and deeply in love.  I’m not boasting in anything other than in what God has done and in the glory and beauty of following His instructions. 


Life has not been all easy for us. We’ve taken some terrible hits in life and we’ve made some major mistakes in our family and marriage, but overall, we’ve followed our pastors’ instructions and, in doing this, neither one of us has absolutely any regrets at all.


Now, just an aside here.  Titus 2 doesn’t say that it is wrong for a woman to work outside the home.  Yet, it does teaches that a wife’s focus and ambition should be centered on her husband, on her children, and on her home. These ought to be her sweet spots, her place of focus.


But back to the S word. Yes, our pastor told my wife to submit.


Submit, submit, submit.  Maybe if I say it over and over it will lose its toxicity.  Submit, submit, submit, submit.  Is it working?  I think probably not.


In reality, submission is a beautiful, beautiful word.  It’s a life-giving word. 


Without submission, we would all go to hell. If we refuse to submit to God, if we refuse His way of salvation and refuse to place our faith in His Son Jesus, our sins will not be forgiven and we will go to hell and be cut off from God and from all beauty and all pleasure and all good forever.


No, submission is not an unwholesome word, it’s is a beautiful thing.  Without it we are doomed.  With it we have eternal life, everlasting love, and intimate, joyful relationship forever and ever.


Yes, submission to authority is a beautiful thing: Why is that?


Well, one definition of authority is “The right or power to rule or command another.”


Now, As Creator of all, God alone possesses the intrinsic right and sovereign power to rule or command anyone:


“…He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of

lords” (1 Timothy 6:15).


All legitimate authority comes from God, and there can be no authority unless it is given by God.


Submission to authority is beautiful in its very essence because God only, ever uses His authority for the good of those He rules, only, ever gives commands that are out of love, and never exploits or takes advantage of anyone.  His rule is perfect, His commands are life-giving, His ways are wonderful beyond description.


Yes, submission to God is beautiful and life giving, but what about submission to another human being, such as a wife to her husband, as our pastor was telling Dawn in our wedding ceremony.  Isn’t that demeaning to the woman?  Isn’t that proud and domineering on the part of the husband?  Isn’t that old-fashioned and out of date and ridiculous in this day and age?  How would anyone dare to think that one human should have the audacity to exercise authority over another?  Aren’t we all created equal?  What makes the husband better?


In fact, some argue that the Bible even shows this. Ephesians 5:21 says that all Christians are to be submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.  So, yes, the wife is to submit to her husband, but the husband is also to submit to his wife. 


The argument continues by saying that the highest principle in the kingdom of God is mutual submission, each of us submitting to all others, just as it says in Philippians 2: 


Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3–4, ESV) 


If we all do that, if we look out for the interests of others and submit to one another, things will be just fine. Nobody will be demeaned, nobody will be subjugated, no one will be oppressed.


Doesn’t that sound so reasonable?


Well, I hate to be contrarian, but I’m here today to say that mutual submission is not the way of God, that it is not reasonable, that it is the antithesis of the Biblical concept of submission, and that if we follow the world’s thinking like this, we will end up with the same 50% divorce rate that is decimating husbands, wives, and children in the world around us.  When we look at the track record, why in the world should we think that they have any wisdom at all?


Am I getting your attention yet? I’m here to tell you that we cannot yield!  For the sake of our marriages, our families, our children, and the glory of our God we cannot yield to this concept that men and women are just the same and that a husband and wife have the same authority and that each should equally submit to the other. 


Now, I know that some of you are sitting there and saying in your heart “I disagree.”  And when I consider the overwhelming consensus of our culture on this subject, I can understand why you are thinking that way. But I admonish you to let the Word confront you on this.  The elders and deacons of your church are totally united on this.  We are convinced that it is unbiblical for you to hold any other opinion.  As your elder in the Lord, I exhort you to listen to this carefully, especially if you are unconvinced, which I am sure many of us are.


How do we answer some of these seemingly Biblical arguments?  What is submission?  What is authority? And what does Paul mean when he calls us to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ?  Is there such a thing as mutual submission, or is it a myth, as my sermon title states?


Well let’s go to the scriptures and see more closely what they say:


The scriptures are clear that God has given positions of authority to some people in various spheres of relationship with others:


Let’s look at some ways we are to submit to other humans: 


  • GovernmentEvery person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God (Romans 13:1). 
  • Church leadersObey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account… (Hebrews 13:17). 
  • HusbandsWives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything (Ephesians 5:22-24). 
  • ParentsChildren, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth (Ephesians 6:1-3). 
  • Masters and, by application, employersSlaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ (Ephesians 6:5). 


Why has God done this?


  1. The first, and I think foremost reason is that it reflects who He is.  God is one God in three persons.  And, amazingly, these three persons are in a relationship of authority and submission to each other.  The Father leads, and the Son and the Spirit submit.
    • In John 14:31, Jesus shows His submission to His Father “… that the world may know that I love the Father, I do exactly as the Father commanded Me… (John 14:31). 
    • And this submission will not be confined to the time of Jesus’ time on earth, for 1 Corinthians 15:28 says that at the end of time, “When all things are subjected to Him (God the Father), then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God (the Father) may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).
    • So we see that at the very center of reality itself, in the very nature of the eternal God himself, in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there are roles of authority and submission.
    • One implication of this is that since God is love in His very essence, it would seem evident that, somehow, roles of authority and submission enhance love. Rather than diminish love, authority and submission must enhance it, since it is found within the greatest love relationship of all, the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
    • So, the first reason God has set up authority structures among men is that these are a reflection of who He is.
  2. The second reason is to advance His good purposes. God gave humans authority not to dominate and exploit others, but to love and care for others and to advance His good purposes.  
    • Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, (Ephesians 5:25, ESV) 
    • Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4, ESV) 
      • Fathers are not to dominate their children, but to encourage them and instruct them and to train them to be what God wants them to be.
    • You see, those who receive a position of authority accept a stewardship—the responsibility to care for what belongs to another, to God. 
      • The children don’t belong to the parents, they belong to God.
      • The wife doesn’t belong to the husband, she belongs to God.
      • The employee doesn’t belong to the boss, he belongs to God.                                               
      • The citizen doesn’t belong to the state, he belongs to God.
      • Those in authority have the solemn responsibility to care for those who are precious and loved by God.
    • Of course, the world is by and large in rebellion against God and many, many people in positions of authority abuse their position for selfish and even destructive purposes. I’m sure that every human authority fails to love and care as God would have them. And because there is such wide-spread abuse of authority, often blatant abuse, authority gets a bad name. But God never set up authority for the purpose of abuse, but just the opposite, for the purpose of love and care, and when we follow His ways, although we never do so perfectly, still it will work beautifully.


By the way, the presence of an authority structure within the persons of the Trinity powerfully shows that authority and submission are not a matter of greater worth or greater value.  One is not better than the other. We would call it heresy to say that Jesus is of lesser value than the Father.  So, it is with human authority.  It has nothing to do with greater worth or intelligence or significance. That’s the way the world thinks of it, but it’s not true in the persons of the triune God and therefore should not be true in the kingdom of God. 


Perhaps it would help to look at some definitions: 


What is authority?


Authority, as expressed by the Greek word exousia, denotes “the right or power to rule and command another…the right to exercise power…or the power of rule or government …the power of one whose will and commands must be obeyed by others.”


What is Submission?


The Greek word Hupotasso is primarily a military term that means to rank under (hupo, under, tassō, to arrange). It denotes (a) to put in subjection, to subject . . . (b) in the Middle or Passive Voice, to subject oneself, to obey, be subject


Now, with just a little thought we can see from these definitions that submission to authority cannot be mutual.  If authority is the right to rule and command another, then such a right cannot be mutual.  You can imagine the sergeant saying, “I have the right of command,” but then the private says, “I have the right of command,” and then another private says “but I have the right of command,” what do you have?  Chaos!  You have an army at a stalemate where no decisions can be made or at least not until every single soldier is in full agreement. You have an utterly ineffective army that will easily be defeated by the enemy.


Unquestionably, armies cannot succeed without a command structure. Mutual submission could never work in an army.


Neither would such a scenario work in a business. If there were not an authority structure, if no one understood who is in charge, chaos would ensue.  We all know that.


Neither does this scenario work with parents and children.  Would parenting even be possible if every time the parent told the child to do something, the child replied, “Mutual submission!”  You’re supposed to submit to me just as much as I submit to you!” I’ll think about doing what you say, Mommy, but you have to give me ice cream, first, and right now!  Mutual submission!


No if authority means the right and power to rule and command another, it cannot be mutual.


Perhaps it would help for us to look at some concepts that the truth about “submission” is often confused with:


Submission ≠ Yielding 


Submission is not synonymous with yielding. Submission does involve yielding, but they are not identical.  For instance, a boss could yield to his employee’s preference without giving up his authority as boss. He retains his right to say “no,” but yields his preference to that of the employee because he feels it is best for the business, for the employee, or for the customer.  Indeed, sometimes employees have better ideas than bosses and wise bosses realize this and sometimes yield to the employee.  However, by yielding, he does not relinquish his right to command the employee to do what he tells him to do.  In other words, he yields, but doesn’t say, “You call the shots now.”


Submission ≠ respecting


Similarly, submission is not synonymous with respecting.  I respect Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas, but I’m not to submit to him.  I’m sure I would honor him were I ever to meet him, but I’m a citizen of Iowa, not Kansas and I’m to submit to the governor of Iowa, not the governor of Kansas.  


Similarly, I have great respect for the pastor of Christ Community church, which is the new name for the Evangelical Free church in Ames.  But I am not subject to him.  He is not a leader of our church or in a position of authority over my life. Even in the military, say in World War 2, a soldier might have tremendous respect for General Patton, but if he was in General Bradley’s army, he isn’t to submit to Patton, but to your own commanders.


Submission ≠ mentoring


Submission is not synonymous with mentoring.  I can have many different mentors, but I may not be under the authority of any of them. They have influence by means of their wisdom or example, but that doesn’t necessarily give them the right or power to give me commands.


Submission ≠ humility. 


This is shown by the following story:


During the American Revolution, a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions, but making no attempt to help them. Asked why by the rider, he retorted with great dignity, "Sir, I am a corporal!" The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. The job done, he turned to the corporal and said, "Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again."  It was none other than George Washington.


Unlike the corporal, Washington humbled himself.  He did the hard work and got down on the same level as the exhausted men.  But by humbling himself like this, he didn’t yield his right and power to command.  If anything he enhanced it.  He gained their respect and increased his ability to command their loyalty and obedience.


Submission ≠ selflessness.


Submission is not synonymous with selflessness. Philippians 2 says that we are to place the interests of others above our own. Yet someone in authority can do this without giving up his position of authority.


Ephesians 5 says that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Surely no one has ever been more selfless than Christ.  He put the interests of all mankind above his own pleasures and desires.  He died for us.  But did he give up his authority by putting our good above his own?  Certainly not!  


So, a husband is to give up his interests, to put his welfare below his wife’s welfare, to sacrifice for her.  And in so doing he does sometimes submit his desires and interests to hers.  But notice that this is not the same as submitting himself to her. He is submitting his own desires and interests to hers, but he is not submitting himself to her.  He is not saying, OK, honey, I’m going to submit to you now, you call the shots from now on. 


Both husband and wife are to put the other’s welfare and interests above their own. But the husband does this while leading; the wife does this while submitting.   


So what about Ephesians 5:21? What does Paul mean when he says, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ?”


Well, this verse could be taken in two different ways:

  1. The first is that every Christian is to is to submit to every other Christian
  2. The second is that every Christian should submit to others according to the appropriate relationships: 
    1. In this second understanding, the verse functions as an introduction to what follows.  It is saying, “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ as is appropriate to your varying relationships—wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters.”


It’s my contention that the second understanding is vastly preferable.  Why?

  1. Because the first understanding (every Christian submitting to every other Christian) doesn’t match with the definition of authority and submission, as it is presented throughout the rest of the New Testament and the Bible.   In fact, as we have seen, it undermines and destroys the principle of authority. 
    1. If two individuals equally have the right and responsibility to rule and command, then neither has the right to rule and command.  Their competing rights cancel each other out. 
  2. The “mutual submission” understanding might seem reasonable with husband and wife to those of us in an egalitarian culture, but the verse doesn’t just introduce the marriage relationship, it also introduces the relationships of parents and children and slaves and masters in chapter 6.  Even in an egalitarian culture, the concept of “everyone submitting to everyone” makes little sense with children or with employees.
  3. But some have argued that the phrase, “one another” demands mutual submission, arguing that it depicts complete reciprocity—everyone to everyone else. 
    1. Well, it can mean everyone to everyone else, but it can also mean “everyone to some” or even “some to others.” For example:
    2. In 1 Corinthians 11:33, Paul admonished those who came together to eat to “wait for one another.”  Clearly, here he doesn’t mean everyone wait for everyone else, but, rather, some (those who are on time) wait for others (those who are late).  If he meant “everyone must wait for everyone,” those who are late would never get there.
    3. In Acts 21:5 when Paul’s traveling company was ready to depart from Tyre, they prayed with all the Christians there, and then “said farewell to one another.” In this case it would be absurd to say that everyone said farewell to everyone else. No, those who were staying said farewell to those who were leaving and vice versa. But those who were staying didn’t say good bye to each other nor did those who were leaving say goodbye to each other. Again, some said goodbye to others.
    4. These and many other examples we could look at show that the phrase “one another” does not demand total reciprocity, but can mean some to others. 


So, I think it best to see St. Paul’s statement, “submitting to one another” as an introduction to the following three relationships of authority and submission, husbands and wives, children and parents, slaves and master.  Paul is saying, submit to the appropriate people who are authorities in your life with reverence for Christ.


At the beginning I said that authority and submission, when practiced in the will of God, is a beautiful thing, because all of God’s ways are beautiful and life-giving and joy producing.  My wife and I can testify after 40 years of marriage that God’s way in marriage is wonderful.  Others in our midst who have been married about as long or even longer can testify to the same.  We’re here to say, “God’s ways work.”


Now, I don’t share these things just to win an argument or to put down an opposing opinion or even primarily to defend the ways of God.  I’m making this argument because I care about each one of you. I care about your happiness.  I care about your marriages or for the happiness of those who will marry in the future.  I care about your children and your families.  It’s out of love for you and desire for your welfare that I am seeking to defend the way of God.


A few years ago with the input of many others, I wrote a paper that is much more exhaustive on this subject than I am able to cover this morning.  If you have interest in studying this farther or if you are still not convinced, please look at my paper. You can find it at http://davebovenmyer.com/2010/01/01/god-honoring-authority. I’ll have a link to this site put in the Resource Library section of the Stonebrook.org web site.  Or if you prefer, I have printed up a few copies that are available on the welcome table in the lobby.


In conclusion, I’m convinced that one reason we often balk at the word “submission” is that submission is often not easy.  It can take great faith to submit. I know this experientially, because I too are under authority and some of the greatest challenges in my life have come when my authorities were telling me to do something that I really, really didn’t like and didn’t at all agree with. 


I think for example of the time 15 years ago when I was the lead pastor here at Stonebrook, being the pastor with the most years and most experience.  And my fellow pastors, who were and still are in authority over me, came to me and said, “Dave, we don’t think that you are the one on our team that is best suited to be lead pastor.”  And as you can imagine, the conversation involved gently-given, but crystal-clear dissatisfactions with my leadership. It would not be an understatement to say that this was devastating to me. For me it was the beginning of the death of a vision. And I simply didn’t see it.  Well, part of me kind of did, but most of me didn’t agree at all. They felt that my gifts and strengths best suited other areas that were more behind the scenes and, to me, seemed much less significant and influential.  


In the end, I simply chose to submit.  I did it in faith, just to obey God. Looking back 15 years later, I am so glad that I did, because now I can see that they were absolutely right.  Those discouraging and deeply distressing days brought about a change of focus and of ministry that truly has resulted in maximizing my gifts and my influence for the kingdom of God. When I think back on that terribly distressing time, all I can say is “thank God for authority.”  I wouldn’t have seen it or chosen what God knew was the best.


Now not every decision made by an authority will be so wise or insightful or life giving.  Sometimes those in authority make huge mistakes that cause grave damage. Yet even when this happens, God will work those errors together for good for those who love and follow Him. You can read more about that in my paper.  And in the paper I talk about times when we are to disobey human authority in order to obey God rather than man.  No human authority is absolute, all of it is given by God and if it comes down to clear obedience to God or man, we must choose God.



I’ve argued that submission is a beautiful thing. It is the way to life.  Submission to God and to His way of salvation in Jesus Christ gives us eternal life. And submission to those in authority over us results in blessing, even though it can sometimes bring suffering, just as Jesus Himself discovered. And I’ve argued that submission is not synonymous with humility, or serving, or yielding, or selflessness and that there is no such thing as mutual submission.  


I hope you’ve been convinced. We cannot yield on this one, brothers and sisters. We got to hold the line, for the sake of our marriages, our children, our extended families, our church and even our jobs and our nation. Submission is not an unwholesome word, it is a beautiful thing.