The fact that “submission” has become something of a dirty word in relation to our modern sensibilities has much to do with Western culture’s increasingly post-postmodern rejection of authority. Anxiety about authority and submission has even crept into the church.
In fact, all of the brokenness, injustice, and discord in the world is a result of sinners rejecting God’s good design for authority and submission. Indeed, the Scriptures reveal that God has embedded a dynamic of authority and submission into the creation order itself. There is, of course, the sovereign God’s authority over all his creation. But there is also a structure of authority and submission endowed by God in the fabric of nature, the family, the church, and even society. Rightly ordered and administered, this structure nourishes us and glorifies God.
This is just as true in the “mutual submission” that followers of Jesus are commanded to practice in the life of the church. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:18–21:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
The contrast is that of one who is intoxicated by alcohol, which only exacerbates our inner self-centeredness and makes us more vulnerable to the indulgences of the flesh, and one who is “filled with the Spirit,” which results not in self-focus but in concern for building up the brethren. But in an individualistic age and in churches still riddled with sinners, what does mutual submission look like?
Paul is not advocating a kind of democratic utopianism. The admonition to mutual submission does not eradicate the order, for instance, that involves male eldership in the church or male headship in the home.
Similarly, mutual submission does not mean there are no authority structures in the church. In fact, one way we submit to one another “out of reverence for Christ” is by submitting to the structure Christ’s headship of the church mandates. We honor Jesus by honoring the ecclesiological blueprints he’s given us (see Heb. 13:17).
Paul has in mind that we submit in a way that honors Christ as Lord, and this precludes some kind of religious free-for-all that makes Christ’s body look disordered or chaotic.
Consider the common example of a small group where one person seems to occupy most of the relational real estate. Every week their anxious neediness opens an emotional black hole that every other member must try to fill. What does “mutual submission” look like here? It certainly doesn’t look like letting one person suck up all the spiritual energy week after week. That is disordered submission to one. Mutual submission would mean appropriately listening to the concerns of the one and tending to them sensitively and wisely with the Word of God, but also preventing that one person from becoming the center of the attention.
Rightly ordered mutual submission will also look like church members not seeking to usurp elders’ and other ministry leaders’ authority and leaders not seeking to domineer or “lord over” the flock (1 Pet. 5:2–3).
When one is “drunk on wine,” inhibitions to immodesty are lowered, and sinful behaviors are severely increased. When one is “filled with the Spirit,” inhibitions to proper affection are lowered, and edifying behaviors are greatly increased. Paul connects the Spirit’s influence with mutual upbuilding through corporate worship and prayer. The effect is radical reorienting of our concerns around the concerns of the church.
Consider the “affectionate” language of Romans 12:9 or the command of verse 10: “Outdo one another in showing honor.” Or the phrasing of Romans 15:1–2: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
Before the Lord, we don’t simply tolerate each other; we actually love each other. The gospel that has reconciled us as individuals to God has also reconciled us to each other. And the gospel is not about mere toleration but a grace that is “lavish” (Eph. 1:8). This is not an overindulgent intimacy that crosses barriers of modesty but simply a reference to genuine, heartfelt, others-oriented love.
This is the primary aim of the order and affection urged by Paul in Ephesians 5:18–21, that everything we do would be done “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This means that we aren’t submitting to one another out of a desire to create some kind of altruistic mutual admiration society. If that were the case, we would forgo the order of authority, the necessity of biblical church discipline, the rebuking and excommunicating of false teachers, and the prohibition of heresy. Instead, we understand that our submission to one another in love, honor, and service is a way of making visible what God has done through Christ in his life and work. We deny ourselves not to build up the self-esteem of others but to build up the Christ-esteem of the church.
When we each set our own interests aside as secondary to the building up of Christ’s body, and we prioritize each other as worthy of honor and deserving of love (Rom. 13:8), we may yet discover the beautiful stalemate of mutual submission. In that impasse of grace, we magnify the Son who put on flesh and did not regard his authority as something to be leveraged (Phil. 2:4–8). When we submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, we make Christ look reverence-worthy. Because he is.
An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Tabletalk.