Problem Passages: Ephesians 5:21

This post is a part of the series comparing the teaching on various gender passages in the Bible.

Ephesians 5:21 says,

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Summary of Disagreements

Ephesians 5:21 is a general call for all Christians to live a submissive life as a result of being filled with the Holy Spirit (5:18). This verse introduces a section instructing the Ephesians how to behave in their homes. Complementarians and Egalitarians differ in their interpretation of this verse in three ways.

  1. How to define submission?*
  2. Who is exempt?
  3. What ramifications does this verse create for the following passage?

Please understand this article is a brief summary of the arguments. This verse has birthed volumes of commentary.

*The definition of submission is from the Greek word hupatasso: hypo (under or after) tasso (arrange or align).  In noun form, it is not found outside the New Testament. The verb is used rarely in classical Greek literature. The scarcity of the word leaves a void that Comps and Egals bury with translation debate.

Complementarian Understanding

Most Comps define submission by its military sense, to arrange yourself under the command of a leader. They soften the word from its strict cousin, Obedience, by including submission’s voluntary aspect. (This voluntary aspect is derived from the Greek word’s middle, passive voice as opposed to active.) Submission is a one-way, willing ordering of yourself under another.

Mutual, or reciprocal, submission is an oxymoron to most Comps. It is a contradiction of terms. Comps emphasize there cannot be a person submitting unless there is another person to submit to. This argument is bolstered by the Greek pronoun used for “one another” which is not always fully reciprocal. Most Comps would rather interpret this word as “some to others.” Submission separates people into leaders and followers. Those under do not tell those over what to do. Back to their favorite military analogy: it would be unheard of for a general to submit to privates! There would be  chaos. Submission requires someone in command.

So, people in authority are exempt from submitting to those who are under them.

Comps believe this verse (21) must be interpreted in light of verse 22. Because wives are specifically asked to submit to their husband, Comps believe husbands have the burden of command. Husbands are never asked to submit to wives. Comps believe a husband’s role is to lead. Verse 21 takes a back seat to the implied implications of verse 22.

Comps believe verse 21 is clarified by verse 22. Whereas Egals believe verse 22 can only be properly understood in light of verse 21.

Further Reading

The Myth of “Mutual Submission”  by Wayne Grudem

Egalitarian Understanding

Ephesians 5:21 is the bedrock of an Egalitarian marriage. Each submits to the other. Submission is not the wife’s job alone. Egals define submission like this:

“The true sense of the word describes the Christian grace of yielding one’s preferences to another, where principle is not involved, rather than asserting one’s rights.” Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, para 293.

Egals expand the definition of submission away from its military sense, arguing  it confuses the meaning. An Egal might argue, “Can a soldier ever say “no” to his commander? Not without strict punishment! Does that make the soldier’s requirement submission or obedience?” An Egal would say, obedience. A militant definition of submission shackles the volunteerism of submission, and makes a one-way duty or requirement out of it.

Hupatasso means “I arrange myself under” or “being under.” Instead of flipping the action of submission to emphasize who is over, Egals stress the importance of “being under.”  Hupatasso is written in the middle voice which implies passivity, not activity. Submission is a state a Christian is already in becuase of the Spirit inside. Even more so – especially in a Roman patriarchy setting- submission is a state a wife is already in. (On the passive voice of Hupatasso by Charis R. Hart) Some Egals point to alternative meanings: such as, the Hebrew equivalent of hupatasso is translated as a quiet waiting or rest. (Ps 62:1, 5; Ps 37:7)

Egalitarians argue against a strict hierarchical meaning of “each other” and for its reciprocity. Egals believe submission does not require staid leadership. It can be fluid. It is flexible. It goes many directions. 1 Peter 5:5 repeats the exhortation to submit to each other and links this act with humility. Egals ask us to remember the context of Ephesian culture which emphasized male authority, to understand how radical this verse sounded to the original readers. Paul asks women to come after men, and men to come after women!

Ephesians 5:21 clarifies the life in the Spirit, and introduces the spirit of Christian marriage found in the following verses. Christians should not argue over who is in charge (Jesus said, “Not so among you!”), but exhibit a yielding of wills to one another.

Further Reading:

What Does Subjection Mean? Lesson 38 by Katharine Bushnell

I know who’s the boss! by Wade Burleson

8 thoughts on “Problem Passages: Ephesians 5:21

  1. Good summary. One thing I always like to add when talking about these verses is that the section headings in most modern translations aren’t actually part of the Bible. The NIV and some of the other English translations reflect the translator’s bias by splitting 5:21 and 5:22 under two different headings. That misleads a lot of readers into thinking that the author didn’t mean “submit to one another” to be read as part of the section about husbands and wives. (There’s really no good reason to group 5:21 with the previous verses unless you’ve got ulterior motives).

    To Zondervan’s credit, the TNIV, (which includes gender neutral language where appropriate), corrected that by moving the header before 5:21 so that “submit to one another” is part of the section on marriage.


    1. I had a section about this, but cut it. Instead, I’ll put it in the Ephesians 22-23 passage. I guess a few of the older manuscripts don’t repeat hupatasso in verse 22, but actually refer to it in verse 21. I just read that on a passing comment somewhere, but didn’t have a real reference for it. You read anything on that?


      1. I figured you might already know about that, but felt compelled to chime in 🙂

        It’s been a while since I read about it (probably back in college) so I can’t recommend any reference material. The problem with that particular heading is that the grammar and linguistics don’t give a clear indication whether 5:21 should be read as part of the earlier or later verses. In fact, there’s a strong case that 5:15-33 should all be part of the same paragraph. And when you look at the subject matter, it’s pretty obvious that submit to one another closely ties in with the following verses about submission and spousal relationships.

        In a way this is simply a stylistic decision, so I’m not saying that translations with that header are WRONG, but the typical American reader is going to get a skewed impression.


  2. There are some good points, but you may want to rectify something at the beginning. You said: hupo (I arrange) tasso (under or after).

    Hupo is translated of, with, through, by, under or among; tasso is arrange, assign or align. Look up G5259 and G5021 in online dictionaries.

    Hupotasso was, say some scholars, commonly used in the postal system for documents attached to other letters, which got sent together. And documents were not subordinate to the message they came with, they supported it or “stuck” to it.


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