Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Ephesians 5:21 says that we are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” But what does this actually mean?
According to the standard Greek-English dictionary, the verb translated as “submit” has a basic meaning of “subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey.” The Greek verb used in Ephesians 5:21, is hypotassō, which could be rendered in an overly literal way as “to be ordered under” (hypo – under; tassō – to order). Thus, “to subordinate” in English gets closest to the sense of the Greek (sub-ordinate). The standard Greek-English lexicon translates hypotassō in 5:21 as “voluntary yielding in love.”
Because we don’t tend to speak of submission or subordination very much in common speech today, the use of the verb “submit” can feel odd, antique, or unsettling. We might not understand what it means to submit to someone, not to mention how to submit to one another. Or we might recoil from the notion of submission, fearing that it leads to unhealthy domination or even violence in relationships. Too often the language of submission has been used by some to keep others in bondage to abuse and harassment. So we’re understandably wary about the language of submission.
I wonder if we’d be better off using a paraphrase in this verse that fits more appropriately in our cultural context. I’m thinking of the phrase “follow the leadership of.” Practically speaking, submitting to someone is basically the same as following the leadership of that person. The language of following is more horizontal (I follow behind but on the same level as one leading me) than vertical (I am ordered under my leader). We can speak of following someone’s leadership without bringing along all of the heavy baggage associated with submission. We will grasp the basic sense of Ephesians 5:21 if we understand it to say, “Follow the leadership of one another, out of reverence for Christ.”
Of course this paraphrase still raises some of the same questions I’ve noted before. Don’t organizations, including marriages and families, need to have clear leaders and clear followers? What sense does it make to follow the leadership of one another? Isn’t it better to say that a follower should follow the leadership of the leader?
I’ll start to address these questions in tomorrow’s devotion. For now, let me encourage you to reflect on the following questions.
Something to Think About:
How is it possible to submit or to follow the leadership of “one another”? Isn’t this a formula for chaos?
Should we have in the church (and family and business) those who lead and those who follow?
How can we actually do what Ephesians 5:21 tells us to do?
Something to Do:
Talk about the possibility of mutual submission, that is, following the leadership of one another, in your small group or with a Christian friend. How do you make sense of this imperative?
Gracious God, we confess that the notion of submitting to each other is perplexing. Even if we understand submission along the lines of following the leadership of someone, we still wonder how this can be done mutually? Don’t we need leaders who lead and followers who follow?
Help us, dear Lord, to understand your Word truly. May we grasp firmly what you are saying to us in this passage. And may we boldly seek to obey what we learn from you, no matter how much it might disrupt our assumptions about our relationships. Teach us, Lord. Help us to follow you, above all. Amen.