What Does It Mean to Submit to One Another?

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:21

Ephesians 5:21 says that we are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” But what does this 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 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 renders 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 seem 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.

I wonder if we’d be better off using a paraphrase of 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. Yet, we can speak of following someone’s leadership without bringing along all of the heavy baggage associated with submission.

I’m not suggesting that the Greek verb hypotassō should be translated in this way. But I am saying that we will grasp the practical meaning 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 raises some interesting questions. Let me encourage you to consider these questions today. Tomorrow, I’ll try to address them.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How is it possible to submit or to follow the leadership of “one another”? Isn’t this a formula for chaos? Shouldn’t we have in the church (and family) those who lead and those who follow? How can we actually do what Ephesians 5:21 tells us to do?

PRAYER: 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 another, 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 unsettle our assumptions about our relationships. Teach us, Lord. Help us to follow you, above all. Amen.