Vol. 1, No. 3       November 1998


Mutual Submission or Chain of Command?

by Bruce Prescott

Some people cannot rest until they find their place in a chain of command. This is important to them for two reasons. First, it identifies who has power to command attention and whose demands can be safely ignored. Second, it clearly charts their own power and significance in relation to others. Knowing where they stand on the scale of power and authority gives them a sense of security. The more power they acquire and exercise, the more important and secure they feel and vice versa.

The logic of the chain of command makes perfect sense as long as everyone believes that relations with others are based on power. The chain, however, is broken whenever people believe that relations should be based on love.

 FAMILY1.GIF (4152 bytes)"Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."

Ephesians 5:21(NIV)

Jesus is the one who broke the chain of command. He set aside relations based on power and loved the powerless (Philippians 2:3-8.   See frame on the right). He commanded his disciples to "love one another, as I have loved you." (John 15:12) Paul applied this command to relations within the family.

Few passages have been so persistently misinterpreted as Ephesians 5:21-6:9. Error arises when interpreters ignore verse 21. When discussion begins at verse 22, Paul appears to be reaffirming a chain of command within the family. Such an interpretation is questionable. In Greek — the language in which Paul wrote — verse 22 is grammatically connected and logically subordinated to verse 21.  Literally, Paul says "Being subject to one another in fear of Christ. Wives, to their own husbands as to the Lord."

 WB01405_.GIF (2208 bytes)

We've got a beef:   WHERE'S THE VERB?


(21) upotassomenoi allhloiV en fobw Cristou
being subject to one another in fear of Christ
(22) ai gunaikeV toiV idioiV andrasin wV tw kuriw
the wives to the(ir) own husbands as to the Lord

WB01405_.GIF (2208 bytes)

In English translations the words "submit" or "be subject" have been added to make verse 22 a complete, grammatically correct English sentence. (Some modern translations indicate this addition by italicizing the verb in verse 22. See frame on the right.)

When interpretation begins with verse 21, the entire passage describes mutual submission within the family. The wife submits to her husband in everything "as unto the Lord." If her husband makes a request unworthy of her Lord, her primary loyalty is "unto the Lord."

Husbands are commanded to give themselves to their wives as Christ gave himself to the church. Christ submitted to death for the church.

Instruction about submission is four times longer for husbands than for wives. The greatest burden of submission is clearly placed on the husband.

The rest of the passage describes mutual submission between children and parents and between masters and slaves.

This is the most systematic treatment of family relations in the Bible. Serious doubts should be raised about any understanding that contends that Paul affirms a chain of command.

On the contrary, Paul expects every member of the Christian family to show the same kind of humble, self-giving, sacrificial love that Jesus embodied.

wave.GIF (1483 bytes)

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!"

Philippians 2:3-8 (NIV)



Related Stories:

Use the Best Greek Texts


Look it up Yourself!



"Wives, be subject

to your own husbands,

as to the Lord."

Ephesians 5:22 (NASB)



Home      Search


Online since April 7, 1999


E- mail questions or comments about this web site to
Copyright 1999-2014 Dr. Bruce Prescott   P.O. Box 6371  Norman, OK  73070-6371 (405) 343-6357.