The unbelieving world has a skewed, cynical view of submission. In fact, humility and submissiveness are not generally seen as character qualities, but condemned as weaknesses. It’s one of the many ways the world distorts and inverts God’s design.
Scripture frequently calls Christians to be humble and submissive people. In Ephesians 5, Paul suggests that the Spirit-filled life is not a fight for the top; it’s a fight for the bottom. That’s exactly what Jesus taught too: “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
In a community of believers, then, the principle of submission governs all relationships. Every individual submits to all others. That is the very situation Paul described in Ephesians 5:21: “Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” Peter said the same thing in 1 Peter 5:5–6:
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but give grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time.
Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word often translated as “submit” is hupotasso (from two words: hupo, “under,” and tasso, “to line up, to get in order, or to be arranged”). It speaks of ranking oneself beneath another. As Christians, this is the mentality that should govern all our relationships: “With humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4).
After all, that was the example our Lord set for us. He refused to consider equality with God a thing to grasp. He stepped from heaven into this world, making Himself of no reputation, coming in the form of a lowly human—like a bondservant—even submitting to a shameful death on the cross on behalf of others (Philippians 2:5–8). In doing so, He gave us an example of how we ought to walk (1 Peter 2:21).
That is why we are to be submissive in all our relationships with one another. That is at the core of truly Christlike character, and it is also the single most important principle governing all personal relationships for all Christians. Christians are supposed to submit to one another.
Authority, Not Anarchy
Don’t misunderstand or misapply that principle. It doesn’t abolish the need for leadership or the principle of authority. It certainly doesn’t eliminate official positions of oversight in structured institutions. In the church, for example, pastors and elders fill a God-given role of leadership, and the Bible instructs church members to submit to their elders’ spiritual leadership in the life and context of the church (Hebrews 13:17). Likewise within the family, parents have a clear, God-given duty to exercise authority and give guidance and instruction to their children, and children have a reciprocal duty to honor and obey their parents (Exodus 20:12; Proverbs 1:8).
In fact, as Scripture plainly teaches,
there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Romans 13:1-2)
So the principle of mutual submission isn’t meant as a prescription for absolute egalitarianism. It certainly does not mean that no one is supposed to be in charge in the church, the government, or the family.
Common sense affirms the need for authority structures in human society. Of course, the largest of all social structures is a nation. Every legitimate nation must have a government. No nation could function without authority. God Himself designed society to function under governments. That’s why both Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13–17 remind us that God ordained governmental authority. Rulers, kings, governors, soldiers, policemen, and judges are all necessary “for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:14). Without them, there would be anarchy, and no society can survive anarchy.
Likewise, even in the smallest of human institutions—the family—the same principle applies. A family cannot survive anarchy. Someone must be responsible for discipline, direction, and spiritual leadership. Scripture recognizes this, too, as we’ll see when we delve further into Ephesians 5 and 6.
Authority and Submission in the Family
Nonetheless, when it comes to one-on-one interpersonal relationships within all those institutions, the principle of mutual submission must govern how each of us treats one another. Even the person in a position of authority must be Christlike in his or her dealings with all others—which, of course, still means esteeming others better than self. Again, Christ Himself is the model for what that kind of leadership looks like. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Mutual submission is the principle, then, that Ephesians 5:21 spells out: “Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” To illustrate and further explain how the principle of submission is supposed to work in the framework of institutions where God has ordained authorities for leadership, Paul turned to the most fundamental of all human institutions, the family.
He could have illustrated authority and submission by explaining how the principle applies to human government. In fact, Paul did that very thing in Romans 13, and Peter did it in 1 Peter 2:13–16. He might also have explained the principle of submission by showing how it works in the context of the church. He did that in 1 Timothy 2 and 3. But here Paul’s subject was mutual submission, so he used the family—the smallest and most intimate of all human institutions—to demonstrate how mutual submission is supposed to work on a personal and individual level, without obliterating the need for the God-ordained authority that governs every human institution.