Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
In previous post, we saw that the basic meaning of the verb translated in Ephesians 5:21 as “submit” is “to be subordinate,” that is, to be “ordered under” someone else. I suggested that, practically speaking, this is quite similar to “following the leadership of” someone else. When I’m driving through an intersection and a police officer tells me to stop even though the light is green, I stop. You could say that I’ve submitted to the officer. Or you could say I’ve followed his leadership.
Yet, no matter whether we speak of submitting or following leadership, Ephesians 5:21 can still be puzzling. How can we submit “to one another”? Alternatively, how can we follow the leadership of one another? Picture the intersection I’ve just mentioned. We’d have quite a mess if all the drivers got out of their cars and all the pedestrians stopped and started to be leaders, giving directions that others were supposed to follow. The order of the intersection depends on having one person in charge and everyone else following directions. Does Ephesians 5:21 commend a hopelessly confused corporate life, in which everyone is leading and everyone is following all the time, such that the church and the family flounders?
No, not at all. Ephesians 5:21 does not say “submit to one another at the same time.” Behind this verse is an assumption that some will lead at one time and others will follow. Later, the leadership relationship is altered. Someone else is leading, and the former leader is now following. Suppose, in my earlier thought experiment, the police officer happened to be a member of my church. While driving through the intersection, I followed his leadership. But then, on Sunday, as I was preaching, he followed mine. There would be no chaos here because each of us exercised leadership when it was appropriate and each of us followed when it was appropriate. We exercised mutual submission, if you will, but not in the same moment.
This is exactly the kind of leadership-followership arrangement Paul outlined in an earlier letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 14, every single member of the church is gifted by the Holy Spirit for ministry (14:26). But that does not mean everyone speaks at the same time (14:27). Rather, one speaks while the others follow. Or, to use the language of Ephesians 5, one leads while the others follow, and then another leads, and then another. In an orderly way, spiritual leadership is passed around among the members of the body of Christ so that every person is both a leader at times and a follower at other times.
Thus, when we think of mutual submission, or, if you prefer, mutual leadership-followership as something dynamic rather than static, we can understand how it is not necessarily chaotic. Yes, it is probably messier than a static view of Christian community in which a few leaders lead and everyone else follows. But who said the body of Christ wouldn’t be messy sometimes? Moreover, aside from being messier, a dynamic leadership-followership model fosters stronger corporate life since the leadership gifts of all members can be utilized for the common good.
I believe there is still a deeper meaning of submission that needs to be considered before we leave Ephesians 5:21, but, for now, I’d invite you to consider the following questions.
(Mark D. Roberts)
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: When in your life have you experienced the kind of mutual submission (or leadership-followership) that I have described? In your family? In the workplace? In church? Why might a mutual submission model be better than a static model in which some people are always the leaders and other people are always the followers?
Gracious God, I thank you for the privilege you give me to lead at times. And I thank you for the privilege of following at othertimes. I’m so grateful for those who are officially my subordinates at work but who teach me so much, who lead me in ways that I could not lead because of my lack of knowledge or experience.
Similarly, I thank you for those in my church experience who have been my leaders. And I thank you for the chances you have given me to lead, even to lead those who are at othertimes my followers. How grateful I am for the flexibility and nimbleness of your body, for the chances you give all of us to lead as well as to follow.
Empower your church, Lord, to be all that it can be. May we discover the wonder and power of submitting to one another, of leading and following in the freedom of your sovereign Spirit. In the name of Yahushua I pray, Amen.