Yes, Paul Really Taught Mutual Submission

Why Wayne Grudem’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is untenable.

In Ephesians 5:21, Paul instructs Christians to “submit to one another.” These words have traditionally been understood to require mutual submission, even among family members. The reformer John Calvin, for example, acknowledged that the notion of a father submitting to his child or a husband submitting to his wife might seem “strange at first glance,” but he never questioned that such submission is indeed what Paul prescribes.

In more recent years, however, this reading of Ephesians 5:21 has been called into question—ironically, in the name of theological conservatism. Many evangelical scholars now assert that the submission in this verse is not mutual submission (everyone submits to everyone) but one-directional submission to those in authority (some submit to others). The most outspoken proponent of this view is Wayne Grudem, a prominent theologian who helped establish the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Grudem, who recently announced his retirement from teaching, has argued for more than three decades that Ephesians 5:21 could be paraphrased as follows: “Those who are under authority should be subject to others among you who have authority over them.” On Grudem’s reading, this verse requires a wife to submit to her husband, but it does not in any sense require a husband to submit to his wife.

In defense of this interpretation, Grudem appeals to the meaning of hypotassō, the Greek verb translated “to submit” or “to be subject.” Grudem claims that this verb “always means to be subject to someone else’s authority, in all Greek literature, Christian and non-Christian.”

“In every example we can …

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