Embracing Mutual Submission: A Study in Humility

This week I have been following Rachel Held Evans’ synchro-blog event, One In Christ, a celebration of Mutuality. There have been  so many excellent blogs from RHE, as well as other fellow egalitarians who decided it was time to speak up about why mutuality is so great. So far, I have only reveled in their insights and shared them with all of my followers. Now, I am ready to share my own reflections… This is first post of two I intend to share is an adapted version of a paper I wrote for a course on Gender & Culture that I took with missiologist Anita Koeshall at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.

Embracing Mutual Submission: A Study in Humility

A hush falls over the crowd as the lights dim and the spotlight draws all eyes to two people in the center of the rink. The action begins with the first note of the song, two individuals seamlessly emerge as one unit; gliding over the ice, side-by-side, hand-in hand, spinning and mirroring one another. They dare gravity as they leap in unison and, occasionally, he will lift her high into the air, still gliding upon the ice as one. Couples figure skating fascinates me. There is something invigorating about watching two people work as a team to perform daring feats that appear effortless. Yet, it takes great strength, skill and team work to pull off such a performance.

The movie The Cutting Edge depicts the story of two very strong-willed, independent athletes, a male hockey player and a female figure skater, both disillusioned with their previous careers, coming together as a figure skating pair. Competitiveness and love of the ice are the only things the duo share in common. Throughout the movie, they take turns one-upping each other, always followed by a spray of ice in the face and the one liner, “Toe-pick.” However, they eventually realize they must let go of their own pride in order to win as a team. Slowly and painfully, the pair builds trust, which proves to be the key to winning.

This movie embodies my own struggle and competitive approach to male/female relationships. Having been raised in an ever-increasing individualistic and feminist culture, I wrestle with being second, especially to men. In fact, my initial question began as, “Do all women have to submit to all men?” Being certain of the answer, I set out to prove that men and women are equal and that Christ calls us to mutual submission, even in marriage. However, a deeper question emerged in process, “What does mutual submission look like within covenant community?”

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says, “And further, submit yourselves to one another in reverence for Christ” (5:21). The verses that follow make practical application of this verse within a marriage context, as well as other relationships, such as, parent to child and master to slave. For many years, mutual submission has been my license to be an independent individual, to compete with men and to prove that we have to submit to one another. My cultural and personal bias has been keeping me from the heart of Paul’s message.

Ephesians 5:1-2 says, “Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us…” Before anyone submits to anyone, Christians are called to imitate God and follow the example of Christ. Submission begins with studying Christ, not ourselves.

Philippians chapter two defines the attitude of Christ, “though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to….he humbled himself in obedience to God…”

M. Sydney Park, makes several observations regarding Christ’s submission as described in this passage. He debunks the “notion that submission is defined only by obedience…” Park agrees that obedience is part of Christ’s submission, but it actually “begins with Christ’s equality with God and is exemplified through forsaking his rights, status and privilege of being equal with God.” According to Park, submission is “not borne out of or for oppression-rather it is embraced voluntarily.” Finally, he concludes Christ's submission is "the willingness to give primacy to the concerns of another over and above his own legitimate rights, even at the risk of humiliation, suffering and death” (123-124).

As Christ’s example reveals, true submission can only take place from a stance of equality. Ephesians 5 levels the gender playing field. Paul elevates the status of women with his command to submit to one another. Payne drives this point home when he writes, “Paul does not limit any of these [“one another” commands] to only one gender. If only one party does all the submitting, it is not mutual but hierarchical. The bidirectional nature of mutual submission presupposes the equal standing of the persons submitting to each other” (71). Humility is often defined as embracing a proper understanding of self...recognizing and walking within the limitations of our strengths and weaknesses, being careful to empower others to do the same. Jesus sets a standard, illustrating the deference of one’s rights for the sake of another. His motivation flows from a desire to bring glory to God and to reconcile God and humanity. 

Submission starts with an attitude of humility.

There is a series of passages throughout the New Testament often referred to as the “one another” commands (Eph. 5:18-21; 1 John 4:13, 16; Gal. 5:13; Rom. 12:10; Eph. 4:2). Each “one another” statement can be linked with Paul’s familiar command to “Be filled with the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit enables us to walk in submission to each other... to “Serve one another,” “Honor one another…” “Be gentle and patient with one another…”
The direct fruit of mutual submission is unity, not competition. Submission is a bold choice to set aside one’s rights for the sake of something greater: unity. Phillip B. Payne defines submission as “voluntary yielding in love” (281).  Using a quote from Tertullian’s book to his wife, Payne reveals the perspective of the Church father specifically regarding submission between a husband and a wife:

“What a union of two believers—one hope, one vow, one discipline and one worship! They are brother and sister, two fellow servants, one spirit and one flesh… They pray together, fast together, instruct, exhort, and support each other” (281-283).

In reference to the original Greek word used in Ephesians 5, Gerald Sittser writes that “it combines two words, one that could be translated ‘under’ and the other ‘order.’ … it implies that we choose to order our lives under the circumstances, relationships and roles in which we find ourselves.”

Sittser underscores the radical nature of Paul’s call to mutual submission. He points out that Paul gives this command to each individual in the Body, rather than a certain gender or social status. Specifically, he requires that “those who occupy dominant positions in social order be subject to their subordinates; they are to order their lives under the very people over whom they exercise authority.”

Sittser points out that “how we obey this command depends upon the particular position we occupy within the social order.” He goes on to say, “...to subject to one another implies that we acknowledge the necessity of social order, accept our place within it, and transform the social order through the power of radical obedience and sacrificial love” (42-43).

There is truth in the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words.” I recently had the privilege to interact with a precious couple who serve in a Muslim country. Due to the senstive nature of their work, we will call them John and Jane. As I listened to their stories, I kept hearing the Holy Spirit drive this point home. 

Mutual submission is a sign to unbelievers...revealing the power of what Jesus did on the cross. John made a shocking statement, “My wife is the key to my ministry to Muslim men.” He goes on to explain that Muslim culture expects men to be able to control their wives. Jane does her best to fulfill the role of ideal Muslim woman, to the extent that Muslim men respect John and trust their wives to Jane's care.

John and Jane work as a team, like the figure skating pair. They each submit to Christ and to each other, fulfilling the culturally expected gender roles. In so doing, their relationship proclaims the gospel. People see Jesus. Muslims may not know they are seeing Jesus but the choice this couple has made to walk in mutual submission opens the door to share. Jane says the key to her ministry has been 1 Corinthians 9. She has learned to become “all things to all men” in order to reach a culture.

I still have more questions than answers. I feel as if I barely scratched the surface. As a single person, I find myself asking what mutual submission looks like within community. It is easy to perceive submission as something only for people who are married, but Paul makes it clear that we all are to walk in submission to one another.

Submission is difficult to grasp, let alone actualize. It is a Spirit-led behavior. Submission runs contrary to ourhuman nature. As an American, I have been taught to think for myself, to be true to myself, to be proud of my accomplishments, to fight for my rights. As an American woman, I expect equality. The very idea of submitting myself to someone else involves humility. 

I now recognize that mutual submission is not a license to dominate, but a command to be humble. Mutual submission requires consistency and intentionality of heart. It starts with humility and is expressed in unity. Mutual submission, like figure skating, requires a dual commitment to working together, embracing one another’s strengths and supporting one another in weakness.

Today, I choose to embrace the call to mutual submission. Lord, give me grace to do so with humility and, in so doing, bring glory to Your Kingdom.


  1. Very well articulated. This passage is so often used to enforce gender-oppression. Revolutionary love, demonstrated by Christ put humility front and centre such that we can follow Christ's command to love others as ourselves and that means mutuality. As we present ourselves as living sacrifices (as Christ) we will no longer be conformed to the pattern of this world's selfish, gender-biased oppression. PTL

  2. Thanks, Grant :-) it's nice to have someone Hear what I'm saying & agree :-)


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