A Disruptive Direction

By Mark D. Roberts

November 4, 2019

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:21 (NIV)


The teaching in Ephesians on household relationships begins with a disruptive direction: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Why do I call this a disruptive direction? Because if we take it seriously, if we seek to live by it, it would almost surely disrupt our lives.

one duck following another in a body of waterFor one thing, most people don’t talk in terms of submission much anymore. Yes, this language shows up in some church settings. But, in the wider culture, the whole notion of submission can feel old-fashioned and undemocratic. In my work at the De Pree Center, I have a boss and I lead a team. We could say that I submit to my boss and my team submits to me. But this isn’t how we talk about things these days. And it really doesn’t capture the nature of our work relationships, either. We prefer the language and practices of leadership and followership. We who lead want to empower and support those who follow us, not demand their submission.

The first recipients of Paul’s letter surely felt disrupted by verse 21, though nor for reasons like ours. From their experience in the highly stratified, hierarchical Roman world, they knew all about submission. It was an expected, unexceptional part of ordinary Hellenistic existence. Submission was how all people approached their superiors: fathers, masters, husbands, public officials, and, most of all, Rome itself.

But in the Roman world submission always flowed in one direction—from down to up, from the lesser to the greater, from the weak to the powerful. If Paul had written, “Submit to those in authority out of reverence for Christ,” his audience wouldn’t have been surprised or disturbed. But in verse 22 Paul urges believers to submit to each other! What does this mean? How is mutual submission even possible? Doesn’t somebody have to be in charge in a relationship or an organization if it’s going to function well? If everyone is submitting to everyone else, how will we get anything done? The whole notion of mutual submission would have felt exceptionally disruptive to the first recipients of Ephesians.

For us it might feel doubly disruptive. On the one hand, this directive uses the language of submission, which is not how we speak or think. On the other hand, it commends mutual submission, which can feel unrealistic or puzzling. If I’m the leader of my team, am I supposed to be submitting to them?

If you find the imperative “Submit to one another” disturbing, if you’re not sure you understand it or want to deal with it, let me encourage you to hang in there. “Submit to one another” is disruptive and therefore a directive we might try to ignore. But I believe it invites us into a fresh and transformative way to relate to each other in the body of Christ. It calls us to a whole new way of living and being, a way that honors God and reflects the gospel of Jesus Christ. More on this tomorrow . . . .

Something to Think About:

How do you respond to the imperative “Submit to one another”? What do you think about it? How do you feel about it?

Have you ever experienced people submitting to one another? When? What happened? Did it work? Or was it a mess?

What might God want us to get from this disruptive direction?

Something to Do:

As you go about your day, see if you experience or observe relationships in which people are submitting to each other. Pay attention to what happens and reflect on its significance.


Gracious God, at times your Word is inspiring, at times comforting, and at times most unsettling. When we stop to think about it, the command to submit to each other could produce unsettling times. What does this really mean, Lord? How is mutual submission even possible? Wouldn’t it have been much easier if Paul had simply told some folks to lead and others to submit?

Still, when a part of your Word is disruptive, this doesn’t mean we should reject its truth or authority. In fact, when we are troubled by something in Scripture that we don’t understand, this becomes an invitation to know you more truly and to grasp more fully how you want us to live. May this be such a time as we seek to hear what you’re saying to us through the command “Submit to one another.” Amen.

Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online
Leadership and Decision Making in the Christian Community (Acts 15)

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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