How Is It Even Possible for us to Submit to One Another?

By Mark D. Roberts

November 6, 2019

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:21 (NIV)


In yesterday’s reflection, 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 her leadership.

a police car driving down the streetYet, no matter whether we speak of submitting or following leadership, Ephesians 5:21 can still be puzzling. How can we submit to one another? 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 and all the pedestrians started to be leaders, giving directions that the others were supposed to follow. Chaos would ensue. 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 will shift. Someone else is leading and the former leader is now following. Suppose, if we return to my earlier thought experiment, that the police officer whose leadership I followed in the intersection happened to be a member of my church. While driving, I followed her leadership. But then, on Sunday, as I was preaching, she followed mine, listening to and learning from me. 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 envisioned in his letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 14, every single member of the church is gifted by the Holy Spirit for ministry (1 Corinthians 14:26). Every person has something from God to share in the church gathering. But that does not mean everyone should speak at the same time (1 Corinthians 14:27). Rather, one speaks while the others listen. Or, to use the language of leadership, one leads while the others follow, and then another leads while others follow, and then another and 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 and a follower. Mutual submission and mutual leadership can be shared and orderly.

When we think of mutual submission 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 always lead and everyone else always follows. But who said the body of Christ shouldn’t be messy sometimes? Moreover, aside from being messier, this dynamic leadership-followership model fosters stronger corporate life, since the leadership gifts of all members can be utilized for the common good. Churches that depend on the leadership of just a few are not operating on all spiritual cylinders.

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.

Something to Think About:

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?

Something to Do:

As you go about your work today, see if there are times when you are experiencing mutual submission. Pay attention to what is happening and why.


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 other times. 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 other times 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. Amen.

Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online
Introduction to 1 Corinthians

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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