Moving from Submission to Service

By Mark D. Roberts

November 7, 2019

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:21 (NIV)


As I noted earlier this week, the dictionary definition of hypotassō, translated as “submit” in Ephesians 5:21, is “voluntary yielding in love.” Yet, I wonder if Paul intended more than this when he urged us to submit to each other. Submission, I believe, is to be expressed not just in yielding, but in active service. Please let me explain why I think this.

a mother holding a babyIf we look for other passages in Paul’s letters that sound a lot like Ephesians 5:21, we come upon Galatians 5:13. Here, people free in Christ should “serve one another humbly in love.” The NIV uses “serve humbly” to translate the Greek verb douleuō, which means “to be a slave, to perform the duties of a slave, serve, obey.” Though “serve humbly” and “submit” are not precisely equivalent in meaning, serving humbly is an active expression of submission, one that goes beyond “voluntary yielding in love” to “voluntary serving in love.”

There could be no more vivid illustration of submission in the Roman world than the service offered by slaves. Even though Roman slavery was not based on diabolical racism like U.S. slavery, it was an economic system in which certain people were owned by and completely committed to serving their masters. Thus, it seems quite possible that, in Ephesians 5:21, submission is meant to be more than yielding to the authority of someone else or following that person’s leadership. Slaves did this, of course. But their whole lives were lived in humble service to their masters.

Submission, therefore, involves choosing a posture of humility that leads one to serve others. If I’m in a community of mutual submission, I don’t just wait until a brother or sister gives me an order to follow so I can submit. Rather, I seek out opportunities to serve humbly, to lower myself before other members of the church by serving them as a slave. Thus, I follow my Master who stooped as a slave to wash the feet of his disciples (John 13).

Galatians also highlights the close association of active submission and love. The imperative “serve one another” does not stand alone, but is modified by “in love.” Love for our neighbor motivates us to serve our neighbor humbly, like a servant. Thus Galatians 5, not to mention the whole flow of Pauline ethics, encourages us to see submission—including, of course, mutual submission—as going beyond mere yielding to indicate a lifestyle of humble service to others, service motivated by love and modeled on Christ.

When Ephesians 5:21 says that we are to submit to one another, it does mean that leadership and followership are to be shared among members of the Christian community, including members of a family. But, beyond this, it also calls us to an active kind of submission, to serving each other as a slave, just as Christ served us through his incarnation and crucifixion (see Philippians 2:1-11). The church and the families comprising it are to live according to the model of Jesus Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Something to Think About:

When have you been on the receiving end of humble service in your family? In your church? In your workplace?

When have you humbled yourself in order to serve others?

Have you experienced a community of people who practiced an active form of mutual submission, one characterized by servanthood based on love? If so, what was that like for you?

Something to Do:

As you go through your day, be ready to serve those with whom you interact in your workplace, your home, your neighborhood, your church. See if you can engage in at least one act of humble service today.


Lord Jesus, how I thank you for choosing the way of servanthood, even becoming a slave in humbling yourself, taking on human flesh, and dying on a cross. Thank you for how you have served me by giving up yourself for my sake.

Help me, Lord, not only to receive your gift, but also to imitate it in my relationships with others. May I subordinate myself to others by becoming a servant to them, looking out for their interests, seeking to meet their needs, and living out your call to love. Even this day, Lord, show me how I can “order myself under” those in my life, and become a source of your grace for them. Amen.

Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online
Living in the Spirit (Galatians 5:13–23)

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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