What Does It Mean to Submit to One Another?

November 5, 2019 • Life for Leaders

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:21 (NIV)


Ephesians 5:21 says that we are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” But what does this actually mean?

According to the standard Greek-English dictionary, the verb translated as “submit” has a basic meaning of “subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey.” The Greek verb used in Ephesians 5:21, is hypotassō, which could be rendered in an overly literal way as “to be ordered under” (hypo – under; tassō – to order). Thus, “to subordinate” in English gets closest to the sense of the Greek (sub-ordinate). The standard Greek-English lexicon translates hypotassō in 5:21 as “voluntary yielding in love.”

many footprints in the desert sandBecause we don’t tend to speak of submission or subordination very much in common speech today, the use of the verb “submit” can feel odd, antique, or unsettling. We might not understand what it means to submit to someone, not to mention how to submit to one another. Or we might recoil from the notion of submission, fearing that it leads to unhealthy domination or even violence in relationships. Too often the language of submission has been used by some to keep others in bondage to abuse and harassment. So we’re understandably wary about the language of submission.

I wonder if we’d be better off using a paraphrase in this verse that fits more appropriately in our cultural context. I’m thinking of the phrase “follow the leadership of.” Practically speaking, submitting to someone is basically the same as following the leadership of that person. The language of following is more horizontal (I follow behind but on the same level as one leading me) than vertical (I am ordered under my leader). We can speak of following someone’s leadership without bringing along all of the heavy baggage associated with submission. We will grasp the basic sense of Ephesians 5:21 if we understand it to say, “Follow the leadership of one another, out of reverence for Christ.”

Of course this paraphrase still raises some of the same questions I’ve noted before. Don’t organizations, including marriages and families, need to have clear leaders and clear followers? What sense does it make to follow the leadership of one another? Isn’t it better to say that a follower should follow the leadership of the leader?

I’ll start to address these questions in tomorrow’s devotion. For now, let me encourage you to reflect on the following questions.

Something to Think About:

How is it possible to submit or to follow the leadership of “one another”? Isn’t this a formula for chaos?

Should we have in the church (and family and business) those who lead and those who follow?

How can we actually do what Ephesians 5:21 tells us to do?

Something to Do:

Talk about the possibility of mutual submission, that is, following the leadership of one another, in your small group or with a Christian friend. How do you make sense of this imperative?


Gracious God, we confess that the notion of submitting to each other is perplexing. Even if we understand submission along the lines of following the leadership of someone, we still wonder how this can be done mutually? Don’t we need leaders who lead and followers who follow?

Help us, dear Lord, to understand your Word truly. May we grasp firmly what you are saying to us in this passage. And may we boldly seek to obey what we learn from you, no matter how much it might disrupt our assumptions about our relationships. Teach us, Lord. Help us to follow you, above all. Amen.

Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online
Servant Leadership (Matthew 20:20-28)



4 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Submit to One Another?

  1. DiAnne Krumm says:

    God gives each of us love and forgiveness when he gives us His spirit. The characteristics of a leader in the body should be a person who has humbly submitted to the word of God and others out of love.

    At the outset, God starts working on us in earnest to learn his word. Later he begins to conform us to it. The fun is not gone when this happens. He gets you to submit to it and you wouldn’t want it any other way, would you?

    I think the hardest part for any believer is to submit to the word of God. It’s one thing to know it and another thing to live it. We can only be taught to live it through our circumstances that God allows to conform us to His image.

    He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:16); If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself (2 Timothy 2:12)

  2. Craig Sinclair Williams says:

    When it comes to the how, I find David Bosch’s comments in his devotional “A Spirituality of the Road” to be helpful. How does mutual subjection happen? A surrender to the other. In speaking to missionaries Bosch writes, “If we remain at a safe distance [from one another], there is a real danger of us becoming callous and insensitive in the face of the squalor and misery so many people are suffering.” We need to be lead by those who have and we perceive to be ‘less than’. Moving to the margins of culture and society begs us to submit ourselves to those quite different from us and seek the truth that is at work in them. In other words be mutually subject. Bosch again, “We usually know what we have gone to give…we do not know as clearly what we have gone to receive.” Mutual subjection means being open to being changed by the other. It can only happen when we are in proximity to the other. Thanks Mark for these devotions.

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