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Mutual Submission

Ephesians 5:15-33

15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.


Paul says, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.” Wisdom. Paul says to live as those who are wise. What does it mean to be wise? How do we live in wisdom? Paul talks about wisdom in other letters in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians chapter 2 he says, we Christians, we are the ones who speak wisdom, but not wisdom of this age, but we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden wisdom. And he says we have the mind of Christ. Wisdom means having the mind of Christ. What is the mind of Christ exactly?

In Philippians, Paul says,

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.”

Having wisdom, having the mind of Christ is not regarding ourselves as equals with God, but emptying ourselves, taking the form of a slave, humbling ourselves, being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

There are not many people who are really, truly wise. Maybe you know someone, your mom or dad or grandfather or aunt, who is really wise. Wise people always seem to be slow to speak, slow to give advice, quick to listen, slow to anger, quick to forgive. Wise people have the mind of Christ. And we need more wise people, we need people with wisdom to help us out of the mess we have made with this world. The world needs more wise people, but according to Paul, it requires a lot. If we really want to be wise, it probably means we will suffer. People won’t listen to us, think of the prophets, the ones with the wisdom from God and what God wanted the people to do, but they didn’t listen. People will think we’re crazy, like they did of John the Baptist. People might try to kill us, like they did of Jesus. The wise are wise because they humble themselves to the point of death, for the sake of the people they are trying to help.

Revolutionary Relationships

Of all the Christians throughout our history, the Apostle Paul was definitely one of the wisest who ever lived. In his letters to the early Christians and the church plants all around the ancient world, Paul said some incredibly revolutionary things that sparked outrage and anger and violence toward him. This passage in Ephesians 5 is one of those passages, “Submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And he goes on to talk about the relationships between husbands and wives, slaves and masters and parents and children.

Unfortunately, the problem with Paul’s wisdom in this passage, is that he has been deeply misunderstood and his words have been used to do immense harm and damage to women and slaves, and all minorities, by placing them in submission to men and slave-owners who were basically allowed to own them like a piece of property.

Chapters 5 and 6 of Ephesians contain what many scholars call “The Household Codes” because they entail Paul’s instructions on how the Christian household is supposed to operate.

These household codes go back even longer than Paul. In the ancient world, there was also a household code, which Aristotle talks about when he talks about how the world was arranged. Essentially, Aristotle wrote a book called “Politics,” by which he simply means the way society is governed. In the Roman world, the polis (the city) was the fundamental building block of the empire. And the family was one of the essential parts of the city. At that time, what they believed about the family and how you arranged and ordered the household was parents rank above their children, masters above their slaves, and husbands above their wives. Children, slaves and women were at the bottom of the hierarchy. They had essentially no power, no rights, no freedom. They almost were not human beings, they were more like property. Men, especially men with power and money, were the ones elected to office, given more power and money, and thereby ruled society and kept themselves in power.

So Paul, knowing this is how society operates, these are the people in power, decides to preach his own version of the Household codes, to tell the early Christians how the households should operate. But remember, the early Christian churches met in homes, they worshiped in one another’s houses, so Paul’s instructions are not to a single family unit like how the ancient world ran or even what we have today. Paul addresses everyone in the church, the whole church meeting at Peter’s house, the whole church meeting at Stephen’s house. Every member of the church is included in the household of God.

The revolutionary thing about Paul’s words to the Ephesians is that he addresses them not only to the men, not only to the ruling elites, not only to the slave owners, not only to the parents, he addresses them to all. Paul speaks to women, slaves and children. Paul speaks to those in the society who did not have a voice or decision-making ability and gives them a voice and gives makes of them decision-makers.

Can you imagine being in this Roman, patriarchal, misogynistic society sitting in church when you hear Paul’s words read aloud to you, “Wives submit to your husbands and husbands submit to your wives. Slaves obey your masters and masters do the same, stop threatening them.” This was revolutionary. Paul has given you, women, slaves, children, people without rights, people often abused and taken advantage of, Paul has given you power and equality and status in the kingdom of God. You are a beloved child of God and this new community of faith must treat you with respect.

And in fact, Paul actually addresses the marginalized people first. He first gives commands to the women, the slaves and children before he gives commands to the husbands, slave-owners and parents. Paul remembers Jesus’ words that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. All throughout Scripture people who are on the margins, oppressed, disenfranchised, they are given new life, they are given authority and status. God called Sarah as much as Abraham. Hagar, a slave and a woman, has a whole story written about her. Jesus told the disciples not to prevent the little children from coming to him. When the disciples flee after Jesus’ resurrection afraid for their lives, the women are the first to return to Jesus’ grave and find the stone rolled away. In the New Testament, women preach and start new churches. Paul writes a letter called Philemon urging him to take care of his slave Onesimus, welcome him, forgive his debts, be kind to him. In the community of God, everyone has a voice, everyone has a place and a position as an important member of the community and someone loved by God. It’s not only some who are called to submit, but everyone. We all submit to one another. We all listen to one another. We all obey God together as one church.


The problem is, we’ve failed to live into this kind of new world order. The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church state that more than three-fourths of the clergywomen and half of the laywomen had experienced sexual harassment in the Church (only a third of laymen had); the most commonly reported settings were church meetings and offices, and workplaces and social gatherings at seminary. It’s also true that across the country in all denominations, female ministers are paid only 75% of ministers who are male. Recently we’ve experienced the #metoo movement.

We are called to be a community of holiness, a set apart people, chosen before the foundation of the world, a royal priesthood. And yet we hear of Roman Catholic churches and priests who abuse and commit vile acts that destroy lives. We hear of fundamentalist churches who abuse and perpetrate acts of violence towards gay, lesbian and transgendered people. We hear of all kinds of clergy, including United Methodist, who commit physical or psychological sexual abuse toward other ministers or members of their churches.

We are called to model lives of mutuality. None of us is greater than the other. None above accountability. And none of us are lesser, less important or less in power. We are all called to practice mutual submission in love to one another.

Doesn’t matter if you serve on a committee, how much you give, what kind of job you have, how long you have been a member here. There is value in our differences and we should respect those in our community who have wisdom and insight to help us in our task to be the faithful Body of Christ, but they does not make any of us live outside of mutual submission.


We’ve failed at living into this new world order Paul has presented us with. We may think we’re doing alright and everyone is equal, feelings aren’t being hurt, but ask the people on the margins, ask the people who are hurt, ask the people who don’t have a voice. They might tell you a different story.

One of the ways we can begin to recover this new way of ordering relationships that Paul gives to us, is through one of our practices as the church. In worship we gather together as a body and we confess our sins before one another. Why? The language is always negative and makes us feel bad. It’s true we are created in the image of God, when God made us God called us “good.” But it’s also true that we’re sinners. Does the fact that our church is broken, so many relationships are broken, so many people have been hurt by us, does that not speak to how broken we are? And so we confess and ask for God’s grace.

When we had communion a couple of weeks ago, things were a little different and it’s going to take us some time to get used to it, but one of the reasons we do it like that is because before we can come to the Lord’s Table, we have to confess. We have to say “I’m sorry.” We have to recognize we stand in need of God’s grace. Everyone is invited to the Lord’s table, but everyone is invited who earnestly repent of their sins and seek to live in peace with one another. How can we come and receive the body and blood of Jesus if we do not intend to live in peace with one another? So we confess, our sins are forgiven and we exchange the peace of Christ whereby we establish reconciliation among the Body of Christ.

And then, having been reconciled to one another, we come to the Table where we are reconciled to God. We submit to one another and then we mutually submit to God, seek God’s will and attempt to live as the kind of community God has made us to be. The church.