Exegetical Notes on Ephesians (4)- (5:21)

“submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21)

Bruce interprets this call of ‘submitting’ as mutual submission which probably come from the understanding that this submission is done to’ one another.’[1] This is done out of reverence to Christ where he has set the example for believers to follow suit taking the example of Phil. 2:3-8.[2] Talbert locates Eph. 5:21 away from the proceeding verses (5:22-6:9) that speak about household codes. He notes that contemporary scholars, particularly feminist scholars find difficulty to understand the concept of submission. Aligning 5:21 to 5:22-6:9 might be problematic. One example is that, the understanding of mutual submission runs counter when this connection is sought. Basically Talbert wants to locate 5:21 together with 4:17 and onwards which focus more on worship.[3] Thus, he comments that “one may conclude that Eph. 5:21 goes with what precedes it…and that Eph. 5:21 does not teach mutual submission.”[4]

But others have differing views concerning this. O’Brian states that the verb rendered on ‘submit’ here in the Greek denotes the meaning ‘arrange under’ which he explains as “submission to someone in an ordered array to another person who was above the first in some way, for example, the submissions of soldiers in an army to those of superior rank. The term appears some twenty-three times in the Pauline corpus and has to do with order.”[5] Following O’ Brian’s comments concerning the understanding of ‘submission’ in this particular verse there are two opposing views concerning what is meant. The first view carries with it the understanding of mutual submission taking the phrase ‘to each other’ as the controlling understanding that rules the understanding of mutual submission.[6]

But according to O’Brian, if one takes the context, semantics and syntax captured in the flow of Paul’s explanation the above view is weak. The first counter argument is that the relationships mention following v.21 does not offer reversal of understanding concerning submission in the mutual sense.[7] Second, the pronoun ‘one another’ has to be taken in the context of the explanation given by Paul. This is explained further by O’Brian, that in “the present context, then, given that ‘submit’ is one-directional in its reference to submission to authority, and that the pronoun does not always indicate a symmetrical relationship, it is preferable to understand the clause ‘submitting to one another’ to refer to submission to appropriate authorities, not mutual submission.”[8]

The third counter argument has to do with the “flow of the argument” where the statement made in v.21 becomes the title of introduction that introduces the topic of submission in the context rendered in the following verses. Probable arguments against the notion of submission might be the modern understanding that influences the meaning when we read and understand it now. This should not be read in our eyes but the context in which readers of the time would have understood it. O’Brian states that, what “submitting to one another means is spelled out in the household table, with its ordered array in society. And submitting to one another is significant outworking of being filled by the Spirit.”[9] Here the preceding informs a proper response which is submission. Thus, following O’Brian, v.21 should be used to understand the proceeding texts or rather the highlight introducing the following verses.

O’Brian contends that translations have watered down ‘the fear of the Christ’ and rendered it to ‘reverence’ or ‘respect’. ‘Fear’ according to O’Brian is still the best translation that captures the meaning which denotes awe at the midst of Jesus coming to judge us in the coming age. O’Brian further argues that the “motive of the fear of God is prominent in the Old Testament, especially as the appropriate response to his mighty acts.”[10]


[1] Bruce, F.F. The Epistles to the Collosians to Philemon and to the Ephesians.,p.382

[2] Ibid

[3] Talbert, Charles H. Ephesians and Colossians. p.130-132

[4] Ibid.,p.132

[5] O’Brian, Peter. The Letters to the Ephesians. p.399

[6] Ibid.,p.400-401

[7] Ibid.,p.402

[8] Ibid.,p.403

[9] Ibid.,p.404

[10] Ibid.

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