The fact that submission has become something of a dirty word in relation to our modern sensibilities has much to do with Western culture’s increasingly post-postmodern rejection of authority. Anxiety about authority and submission has even crept into the church.
In fact, all of the brokenness, injustice, and discord in the world is a result of sinners’ rejecting God’s good design for authority and submission. Indeed, the Scriptures reveal that God has embedded a dynamic of authority and submission into the creation order itself. There is, of course, the sovereign God’s authority over all His creation. But there is also a structure of authority and submission endowed by God in the fabric of nature, the family, the church, and even society. Rightly ordered and administered, this structure nourishes us and glorifies God.
This is just as true in the “mutual submission” that followers of Jesus are commanded to practice in the life of the church. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:18–21:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
The contrast is that of one who is intoxicated by alcohol, which only exacerbates our inner self-centeredness and makes us more vulnerable to the indulgences of the flesh, and one who is “filled with the Spirit,” which results not in a self-focus but in a concern for the building up of the brethren. But in an individualistic age and in churches still riddled with sinners, what does mutual submission look like?
Paul is not advocating a kind of democratic utopianism. The admonition to mutual submission does not eradicate the order, for instance, that involves male eldership in the church or male headship in the home.
Similarly, mutual submission does not mean there are no authority structures in the church. In fact, one way we submit to one another “out of reverence for Christ” is by submitting to the structure Christ’s headship of the church mandates. We honor Jesus by honoring the ecclesiological blueprints He’s given us (see Heb. 13:17).
Paul has in mind that we submit in a way that honors Christ as Lord, and this precludes some kind of religious free-for-all that makes Christ’s body look disordered or chaotic.