Ephesians 5:21 – The Muck-up

“Why do so many people concentrate on Ephesians 5:22-23 and skip over Ephesians 5:21?” – asks Christian marriage blogger Sheila Wray Gregoire, in response to this Pinterest post.


Interesting question.  First, it’s not really a question, it’s a statement of assumption veiled as a question.

Second, I don’t think it’s a matter of, “so many people […] skipping over ….”   I think it’s a matter of Bible exegesis.  Some people (like Darrell and I) interpret the marriage paradigm as a complementarian, believing that verse 21 is a concluding sentence for Ephesians 5:1-20.  They’re not ‘skipping over it’ from ignorance or even fear, they simply believe it’s not part of the instruction to wives and husbands.  Others, that interpret marriage from the egalitarian paradigm, believe that verse 21 is a topic sentence for Ephesians 5:21-33.

Complementarian or Egalitarian?

It’s an important question that’ll make a big difference in your marriage:  Are you a complementarian or an egalitarian?

In simple terms, complementarians favour specific gender roles for husbands and wives, each with their own power and purpose.  Sometimes it’s referred to as Biblical hierarchy, bridal paradigm, or Christ’s bride/body.  While, egalitarians favour interchangeability of power and gender roles because they don’t define a leader; but also favouring a designated role split. It’s referred to as equality, mutual submission, or 50/50.

To be fair, the Bible doesn’t refer to either classification – we call them these names to differentiate between the two schools of thought.  Complementarians interpret verse 21 to be the conclusion of corporate instruction.  Egalitarians interpret verse 21 to be the preface for the marriage instructions.

The quick response to Sheila’s statement is:  Verse 21 has nothing to do with marriage and everything to do with the corporate body.  By hinging these two sections of Scripture on one verse, you not only blurr marriage into other relationships – lowering its significance, but, you also complicate submission into a dysfunctional mess.

A slower, researched response, is more involved …


It’s repetitive and confusing to say:  “everyone submit to everyone wives submit to your own husbands,” see, it makes no sense.  In all of the thought for thought translations (modern versions), you’ll see verse 21 driven into to the next paragraph so it joins the marriage part.  To make it happen they’ve replaced the colon, semicolon, or comma with a period so that the section will complete with verse 20.  Yet in the word for word translations, (KJV, NASB) you’ll find the punctuation left intact making verse 21 the concluding sentence for the previous section.


In verse 21, Paul is concluding his general address that targets everyone in the assembly.  We know it’s a corporate address to a body (a group) of believers because he doesn’t name a subject by a noun, instead he uses pronouns in the plural form:

  • (v2) us – “… has loved us and given Himself for us …”
  • (v3) you – “…let it not even be named among you …”
  • (v5) you – “…For this you know…”
  • (v6) no one, you – “let no one deceive you with empty…”
  • (v8) you – “… For you were …”
  • (v14) you – “… Awake you who … will give you light…”
  • (v15) you – “… that you walk circumspectly …”
  • (v19) one another, your – “… to one another… in your heart…”
  • (v20) our – “…in the name of our Lord …”
  • (v21) one another – “…submitting to one another …”

Paul includes verse 21 with all the preceding plural pronouns

But in verse 22, he changes up his target audience. Notice how he signifies his change?  He’s not speaking corporately any more.  He’s not using plural pronouns anymore.  He could’ve said something like, “Now, all you who are married … “  Or, “Those of you who are married…”  Or even, “Any of you who are spouses …”  But he didn’t.

Instead, he distinguishes those who are married by calling them out separately from everyone as well as individually … he speaks directly to wives then directly to husbands:

  • (vs 22-24) Wives, submit to your own husbands …
  • (vs 25-32) Husbands, love your wives, …

Then in verse 33 he wraps up his instruction to all those who are married using a concluding sentence.  He signifies switching back to plural, but not everyone only corporately to those married.  He’s capturing the attention of, every husband and every wife, Each one of you in particular:

  • Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Paul makes special delineation for marriage, above the instructions for everyone else.  I think he wants us to know that the relationship rules that apply to everybody, similarly apply to marriage; however, there’s extra weight when you get married.  The aspects of love and submission he’s been talking about up to verse 21, that apply to everyone …  are now going to change.  Love and submission look different in marriage.


  • Prove it to yourself.  Let your own marriage be the litmus test, not what I say or what others say.  Yes, take in information – but see if it brings unity.  Find what brings the peace of Christ, the peace that you cannot comprehend or understand … even though you’re experiencing it.  Ultimately, that’s the light you want the world to see.


  1. Hi Robyn,
    This article is very timely for me, as I was just discussing this verse with a friend last night. Well, truth be told, debating 😉
    She was saying that “submit to one another” applies to husbands and wives as brothers and sisters in Christ, and therefore there will be times a wife submits to her husband. I disagreed.

    “Some people (like Darrell and I) interpret the marriage paradigm as a complementarian, believing that verse 21 is a concluding sentence for Ephesians 5:1-20. They’re not ‘skipping over it’ from ignorance or even fear, they simply believe it’s not part of the instruction to wives and husbands. Others, that interpret marriage from the egalitarian paradigm, believe that verse 21 is a topic sentence for Ephesians 5:21-33.”

    What you wrote here is interesting to me, because I actually interpret verse 21 as being a linking sentence between the passage on corporate instructions and specific situational instructions. I’ve always seen it as a kind of “heading” verse, which Paul then goes into more detail applying it to husbands and wives, children and parents, slaves and masters.

    After my discussion with my friend, I pulled out my copy of God’s Good Design (Claire Smith) to find out what has been written there about this verse.
    I’ll just share that whole section (if you don’t mind?):

    The second common objection [to wifely submission] concerns Paul’s command to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v.21). This view claims that the real meaning of these instructions to husbands and wives is one of mutual submission where the wife is to submit to the husband and the husband is to submit to the wife.
    But there are several problems with this mutual submission idea, not least of which is that the plain meaning of the subsequent verses goes against it: Christ does not submit to the church, neither are parents to submit to their children or masters to their slaves (cf. Eph 6:1-7; Col 3:18-22). These are non-reversible ordered relationships, as is the marriage relationship. Certainly, selfless love is a common mark of being filled by the Spirit (cf. Eph 4:2-3), but it exists alongside of (not to the exclusion of) responsibilities of submission and authority in specific relationships. Besides, nowhere are husbands told to submit to their wives, and submission language (hupotasso/hupotage) is uniformly used in the New Testament for asymmetrical relationships.
    So 5:21 is not promoting the idea of mutual submission.
    Rather, it functions as a heading or summary that introduces the idea of submission, and the following verses then explain how this submission is to be worked out in three pairs or household relationships.

    1. @seriouslyserving, hiya

      “But there are several problems with this mutual submission idea, […] These are non-reversible ordered relationships, as is the marriage relationship.”

      Yes exactly. My next section includes a paragraph on ‘swapping out power’ within God’s hierarchy – it doesn’t happen.

  2. Well done, Robyn!

    I actually have more to add but I’m sweaty and haven’t had my coffee yet. Stay tuned.

    Just wanted to take a minute to complement you on this post.

  3. Okay, there is another, more obvious problem with those who harp on Ephesians 5:21 as evidence that there is no basis for hierarchal marriage. This conclusion demands that the reader/teacher blatantly ignore 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Peter 3, and Colossians 3. All of these verses make it very clear that the husband is the head of the wife and that she is to submit to him s unto the Lord.

    That said, even if all we have to go on in Ephesians 5 (which we don’t), the only way you could come away with Ephesians 5:21 as instructive on marriage is to label Scripture vague and contradictory in a way that insults The Writer.

    1. @Els, these are great points. The mental gymnastics that one has to do, in order to deadened the truth, is astounding.

      Honestly, having walked in those destructive anti-submission shoes … I do feel compassion for the blindness. But sometimes I just get down right mad at the deception of it all.

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