In the NT, . . . . When a person is called to submit, submission is always voluntary . . . . The middle sense of hupotassomai meaning “voluntary submission” is found in several NT texts, e.g., Rom 13:1 (“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities”), 1 Cor 16:16 (“submit to such as these”), and Eph 5:21 (“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”).
It seems to me that the theme of Ephesians 5:15-6:9 is daily conduct of the Christian life. Paul specifically enjoins the readers in 5:15 to “take care how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.” Rather than singing the songs of drunkenness (v. 18), Christians should sing decidedly Christian songs that underscore and encourage the Christian walk (v. 19), continue with a daily prayer life (v. 20), and show mutual deference (“voluntary submission”) to one another (v. 21).
The appeal in v. 22, then, is for wives to demonstrate “voluntary submission/mutual deference” to their husbands. The way husbands show “voluntary submission/mutual deference” is by loving their wives. In a reciprocal relationship, a Christian couple can “walk wisely.”
Similarly, the way children demonstrate “voluntary submission/mutual deference to their parents is by obeying them. Parents demonstrate this attitude by helping their children to mature through responsible instruction and upbringing. In this reciprocal relationship, Christian families can “walk wisely.”
Too, the way Christian slaves demonstrate “voluntary submission/mutual deference” to their masters is through obedience and diligent work. The way masters demonstrate this “voluntary submission/mutual deference” is by avoiding threatening, domineering behavior. In this reciprocal relationship, Christians can “walk wisely” in the culture of slavery in operation at the time.
In this sense, “mutual submission” in v. 21 is urged of all Christians . . . . This is certainly in line with the teaching throughout the NT that Christians are to submit to one another”—Matt 20:26-28; Phil 2:3; 1 Pet 5:4-5. . . .
This author concludes that in Eph 5:21-24 Paul calls for a mutual submission, a voluntary deference for all Christians, whatever their roles in life. It is vital to understand that neither Paul nor Jesus before him called for the radical overthrow of hierarchalism. Both had ideals along egalitarian lines, yet both worked within cultural systems of the day—whether regarding slavery or gender roles—and taught Christians to “walk wisely” given certain cultural constraints. Paul’s admonition for mutual submission is still valid for twenty-first century Christians.
- Do Christian slave masters facilitate the voluntary submission of their slaves when they treat their slaves as the masters would want to be treated (Eph 6:5-9)? Does this Christian practice contribute to undermining the view that slaves were the property of their masters?
- Do parents facilitate the voluntary submission of their children when they lovingly teach them the ways of the Lord? (Eph 6:1-4). Does this Christian practice contribute to undermining the view of children as the property of their parents?
- Do husbands facilitate the voluntary submission of wives when they love their wives and give themselves for their wives? (Eph 5:22-33). Does this Christian practice contribute to undermining the view of wives as the property of their husbands?