It’s All About Relationships: Mutual Submission and Healthy Relationships

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Bible Passage:   Ephesians 5:21-6:9

Summary:   The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Ephesus “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).  Mutual submission is the key to heathy relationships–in marriage, with children, at work, with friends, and in church.  Mutual submission goes hand in hand with Martin Buber’s concept of “I-Thou” relationships, where both people’s needs, wants and feelings are taken into account, and where both have equal value and voice.  Healthy relationships are the fruit of growing into maturity in Christ. 

I believe that mutual submission is a big key to healthy relationships and also growing in maturity as Christians.   As we saw last week, some of the relationships that Paul addresses go beyond chapter 5 into chapter 6, which is our chapter for today and concludes our sermon series on Ephesians.

Now to get back to what I want to spend more time on:  relationships rooted in mutual submission, as Paul states in Ephesians 5:21.  “Submit yourself to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Paul has mutual submission in mind in the “household code” section of Ephesians 5:21-6:9, which addresses marriages, families, and master-servant relationships.

Mutual submission is not a one-way street, where only one party needs to submit, but a two way, a back and forth mutual commitment.

In the latest issue of Christianity Today, there’s an article by a professor named Murray Vasser called “Yes, Paul really did teach mutual submission:  why Wayne Grudem’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is theologically untenable.”

Wayne Grudem has had a lot of influence in Christian circles over the past several decades, and he holds the widely accepted view that the Greek word for submit, hypotasso, always implies one-way submission to someone in authority over them.

So those who are under authority should be subject to those who have authority over them, but not the other way around.

So in a marriage, he says that this requires a wife to submit to her husband, but the husband doesn’t need to submit to his wife.  In the church, women should submit to the authority of men, but men don’t have a responsibility to submit to women.

But Murray Vasser disagrees.  And he gives all these examples of quotes from early church leaders which show that hypotasso is overwhelmingly used to describe mutual submission.  He says:

 Vasser writes: 

I have examined every citation and allusion to Ephesians 5:21 prior to A.D. 500. I find no evidence that the Greek-speaking church was even aware of the some-to-others interpretation defended by Grudem. Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:21 are uniformly understood by the ancient Christians to require submission (not just to people in authority over them, but) to everyone in the community, regardless of rank…

I found Vasser’s research very convincing in support of mutual submission.  If you want to explore this in more detail, I recommend the article to you.

Friends, I believe that mutual submission is a big key to having healthy relationships: healthy marriages, healthy relationships with our children, healthy relationships at work, and healthy churches.

Throughout this series on Ephesians, we’ve seen this theme of growing in maturity in Christ.  And in Eugene Peterson’s book Practicing Resurrection,

He emphasized that maturity is not something that takes place in isolation, by ourselves.  No, by and large, it happens through relationships.

When I worked at Bluffton University, they put up a bench near one of the main walkways on campus.  It was a long, sturdy metal bench with the phrase “It’s all about relationships” cut out of the vertical slats on the back of the bench.

The phrase “It’s all about relationships” was the mantra of a beloved director of student life named Don Schweingruber, who believed that healthy relationships were the key to a healthy and flourishing university.

And Don modeled healthy relationships of mutual submission with everyone on campus—with every student, no matter their background, with every staff member that he supervised, all the way to the President of the university.

Unfortunately, I arrived at Bluffton just when Don was retiring, but I got to know him in the community over the years and he truly practiced what he preached.  I remember that whenever I talked to Don, he made me feel valued and appreciated and on the same level as him, as an equal.

Friends, it really is all about relationships.  It’s in relationships with others where what we believe is put into practice, it’s where we show our true colors, how mature we are in our faith.

Paul’s counsel to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ means that we see people as Jesus saw them, as beloved children of God, each created in the image of God.

And that we treat people as Jesus treated them, with respect, dignity, and compassion.  And by being serving them and being willing to live in mutual submission with them.

Eugene Peterson talks about the idea of “I and Thou” relationships that comes from the Austrian-Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, whose book I and Thou is all about how we as humans find meaning in life through relationships.

I know I’ve talked about Buber before, but I think it’s so important and relevant to healthy, mutual relationships that it’s worth bringing up again.

Buber makes a distinction between I-Thou relationships and I-It relationships. In I-it relationships, one person is the subject and the other is merely an object that the subject uses for his/her own benefit.  It can be dehumanizing and controlling, and unhealthy, and can lead to abusive relationships.

In contrast, Buber says that it’s only in an I-Thou relationship where authentic love and intimacy can be experienced.

In an I-Thou relationship, both people are subjects who have equal value and who equally contribute to the relationship.  The needs, wants and feelings of each person are taken into account.  Everyone’s voice is heard and no one is silenced.

Both people serve each other and can learn from one another.  Sounds a lot like mutual submission, doesn’t it?

I like the way that Peter Scazzero unpacks the differences between the two in his book, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship.

SLIDE- I-It/I-Thou chart 

 I-It Relationship  (one-way)              I-Thou Relationship  (mutual)

Distracted, goal-oriented                   Fully attentive, listening oriented

Others are objects                              Others are persons

Judgmental                                         Non-judgmental

Monologue, debate                            Dialogue, curiosity

Withhold myself, limited sharing       Offer myself, vulnerable

Closed, unwilling to learn/change     Open, willing to learn/change

Source:  Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, Peter Scazzero, p. 141

Scazzero sees this I-Thou model as a way of listening well and loving well.

I believe I-Thou relationships are a sign of healthy and mature relationships, both in our relationship with God as well as our relationships with other people.

In a marriage relationship, I -Thou relationships of mutual submission means that both spouses commit to listening to each other with the goal of understanding. And it means supporting one’s spouse in the things that matter to them that they are passionate about.

It also means being open to change and grow in new ways that help strengthen the relationship.  And it sometimes means being willing compromise so that both persons needs and wishes can be met.   .

Mutual submission can also be used in relationships with our children.     Obviously there are some things that parents need to have the final say on, as we take our children’s well-being in mind.

But one thing that we can practice mutuality with them is by involving them in making choices and decision-making from an early age.

My parents were pretty traditional in the parent-child hierarchy, but there were times when they took our wishes into account.  I vividly remember a time when I was in middle school, we had been living in California for about 8 years and really loving life there.

One night after dinner my dad gathered my mom and us 8 kids around the kitchen table and said “I’ve been offered a great job that I’d really like to take.  It’s in Port Huron, Michigan, right by Lake Huron.  How does that sound to you all?

There was a brief pause, and then all at once, all 8 of us kids belted out, “No, we don’t want to leave California!.  You can move to Michigan, but we’re staying here!”

And that settled it.  Even though our dad really wanted to take that job, he turned it down because he listened to what his children wanted.

What do I-Thou relationships of mutual submission look like at work?  I already mentioned Don Schweingruber, and I want to also share a few things from an article by Lee Snyder.

 Snyder is retired and currently living in Harrisonburg, VA.  She was the first woman academic dean at Eastern Mennonite University, and after that she became the first woman president of a Mennonite college, at Bluffton University.

Lee Snyder actually retired when Don retired, so I never got to serve with her.  But I remember meeting her when I first arrived on campus, right before she left Bluffton.

She was so encouraging and supportive, humble, and full of wisdom, and gave me a very warm welcome to the university.

I want to share a few quotes of Lee Snyder from the article- it’s called “Living with Power as Paradox”, from the October 2019 issue of Anabaptist World.

 Caring, honoring one another, celebrating—these are not usually qualities that come to mind when one describes the exercise of power, but I suspect they matter more in the life of organizations than we know.

 The power of showing up reminds us that a leader’s role is not all center stage.  Much of the work is paying attention, listening, supporting and honoring others by being present.

Leadership is not so much about power over as it is about empowering others.

The power of gratitude is transformative. How leaders express gratitude to God and to others and how they experience gratitude in the day-to-day can be an incalculable force for good in the health of an organization.

In Lee Snyder’s leadership, she saw people as I-Thou and practiced mutual submission.  And we are called to do the same in all of our relationships as well: our families, in our jobs, and here at Church.

When we do that, we can truly have healthy relationships that show reverence to each other and reverence to Christ, and demonstrate that we are growing in maturity as followers of Jesus.  Amen.