“Mutual Submission” between Husbands and Wives in Ephesians 5?
Since the promulgation of St. John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem in 1988, Catholics often speak of a “mutual submission” between husbands and wives. Proponents of the idea of mutual submission between spouses, including John Paul himself and Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, often cite Ephesians chapter 5, and particularly verse 21—“submitting to one another out of the fear of Christ”—as the basis for their teaching. Located as it is between general exhortations on Christian living and specific instructions for relationships within families, this verse is read as teaching an attitude of service and mutual regard among Christians, an attitude which would be especially appropriate among spouses who possess an equal dignity and an equal share in the salvation won by Christ (cf. Gal. 3:28). While some claim that John Paul II intends to leave in place the traditional doctrine of male headship in marriage and others claim he has moved beyond this teaching, few have examined the exegetical foundation upon which this teaching is based. Does Ephesians 5 teach mutual submission among spouses? As plausible as this reading is on a superficial level, it is almost certainly wrong, for a number of reasons.