Ephesians 5:21 poses a conundrum: Paul commends Spirit-filled Christians for "submitting to one another." Isolate the verse from its context, and it almost sounds as if the Apostle teaches a kind of mutual, universal submission, without regard to any structured leadership, hierarchy, or chain of command—as if he means to declare all authority void.
But in the very next verse, Paul expressly commands wives to be subject to their husbands (v. 22). Half a chapter later, he commands children to obey their parents (6:1) and slaves to obey their masters (6:5). Those injunctions aren't followed by calls for reciprocal submission. Instead, husbands are commanded to love their wives, fathers are forbidden to provoke their children, and masters are urged to treat their slaves with Christlike generosity, goodwill, and respect. In other words, Ephesians 5:21 introduces a long passage that is all about how people under authority should respond to those in authority and vice versa. The Apostle Paul, plainly, was no egalitarian.
The true meaning of the text, as always, is seen by looking at the context. The theme of this extended section of the epistle is love: "Walk in love, as Christ loved us" (v. 2).
The dominant chord that ties all the practical admonitions of Ephesians 4–5 together is the self-sacrificial nature of authentic, Christlike love. The theme is introduced in 3:17, where Paul prays that the Ephesians would be "rooted and grounded in love." From there through the end of chapter 5, the word love appears nine times. Every time Paul riffs on a related theme, he returns to the tonic note for resolution: "Walk in love."
Specifically, he portrays love as service and sacrifice. He starts by highlighting virtues like "humility and gentleness, with patience [and forbearance]" (4:2). He calls the church to pursue unity and live in harmony (vv. 3–6). He reminds the church of God's love embodied in Christ and challenges her to use the many gifts Christ has given her "so that [the body] builds itself up in love" (vv. 7–16). He then gives Christians a series of admonitions about practical holiness and gracious speech, culminating in this: "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (v. 32).
Chapter 5 turns to the subjects of sexual purity, chaste speech, and holy wisdom (vv. 3–17). Love remains the theme, but this subsection debunks several expressions of counterfeit love: fornication, covetousness, and any brand of carnal camaraderie where bawdy conversation is the main glue binding the brotherhood together.
The apex of the entire section is the famous command to be filled with the Spirit. Paul names three specific traits that epitomize the Spirit-filled life. All of them are practical expressions of love: 1) joyful praise; 2) constant thanksgiving; and 3) deferential humility.
There is Ephesians 5:21 in context. Clearly, Paul has no agenda to eliminate authority or headship in the home, church, or any other realm of human relationships. He is simply telling the Ephesians how to imitate Christ's love.
Human love is on display at its best and brightest in the humiliation of Christ, who "made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant," then further sacrificed His own interests "to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6–8). His voluntary submission did not diminish (much less void) the truth that He is Lord of all. Indeed, it eternally and unshakably established His authority. It is the very ground on which "God has highly exalted him" (vv. 9–11).
Moreover, Scripture everywhere teaches us to have the same mind: "Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (v. 3). "Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble'" (1 Peter 5:5). "Be subject to . . . every fellow worker and laborer" (1 Cor. 16:16). "Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor" (Rom. 12:10).
In Jesus' own words: "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you" (John 13:14–15). Scripture does indeed call every believer to have a servant's heart and a humble self-image.
Ephesians 5:21 is simply an echo of that principle. It compels us to prefer one another in honor and service. It is not a call for a domestic or ecclesiastical egalitarianism that renders the very idea of headship and submission null and void. If Paul had wanted to make such a statement, Ephesians 5–6 would have been the place to say so plainly. Instead he says the opposite, recognizing the divinely ordained place of headship and submission in marriage and across the spectrum of human relationships.
Are Christians in positions of authority exempt from the command to value others more highly than self? By no means. Christ Himself addressed that question: "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25–28).
Here's a simple guideline: When there is an opportunity to render service or give honor, the godly person will defer to others. Those who would lead should act as servants.
But when an issue involving authority arises, we all must submit to those whom God has placed over us. That's what true, Christlike love demands.