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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (8)

It’s That Man Again was the most successful British radio comedy of the WWII era. One of its more famous sketches featured a pair of handymen named Claude and Cecil who were so excessively deferential they never managed to get anything done. Cecil would say, “After you, Claude,” and Claude would reply, “After you, Cecil,” and that would pretty much be the end of that.

The writer of the Daily Reflection at The High Calling is having his own “Claude and Cecil” moment.

A Perfectly Sensible Question

He asks a perfectly sensible question:
How is it possible to submit or to follow the leadership of ‘one another’? Isn’t this a formula for chaos? Shouldn’t we have in the church (and family) those who lead and those who follow? How can we actually do what Ephesians 5:21 tells us to do?”
A “formula for chaos” indeed.

Ephesians 5:18-21 is a series of instructions to believers from the apostle Paul that begins with “Do not get drunk with wine” and ends with “… submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” On the basis of this verse and similar language found in the King James Version of 1 Peter 5:5*, modern Bible teachers advocate a concept referred to as “mutual submission”.

Claude and Cecil in Action

A few typical examples:
“In a community of believers, then, the principle of submission governs all relationships. Every individual submits to all others.”
— John MacArthur

“The honest truth is that the husband is also commanded by God to submit to the wife.”
— Jack Hyles

“The heart of the passage is about mutual submission — where both men and women are called to lay themselves down for the sake of another.”
— Mae Elise Cannon
MacArthur is the biggest name here, but the “Claude and Cecil” interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is increasingly the accepted reading in evangelical circles.

Conceptual Incoherence

You see the problem, don’t you? Mutual submission is impossible in practice. It cannot produce forward motion, any more than Claude and Cecil can get their day’s work done if neither one is willing to go through the door first. There are only three possible outcomes: (1) Claude will submit to Cecil and go through the door first; (2) Cecil will submit to Claude and go through the door first; or (3) both men will eventually get in their cars and go home frustrated by the intransigence of the other’s generosity.

Mutual submission looks like a nice idea, but it doesn’t work in the real world. Even when you “win” by out-submitting the other guy, you have just taken away his opportunity to be the Christ-like one. That doesn’t sound terribly Christian of you.

Naturally, advocates of mutual submission don’t really mean what they’re saying. They have watered down the concept of submission into a sort of virtue-signaling competition in which both parties repeatedly telegraph their willingness to do what the other party is suggesting until, out of willfulness, duty or sheer exhaustion, one party finally grabs the wheel and drives. There is nothing “mutual” about this. It is submission, plain and simple. The only differences are (1) the “mutual submission” pantomime involves a lot of time-wasting and huffing and puffing; and (2) chances are more than 50/50 that the least suitable candidate will ultimately make the decision.

Back to the Dictionary

This diluted, negotiation-based concept of submission put forward by MacArthur and others cannot be defended on the basis of New Testament usage. The Greek word hypotassō is used of the obedience of the Lord Jesus to his earthly parents. I guarantee Joseph and Mary were sometimes wrong, and I’m fully confident the young Messiah obeyed them anyway. Luke uses the same word to describe the subjection of demons to the disciples. Paul tells the Corinthians God has put all things under the feet of his Son. Same word. There is not a single instance of New Testament usage in which hypotassō describes a negotiation process.

There may be discussion about which is the best way to go, sure, but conversation has nothing to do with submission. Submission is a completely separate act; a choice that comes after all negotiation is over. Only one party in any negotiation ever winds up choosing to submit. There’s nothing “mutual” or democratic about that.

Submission vs. Humility

Further, the charade of relationship democracy can only be perpetuated by conflating submission with something else.

Some people conflate submission with service. That’s simply wrong. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He ministered to their needs as a servant. Lovely picture there. But should we argue that when he laid aside his garments and tied a towel around his waist, the Lord was submitting himself to the will of his disciples? Quite the opposite: Simon Peter twice makes ill-conceived suggestions which the Lord declines to follow.

So no. Submissive people often serve, but submission and service are not synonyms.

Likewise, John MacArthur conflates submission with humility, citing a series of verses instructing all Christians to be humble as if they prove his case in the matter of submission. They don’t.

Humility and submission are similar. They are not identical. Humility is an attitude while submission is an action. It is therefore possible to concede on one issue while maintaining a resentful, angry spirit determined to win next time out. That’s submission, but it’s not terribly humble. It is also possible to give direct commands to others in a spirit of humility. That’s humble, but it’s certainly not submissive.

And it’s not supposed to be. The concept of mutual submission is incoherent at its core. More importantly, I don’t think the Bible teaches it.

So how then should we understand Paul’s enigmatic statement in Ephesians 5?

An Illustration

When we come to a statement in scripture that looks confusing, it is useful to read on and see if the writer explains himself or expands on his thesis. Often he does.

The Lord does this in the Sermon on the Mount when he first declares “Do not resist the one who is evil,” and then goes on to illustrate the extent to which that statement applies (the Lord’s own actions show it does not apply universally). He gives three famous examples: turning the other cheek, going the extra mile and handing over your cloak to the man who sues you for your tunic.

All these situations involve humiliating but relatively minor impositions on one’s person, and they serve to establish reasonable limitations on the scope of what may initially be a confusing statement. They explain it for us. Without them, we might be tempted to import the “do not resist” command into areas of life in which we have an absolute moral obligation to resist. We might be tempted to use it as an excuse for cowardice, rather than a brake on our natural inclination to respond to abuse in kind.

If evil men are never to be resisted under any circumstances, then Paul was out of line to instruct Titus to rebuke the Cretans sharply or to silence “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers”, or to instruct the Corinthians to “Purge the evil person from among you.” Against whom were Jude’s original readers to “contend earnestly for the faith” if not against the evil “grumblers, malcontents and loud-mouthed boasters” he so eloquently describes?

The scope of the Lord’s original declaration is limited by the statements that follow it.

Statement and Explanation

The same thing is happening in Ephesians: an overarching general statement, immediately followed by three illustrations of the sort of thing Paul means by it. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord,” he continues; then, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right,” and finally, “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ.” These examples qualify and explain the original statement.

Paul is not saying that every believer should submit to every other believer. He is setting forth the general principle that Christians should be characterized by submissiveness. Every single one of us should be submissive in the relationships in his or her life that call for it. There are no exceptions. Then, after establishing the basic principle, Paul goes on to spell out which of our Christian relationships call for submission (wife, child, bond-servant); and along with that, what sort of attitudes and actions should characterize those of us who are not called to submit at this particular moment, but instead to bear the responsibility of leading (husband, parent, master).

And every believer IS bound to be called to submit to his fellow believers at one point or another, just as every believer will inevitably be called upon to lead in one or another of his or her interactions with believers. Just not at the same time or within the same Christian relationship. The Christian wife of a Christian slave was called to submit to her husband, but her husband in turn was called to submit to his earthly master. If they had a believing male child like Timothy, he would be called to submit to his mother.

A Formula for Chaos

If Paul had been genuinely teaching mutual submission, he could have made his point explicit by using precisely the same verbal formulation for husbands as wives, slaves as masters and children as parents. He didn’t, and that means something.

At one point in time, every Christian finds himself in a situation in which he is to submit, and thus Paul can say that “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” is appropriate conduct among believers. At another point in time and in a different “role pair”, he or she is just as likely to be the one giving instruction and being obeyed.

The alternative is Claude and Cecil, and that’s just nonsense. It is absolutely a formula for chaos, and the modern church is living that chaos out right now.

A careful reading of the passage makes all that unnecessary.

*  The King James Version of 1 Peter 5:5 reads, “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility.” The Textus Receptus (TR) is the only Greek text tradition in which we find the words “be subject to one another”. They are absent from the Morphological Greek New Testament (MGNT), which is a composite of manuscripts thought by some scholars to be older and more reliable. No modern translations include “be subject to one another”.

1 comment :

  1. A very good analysis of this portion of Scripture. Even in industry or education we often state a principle or premise and then expand it to give the details of how it is fleshed out.