How would “Submit to one another” (Eph 5:21) look in real life? Should pastor Jim and elder Pete and saved 10-year old Eric obey Sunday School teacher Jane, while Sunday school teacher Jane obey pastor Jim, and Pete and Eric too, while Pete also obey Jim and Eric and they obey him, while Eric and pastor Jim obey one another? And what if Pete and Jane give conflicting messages – who should pastor Jim submit to then?
It is obvious that submitting, in Bible language, does not mean obeying everything that other people say. It could not mean putting the other one in a hierarchy where he has the right to lord it over you, because Jesus said that those who want to be great in his kingdom has to be servants, and his followers should not be like the worldly kings who “exercise authority”.
As such, submitting as to Christ (Eph 5:22) simply cannot not mean “obeying every order as you obey the orders of Christ.” If it did, Paul would have contradicted both Jesus, and his own train of thought, in Eph 5.
Here is what I think it could mean.
What submission to Jesus is like:
Jesus came to earth as a human, and people (some of them, at least), submitted and followed him when they saw that Jesus
a) is superior in power and wisdom
b) had their best interest at heart/ loved them and gave His life to save them.
What male/ female relations in the ANE was like:
In the world the New Testament was written to, women had less opportunies to learn, and less opportunities to earn money, than men. Men married at about age 25 to 30 after they were established financially, women as teens. As such, men were richer and knew more than their wives.
What submitting as to Christ would mean, to such a wife:
When your husband knows better and asks something out of love, co-operate. It is sensible to co-operate with love, wisdom and power, and foolish to go against it.
After such a statement to wives, the passage seems to be written from the assumption that the husband already have knowledge and power (two things Jesus have more of than us). The passage tells husbands to have the other thing Jesus have in abundance, love. The husband should love his wife as much as his own body, that places her needs as highly as those of himself.
The start of submitting to Christ is seeing what Christ is. The start of submitting as to Christ should then be seeing Christ in who she is asked to submit to.
(In today’s Western world, of course, the situation is not as unequal, and women are as likely as men to have more knowledge and not that unlikely to have power or money. Which means that husbands, too, will often be wise to submit as to Christ.)