The "mutual submission" of Tim Keller, Peter Leithart, Bryan Chapell, and Matt Chandler...

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Are you weary of listening to wedding meditations filled with nostrums about mutuality in marriage, usually preached by men you thought were complementarian? Well, let me clue you in: the point of complementarinism is to reduce wifely submission to a husbandly and wifely submission popularly referred to as "mutual submission." And to help sell this palliative narcotic, it is made to appear to be coming from the mouth of the Apostle Paul. This so-called "mutual submission" has become the only submission Reformed celebrity pastors preach.

Putting as much distance as possible between himself and Mark Driscoll, Acts 29's Matt Chandler recently preached...

Everybody when they talk about husbands and wives wants to start in Ephesians 5:20 (sic) that reads, "Wives, submit to your husbands." Yet if you roll it back to verse 15 (sic), you have this idea of mutual submission before "Wives, submit to your husbands."

You have this guideline for Christian behavior before you ever get to "Wives, submit to your husbands." What he means by mutual submission is...

We don't come home and go, "This is what we're doing, woman."

No, no, mutual submission. ...Then, after mutual submission, it goes, "Wives, submit to your husband"...

Dr. Peter Leithart says much the same. Referring to a piece on the Trinity that had appeared in the Heythrop Journal, Dr. Leithart quotes the article's author, Brian Trainor, approvingly:

Jesus is not second to the Father in authority...

Again, Dr. Leithart writes:

[Trainor] cites Grudem's claim that "'supreme authority always belongs to the Father' and that the expression 'seated at the right hand of the Father' indicates that Jesus is second to God the Father in authority."

Leading to Dr. Leithart declaring:

That is alarming to say the least.

At the end of the piece, Dr. Leithart repeats Trainor's summary of Pope John Paul II's talk of mutual submission within the Trinity in which the Pope draws a parallel to marriage, saying mutual submission should characterize the relationship of husband and wife, also. Dr. Leithart tells us the Pope's parallel is "lovely":

Trainor summarizes a lovely passage from John Paul II who "insists on 'mutual subjection' or a kind of 'triple subjection,' that is, on the subjection of the wife to the husband as 'head' of the house, of the husband to the wife as the 'heart' of the home, and of both to Christ as their common Lord and Saviour."

In a wedding meditation, Dr. Leithart claims Ephesians 5:21 is simply the "beginning" of the Apostle Paul's "instructions on marriage":

It's often pointed out that Paul begins his instructions on marriage with the exhortation to mutual submission: "be subject to one another in the fear of Christ." That's true...

Similarly, in another wedding meditation he writes: Ephesians 5 [Paul] exhorts the Ephesians to submit to one another in the fear of Christ.  Husbandly headship without submission turns tyrannical; a wife who submits outside a setting of mutual submission will get trampled. ...A marriage of mutual submission is a marriage full of the Spirit.

In another wedding meditation, Dr. Leithart writes:

In the text I've just read (1Corinthians 7:3,4), Paul does talk about authority in marriage, but, perhaps surprisingly, talks about the mutual authority of husband and wife. [And Paul's] great typological treatment of marriage in Ephesians begins with the exhortation "Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ."

Despite the middle of this homily being a helpful explanation of our world's hatred for authority and a defense of authority, Dr. Leithart ends the homily:

Remember that by the vows you take today, you have both placed yourselves under authority – the authority of God, but also each under the authority of the other – for the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband; and the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife.

Of course it's true that, concerning bodies, the wife's body is under the authority of her husband and the husband's body is under the authority of his wife. In a day when Christian marriages and homes are being eaten alive by the use of pornography, we can't remind husbands and wives of this often enough. But sadly, Dr. Leithart doesn't call attention to the fact that this declaration of the wife's authority over her husband's body is the exception that proves the rule concerning authority in marriage. Rather, here as elsewhere, Dr. Leithart repeatedly returns to the "mutual authority" of mutual submission.

And he reads his commitment to mutual submission back into the relationship of the Three Persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Rehearsing a talk he heard by Dr. Russ Moore, back in 2004 Dr. Leithart wrote:

Moore dismissed the notion that the Persons of the Trinity are mutually submissive, but I think that's true. And I don't see that it undermines sexual complementarity...

Yet what did Jesus say?

So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” (John 8:28, 29)

And the Apostle Paul writes:

But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. (1Corinthians 11:3)

Also, the Apostle Paul speaks of the end of time, saying:

...then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. ...When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all. (1Corinthians 15:26, 28)

Nevertheless, Dr. Leithart prefers to speak of the Persons of the Triune God being "mutually submissive," while immediately assuring us that he can't see how such talk would "undermine sexual complementarity."

Our understanding of the economic order of the Trinity ought not to flow from our understanding of the order of marriage, but just the opposite. And here it's worth pointing out that egalitarian feminists still claiming to hold to Christian faith do consistently promote mutual submission in the Trinity. Any subordination of the Son to the Father other than a temporary one strictly limited to His time on earth is anathema to them. Which is to say of course the denial of our Lord's eternal subordination to His Father undermines the order of the sexes. One would not expect to have to make the case to Dr. Leithart that Trinitarian theology matters. But back to the mutual submission of man and woman...

Like Matt Chandler and Dr. Peter Leithart, Dr. Tim Keller and Bryan Chapell are fond of "mutual submission." In his sermon "The Submissive Wife" on Ephesians 5:21-33, Dr. Chapell says:

Now you have to remember that it is both the man and the woman by virtue of verse 21 that are to be in some form of submission to each other.

What then is "mutual submission?"

Mutual submission is the equivocation whereby the New Testament commands given to wives to submit to their husbands are defanged by preachers who claim those commands are to be subsumed under the larger and prevailing principle of what they call "mutual submission" taught by Ephesians 5:21: subject to one another in the fear of Christ.

Of course, it's ludicrous to claim Ephesians 5:21 teaches "mutual submission." Being subject "to one another" is no declaration of the authority of wives over their husbands or the duty of husbands to submit to their wives. The commands that follow Ephesians 5:21 make it clear who is to submit to whom, and how far that submission is to go:

But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:24)

Repeated often enough, the phrase "mutual submission" becomes the big lie that sheep come to accept as Gospel truth. Matt Chandler, Peter Leithart, Tim Keller, and Bryan Chapell are only placeholders for scads of men filling pulpits today: they scratch their congregants' itching ears and "mutual submission" is the tool for the job. It has become the ordering principle of the meaning of every verse of Scripture addressing manhood and womanhood. It's so universal that one wonders why the Apostle Paul never thought of it himself?

But you say he did think of it and Ephesians 5:21 is where all these men have gotten their inspiration?

No. Mutual submission is not taught by the Apostle Paul.

But as we deconstruct this lie, keep in mind that those who invented and promote "mutual submission" aren't stupid. One of the principal ways they get souls to swallow their drug is by telling their listeners that they believe in the authority of the husband. I know it appears crazy to say that these men undercut the authority of the husband by constantly saying they believe in the authority of the husband, but that's the way Biblical battles are fought. Men tell you they are safe; they reassure you, cuddle you, pat you on the head, and sing you lullabies while they put the bottle to your lips. And then you feel it coming: having imbibed their narcotic, you get all soft, warm, and fuzzy. Especially fuzzy.

If you look at Ephesians, you will note that Ephesians 5:21 is the introduction, not to Ephesians 5:22-33 dealing with wives submitting to their husbands, but rather Ephesians 5:22-33 dealing with wives submitting to their husbands along with Ephesians 6:1-4 dealing with children submitting to their parents along with Ephesians 6:5-9 dealing with slaves submitting to their masters. In other words, the Apostle Paul's opening gambit "submit to one another" is not the rubric within which the relationship of husbands and wives is to be viewed and understood, but rather the rubric within which each of the three primary relationships between authorities and their subordinates were to be viewed. So the reasonable question is whether Ephesians 5:21 is used by Chandler, Leithart, Chapell, and Keller to sell mutual submission in father-child and slave-master (or boss-employee) relations, also?

If these men really believed Ephesians 5:21 taught "mutual submission," they'd not stop their talk of "mutual submission" with the authority of husbands in marriage, but carry it on into the authority of fathers and mothers over their children and the authority of management and bosses over their employees. They would give sermons telling fathers and mothers that they have to submit to their children and they would give sermons telling management and bosses that they have to submit to their employees.

But of course, that's laughable, isn't it? These men don't trot out mutual submission anywhere other than wedding ceremonies. It goes down well there but it would be a hard sell using the phrase to undermine the authority of parents over their children or management over their employees. We're not quite that degenerate, yet.

So if you hear a preacher pandering to the egalitarian feminist rebellion by speaking of "mutual submission" in the next wedding ceremony you attend, during the reception pull the pastor aside, take out your Bible, and read Ephesians 5:21-6:9 to him—‚all the verses of the text following Ephesians 5:21. Then remind him generally of what he said about "mutual submission" during his wedding homily, pointing out to him that if mutual submission is the interpretive principle for what follows, it must be the interpretive principle for each of the three relations of authority/subordinate treated there by the Apostle Paul—not just one of those three relations, husband and wife.

Ask him if he really believes that parents should be told that their relationship with their children is one of mutual submission? That bosses or foremen should be told that their relationship with their employees is one of mutual submission? And if not, why did he use the phrase with the groom and his bride?

Share with him that, as he described it during the wedding homily, you can't believe there is any such thing as "mutual submission." That mutual submission sounds to you like the kind of rhetorical contraption an egalitarian feminist would design to undercut Adam's authority over Eve. 

Explain to him that "submit to one another" is the interpretive principle of the entire text having to do with husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves; that it's not simply the introduction of the Apostle "Paul's famous paragraph on marriage." Share with him that this is the error of many including Tim Keller in his book The Meaning of Marriage, in which he writes that "the introductory statement for Paul's famous paragraph on marriage in Ephesians is verse 21: 'Submit to one another in Christ.'"

Share with him that you believe Dr. Keller is terribly wrong. That it seems clear to you verse 21 is simply the acknowledgement by the Apostle Paul that every one of us lives under authority in different spheres of authority, and that in each of those spheres we should honor our Lord by submitting to those in authority over us—wives their husbands, children their parents, and slaves their masters.

Share with him that the authority of our Lord over His Church is not mutual, but completely one-sided, and thus it seems to you if it is absurd to speak of mutual submission between Christ and His bride, it's just as absurd to speak of mutual submission between a husband and his wife, a parent and his child, and a master and his slave.

And it would be blasphemy to bind God the Father and our Lord Jesus, His Only Begotten Son, to such a perverse human construct!

Then thank him for his time and wish him a good week.

But since it's a wedding and you've been talking during the reception, you might take the occasion to make one small request...

Share with him that there's one other thing on your mind you might as well get out of the way. Share with him that you've noticed he has removed the word 'obey' from the historic wedding liturgy handed down through the centuries, and would he think you impertinent if you were to ask him to return that little word to its proper place?

Share with him that there's a movement among Biblical Reformed pastors to return that little word 'obey' to the bride's vow in any marriage ceremony they officiate, and that you believe it would honor the Lord if he would join that confessional movement.

And as you turn away, assure him that you have great sympathy for the difficult position he finds himself in, what with all the angry mothers of the bride he would have beating him over the top of the head with purses and umbrellas...

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!