Transforming Abuse through Mutual Submission (Eph 5:18b-21)

Transforming Abuse through Mutual Submission (Eph 5:18b-21)

Consider a basic revenge flick such as “Taken,” or “The Revenant.” These movies often begin with a shocking injustice — the murder or abduction of a child, for example. The body of the film is then dedicated to the protagonist’s struggle to balance the scales of justice, so to speak, by chasing, outwitting, outmaneuvering, etc.,  the “bad guys” and finally taking sweet revenge. Twists and turns occur along the way, but classic revenge flicks often make us question the logic behind the violence portrayed on screen. Don’t get me wrong, injustice demands a response, and it should always make us upset. However, most revenge stories end in a spectacle of bloodletting, but the sacrifice leaves us unfulfilled, unconvinced that the cycle of abuse is truly ended. If revenge fails to transform injustice, how else might we respond, what kind of response does justice demands?

In many ways, chapter four and five of Ephesians address the above question, describing a better kind of response to “the darkness of injustice.” At the end of chapter four, the reader is first urged to avoid certain activities: “don’t engage in lustful greed” (4:19), for example. And then, in chapter five, there is a call to expose the harm: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (5:11-12). The author repeats these two imperatives — abstain and expose — along with a third: the author calls the reader to pursue change by transforming relationships defined by greed and abuse. We read,

“Instead, be filled with the Spirit,

  • 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,
  • 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • 21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:18b-21)

Although speech, song, and thanksgiving are important factors in transformation, I will focus on the third command, one whose dutiful terminology makes us squeamish: submit to one another. The term is even stranger if you consider how it’s used in our text. Think about it, if we all submit to each other, in a conventional sense, nothing would ever get done. Understanding mutual submission in Ephesians, therefore, requires expanding how we think about what it means to submit. For this reason, I want to push our understanding of this concept and see how mutual submission might be capable of transforming our relationships.

Before exploring our examples it important to stress that nothing said below should suggest for a moment that those experiencing abuse ought to submit to their abusers or let the harm continue. On the contrary, before pursuing transformation the author calls us to expose the darkness, naming the abusive relationship for what it is and putting a stop to injury. Addressing the fundamental issues behind abuse, however, demands more. Such a solution often requires a long, arduous journey of recovery.

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