In an older article from 2007, John Piper preached a sermon called Lionhearted and Lamblike: The Christian Husband as Head, Part 1 (manuscript here).
In this sermon John Piper gives a prime example of the utter incoherence of the doctrine of mutual submission. After quoting Ephesians 5:22-25, he says:
Husbands are compared to Christ; wives are compared to the church. Husbands are compared to the head; wives are compared to the body. Husbands are commanded to love as Christ loved; wives are commanded to submit as the church is to submit to Christ.
This is all true. Having said that, John Piper proceeds to say he is surprised that so many people don’t see this, and are instead hyper-focused on mutual submission to the exclusion of what distinguishes the duties of husbands and wives.
It is astonishing how many people do not see this when they deal with this passage. Or, seeing it, neglect it. I have in mind those who would be called egalitarians—the ones who reject the idea that men are called to be leaders in the home. They put all the emphasis on verse 21 and the teaching of mutual submission. (…) But the problem is that egalitarians seem to stop with mutual submission, as if that were all one needed to say about roles in marriage, or as if that is all that the text has to say. And when they stop there, most people today are left with great ambiguity and great confusion about the proper roles of husband and wife. Once you clarify for people that a husband and a wife should be mutually humble, and mutually ready to serve each other, and mutually eager to meet each other’s needs and build each other up—once you have said all that, there remains a great uncertainty as to what, if anything, distinguishes the role of husband and wife. Is it only the biological gift of childbearing that distinguishes the roles? Or is there something more pervasive?
Yet even in this sermon, John Piper produces the very incoherence that leads to this great confusion about marital roles.
Husbands and wives who are filled with the Holy Spirit serve one another. They humble themselves and get down low to lift the other up. They find ways to submit their immediate preferences for comfort to the need of the other. Amen to that! May it happen more and more. I have no desire to minimize the mutuality of submission and servanthood.
Here we have Piper sneaking in a definition of submission without being direct about it. He says husbands and wives find ways to “submit” their preferences for each other’s needs. By submit, he clearly means “sacrifice”, which is not the same word and does not mean the same thing. But, having misused the word submit, he then proceeds to call it mutual submission. But when it came time to define what submission actually means, Piper said:
Submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.*
That’s not what submission is, but even assuming for the moment that it is, what happened to the definition he gave before? Is submission a call to wives to honor and affirm etc., or is it both wives AND husbands sacrificing preferences for each other’s needs? It can’t be both, especially if the roles of husbands and wives are not reversible:
One of the things that are crystal clear in Ephesians 5 is that the roles of husband and wife in marriage are not arbitrarily assigned and they are not reversible any more than the role of Christ and the church are reversible. The roles of husband and wife are rooted in the distinctive roles of Christ and his church.
He’s right. But, if submission in marriage is to be performed exclusively by the wife toward her husband, then it cannot be “mutual”. This would be a good time for Piper to have exhorted his audience to simply do away with this concept of submission being mutual. After all, it’s not mutual, it can’t flow in both directions, etc. Instead he thinks a call to mutual submission is good, but insufficient.
What we need to hear from this text today is not just a call to mutual submission that leaves young men groping for what it means to be a husband and young women groping for what it means to be a wife. What we need to hear is what headship and submission mean. What are the positive, practical implications of being called head that give man his distinct role in marriage?
Headship means authority. Submission means obedience. Done. See how easy that was? While Piper spent a great deal of his time bemoaning the plight of men and women struggling to understand what these terms mean, I’ve solved it fewer than ten words.
The reason Piper can’t be clear and direct is because this is what complementarian preaching is all about. You can say you want to be clear and direct, but the primary goal is to be anything but those two things. That’s the purpose of having a term like “mutual submission” in the first place. It’s incoherent and unhelpful, but what is a problem for the church in general is the selling point for complementarians.
*You can also find this definition of submission in the video at 37:19.