Ephesians 5:21–6:9 – Submit to One Another

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for herto make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

Fathers do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (New International Version)

Submission – the word itself may stir a less than positive reaction within us.

For many people, submission implies someone else is going to have authority over me – and they might not like that. To submit to another person smacks of being forced into something we don’t want, like some mixed-martial-arts submission hold where the other person taps out.

It doesn’t help when many people have past experiences in which individuals in authority neither liked them nor treated them with respect. Their visceral reaction to the word “submit” is very raw and real.

Biblically, within the first pages of Genesis, the disobedience of Adam and Eve resulted not only in a separation between God and people, but also between man and woman. The Fall had terrible consequences for them. The entire world now lives under a curse. Relations between the sexes, because of the Fall and the curse, are twisted.

To the woman, God said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16, NIV)

The phrase “your desire will be for your husband” is a Hebrew idiom (a metaphorical phrase with a special meaning). This refers to women’s urge for independence from men. 

“He will rule over you” is also a Hebrew idiom, referring to man putting woman “under his thumb” (an American idiom). 

Women, in their fallen state, work to be independent from men. They diligently try and function without them. 

Men, in their fallen state, bring a “heavy hand” (another American idiom) to women by insisting on always “calling the shots” (yet another idiom) and dismissing females as if what she has to say or think doesn’t matter, or at least doesn’t “carry much weight” (idiom again!) as a man’s words do.

The way gender relations, in the Christian tradition, are supposed to happen is based in who God is:

  • The Son (Jesus) submits to the Father by placing himself under authority. The Father, in turn, lifts up the Son to share in reigning with him in the kingdom of God.
  • The Church submits to Christ, and Christ, in turn, lifts up the Church so that she reigns with him in the kingdom of God.
  • The wife submits to husband, and he, in turn, lifts her up so that she reigns with him in the kingdom of God.

This is mutual submission – and not a matter of the boss and the bossed.

To submit simply means we willingly place ourselves under authority – the choice is with us. Forced submission is slavery and oppression – not true submission.  

To function without submitting to one another brings disorder and chaos, keeping the curse going into generation after generation. Christians, however, are to reverse the curse.

“God has bound us together in such a way that none of us should reject submission. Where love reigns, this spirit of service is mutual….  Since there is nothing more opposed to the human spirit than the desire to submit to others, Paul calls us to it by reminding us of the reverence we owe to Christ. He is the only one who can tame our rebellious spirit and subdue our pride, so that we are willing to serve our neighbors.”

John Calvin

It is important to understand how the grammar of today’s New Testament lesson is set up, because if we don’t get this, we will not practice submission well.

The main verb of the section is “be filled” with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). There are five participles which explain how the action of the main verb is to be done. Submitting is one of those participles. Submitting to one another is everyone’s responsibility.

Submission is a spiritual practice. The following people and relationships are mentioned (Note: these were intended by the Apostle Paul to be a representative list, not an exhaustive list):

  • Wives to husbands (respect)
  • Husbands to wives (sacrificial love) The head and body metaphor is meant to convey intimacy, union, and relationship, not any kind of silliness in husbands doing all the brain work and making all the decisions. Spouses are two people in one, just as the Father and Son are two in one. You cannot have two independent persons doing their own thing, any more than a head and body can operate independently.
  • Children to parents (obedience)
  • Parents to children (compassionate and empathic spiritual support)
  • Slaves to masters (obedience)
  • Masters to slaves (fair and equitable treatment)

Scripturally, we do a disservice if we only focus on how husbands, children, and slaves must submit, because we are all to submit to one another, including husbands, parents, and masters. 

Christians bring order out of chaos when there is submission to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Misunderstandings and misinterpretations of today’s text typically result in one group of people trying to force authority on another group. Proper understandings will always result in practicing humble and compassionate service to each other.

Submitting to one another means we must cooperate with one another instead of competing against each other. For example, women are to respect men by not acting as autonomous persons who have no need of those stupid men. And men are to not abuse women by ignoring and dismissing them as inferior emotional beings. Instead, both sexes will volitionally choose to submit to each other and act in accord, comity, and harmony.

All believers are to function together as God’s co-heirs and God’s co-rulers in and over God’s creation. This is the good order to which God has called us, and it is a high calling for which we need the filling of God’s Spirit to help us.

Lord Jesus, we bow down and humbly bring to you our gift of submission. Thank you for submitting to the Father until the end, achieving salvation for us. Teach us the meaning of meekness, and may our wills submit to your will. Graciously remove our disobedience and pride and shape us to your will. Guide us on the road of resigning our wills to yours. Mold our souls into total divine submission. Help us to walk in the path of righteous submission to each other, hand in hand. May we be filled with the Holy Spirit so that we will completely embody a submissive and teachable spirit. Amen.

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