The Necessary Foundation
And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (5:21)
This verse is a transition to Paul’s extensive discussion of relationships that continues through 6:9. The general principle of mutual submission, be subject to one another, not only is a product of the filling of the Spirit (as indicated in the precious chapter) but is also the foundation of the more specific principles of authority and submission—in relation to husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves—with which the larger passage deals.
Among the worst tragedies of our day is the progressive death of the family as it has been traditionally known. Marital infidelity, exaltation of sexual sin, homosexuality, abortion, women’s liberation, delinquency, and the sexual revolution in general have all contributed to the family’s demise. Each one is a strand in the cord that is rapidly strangling marriage and the family.
Gays and lesbians are demanding the right to be married to each other, and many states as well as a growing number of church groups are recognizing that as a right. Lesbian couples, and even some gay couples, are bringing together the children they have had by various lovers of the opposite sex and calling the resulting group a family. Many unmarried women elect to keep and raise children to whom they have given birth. In such situations single-parent families are becoming as much a matter of choice as of necessity.
The new mentality about marriage is reflected in the belief of some sociologists and psychologists that marriage ought to radically change or be eliminated altogether—based on the argument that it is but a vestige of man’s primitive understanding of himself and of society. Man “come of age” is presumed not to need the restrictions and boundaries that once seemed essential for productive, satisfying life.
Without a proper basis of authority for relationships, people grope for meaningful, harmonious, fulfilling relationships by whatever means and arrangements they can find or devise. Experimentation is their only resource and disintegration of the family—and ultimately of society in general—is being disclosed as the inevitable consequence.
It is time for Christians to declare and live what the Bible has always declared and what the church has always taught until recent years: “God’s standard for marriage and the family produces meaning, happiness, blessedness, reward, and fulfillment—and it is the only standard that can produce those results.”
Yet confusion about God’s standard for marriage and the family has found its way even into the church. A generation ago only one in every five hundred couples in the church got a divorce. Today the divorce rate in the church is many times that figure and becoming worse, and the church must deal with the problem in its own midst before it can give effective counsel to the world.
Divorce within the church has become so common that one Virginia pastor devised a special service in which, after the husband and wife state vows of mutual respect, God’s blessing is invoked on the dissolution of their marriage. Partly because of the tragedies they have seen in marriages, especially that of their own parents, many young adults opt for simply living together. When one or the other becomes tired of the arrangement, they break up and look for someone else. Whatever minimal commitment may be involved is superficial and temporary. Lust has replaced love, and selfishness rules instead of sacrifice.
Many marriages that manage to avoid divorce are nevertheless characterized by unfaithfulness, deceit, disrespect, distrust, self-centeredness, materialism, and a host of other sins that shatter harmony, prevent happiness, and devastate the children.
With increased divorce comes decreased interest in having children. Some authorities estimate that in perhaps a third of the couples of child-bearing age, one or both of the partners have been sterilized. A growing percentage of babies conceived even within marriage are aborted because they are unwanted. And many who are allowed to be born are neglected, resented, and abused by their parents. Couples who do have children are having them later in life, so that the children do not inhibit the parents’ plans for fun and fulfillment.
The pastor of a large evangelical church reported that, although most of them claimed to be Christians, at least seventy percent of the couples who came to him to be married were already living together. Many of them claimed that it was God’s will for them to be married; but by living in such flagrant disobedience of His moral standards they had no basis for knowing His will about their marriage. Other couples who claim to be Christian come to be married for the second, third, or fourth time—and often maintain that the Lord has guided them each time.
God will forgive, cleanse, and restore the repentant believer, but He does not change His standards of righteousness and purity and does not promise to remove the often tragic consequences of disobedience. If the church seeks to accommodate those divine standards to the foolishness and sinfulness of its own members, it not only offends and grieves God but undercuts its testimony to the world. If marriage cannot be right in the church it can hardly be right in the world, any more than it was in Paul’s day.
In New Testament times women were considered to be little more than servants. Many Jewish men prayed each morning: “God, I thank you that I am not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” The provision related to divorce and remarriage in Deuteronomy 24 had been distorted to include virtually any offense or disfavor in the eyes of the husband. In Greek society the women’s situation was even worse. Because concubines were common and a wife’s role was simply to bear legitimate children and to keep house, Greek men had little reason to divorce their wives, and their wives had no recourse against them. Because divorce was so rare, there was not even a legal procedure for it. Demosthenes wrote, “We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure, we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation, and we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately and being faithful guardians for our household affairs.” Both male and female prostitution were indescribably rampant, and it is from the Greek term for prostitution and general unchastity (porneia) that we get our word pornography. Husbands typically found their sexual gratification with concubines and prostitutes, whereas wives, often with the encouragement of their husbands, found sexual gratification with their slaves, both male and female. Prostitution, homosexuality, and the many other forms of sexual promiscuity and perversion inevitably resulted in widespread sexual abuse of children—just as we see in our own day.
In Roman society things were worse still. Marriage was little more than legalized prostitution, with divorce being an easy legal formality that could be taken advantage of as often as desired. Many women did not want to have children because it ruined the looks of their bodies, and feminism became common. Desiring to do everything men did, some women went into wrestling, sword fighting, and various other pursuits traditionally considered to be uniquely masculine. Some liked to run bare-breasted while hunting wild pigs. Women began to lord it over men and increasingly took the initiative in getting a divorce.
Paul admonished believers in Ephesus to live in total contrast to the corrupt, vile, self-centered, and immoral standards of those around them. The relationship between husband and wife was to be modeled on that between Christ and His church. “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (5:23–25). The relationship between Christian husbands and wives is to be holy and indissoluble, just as that between Christ and His church is holy and indissoluble. Christian marriages and families are to be radically different from those of the world. The relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children is to be so bathed in humility, love, and mutual submission that the authority of husbands and parents, though exercised when necessary, becomes almost invisible and the submission of wives and children is no more than acting in the spririt of gracious love.
In the Song of Solomon we see a beautiful model for marriage. Although the husband was a king, the dominate relationship with his wife was that of love rather than authority. The wife clearly recognized her husband’s headship, but it was a headship clothed in love and mutual respect. “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men,” she said. “In his shade I took great delight and sat down, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He has brought me to his banquet hall, and his banner over me is love” (2:3–4). A banner was a public announcement, in this case an announcement of the king’s love for his wife which he wanted to proclaim to the world. She not only had the security of hearing him tell her of his love but of hearing him tell the world of that love. “Sustain me with raisin cakes, refresh me with apples, because I am lovesick,” she continued. “Let his left hand be under my head and his right hand embrace me” (vv. 5–6). Her husband was her willing and eager protector, provider, and lover.
Solomon responded by saying to her, “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come along. For behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone” (vv. 10–11). Spring had come and his only thoughts were of his beloved. There was no hint of authoritativeness or superiority, but only love, respect, and concern for the welfare, joy, and fulfillment of his wife. She expressed the deep mutuality of their relationship in the expression “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (v. 16) and later, “This is my beloved and this is my friend” (5:16).
Families are the building blocks of human society, and a society that does not protect the family undermines its very existence. When the family goes, everything else of value soon goes with it. When the cohesiveness, meaningfulness, and discipline of the family are lost, anarchy will flourish. And where anarchy flourishes, law, justice, and safety cannot. The family nourishes and binds society together, whereas the anarchy that results from its absence only depletes, disrupts, and destroys.
The unredeemed can benefit greatly from following God’s basic principles for the family, but the full power and potential of those principles can be understood and practiced by those who belong to Him by faith in His Son. Paul speaks to the Ephesians as fellow Christians, and apart from the divine life and resources that only Christians possess, the principles for marriage and the family that he gives in this letter are out of context and thus of limited benefit. The basic principle of being subject to one another finds its power and effectiveness only in the fear of Christ. The family can only be what God has designed it to be when the members of the family are what God has designed them to be—“conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). Just as an individual can find fulfillment only in a right relationship with God, so the family can find complete fulfillment only as believing parents and children follow His design for the family in the control and power of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18b).
Persons who do not know or even recognize the existence and authority of God are not motivated to accept God’s standard for marriage and the family or for anything else. They do not have the new nature or inner resources to fully follow those standards even if they wanted to.
Some years ago I was asked to speak on the Christian sex ethic to a philosophy class at a large secular university. Knowing the futility of trying to explain biblical sexual standards to those who question or openly reject the authority of Scripture, I began my presentation by saying words to this effect: “Christ’s standards of ethics cannot be understood or appreciated by anyone who does not know Him as Savior and Lord. I do not expect most of you to agree with what Scripture says about sex ethics because most of you do not agree with what Scripture says about Jesus Christ. The presupposition of scriptural standards for anything is that a person have a right relationship to the One whose Word Scripture is. Only when you know and love the Lord Jesus Christ can you understand and desire to fulfill His standards for sex.” One student raised his hand and said, “Well then, maybe you had better tell us how to know and love Jesus Christ.” Gladly following that suggestion, I spent most of the hour showing the necessity and means for believing in Christ and devoted the last few minutes to explaining what commitment to Him means specifically in relation to sexual standards.
Only those who have died to sin and are alive to God (Rom. 6:4–6), those who are servants of righteousness (Rom. 6:16–22), those who are spiritually minded (Rom. 8:5–8), those who are empowered by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13) will rejoice for the privilege of living in the Lord’s standard. Reverencing and adoring Christ is the basis of such a spirit of submission.
Unfortunately, many persons who know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord do not maintain their living according to His moral, marital, and family laws. Because they are not at all times filled with His Spirit and fall to the level of the society around them, they are not sufficiently motivated or empowered to be obedient to their Lord in all things. They possess the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit does not possess them. Consequently, many Christian couples argue and fight worse than many unbelievers. Many families in false religions, for example, and even some unreligious families, are more disciplined and harmonious on the surface than some Christian families. A carnal believer will have discord in his family just as he has discord in his own heart and in his relation to God.
We are drowning in a sea of marriage information today. A book on sex and marriage, whether from a secular or Christian viewpoint, is sure to sell. Many purportedly Christian books are as preoccupied with and indelicate about sex as their secular counterparts. Marriage conferences, seminars, and counselors abound—some of which may be solidly scriptural and well presented. But apart from a believer’s being filled with the Holy Spirit and applying the ever-sufficient Word of God, even the best advice will produce only superficial and temporary benefit, because the heart will not be rightly motivated or empowered. On the other hand, when we are filled with the Spirit and thus are controlled in divine truth, we are divinely directed to do what is pleasing to God, because His Spirit controls our attitudes and relationships.
James said, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” (James 4:1). Conflicts in the church, in the home, and in marriage always result from hearts that are directed by the self rather than by the Spirit of God. When self insists on its own rights, opinions, and goals, harmony and peace are precluded. The self-centered life is always in a battle for the top, and pushes others down as it climbs up in pride. The Spirit-centered life, on the other hand, is directed toward lowliness, toward subservience, and it lifts others up as it descends in humility. The Spirit-filled believer does “not merely look out for [his] own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
Be subject is from hupotassō, originally a military term meaning to arrange or rank under. Spirit-filled Christians rank themselves under one another. The main idea is that of relinquishing one’s rights to another person. Paul counseled the Corinthian believers to be in subjection to their faithful ministers “and to everyone who helps in the work and labors” (1 Cor. 16:16). Peter commands us to “submit [ourselves] for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God” (1 Pet. 2:13–15; cf. Rom. 13:1–7). A nation cannot function without the authority of its rulers, soldiers, police, judges, and so on. Such people do not hold their authority because they are inherently better than everyone else but because without the appointment and exercise of orderly authority the nation would disintegrate in anarchy.
Likewise within the church we are to “obey [our] leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over [our] souls, as those who will give an account” (Heb. 13:17). God ordains that pastors and elders in the church be men. “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness,” Paul said. “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:11–12). Paul was not teaching from a personal bias of male chauvinism, as some claim, but was reinforcing God’s original plan of man’s headship. “For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve,” he explained. “And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint” (vv. 13–15).
The submissive role of the woman was designed by God in creation and affirmed by His judicial act in response to the Fall. Yet the balance of responsibility and blessing is found in the woman’s bearing of children. She is saved from seeking the role of a man and from identification as a second-class person by giving birth to children and being occupied with them, as well as by having the major influence on their early training and development. Women who have children and pursue a life of faith, love, holiness, and self-control give their best to their family, and thus to society. God has designed and called women to give birth to children, to nurse, caress, teach, comfort, and encourage them in their most formative years—in a way that fathers can never do. That should occupy their time and energy and preclude their seeking a place of leadership in the church.
When the church tries to operate apart from God’s system of authority it creates confusion and frequently heresy. When Mary Baker Eddy took to herself the role of church leader and preacher, Christian Science was born. When Madam Elena Petrovna Blavatsky assumed the role of theologian and spiritual teacher, Theosophy was born. When Mrs. Charles Fillmore took to herself the same prerogatives, Unity was born. When Aimee Semple McPherson began preaching, Foursquare pentecostalism was born.
As with leaders in government, it is not that church leaders are inherently superior to other Christians or that men are inherently superior to women, but that no institution—including the church—can function without a system of authority and submission.
In the home, the smallest unit of human society, the same principle applies. Even a small household cannot function if each member fully demands and expresses his own will and goes his own way. The system of authority God has ordained for the family is the headship of husbands over wives and of parents over children.
But in addition to those necessary social functional relationships of authority and submission, God commands all Christians—leaders as well as followers, husbands as well as wives, parents as well as children—to “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and … humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5–8).
As Paul went on to explain (Eph. 5:22–6:9), the structural function of the family, like that of the church and of government, requires both authority and submission. But in all interpersonal relationships there is only to be mutual submission. Submission is a general spiritual attitude that is to be true of every believer in all relationships.
Even the authority-subject relationships in the church and home are to be controlled by love and modified by mutual submission. Wives have traditionally received the brunt of Ephesians 5:22–33, although the greater part of the passage deals with the husband’s attitude toward and responsibilities for his wife. Paul devoted twice as much space to the husband’s obligations as to the wife’s. The husband not only is “head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church” (v. 23) but husbands are commanded to “love [their] wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (v. 25). “Husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies, … even as [themselves]” (vv. 28, 33). Christ’s giving His life for the church was an act of divine submission of the Lord to His bride, that He might cleanse, glorify, and purify her “that she should be holy and blameless” (v. 27).
Likewise in the home, not only are children to “obey [their] parents in the Lord,” but fathers are not to “provoke [their] children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:1, 4). Even while exercising authority over their children, parents are to submit to the children’s moral and spiritual welfare. In love, husbands are to submit themselves to meeting the needs of their wives, and together they both are called to give themselves in love to their children.
In New Testament times, slaves were often an integral part of the household, and Paul’s admonition to masters and slaves essentially dealt with family relationships. The husband and wife were masters of the household, of which the slaves and hired servants were an integral part. Here, too, Paul made clear not only that Christian slaves were to “be obedient to those who are [their] masters according to the flesh” and do good things for them (6:5, 8), but that masters were likewise to do good things for their slaves “and give up threatening, knowing that both [the slave’s] Master and [their own] is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (v. 9).
Every obedient, Spirit-filled Christian is a submitting Christian. The husband who demands his wife’s submission to him but does not recognize his own obligation to submit to her distorts God’s standard for the marriage relationship and cannot rightly function as a godly husband. Parents who demand obedience from their children but do not recognize their own obligation to submit in loving sacrifice to meet their children’s needs are themselves disobedient to their heavenly Father and cannot rightly function as godly parents.
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul made clear that the physical relationships and obligations of marriage are not one-sided. “Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife,” he says, “and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (vv. 3–4). Although God ordains husbands as heads over their wives, and parents as heads over their children, He also ordains a mutuality of submission and responsibility among all members of the family.
Although Christ was in the beginning with God and was God (John 1:1), was one with the Father (10:30), and was in the Father as the Father was in Him (14:11), He was nevertheless subject to the Father. From childhood Jesus devoted Himself to His Father’s work (Luke 2:49), submitted Himself to His Father’s will (John 5:30; 15:10; 20:21), and could do nothing apart from His Father (John 5:19). In explaining God’s order of relationships, Paul says, “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3). Just as the Son is submissive to the Father in function but equal to Him in nature and essence, wives are to be submissive to their husbands, while being completely equal to them in moral and spiritual nature.
All believers are spiritual equals in every sense. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We submit to one another as the Holy Spirit influences us to do so.
21 Grammatically, a final participle concludes Paul’s statement concerning the outcomes of the Spirit’s filling of the congregation. To speaking, singing, music making, and giving thanks, Paul adds continual submission to one another. Grammatically, the participle “submitting” functions as the fifth outcome for those filled by the Spirit. That is, the filling of the Spirit produces all these, and mutual submission, the final effect, results in specific behaviors within the household—precisely what 5:22–6:9 describes. However, because v. 21 is conceptually tied to what follows in the Haustafel (household code)—which grows directly out of the verb “submit”—we begin a new section here. Clearly the participle for “submission” is the understood, though unstated, verb that underlies v. 22 and all that follows. The fullness of the Spirit leads not to individualism or independence, or to an attitude of superiority or “lording it over” others. The attitude of “mutual submission” characterizes the congregation filled by the Spirit. Paul mandates mutuality in the church through the use of the reciprocal pronoun “to one another” (allēlois); see also 4:2, 25, 32 (cf. Ro 12:5). This precludes the view of some that Paul intended for Christians to submit only to those over them: wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters. Jesus himself set the standard when he said, “The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Lk 22:26). And when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he illustrated the principle and applied it to his followers (Jn 13:1–17). Yet a caution is valid: mutual submission does not relativize the specific commands that follow. (Lincoln, 366, wisely sounds this note.) Apparently, Paul did not view mutual submission and hierarchical roles as incompatible. We ought not to minimize either one at the expense of the other. Paul disagrees with those who infer that subordination always implies inferiority. In the course of his extensive analysis of the household codes, Hoehner, 726, observes, “Subordination does not imply a qualitative difference.”
“Submit” translates the verb hypotassō (GK 5718), which, used in the passive voice here, bears the sense, “subject oneself,” “be subjected or subordinated to some authority”—a word used thirty-eight times in the NT, twenty-three times by Paul (cf. BDAG, 1042). The call to unity (4:1–4) demands this essential attitude. Believers are called to “submit to one another”—to subordinate their own interests to the needs of other believers so that the welfare of these others assumes more importance than their own (cf. Php 2:1–11). Paul calls not for the domination of some but for the voluntary submission of all (cf. Eph 4:2–3). The call for one to submit to another arises within this larger understanding of the mutuality of the body of Christ.
This submission to one another occurs “out of reverence for Christ,” literally, “in the fear of Christ” (so NASB). The “fear of the Lord” appears in both Testaments to describe the stance of those who acknowledge God’s sovereignty (2 Ch 19:7; Job 28:28; Ps 111:10; Pr 1:7; Ac 9:31; 2 Co 5:11). It is the way of wisdom and knowledge to reverence God in one’s actions. Because Christians live under Christ’s authority as judge, they must submit to fellow believers. Paul does not view submission as an optional virtue for some believers; it is the duty of all who reverence Christ. Though the specific command to “submit” occurs in what follows only in the words to wives, clearly it governs the instructions to husbands, children, parents, slaves, and masters. This is how people in a church filled by the Spirit treat one another—even within their own households.
Household codes or regulations were features of the first-century world. Called a Haustafel (German for “house table,” coined by Luther), such a social code governed and explained the expectations for people in various relationships. Lincoln, 358, points out that the household was viewed as the foundation of the state, so such codes were crucial in helping members understand their places and functions in society. Contemporary examples abound, though no exact parallels to what Paul does have been found. Why did Paul use this format here and in Colossians? He adopted this traditional format, as did other Christian writers, because he was concerned about relationships and the outworking of Christian values within Roman society. At the same time, he was eager that believers not violate certain social expectations or norms, and so he delineated behavior that was respectable and appropriate, using a culturally expected means to articulate Christian values that should prevail among church members.
5:21 / The final manifestation noted is in submission: Scholars, and consequently Bible translators, are divided on how this verse fits into the context. Grammatically, it belongs to the section on worship (5:18–21) and should be seen as another manifestation of the Spirit-filled believer. As singing and thanksgiving are to be expressed corporately, members also must willingly submit to one another. Fullness of the Spirit leads to mutual subordination and unity, not to individual pride and disunity (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26–33; Phil. 2:1–5). At the same time, 5:21 is a transitional verse from which the author proceeds to illustrate how that submission is to be observed in specific domestic relationships (5:22–6:9).
If 5:21 is taken as an independent sentence then it serves as a heading for the specific relationships that follow. Some translations, namely, gnb and rsv, use it this way. The niv, however, lets it stand with the previous section. In either case, the position of the verse is not as important as its teaching—a teaching in which believers are exhorted to submit themselves to one another out of reverence for Christ. “We are not asked to yield to the wishes of others, no matter what they wish, but only when what they ask of us is in line with reverence for Christ” (Mitton, p. 196).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 271–278). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Klein, W. W. (2006). Ephesians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 146–148). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Patzia, A. G. (2011). Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (pp. 264–265). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.